Godfrey Moving and Storage
From utilitarian past to elegant present
by Grace Shackman
The Godfrey Building, a former warehouse anchoring the southwest corner of Kerrytown Market & Shops, is now used for upscale shops and offices. Built in 1899, it still retains its basic structure--wide plank floors, brick interior walls, beams made with whole trees--which, in the twenty-first century, only adds to its ambience.
According to the 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County, Charles Godfrey moved here to work for the Ann Arbor Railroad. When he saw there was no chance for advancement, he took a horse and a dray (a heavy, flatbed cart) as payment for what the line owed him, and in 1881 started what would become Godfrey Moving and Storage.
Operating out of his house on Maiden Lane, he delivered freight, baggage, and machinery. By 1893, he was doing well enough that he and his wife, Harriet, were able to build a new brick house at 420 N. Fourth Ave. (now home to Legal Services of South Central Michigan). Behind the house, where Kerrytown's parking lot is now, were a barn for his horses and storage sheds for his drays and wagons; he slept in a back bedroom so he could hear if the horses became restless at night.
By the time the history was written in 1906, Godfrey had twenty horses and all kinds of wagons for heavy work. "He makes a specialty of weighty articles and furniture moving," it reported. At the start of each semester, Godfrey met incoming trains to move U-M students' trunks up the State Street hill to their new digs.
Noticing that there was a need for storage, he began renting space in various locations. One was a small house just south of his own residence, which he leased in 1887 from Junius Beal, a U-M regent and investor in many local enterprises including the telephone system and the interurban railroad. In 1899, Beal tore down the house and built the first part of the warehouse, which he rented to Godfrey. It was
such a success that Beal put on an addition in 1904.
"It is thoroughly constructed, so that rugs, pianos and other valuable furniture can be stored with safety here and in the basement and upper floors there is extensive space for very large articles," the county history noted. "The building is fire proof and is supplied with all modern equipments [sic], including an electric elevator whereon a truck can be placed, so that these goods can be unloaded in the space designated as their repository."
Godfrey's monthly rent was based on the portion of the building in active use at the time. The rate was 1-1/2 cent per square foot--a price that lasted through three generations of Beals and Godfreys. Bob Creal, Charles Godfrey's great-grandson, remembers in the 1940s going to the Farmers Market with his mother and parking at the warehouse. "Down Fourth Avenue would come a black two-seater electric car, and a woman would get out who looked just like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz, dressed all in black, same hat. She had come to get the rent." It was the landlady, Ella Beal, Junius Beal's widow.
Godfrey's oldest son, Homer, born in 1878, quit high school to start working with his dad. Homer married Donna Weissinger, and they moved into a house half a block away from the warehouse, at 114 E. Kingsley.
Their only child, Dama, attended the U-M, where she met her future husband, Cecil Creal. When Charles Godfrey died in 1928, they were living in New York, helping out on his parents' farm. But Homer asked them to join him in running the business, so they boarded a train to Ann Arbor right after the presidential election. Dama Creal always told people "I cast my vote for Herbert Hoover and then came back to Ann Arbor."
Less than a year after the Creals arrived, the Great Depression hit. Few people could afford to move, so the company squeaked by with work for the university and local businesses. In 1933, when FDR closed the banks, Cecil Creal had only $5 in his pocket and couldn't get any more cash. To feed his family, he bartered a large amount of flour stored in the warehouse.
When Homer Godfrey died in 1941, Cecil Creal took over. A better businessman than his father-in-law, he was also helped by the upturn in the economy. During World War II families were following loved ones to postings around the country; after the war, there was lots of work as folks moved into new homes.
Bob Creal, Cecil's son, started working at the warehouse when he was twelve. He recalls that all three floors were filled with storage bins arranged in aisles, each "about ten feet by ten feet, separated with something like chicken wire." This arrangement allowed the free flow of air to avoid mold.
The largest items were kept in the basement, including giant paper balers so heavy they had to be moved on rollers. It was also the only place the workers could smoke. Bob Creal remembers that his dad was "death on smoking. He could see that with all that wood, one spark was all it would take to start a fire. Back in the days when everyone smoked, if he caught any of his workers with a cigarette anywhere except the basement furnace room, they would have been fired on the spot." Although most of the work was in the summer, Cecil Creal kept a skeleton crew of experienced workers year round. During the winter months they hung out in the furnace room and played euchre between jobs.
A loading dock ran across the Fourth Avenue frontage and along the north side--in cold weather, hobos were sometimes found sleeping beneath it. The north part was replaced by Kerrytown's parking lot. The Fourth Avenue frontage was dug out in the mid-1990s to provide access to a short-lived brewery and bakery in the basement; the colorful silo in the parking lot was also added then.
Bob Creal remembers moving the university's grand piano from the Clements Library to Hill Auditorium and delivering voting machines to polling places for election days--especially challenging in the days before handicapped access laws, when the heavy machines often had to be taken up sets of stairs. He also remembers unloading materials for prefab houses when Easy Street was being developed.
When the Creals sold the business in 1956, Cecil shared some memories with an Ann Arbor News reporter about three moves that he considered "outstanding." "The first was the two-van haul of the Beal furniture in 1951 to Martha's Vineyard ... the ferryboat nearly sank under the weight." The furniture was being shipped to Junius and Ella's daughter, Loretta, whose husband, Albert Jacobs, was president of Trinity College.
The second job, in 1954, was packing and moving medical books which had been stored all over campus to the new Medical Science Building at Ann and Zina Pitcher Place. Bob Creal remembers hot summer days up in the stacks of the library, dusting off books that hadn't been touched in years. By the end of the day he was totally black.
The third was moving the contents of the high school from what later became the Frieze Building to the new high school on West Stadium in the spring of 1956. With the help of students, they made the move in one weekend.
After selling the business, Creal was free to devote all his energies to politics. He had already served on the city council and the charter commission. He ran for mayor, won, and served from 1959 to 1965.
The new owners of the moving business, the Stevens brothers of Saginaw, signed two ten-year leases for use of the property--the building from Loretta Jacobs and the truck lot from Cecil Creal. After the leases ran out, the company moved to South Industrial Highway, and the warehouse building was rented to dba Lilac antiques. In 1977 it was sold to the partners who were developing Kerrytown, renovated, and rented to Workbench Furniture. Joe O'Neal became the sole owner in 1982 and built the three-story atrium that connects it with the rest of Kerrytown.
The O'Neals recently cut new windows into the top floor for their newest tenant, Pure Visibility--an Internet marketing company whose staff enjoys having room for their exercise equipment. Hollander's paper store occupies the first floor, and 16 Hands gallery the second. "People ask us about the building a lot," says 16 Hands owner Jill Damon. "I love the character--the mixture of very old and very new, and the way they are mixed in. It has the feel of old world shopping, going from one shop to the next."
[Originally published in June, 2013.]