Two downtown businesses that always make me feel as though I have stepped back in time are the at the corner of North Wing and West Dunlap, and the on West Main Street.
Both businesses have been in operation in Northville for more than 40 years and exemplify skilled craftsmanship sorely waning today.
I have worn a watch since elementary school when my parents bought me my first Timex. Though my iPhone, now an omnipresent accessory, provides precision timing, my wristwatch is my go-to timepiece. I do not feel dressed without it.
I am grateful that I can walk down the street to replace my watch battery, or have an antique schoolhouse clocked overhauled.
The same holds true for shoe and other leather repairs. I recently took three pair of shoes to Cobbler’s Corners to have the heels replaced at far less cost than buying just one new pair.
To think that last year I shipped my one-cup coffeemaker to California for repair because there were only two electronics shops in the United States that had parts for that brand!
Part of the charm of both of these establishments is that their trades have been a constant in our community almost since its inception.
If legend holds true, Northville was a mecca for cobblers in the first decades after its settlement. Consider a history of Northville written by former Village president (1904 -1906) Frank S. Harmon in the August 26, 1927 edition of The Northville Record.
“Previous to the Civil War, Northville held high rank locally in the manufacture of hand-made boots and shoes. At one time as high as 38 men were employed with peg and awl on the old-fashioned cobblers’ bench, to supply the needs of the people covering a wide section in this part of Michigan. The leather scraps were used to pave Main Street, where they were dumped and later covered with gravel. When the new grade was established about 37 years ago, leather scraps were uncovered from 6 to 8 inches deep over a distance exceeding 100 feet on East Main Street near Center.”
In the years following the Civil War, the number of cobblers had diminished. In the first issue of The Northville Record (then the Wayne County Record) published on July 15, 1869, founder and publisher Samuel H. Little listed all of the businesses in the village. Only two boot and shoe makers were noted: Thomas Foreman and A. H. Dibble.
In the 1875 Michigan Gazetteer, the profile of Northville listed three cobblers. In addition to A. H. Dibble, George Wilcox and George Rayson were also boot and shoe makers. The demand for more skilled trades and craftsmen at that time could have been due in part to Northville’s thriving industrial base.
By 1875, Northville was an epicenter of manufacturing with the Globe Furniture Company leading the way. The Gazetteer noted in the 1875 issue that the Globe was “turning out 6,000 schools desks annually. “Other commerce in the village included wagon makers, livery stables, grocers, coopers, milliners and dressmakers, general store proprietors, carpenters, coach painters, druggists, jewelry and clock makers.
One of Northville’s most prominent jewelers and clock makers was Albert E. Rockwell. Established in the village in 1868, Rockwell serviced the community for more than 30 years.
In her book, Northville, Michigan in Arcadia Publishing’s Making of America Series, author Barbara Louie noted “when the Northville Methodist Church wanted a clock for a new tower in 1893, they turned to A.E. Rockwell.”
Rockwell directed the church to the Seth Thomas Clock Company of Connecticut that provided the “four-dial A.S. Hotchkiss, eight-day strike, gravity escapemant” clock weighing 1,500 pounds. Louie noted that the “clock atop the church steeple became a village icon.”
According to Louie, Rockwell “was considered to be in demand as a watchmaker, reportedly sought after by customers throughout the area for his fine workmanship.”
The only jewelers listed in the 1869 Northville Record are W.D. Whalen and A.C. Gardner, though Rockwell was established a year earlier. He does receive prominent notice in the 1875 Gazetteer. The only other jeweler listed is William Ambler, who also stocked books and stationery.
More than a 135 years later, Northville still lists a cobbler and clock maker among its downtown businesses.