By the late 1800s, Saginaw was about to go from a boom town to a ghost town. Great fortunes had been made in the lumber and salt industries, but now the forests had been cut down and without the abundant steam and fuel from sawmills to evaporate brine, the salt wells couldn’t compete with the downstate salt mines. Many businessmen gave up and moved away.
Fortunately, Saginaw had a young man with an unusual combination of imagination, practical ability and the insight to choose effective partners. He was John L. Jackson.
Jackson was born in 1855 on his father’s farm northwest of Saginaw. As well as farming, Thomas Jackson, served as Saginaw County treasurer and opened a grocery store at the corner of Michigan and Gratiot. As a boy, John Jackson worked in the family store and attended Saginaw’s public schools. After he graduated from Parsons Commercial College, he became a machinist.
While still in his twenties, he and James McGregor started a company that manufactured steam engines and pumping equipment for the lumber and salt industries. Jackson invented a cut-off engine that was used by the Germain Mill, which manufactured pianos and by the Crescent Match Company of which Jackson was vice president. Realizing the need for diversification, Jackson eventually became a director of twenty-three companies. He not only adjusted to changing times but he helped to change them.
When the Great Fire of 1893 swept through East Saginaw and destroyed the Valley Machine Company, its general manager, Edgar Church, joined Jackson’s firm and bought out McGregor. The partnership of Jackson and Church lasted for 40 years. Jackson and Church made manufacturing equipment for the barrel industry and then, taking advantage of Saginaw’s vast clay pits, they started the Saginaw Brick Company. Realizing that their bricks needed improvement, Jackson headed for Germany where he had heard that new production methods resulted in more durable bricks. He brought back equipment and improved it for American use. Soon, Jackson and Church was making equipment for brick plants all over the country.
In 1899, they opened Saginaw Plate Glass to provide glass to the growing auto industry. Jackson was quick to recognize the potential of automobiles but he apparently wasn’t impressed with a certain Henry Ford. In the early 1900s, Ford came to Saginaw and offered Jackson and Church a contract to build engines for his cars. There was just one catch: they would have to invest in Ford’s company. Jackson turned down the deal but they had another chance to get in the auto industry.
In 1906, Jackson and Church had the good luck to partner with Melvin L. Willcox, a brilliant inventor who developed a greatly improved steering gear. Buick adopted the Jacox gear and Jackson Church Willcox expanded their plant. They bought the entire block bounded by Hamilton, Clinton, Michigan, Niagara and Monroe. Buick demanded still more capacity. Jackson Church Willcox refused and in 1909, the newly formed General Motors Corporation bought out the steering gear business, including their patents. It was the first major acquisition by GM and became its Saginaw Steering Gear Division. Willcox joined Buick as a plant manager and Jackson and Church embarked on a new venture.
One of Saginaw’s most important agricultural products was sugar beets. For many years, the pulp from processing the beets was dumped into our rivers, resulting in unsightly and unhealthy pollution. Recognizing a need, Jackson and Church designed and manufactured a beet pulp drying machine that allowed sugar factories to sell the dried pulp for stock feed. It wasn’t long before other states realized that the pulp-drying equipment could be used for other agricultural products. The state of Florida used the machines to dry pulp from its citrus fruits, using the byproduct for livestock feed. As a result, Florida became a major livestock producer.
Jackson had many interests. In 1880, he had been a founder of the Saginaw Building and Loan Association. He served on its board for 46 years, and retired as its president in 1934. He organized the Saginaw Manufacturers’ Association in 1906 and served as its president. In 1909, he led a fund drive that raised $10,000 to add to the $20,000 Arthur Hill had promised to build a new YMCA at the corner of Ames and Michigan. Jackson was that Y’s first president. The Saginaw Valley Development Company drilled the first oil well in the valley and developed some of Saginaw’s first subdivisions. He was a director of the Valley Home Telephone Company and the Saginaw Board of Trade and was a director and president of the Board of Commerce.
In 1881, Jackson married Sadie Smith of St. Louis. She died in 1913 and in 1916, he married Florence Vollmer of Hammond, Louisiana. He was the father of two daughters and a son; one daughter and the son predeceased him. John Jackson died in 1940.
It was said of him that no industrialist had more influence and impact on Saginaw’s history. Some of his enterprises failed but if there was a chance for improvement, some return on investment and increased employment opportunities for Saginaw workers, John L. Jackson moved forward with faith and determination.
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