Historic Midland Street retains its 19th century character

The Midland Street Business District on Bay City’s West Side has spent decades building its reputation as an entertainment hot spot that draws people from around the Great Lakes Bay Region.

In the summer of 2020, when a pandemic raced across the globe, the city blocked the streets on weekends. Bars and restaurants sent wait staff outside to offer food and drinks at picnic tables in order to comply with social-distancing guidelines. People filled Midland Street to listen to music and meet up with friends.

Henry Sage and his business partner John McGraw moved their lumbering business from Canada to the banks of the Saginaw River. For more than a century, the district has been a vital part of the community. Before 1905 when West Bay City and Bay City merged, the Midland Street district was the heart of West Bay City. Electric street cars and horse-drawn carriages buzzes through the streets, crossing the Third Street Bridge to move back and forth between the two cities. Lumbermen working for the Sage and McGraw sawmill and their families shopped along the main thoroughfare and strolled through adjoining neighborhoods.

The next time you’re down there to catch a band or enjoy a glass of wine, take a look at the buildings surrounding you. You’ll find architectural gems going back as far as the 1800s. The buildings that line this street today were built by people of high social and civil stature. Many of these buildings and their earliest owners contributed heavily to Bay City’s development.

The four-block area was once part of a city called West Bay City, is a well-preserved example of a 19th century commercial district. Commercial Italianate, Romanesque Revival, and Chicago School-style can all be observed here.

Here are five buildings that can be found on Midland Street with some of their history. All five can be seen by taking a stroll or a drive through this business district:  

This Midland Street building is named after Frank H. Mohr, who was born in Germany. After finishing school, he immigrated to America and settled in West Bay City in 1881. 1. Mohr Block, 511 E. Midland St.

The Mohr Block is situated on the west side of Henry Street between Midland and Vermont streets. It was built during the Chicago School Style movement, which makes it stand out from the other buildings here.

Chicago School style, sometimes called 19th Century Modern, has influence from architects such as Daniel Burnham, John Root, Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. These men were behind much of the design in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

The Mohr building has a minor facade and a stone tablet with “F.H. & J.K. Mohr Block 1912” at the top of it facing Midland Street. The building has strong features with sunken window openings with stone ledges. The building is currently empty, although the awning still features the name of its last retail occupant, Banana Bay.

The Mohr building has a minor facade and a stone tablet with “F.H. & J.K. Mohr Block 1912” at the top of it facing Midland Street. The building is named after Frank H. Mohr. Born in Schney, Bavaria, Germany on March 10, 1867, Mohr propelled himself through school and completed his education by the age of 14. After school, he immediately immersed himself in the commercial manufacturing world. Joining his brothers Christopher, John, and Fred, he immigrated to America and settled in West Bay City in 1881.

Frank Mohr briefly moved to Chicago to continue his education through an apprenticeship at the Pullman Car Works owned by George Pullman, who developed the sleeping car for railroads. Mohr worked as a journeyman in Chicago for six years, followed by a brief stint in Minneapolis installing furnaces.

Returning to West Bay City in 1903, he developed Mohr Hardware in the Lewis Block at 514 E. Midland St. into one of the largest suppliers of hardware for Northern Michigan. In 1912, he constructed the 3-story Mohr Block directly across the street from his first location. There, he sold furniture along with hardware.

Mohr devoted much of his life to his business, working right up to his death on March 20, 1939. Outside of hardware, Mohr also rose to become president of the Phoenix Brewing Company that once stood on Arbor Street. He was also a member of the Scottish Rite in Bay City up to the 18th degree.

Originally known as the Swart Jewelry Store, this commercial block is large, compromised of 5 storefronts connected to a common second floor. 2. Swart Block, 108 S. Linn St.
 

The Swart Block resides on the corner of South Linn and East John streets. Originally known as the Swart Jewelry Store, the building was constructed using brick and Michigan buff stone and designed by architect P.C. Floeter. The commercial block is large, compromised of 5 storefronts connected to a common second floor. It stood out as the signature business on the block.

The southeast corner of the Swart Block originally had a three-faced clock and stood at 54 feet tall. The original supporting turret still has “Swart” carved onto the east side of the building.The southeast corner of the Swart Block originally had a three-faced clock and stood at 54 feet tall. The original supporting turret still has “Swart” carved onto the east side of the building near the small mansard roof along with the year it was built. The building is symmetrical with evenly placed windows with arched or square tops outlined with course brick.

The building is one of the few on Bay City’s West Side done in the Romanesque Revival style. On the East Side, Bay City City Hall is a fine example of this architecture. This style gave the Swart Block an added flair of prominence. Romanesque architecture comes from Medieval European and attempts to mimic the architecture in the earlier Roman period. In the late 19th century, there was a revival of this architectural style. Romanesque Revival typically has semi-circled arches or square top use for window and door openings, gothic elements, and pyramid-shaped roofs among other features.

The Swart Block is similar in style to Bay City’s City Hall.Steven Swart was born in Lapeer County on October 16, 1845. At the age of 8, his family relocated to Goderich. Swart’s education was cut short with the outbreak of the Civil War, where he enlisted in the Union Army and served with the Eighth Michigan Infantry at 16 years old. After a year of service, he returned to Goderich to work in the commercial business specializing in jewelry and watchmaking.

In 1879, Swart moved to West Bay City to open a jewelry business along with being an optician. He constructed his flagship business block on South Linn and East John streets. The building runs all the way to Midland Street. Swart was well-liked within the business community and was even known to lend the store’s large safe to customers to store valuable items. The building is currently occupied by Stertz & Weaver, P.C.

Located at the northwestern intersection of Midland and South Linn streets is the Mosher building. George Mosher built this location in 1882 and it stands out as a prominent structure on Midland Street. 3. Mosher Building, 615 E. Midland St.
 

Located at the northwestern intersection of Midland and South Linn streets is the Mosher building. George Mosher built this location in 1882 and it stands out as a prominent structure on Midland Street.

The building features facades on both Midland and Linn streets with jutting masonry on the front and side. Tilt your head back and look at the top of the building to see where the original cornice still stands. All three floors have uniform windows, with the first floor having a lighter brick tone, followed by darker tone on the second and third floors. The third floor’s pediment is heavily ornamented which rises above its counterparts on Midland Street.

George Mosher was born in West Troy, New York on January 16, 1850. With the lumber industry in full bloom, he arrived in West Bay City in 1873 to work in the commercial merchandising business. The architectural style is Commercial Italianate, which typically includes features such as plate windows on the lower levels, cast iron columns, and ornamental capitols that support the masonry on the upper floors. Commercial Italianate is the dominant architecture on Midland Street.

George Mosher was born in West Troy, New York on January 16, 1850. With the lumber industry in full bloom, George L. Mosher arrived in 1873 to West Bay City to work in the commercial merchandising business.

The Mosher building features facades on both Midland and Linn streets with jutting masonry on the front and side. He bought a hardware company called Moots & Rupff and renamed it Motts, Crane & Mosher which continued to stay in business for another two years. After buying out all the interest of that business, Mosher ran the firm from 1877 to 1896 and sold hardware, home furnishings, carriages, and farm equipment. His son, Alfred Locke Mosher, served as secretary and treasurer. They incorporated the business as George L. Mosher Company also in 1896. The building is now home to Lucky's Pub.

Spencer Fisher is considered to be the father of Greater Bay City. The building that bears his name is still in use today.4. Fisher Block, 705-715 E. Midland St.
 

Sydney, also referred to as Spencer Fisher, is considered to be the father of Greater Bay City. Born in Camden, Michigan on February 3, 1843, he grew up to love the business world and started working at 16 years old in the lumber distribution business. At 27, he relocated to the village of Wenona (part of modern-day Midland Street) in 1871. The three business neighborhoods of Wenona, Banks (northwest side of present-day Bay City), and Salzburg (southwest side of present-day Bay City) would merge in 1887 as the city of West Bay City. Spencer Fisher was heavily involved in the merger, including choosing the name for the new city.  

Liberty Harbor Marina stands on the site of the Saginaw & McGraw Company sawmill.Spencer also held many business holdings in the real estate, lumber, and railcar industries. He served as president of Fisher Land and Lumber Company, the Sebewaing Coal Company, West Bay City Sugar Company. and Lumberman’s State Bank located at 701 E. Midland St.

Fisher would also go on to become mayor of West Bay City in 1883 and 1885. He also served two Congressional terms in 1885 and 1887. In 1889, Fisher took up another interest — promotion and construction of electric street railways in West Bay City.

Being the main owner of this railroad, he then acquired control of the horse-car system in Bay City and consolidated the two companies into Bay City & West Bay City Street Car Company.

In 1897, the same year it was formed, Spencer Fisher became vice-president of the Michigan Sugar Company. In 1899, he left the company and within one day organized the West Bay City Sugar Company and became its president. Investing thousands of his own dollars, he helped to create the resort at Wenona Beach where Bay City State Park now stands.

Fisher was also instrumental in the 1905 merger of Greater Bay City when both cities became one. Serving as spokesman for a committee that went to Lansing for a public hearing with Gov. Fred Warner about the consolidation, Fisher was said to be the energy and persuasion in the room that resulted in the merger.

Liberty Harbor is a public marina just north of Veterans Memorial Bridge in what was once the Village of Wenona. The Fisher Block was built on the northern side of Midland Street in 1882 by Spencer Fisher with the purpose of housing commercial, cultural, and municipal spaces. It included a small opera house. Today, it takes up much of the space between Walnut and Linn streets. The main floor was to serve businesses while the upper floors would house rented living or office spaces.

Being Commercial Italianate in design, the first floor contains large display windows. The second-floor facades contain sunken masonry bays with three openings per storefront. The windows are evenly spaced with stone sills included a square or arched architrave. The building is currently home to Wholesale Electric Supply.

The Sage Block was constructed in 1873 and sits on the corner of Midland and North Walnut streets. Today, the building is home to MacMillan Associates Inc.5. Sage Block, 712-714 E. Midland St.
 

Henry Sage was largely responsible for the regional commercial and economic boom that occurred here.

After the lumber industry started to go dry on the East Coast and eastern Canada, Sage set his eyes on the west banks of the Saginaw River where the lumber industry was still booming. He bought 116 acres of land in 1862 that was plotted into what would become the Village of Wenona and included space for agriculture plus a large sawmill.

Originally he wanted to name it Lake City, but the name was already taken. “Wenona” was chosen as it was the name of the sorrowful mother in Henry W. Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. (In the book, the name is spelled “Wenonah.)

Two years later Sage and his business partner John McGraw moved their lumber interests here from Lake Simcoe, Canada. They constructed the Sage & McGraw Company sawmill, becoming one of the largest manufactured lumber providers in the world. In its first year, the sawmill produced 9,000,000 board feet of lumber. Today, Liberty Harbor Marina stands on the site of the sawmill.

The Commercial Italianate style features stone and masonry details on the front and side of the building. The village of Wenona grew to become a company town for the sawmill’s employees and families. Due to Sage’s success, other entrepreneurs were lured in with the hopes of also starting up their own businesses.

Being a humanitarian, Henry Sage opened Sage Library on Midland and Wenona streets in 1884. The library also included a debating school for locals to gather for intellectual debates. Sage also donated 8,000 books to the library. The library is still in use today.

In the Commercial Italianate style, the windows on the second and third floors are evenly placed among brick masonry columns. The Sage Block was constructed in 1873 and sits on the corner of Midland and North Walnut streets. It replaced the original office building that served Sage & McGraw and became a general store for Sage’s employees.

The building is also done in the Commercial Italianate style with stone and masonry details on the front and side of the building. Typical of timber construction, the windows on the second and third floors are evenly placed among brick masonry columns. The main floor walls remain much plainer when it comes to detail of this Italianate structure. The building is currently home to MacMillan Associates Inc.

 


 

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