Walter Briggs (born: February 27, 1877; died January 17, 1952) began his career working in the Michigan Central Railroad yards in Detroit in the late Nineteenth Century. B. J. Everitt played a key role in Briggs’ becoming a wealthy man and the eventual owner of both this appealing home and the Detroit Tigers. Everitt was born in Ridgetown, Ontario in 1872 and apprenticed as a carriage builder. He moved to Detroit in the early 1890s and spent seven years working for the C. R. Wilson Carriage Company located at Brush and Woodward. Everitt then created his own firm to manufacture bodies for the many wagons and carriages produced in Detroit, the Everitt Carriage Trimming Company. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, the nation’s most successful auto manufacturer was Ransom. E. Olds whose factory was located on East Jefferson. As frequently happened in that era of factories with heavy oak floors, his plant burned to the ground in 1901. To continue turning out cars, he bought bodies from Everitt. Indeed, Everitt made the most famous and innovative body used for a vehicle in the early 1900s, the curved dash body that helped to make Olds’ well-known. Everitt quickly realized the tremendous profit that might be made in supplying bodies to the growing number of aspiring Detroit auto manufacturers. At this time, auto firms lacked capital so most of them, including Henry Ford, made few parts for their cars. Rather, they assembled components bought from Detroit’s machine shops and body manufacturers.
Because his business was prospering, Everitt erected the large mill style-building that still stands at the northeast corner of Mack and Beaufait. Briggs quit the Michigan Central Railroad to work for Everitt who quickly recognized his skills and rapidly promoted him, eventually to plant manger. Everitt got into the automobile business himself, first with an unsuccessful car named for the successful Indian fighter, Anthony Wayne, and produced at a plant at Piquette and Brush. Later, he joined with William Metzer and Walter Flanders to produce the EMF in a large plant on Piquette built in about 1908, the one that burned to the ground in June, 2005. EMF was extremely successful, trailing only Ford in production in the 1908-1910 span. After much litigation, Studebaker took over EMF and produced their cars in Detroit until the mid-1920.
By 1907, Walter Briggs obtained a controlling interest in the Everitt Carriage works and, in 1909, changed the name to Briggs Manufacturing. This firm and its rival, Fisher Brothers, were the two largest producers of vehicle bodies as the auto industry boomed. Fisher was eventually purchased by GM, so Briggs became the nation’s largest producer of auto and truck bodies—many of them sold to Chrysler after that firm was formed in the late 1920s. Briggs, however, supplied many other producers, including Hudson.
Similar to other Detroit manufacturers, the Briggs firm suffered greatly during the Depression. To maintain the flow of income, Briggs turned to the production of plumbing equipment. After World War II, the firm increasingly became a producer of industrial plumbing apparatus rather than auto bodies. The company survived until 1997 when it was purchased by a South American conglomerate, Ceramicas Industriales, the second largest producer of ceramics in the New World.
Apparently, Walter Briggs had a longstanding interest in baseball. Richard Bak quotes his clear memories of the rough and unsavory environment that surrounded the Sunday games in Burns Park just after the Tigers entered the American League. Accountant Frank Navin gained controlling interest in the Tigers as early as 1908 but William Yawkey and his heirs owned one-half the team until 1920 when Walter Briggs and John Kelsey—proprietor of Kelsey Wheel—each purchased 25 percent of the team. In 1927, Briggs purchased the shares of Kelsey giving him half ownership of the Tigers. Under Frank Navin’s leadership, the Tigers won the American League Pennant in 1934 and then defeated the Chicago Cubs for the World Series championship the following season. Navin died just a few weeks after his team brought the championship to Detroit and his widow promptly sold the Navin half of the Tigers to Walter Briggs.
Briggs continued to own the Tigers until his death in January, 1952. Under Briggs’ management, the Tigers contended in the early 1940s. The won the American League in 1940 but were defeated by the Reds in the World Series in seven games. They finished second in 1944 and then won the league championship and again defeated the Cubs in the World Series in 1945. In 1946 and 1947 and then again in 1950, the Tigers finished second in the American League.
Spike Briggs—following his father’s death—ran the team briefly while attempting to pull together a syndicate of rich Detroit men who would purchase the team to settle the estate. The legal challenges were numerous and exacerbated by the death of Walter Briggs’s widow. The probate court eventually ordered that the Tigers be sold. Fred Knorr owned the Detroit television station that broadcast the Tigers’ games but lacked the requisite funds. He subsequently put together a group headed by John Fetzer, a Grand Rapids television entrepreneur, and together they purchased the team in 1956.
Many of the highly successful automobile moguls built huge and magnificent homes for themselves in what were then the most prestigious neighborhoods of Detroit. Briggs selected the English manor style for his abode. As you examine this home from West Boston, you see a very appealing and quite dignified, if enormous, home done in light colored stone. You would not be surprised to find it in the remote countryside in Britain. The Neo-Tudor home to the immediate northeast—670 West Boston Boulevard—was built for one of the seven Fisher brother, Carl, in 1915 also. Interestingly, one of Walter Briggs’ daughters married one of Carl Fisher’s sons, a woman who lived well into her 90s before she died in 2004.
Architect: Chittenden and Kotting
Architectural Style: English Manor
Date of construction: 1915
Use in 2005: Private Residence
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Boston Edison Historic District listed January 1, 1974
State of Michigan Register of Historic Places: Boston-Edison Historic District lListed December 11, 1973; #P4477
National Register of Historic Sites: Boston-Edison Historic District listed:
September 5, 1975; #75000965
Photograph: Ren Farley; July 7, 2005
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