Plum Street Series

Alexander Young Malcomson

Alexander Young Malcomson was born on June 7, 1865 in North Ayrshire, Scotland. His parents were William Malcomson and Bridget Rodgers. In 1861, the family, including William (aged 40), Bridget (33), and children William (16), Ellen (10), Philip (8), Robert (5), Ann (3), and Henry (1) were living in Dalry, Ayrshire, Scotland. Son Joseph (12) was a lodger in the home of Thomas Gaffney in Glasgow Gorbals, while their daughter Mary (18) was living with her grandparents Philip and Mary Rodgers at Kilcush Cottage in Dalry. In 1871, Alex’s father William worked as a laborer at the ironworks and the family lived at No. 1 Stoopshill Row in Dalry. Living with William and Bridget were daughter Mary (28), who was married to Henry Allan, and her son Robert (1), daughter Ellen (21), who was married to William Hill, and her son Robert (2). Additional members of the household were sons William (26), Joseph (23), and Alexander (5).

The Malcomson family lived at No. 1 Stoopshill Row in Dalry in 1871, at right. 1896 map from https://maps.nls.uk/view/82866732

In 1880, William Sr. and Alexander arrived in the United States. In the June 11, 1880 U. S. Census, they were living with William’s brother Joseph R. Malcomson and his family at 415 Michigan Avenue in Detroit. William was listed as widowed, aged 65, and his occupation was gardener. Alexander was 14 and a clerk in a store (probably his uncle Joseph’s store). Alexander continued boarding with Joseph’s family through 1883. On 9/3/1884, Alex, along with other friends from church (including future wife Sarah Mickelborough, his 1/2 cousin Lydia’s daughter), attended a going-away party for Thomas Linn. The 12/31/1884 Detroit Free Press reported on Christmas festivities for the kids at Plum Street Church of Christ, including Alex’s recitation of “The Last Hymn” which was “touchingly delivered.” This poem was written by Marianne Farningham and published in her 1878 book “Songs of Sunshine.” It was a popular piece for recitation in the late 19th century.

In 1885, Alexander was employed as a clerk at William Baxter and boarded at 320 5th Street. The next year he clerked for S. H. Edgerly & Co. and boarded at 434 Bagg (and his future wife Sarah was living at 415 Michigan Avenue). The 12/23/1886 Free Press contained an advertisement for “Alex Y. Malcomson, Dealer in choice meats of every description, and pure leaf lard a specialty.” This market was located at 895 Grand River Avenue. The 1887 city directory showed that he was living in the same building as the meat market. In 1888, he seemed to have finally found his calling. The directory showed him owning the Malcomson Coal & Wood Company at 254 Baker Street, at the corner of 13th Street, along with his cousins R. H. and W. G. Malcomson. The slogan for the coal company was “Hotter than Sunshine” and eventually went from a one-horse and cart business to 10 coalyards, 110 wagons, and 120 horses. Tracing Alex through city directories helps prove Robert Lacey’s assertion that Malcomson was “opportunistic, restless, and compulsive,” “specializ[ing] in spreading himself thin” (p. 72).

In the 1889 directory, Alex was boarding at 373 Trumbull Avenue (his cousin W. G.’s house). Alex married Sarah Mickelborough, the daughter of W. G.’s half-sister Lydia, on October 11, 1889. John S. Gray, deacon at Plum Street Church of Christ, performed the ceremony, and W. G. Malcomson and W. F. Linn were witnesses. Their first child Mary Jane was born on August 15, 1890. In the 1890 city directory, Alex, Sarah, Mary, and Alex’s father William were living at 200 Pine.

Sarah and Mary Jane, c1891

In 1891, they were living at 415 Michigan Ave. where Alex was listed as owning the Malcomson Bros. grocery store. Joseph’s family had moved out. R. H. Malcomson was the proprietor of Malcomson Coal and Wood Co. at 247-251 and 252-254 Baker. In 1893, the same situation was in place. Alex and Sarah’s 2nd child, Helen Josephine, was born June 21, 1893. In 1895, the family lived at 243 12th Street and Alex ran the coal company again. Malcomson Bros. grocers was again run by R. H. Malcomson and his partner Alexander C. Long (Long was married to Sarah’s sister Rachel). On March 17, 1896, Alex and Sarah’s 3rd daughter Grace Lorraine was born. In 1897, Alex and his family (including his father) were still living at 243 12th Street and Alex ran the Malcomson Coal, Wood, and Coke Company.

Sarah Mickelborough Malcomson in front of the office for the Malcomson Coal and Wood Company in 1896.
From Detroit: City of Industry by David Lee Poremba (2002). Arcadia Publishing, p. 93.

Their son George William was born on December 5, 1897, and a stillborn daughter was born on February 11, 1899. Alex and Sarah’s next son Alexander Jr. was born February 27, 1900. In the June 14, 1900 census, the family was living at 290 24th Street. The 1901 city directory listed an additional company called The A. Y. Malcomson Co., Ltd. which dealt with selling ice. James Couzens was secretary and Alex was its treasurer. On November 24, 1901, Alex and Sarah’s last child, Allan Robert, was born. Sadly, Sarah died less than two weeks later on December 6th of a cerebellar embolism and eclampsia, resulting from Allan’s birth. Her funeral was Monday, December 9th at Plum Street Church of Christ. Sarah was almost 32 years old and had had 7 children in 11 years. Soon after, on March 19, 1902, Alexander’s father William died at about 90 years of age.

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Alex Y. Malcomson and his 3 sons, George, Alexander, and Allan, c1903 – from Rochester University’s archives

On August 20, 1902, Malcomson and Henry Ford formed a partnership called the Ford & Malcomson, Ltd. They had became acquainted when while Ford was working for the Edison Illuminating Company and purchased coal from Malcomson. When Ford left Edison’s company in 1899, he continued to buy coal from Malcomson for his house.

1903 was an eventful year for Alexander Malcomson. On January 1, 1903, he married 26-year-old Alice Schofield in Toronto. They had known each other from Plum Street, where Alice taught in the Sunday school. Vernon C. Fry’s sister, Lily, was one of the witnesses to the wedding. In the 1903 city directory, the ice company was no longer listed, but the coal company now had multiple yards. On June 16, 1903, Ford & Malcomson, Ltd. became the new Ford Motor Company after Malcomson gathered investors. The investors were all associated with Alex in some way, whether through church or business. John S. Gray and Vernon C. Fry were members of Plum Street Church of Christ. Some sources say Gray was an uncle and Fry a cousin of Malcomson, but I have found no proof of that. Albert Strelow had built Alex’s coalyards. John W. Anderson and Horace H. Rackham were his lawyers. James Couzens and Charles Woodall were employees of Malcomson’s. Other investors were the Dodge brothers and Charles H. Bennett, the founder of the Daisy Air Rifle Company. More about the Ford Motor Company in a separate post.

Ford Motor Company listing in the 1903 Detroit City Directory

Alex and Alice’s daughter Dorothy Jean was born September 4, 1904. In 1905, the family lived at 29 Alger Avenue. Between 1906 and 1910, they lived at 63 Boston Boulevard. Alex’s daughter Grace died on March 23, 1908 at the age of 12 after an operation for appendicitis. On February 13, 1909, Alex and Alice had a daughter named Margaret Alice. By 1913, the family was living at their final home at 116, now 7640, LaSalle Boulevard (a sad photo gallery on Flickr shows the state of the house). The coal company became the Malcomson-Houghten Company, suppliers of coal, coke, builders’, pavers’ and sewer supplies. In 1914, Alex was the president of United Fuel and Supply Company. In 1920, he was the president of the Harlan Gas Coal Company, while his son George was the president of the Malcomson Coal Company and the vice-president of the Harlan Gas Coal Company.

In April 1922, the Malcomsons separated, and Alice moved out and filed for divorce on August 3, 1922. The March 21, 1923 Detroit Free Press ran a front page story when the divorce was granted, detailing the financial arrangements. Alice was awarded $225,000 ($25,000 at once, 10 yearly payments of $12,500 and a final payment of $75,000 to be paid on April 1, 1933). Their two daughters, Dorothy, aged 19, and Margaret, aged 14, were allowed to choose who they wanted to live with. Dorothy chose to live with Alex and Margaret chose to live with Alice. Alice had testified that Alex had a “domineering, argumentative disposition” and “often rude toward her over trivial things, and very often lost his temper.” Another article said he “berat[ed] her frequently in profane language” and once struck her.

According to the 8/2/1923 Free Press, Alexander Malcomson had had “an illness of nearly two years brought on by a nervous breakdown.” He had gone to California to find relief, found none, and returned to the Battle Creek sanitarium before finally moving in with his daughter. He died on August 1, 1923 at the home of his daughter Mary Jane in Ann Arbor. Alice threatened to contest Malcomson’s will unless her two daughters with him were given shares of the estate equal to those of his other children.

Sources:

Boyd, R. Vernon. (2009). A History of the Stone-Campbell Churches in Michigan.

Lacey, Robert. Ford: the men and the machine. New York: Ballantine, 1986.

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