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  Woodard Paymaster Building: Circa 1960's

Woodard Paymaster Building: Circa 1960's

Over 120 years ago, this building served as the office of the Woodard Furniture Company paymaster and stood on the south side of West Main Street in the 400 block. It was centered in the midst of the Woodard lumberyard that occupied the area bounded by Main, Shiawassee, and Clinton street and Michigan Avenue. When the Woodard's built their new plant on Elm Street after the devastating fire of their buildings on Main Street, they sold the lumberyard to Mulhall and Benkelmen, who moved the building to South Elm Street. The building was given to the city of Owosso in the 1980's and it was moved to its present site on the north side of West Main Street next to the Shiawassee River in Curwood Castle Park.

The Woodard Furniture Company began as a planning mill and evolved to manufacturing doors and window sashes, to furniture- dining room and bedroom pieces- then to caskets, becoming the largest maker of caskets in the world, until the 1940’s when their business model changed to manufacturing wrought iron furniture. 

 

Lyman Woodard - The Entrepreneur

In 1866, when the country was beginning to recover from the Civil War, many young men ventured far and wide to seek fame and fortune. Lyman Elnathan Woodward*, a 32-year-old builder from Dansville, New York, was one of these men. Having heard of the abundance of Michigan hardwood timber and the most crucial element, water power, he boarded a train to a Owosso with $10,000 in his pocket that he had saved from building framed houses.

As fate would happened, the White brothers were selling their water power planing mill on the banks of the Shiawassee River. A millrace diverted the water from the river along the same path that South Water Street uses today. After purchasing the mill for $3,500 with his brother Warren Woodward as his partner, Lyman return to New York to marry his fiancée Emma Weidman.

*Soon after 1866, Lyman dropped the middle "w" in his last name to become Woodard. His brother Warren and his descendants kept the original spelling.

 
 

The original site of what was to become the Woodard Furniture Company was the woolen-mill, built in 1844 on the banks of the Shiawassee River where the present Owosso City Hall stands. The woolen-mill became a planing mill in 1855 when it was operated as a manufacterer of furniture, sash, doors, and blinds by the White Brothers.

Three years after the Woodard brothers built the four-story brick building on Main Street adjoining the planing mill 1885, a series of unfortunate events commenced that would have discouraged and overcome a family with less perseverance.

 
 

In 1888, the Owosso Casket Company on Elm Street was destroyed by fire, and then rebuilt. Then a second fire in 1898, which was disastrous to other Owosso businesses, including the Mueller's brewery across Main Street along with the planing mill and furniture factory. The only thing remaining of the original factory and mill was its huge brick chimney which stood for 24 years until 1922 when several hundred people gathered to watch it crumble to the ground as city crews demolished it. Owosso City Hall was built on the site two years later.

 

 
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In 1866 the Woodard Brothers also began making pine boxes (caskets). In 1882, the Woodard Brothers along with James and Peter Stover formed a new business called the Owosso Casket Company.

 
 

 

In 1885 the Owosso Casket factory was built on South Elm Street but suffered a fire in 1888 and burned, but was quickly rebuilt. In 1890, shortly after rebuilding the factory, Lyman bought out his three brothers' (Warren, Henry, and William) shares in both the Owosso Casket Company and Woodard Brothers Furniture Company. Within the next 10 years Lyman's sons, Frank, Fred, and Lee Woodard, along with son-in-law, Joseph Osborne, became involved in both the casket company and the furniture business.

After the death of Lyman in 1904, for the production of window sash and doors was dropped and emphasis was concentrated on furniture and caskets. Around 1913, the Owosso Casket Company was turning out caskets at the rate of 150 per day and it was reported that business was far behind on its orders due to the flu epidemic, which was causing the death of hundreds of people, especially young children and the elderly in the United States. By the 1920s the Owosso Casket Company was the worlds largest casket maker.

 
 

Wood furniture and casket making in Michigan had its boom, lasting until the great depression. The overwhelming expansion of the automobile industry in the early 1920s, with its high price labor and also the depletion of hardwood and pine timber made it difficult for wood furniture manufacturing. The depression, lasting for most of the 1930s, took its toll on many Michigan furniture companies. Some converted to making other products or moved to southern states where timber was more plentiful and operating cost were much lower than in the northern states.

The Woodard Furniture Company and the Owosso Casket Company held out several years longer than most other woodworking factories, but between the years 1938 and 1942 both companies discontinued production and liquidated their assets. Lyman's son Lee, and his sons, Joseph Russell and Lyman II, converted their wood furniture to a new material. In 1936, they debuted their wrought iron furniture and the Woodard name soon became internationally known.

 
 

The Orleans Pattern, circa 1940

The Woodard Paymaster Building stands as a reminder of the role Lyman Woodard played in promoting Owosso's reputation as a woodworking center. Woodard, who began his woodworking business making blinds, doors, and sash, expanded into furniture and casket manufacturing to compete with other Michigan woodworking firms. He fought an aggressive advertising campaign, and as a result, his products became nationally recognized. Woodard also diversified each component of his product line; varying prices for different qualities of the same item were available.  Woodard Furniture continues to be manufactured in Owosso.  This long history would not be possible without the dedication and skill of the many Owosso residents who have made Woodard Furniture an internationally recognized product.   

For more information about Woodard Furniture and to see their amazing products and services, visit: http://www.woodard-furniture.com

 
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