Historic Detroit

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Lee, Cady & Smart Building

This warehouse on the western outskirts of downtown was designed for Lee, Cady & Smart, a wholesale grocery chain headquartered in Detroit with locations across the Midwest.

The firm was born on May 1, 1885, when a 24-year-old Gilbert W. Lee and partner Ward L. Andrus bought and took over the wholesale grocery business of D.D. Mallory & Co. on West Jefferson Avenue. They continued to operate it as the D.D. Mallory Co. until Feb. 1, 1892, when Lee reformed it with David D. Cady under the name Lee & Cady. It then merged with Smart & Fox, and on March 1, 1907, it was reorganized as a publicly traded company known as Lee, Cady & Smart, with $750,000 in capital.

Lee served as president, Cady as vice president and James S. Smart as treasurer. Lee was a busy man, also serving as the vice president of the auto manufacturer Lozier Motor Co. and treasurer of the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Co., in addition to heading grocery associations and being a member of some of the city's top organizations and clubs. Lee was married to Sara Hammond, daughter of George H. Hammond, a meat magnate whose fortunes built Detroit's first skyscraper.

The firm was "one of the leading wholesale-grocery enterprises of the middle west" and "one of the fine industrial enterprises which lend great precedence to Detroit as a commercial and distributing center, and the ramifications of its trade are of wide scope and importance," Clarence M. Burton wrote in 1909 in "The City of Detroit and Wayne County, Michigan."

The grocers had been operating out of a six-story, 46,000-square-foot building at Larned Street and Cass Avenue. Having outgrown it, the firm hired John Scott & Co. to design it a new one, conveniently located along the Michigan Central Railroad.

Its new seven-story warehouse was built on West Fort Street, just east of Rosa Parks Boulevard (12th Street). The city delivery platform was along Fort. The building stretched 168 feet along Fort, and had a depth of 200 feet. The basement was at the level of the railroad tracks. The building was finished in stone on the first two stories; the five above were finished in brick with stone trimming.

The permits were pulled Nov. 9, 1907. The building cost $165,000. The concrete engineering was done by the Gabriel Concrete Reinforcement Co., and the Albert A. Albrecht Co. was the general contractor.

On June 2, 1908, the Detroit Free Press reported that Lee, Cady & Smart had moved into its new building, "the most complete in the middle west." The warehouse "will enable the concern to meet the demands of its increasing business," the paper wrote.

In 1911, James S. Smart sold his interests, and the firm returned to the name Lee & Cady. Around this time, Lee & Cady bought the B. Desenberg Co. of Kalamazoo. The firm would continue to grow and serve the hungry stomachs of Detroiters for decades to come and set out on a course of buying out similar companies across the state. It bought the Judson Grocery Co. of Grand Rapids in 1926. Four years later, in January 1930, it acquired the Worden Grocery Co. of Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Lansing. That October, it added the David-Mason-England Co. of Jackson, Mich., too. In 1928, Lee & Cady organized a "cash-and-carry" system among the many independent grocers that it served, an important innovation.

Lee died at age 69 on May 26, 1930, during a meeting of the First National Bank board, of which he was a member.

On May 2, 1932, it was announced that Lee & Cady was absorbing three more firms: Wolf Wholesale Grocery Co., a 10-year-old firm with four locations in Detroit; George W. Rudell Co., organized two years earlierto combine the hotel and institutional business of the former National Grocery Co; and Checker System Stores, a voluntary group of independent merchants. The three companies were continued as subsidiaries of Lee & Cady, "establishing what is believed to be the largest wholesale grocery organization in the United States," the Detroit Free Press wrote the following morning. The announcement was made on the day Lee & Cady marked its 47th anniversary. Before the acquisitions, Lee & Cady had branches all over Michigan, and operated 10 service warehouses and 55 cash-and-carry branches, as well as sponsored the Red and White voluntary chain of independent retailers in Michigan.

By 1943, Lee & Cady had moved its base of operations to 1111 E. Eight Mile Road in suburban Ferndale, Mich.

In August 1954, Lee & Cady bought out O.P. DeWitt Co., a 66-year-old, St. Johns, Mich.-based company. A year later, in August 1955, Lee & Cady bought out the Michigan Trading Co., which had been founded in 1932, for around $1 million.

On July 7, 1945, it was announced that the building on Fort Street was sold by the estate of Harriet N. Lee - Gilbert Lee's widow - to the department store chain Montgomery Ward & Co.

Lee & Cady had sales of $35 million for the 1960-61 fiscal year, and operated distribution centers in Detroit, Toledo and Kalamazoo, with 15 cash-and-carry distribution centers in Ohio and Michigan. It also handled the Quaker Food brand and served independent grocers across Michigan, as well as Indiana and Ohio. This level of business made it an attractive takeover target.

In August 1961, John N. Lord and Herbert I. Lord sold their 72 percent controlling interest in Lee & Cady to Super Food Services Co. of Chicago.

"We are very much interested in the Detroit area because we feel that the Detroit independent retailers need a complete food distribution program, including frozen foods, fresh produce, meats, bakery goods and dairy products," said Douglas A. Grimes, president of Super Foods.

Lee & Cady was folded into Super Foods' Hotel, Restaurant & Institutional Division, along with another Detroit-based grocer it acquired around the same time, the George A. Gardella Co.

It would not be a long-lasting acquisition.

A little less than two years later, the division was sold to Detroit-based Vlasic Foods Co., known then, as now, for its line of pickles, relishes and sauerkraut, also was a major wholesaler of dry goods. Vlasic completed the purchase on June 13, 1963.

In 1952, the Fort Street building was home to Montgomery Ward's Basement and Service Station Central Tire Unit. Early the next year, Ward's moved its Central Tire Unit to the department store's Grand River and Greenfield store. It's unclear when or to whom the Fort Street warehouse was sold, but it continued to be used as a tire warehouse for years afterward.

In 1993, the abandoned warehouse, full of tires, was destroyed in what The Detroit News called "a steel-bending blaze." It was demolished shortly thereafter.