Michigan Ladder Co. Climbs into History

Made in America, On the Road, This Week in History, Traditions
on June 17, 2010
Adam Badoux Tom Harrison and wife Gina, mother Marcia and daughter Claire own and operate the 109-year-old Michigan Ladder Co., purchased from Bob Nissly (third from left) in 2004.

Four generations of Americans have painted their houses, picked apples and retrieved wayward badminton birdies from rooftops with a boost from Michigan Ladder Co. in Ypsilanti (pop. 22,362).

“We still make wooden ladders one at a time, in the same building as a century ago,” says owner Tom Harrison, 44, about America’s oldest ladder manufacturer, founded in 1901.

To help get the company off the ground, Ypsilanti officials agreed to provide land if owners Melvin Lewis, A.G. Huston and Edgar Geer invested $3,000 of their own money and employed at least 10 men, thus creating local jobs.

From the beginning, Michigan Ladder Co. proved to be a step ahead of its competition. In 1903, The Ypsilantian reported that the company had 13 employees and a rushing business, having orders for ladders several weeks ahead. A year later, Lewis patented an automatic safety lock for extension ladders, and by 1907 the company employed 35 men in the factory, and six salesmen who took orders across the Midwest and eastern United States.

Through the years, Michigan Ladder has built a variety of ladders for homeowners, fruit farmers and industrial workers, including tapered orchard ladders for maneuvering between limbs and heavy-duty ladders for the automobile, aircraft and construction industries. In a 1909 photo, 18 employees with a combined weight of 2,810 pounds perch on one of the company’s industrial stepladders to demonstrate its strength.

“Ladders are about as old economy as you can get, but they’re still needed for manufacturing and industry,” says Harrison, whose wife, Gina, 42, and mother, Marcia, 72, volunteer in the office, and daughter Claire, 20, works part time for the company.

Today, 16 employees produce 50,000 wooden ladders each year in the company’s original factory, which has been enlarged 25 times. Electricity long ago replaced a steam engine that powered the company’s early machines, and stacks of hemlock and Southern yellow pine arrive today via truck, instead of by horse-drawn wagon or railroad, but little about the ladder’s design or manufacturing process has changed.

Each ladder is individually built, beginning with employee Scott Bruneau, 54, who inspects each piece of wood for defects, a job that he’s performed for 33 years. “Where else can you go to work and feel that you’re making a difference in a product?” Bruneau asks. “Our wooden ladders last.”

Nearby, other workers cut and shape rungs, bore holes in the upright side rails and assemble the pieces into wooden stepladders, straight ladders and extension ladders.

Melvin Carter, 59, who has worked for Michigan Ladder for 37 years, can put together a ladder in four minutes and has assembled up to 150 in a day. “Once you get the technique down, you can do it pretty fast,” Carter says.

Ownership of Michigan Ladder has changed four times. Harrison bought the company in 2004 from Bob Nissly, 72, whose father Arthur acquired the business in 1933 from Lewis, one of the original owners.

In addition to its wooden ladders, Michigan Ladder annually sells and distributes 100,000 aluminum and fiberglass models made in Canada, China and Mexico. “Wood is still popular, primarily because it doesn’t conduct electricity,” Nissly says.

The company’s wooden ladders have proved their worth on Dean Johnson’s 500-acre fruit farm in Traverse City, Mich. (pop. 14,532). In his barn are dozens of ladders, including some Michigan-made models more than 50 years old and handed down through four generations.

“I remember many winters, my dad would have me paint them,” recalls Johnson, 59. “Every farmer had a different color, so we wouldn’t get mixed up. Now we pick cherries by machine, but we still use the ladders for picking apples.”

Built for 109 years by Michigan Ladder Co., wooden ladders are humble yet essential equipment around the home, orchard and construction site. “There’s not much to a ladder, but a man’s got to climb,” Nissly says. “The first man probably built a ladder to his cave.”