Point of Beginning

Web Exclusive! From Cars to T-Bars Part 3

December 1, 2003
The last and final part in the series on the history of Bathey Manufacturing Company's T-iron property markers.

To review the second part of this three-part series, click here: Web Exclusive! From Cars to T-Bars Part 2

1955

At first the dull gray light of mid-December seemed barely strong enough to penetrate the window. But as the morning wore on the light slowly, almost grudgingly spread across the room, filling the office with an aura heavy with cold and carrying the promise of duller, grayer days to come. It was indeed the "cold light of day."

On the desk beneath the window the warm yellow-orange of a large manila envelope seemed out of place in this setting. Forty-six-year-old Bud Aikman sat down at this desk and turned on its lamp, as much to dispel the implied chill as to illuminate the task ahead.

He had talked with his friend and partner, Doug Bathey, just a few days earlier so he knew that the envelope held the proofs of their ad for survey markers. The ad would run in one of the quarterly surveying magazines in about three months.

He opened the envelope, removed the contents and almost immediately the picture caught his attention.

He had been suitably attired for the field on that day, he thought to himself. His trousers were bloused into the top of his boots, and he wore a long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the wrists. Looped through his belt was a small sledgehammer whose handle extended to his mid-thigh. Balanced on his left shoulder was a transit mounted on a solid-legged wood tripod, and in his right hand he carried a fistful of T-irons. His headgear completed the outfit: a light-colored hat with a broad brim shaded his eyes and protected a slightly balding head from sunburn.

Overall, the ad was very thorough, he thought. The text and graphics seemed to cover all of the salient features of their product. But he had doubts about using his own likeness in the ad and found the prospect more than a little embarrassing.

For one thing, he never considered the T-iron an innovation. As far as he was concerned it was just another type of scrap metal adapted for reuse. Like iron pipe, T-bar was a fairly common building material; in fact, it was a major component in the steel-framed windows of the factories. As a property corner, the only distinction between T-bar and the T-iron was the identification cap on the end. In all other respects it was just another step in the evolution of corner markers, steps that historically were made in anonymity. Including his picture in the ad was a break with that tradition and he was concerned that his peers might find this act somewhat pretentious.

Secondly, he wasn't even sure that the concept was original. It was impossible to know what type of corner material every surveyor across the country used. He knew that there may well have been other surveyors already using T-bar; in fact, other surveyors may well have been using it for many years before the Bathey version was placed on the market. And he may well have heard or read of this usage in the normal course of doing business over the last 20 years.

On the one hand, he knew of no one else who was selling a capped T-bar as a corner. However, the basic concept wasn't unique enough to warrant a patent, consequently they had no exclusive manufacturing rights. The overall appearance of the ad, he felt, implied the contrary and attaching his picture only seemed to endorse this false appearance.

But despite his misgivings he had to admit their product was certainly popular in Flint. The current phone directory listed four survey firms: his own, Flint Surveying, Mitchell Engineering and West Engineering. And though a fifth surveyor, unlisted, favored the pinched-pipe, the other four were all using T-iron.

And lately these four had been setting a considerable number of T-irons. There were several reasons for this. During the Depression, few housing units had been built, and construction of homes ceased entirely when America entered the war. For industrial areas like Flint, the shortage of housing was magnified during wartime because of the necessity of placing military contracts in urban centers.

So by war's end there was a tremendous pent-up demand for housing. The buyers ranged from defense workers with accumulated savings to returning servicemen with access to favorable loans. All, it seemed, wanted a home of his own, and as builders happily responded, local engineering firms prospered accordingly.

With success came change, he recalled, and it wasn't always positive. In 1948, 10-year employee Dick West left to form his own company. Three years later Bud's father-in-law died. And two years after that John Mackie left to start his own company. Bud had hired Mackie in 1947 to lay out Chevrolet's new V-8 plant.

The loss of these three represented a great deal of the firm's expertise. But in their place a few youngsters fresh out of high school and college were hired. These kids were mentored by the remaining veteran staff members and within a few years the operation was running smoothly once again.

And just in time. By 1955 Buick was experiencing record sales. As always, the volume of car sales directly affected the workload of local engineering firms. With the current year drawing to a close, Bud expected to finish 34 plats in Genesee County alone. There was also a great deal of work involving municipal infrastructure and in the construction of new facilities at the local plants.

The coming year looked to be just as hectic, he thought. Soon he would meet with a client planning to build a golf course development just south of Grand Blanc. The project would include a tournament-grade course, a community swimming pool, tennis courts, all the customary trappings of the country club. A spacious clubhouse would be built as an addition to the mansion on the property. These amenities would serve an enclave of upscale housing with 125 lots planned for the first phase.

He was very familiar with the site. Just 14 months earlier his firm had surveyed a 60-lot subdivision along the north side of the property-Bloomfield Hills. But although the map had been duly recorded, the public infrastructure was never built, and of course, the plat would now have to be vacated, he thought. The street and lot pattern would not lend itself to the orderly placement of fairways and greens.

He recalled that one of the proprietors of that plat was the estate of Amelia H. Lenz. She was the late widow of a vice-president of GM, and the mansion on the property had been built for her family in 1936. It was a large two-story brick and stone residence, well befitting an important automotive executive.

Bud felt sure that in its role as clubhouse the mansion would be an excellent venue for marketing his firm. But he also knew that under different circumstances that mansion might well have been his alone. His career at Buick was painfully brief, but had it lasted, by 1954 he would have had 25 years tenure. He might even have been a vice-president by now, an executive entitled to a lavish, opulent home. Unfortunately, other events had interceded-the Depression, his marriage, war in Europe, Pearl Harbor-and eventually the automotive world had moved on with his manufacturing career firmly in tow behind.

Nonetheless, he remembered how impressive the mansion had looked more than a year before. He recalled in particular that a generous number of windows looked out on well-maintained grounds, steel-framed casement windows, as he remembered it, at least on the upper story.

Soon enough, he thought to himself, those same windows would overlook a well-manicured golf course framed by contemporary homes, dozens of them, all in the new plat of Warwick Hills.

Perhaps he'd buy a lot for himself, he mused, as he slid the ad back into the envelope, a lot abutting one of the fairways and marked at each corner with a T-iron.

Epilogue

In the remainder of his life Bud owned two different homes along that golf course.

The ad with his picture was used off and on for the next 17 years, principally in the quarterly journal of The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM).

Clarence Francis Aikman died on May 30, 1993, and in a career that spanned nearly 60 years, he had many professional and personal affiliations. He was a member of ACSM and the American Consulting Engineers Council. He held various offices with the Michigan Society of Registered Land Surveyors at both the local and state level. He was a former chairman of the Grand Blanc Township Building Authority and the Grand Blanc Regional Planning Commission. From 1955 to 1970, he served on the Board of Directors of First Federal Savings & Loan Association. He was also a director of Indian Trails Bus Company of Owosso and Lehner Engineering Inc. of Mt. Clemens. He was an active member of Rotary Club, the GMI Century Club, and for many years was a volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America.

In his personal life, he and his wife liked to entertain. Social events at the Aikman home usually involved the game of bridge. He also loved golf. He was a member and a former director of Flint Golf and Country Club and a founding member of Warwick Hills Country Club in Grand Blanc.

Following World War II, he earned a private pilot's license. This skill complemented a lifelong interest in hunting and fishing, an interest avidly pursued all across North America.

In 1978, he was elected treasurer of Grand Blanc Township and served in that office for the next 10 years.

He was preceded in death by his first wife, Hazel, in 1986. He was survived by his widow, Bette (Hunt) Aikman, and sisters, Elizabeth Washburn and Eleanor Armstrong, both of California. He was also survived by "Ma Deuce." With its basic design relatively intact, it remains in service at the present date.

He was also survived by the T-iron, at least the second generation of the product. T-irons are no longer adapted from standard T-bar stock. Instead, they are roll-formed in heavy machinery and manufactured specifically for use as property corners.

Acknowledgements

  • Bette Aikman
  • The late Delores Floyd - cousin of Bud's first wife Ruth Lehner - widow of John Lehner, PS, PE
  • Gladys Rowe - one of the AC "war mommas"
  • The author's father and sisters - A.G. Richards, Sharon L. Reed, Laura J. Stevens and Rose E. MacDonald
  • Three of Bud's employees from the mid-'50s - one of the "veteran staff members," Elbex B. Harris, PS (retired); and two of the "kids," David T. Rowe, PS, PE and Frederick J. Shaltz, PS - all of whom listed Warwick Hills as their most memorable project with the firm
  • John D. Albright, PS
  • Norman C. Caldwell, PS (retired)
  • Carl H. Carlson, PS, PE
  • Richard D. Esser, PE
  • The late Karol R. Piotrowski, PS, PE
  • Robert D.C. Taylor
  • Frank Flynn, CEO of BMC Manufacturing Inc., Plymouth, Michigan (formerly Bathey Manufacturing Company)
  • Richard D. Hively - one of the former owners of the Bathey Survey Marker Company, Howell, Michigan
  • William Holloran, curator of the Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute) Alumni Historical Collections
  • Glen Janson, archivist, Browning Inc. (formerly Browning Arms Company), Morgan, Utah
  • Doris Korovich, A & S Window Associates, New York, New York
  • Andy Longo, director of Chapter Services, Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Elizabeth MacDonald - current owner, Bathey Survey Marker Company, Howell, Michigan
  • Photograph of M-2 .50 caliber machine gun courtesy of Robert Boucher collection