by Mark Hodesh, former store owner
Our store has been providing the same basic line of goods to Ann Arbor residents since it was built in the mid-1890’s. It was first named the Mann and Zeeb Elevator and was located in the storefront where we now sell kitchenwares and Zingerman’s bread. The wooden chutes and shafts that conveyed grain to and from the second floor are still here for you to see – they are interesting examples of the simplicity of late 19th and early 20th century technology, and amazing for their small commercial scale. Mann and Zeeb supplied field seed for farmers and grain for the backyard poultry that most West Side residents of the time kept. Over one hundred years later, we still sell grain, though now most of it is for wild birds. But history has a habit of repeating itself, and with the passage of Ann Arbor's “chicken ordinance,” we are once again selling chicken scratch.
In 1906, brothers Gotleib, Herman, and George, and their baby sister Emma Hertler, left their one-thousand-acre family homestead just north of Milan, where the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital stood and where the Toyota Research Facility now stands. They moved up to Ann Arbor to buy the Mann and Zeeb Elevator, and renamed it Hertler Bros. By 1908, the Hertlers had built the horse barn that is now our drive-through warehouse. Unfortunately for the livery stable business, Henry Ford was just starting to roll Model T’s off the assembly line in Dearborn, and the world of horse-driven commerce began to wane. The Hertlers were gritty entrepreneurs, though, and soon began to adapt their business to the needs of city gardeners and farm kitchens. Seed packets and small bags of fertilizer replaced buggy whips and horse blankets, as pickling crocks and canning jars took the place of kerosene lanterns and pitcher pumps. In the 1970’s, they still carried barbed wire, dynamite and leg hold traps. The Hertlers were elders of the German community and spoke to many of their customers in a gruff dialect of German and English.
When I bought the store from the Hertlers in 1975, Emma was running the store at 89 years old, and Herman, 94, and Gotleib, 102, were at Huron View Nursing Home. I'd saved up the $40,000 down payment it took to swing the deal while running the Fleetwood Diner, which I’d started in 1972. Today it seems like prime property, but Hertler Bros. had been on the market for 18 months before I made my offer. Beyond the down payment I had, it was Emma Hertler who chose me, and my intention to carry on as a garden store, over several other offers. My competition wanted to turn the store into a bar and restaurant, and they had been flirting with the straight-laced spinster in the open-shirted, gold-chained way of the mid-seventies, trying to get her to sell. Emma had been sending down to the Fleetwood Diner on Wednesdays for our tomato soup special. Also, she had kept an eye on me working at the Fleetwood as her nephew, Georgie Jr., had driven her by on the way to work. She loved the soup and I once heard her whisper to Georgie in the loud voice of someone who is hard of hearing, “He’s a good boy Georgie, he gets up early and goes to work.” I have never been as proud as when Emma, the essence of old school German thrift and industry, gave me her seal of approval. It set the course for the rest of my life, and I still get up early. My purchase of Hertler Bros. coincided with the “back to the earth, grow your own” movement, and with the Arab Oil Embargo, high inflation and stagnant wages of mid-seventies. Thus, in spite of the hard economy, business boomed and sales rose 700% in five years!
By 1981, I was growing restless and sold the business and the Hertler Bros. name, but not the property. My wife, Margaret, and I moved first to New York and then to Castine, Maine, where we owned the Castine Inn, a hundred-year-old summer hotel, and raised our daughter, Jeanne. Hertlers Bros. continued to do well for a number of years, but by the early 1990’s it was regularly losing money and I was worried that it would fail. So, in 1997 we sold the Inn and moved back to Ann Arbor to resuscitate the store. I couldn’t buy back the original name, so I renamed the store Downtown Home & Garden.
As Ann Arbor has prospered and changed, so have we. Today, we are the largest and most complete supplier to local organic urban gardeners and offer an extensive, functional array of kitchenwares and canning supplies to gourmet cooks. Business is excellent, even as the economic headlines are once again dour.
The spirit of Downtown Home & Garden and Hertler Bros. has been shaped by several wars, the Great Depression, recessions, boom times, the internal combustion engine, polio vaccine, men walking on the moon, and many families and lives. We have been front row participants in local 20th century history. I’m now at the stage of my life when there is nothing I’d rather do than share stories about the store, the neighborhood and the old days.
Click the photo and come share a morning with Mark Hodesh, Downtown Home and Garden's owner from 1975-2015. Then stop by the store, where you can still find Mark sweeping the walk, vacuuming the rugs, flipping 50 pound sacks of corn and flinging straw bales every day. Puts all the young'uns to shame!
We're early birds here at DHG. Mark starts his day at 3-4am. Kelly starts her day at 6am. Crew filters in 7am onwards. We open this early because we know there's others out there that are just like us ... those early risers that like to beat the traffic, get the bread when it's just been delivered, and to pick up the bag of birdseed for the birds that didn't get the worm. It's a different feeling, that early time. Enjoy this video by Kirk Wesphal ...