The Brugman Brothers: Models of Success

In 1902, Manistee Michigan received its first ever car, built by my great, great uncles, Otto and Henry Brugman (10). When the family first came over to the United States from Germany in 1873, they were relatively poor, living in poor conditions much like the majority of immigrants in that time (10). Their parents, Henry Sr and Caroline, were married in 1864 in Germany. They had their first four kids there, including their oldest child Otto. They came to the United States seeking a better life, adding to the growing immigrant population in the United States (10).

Around the same time, American industry was expanding dramatically. U.S. cities grew by 15 million people between 1880 and 1900, mostly due to immigrant families like my uncles’, and American citizens moving to the big cities to be part of the growing economy, causing 40% of towns in America to decrease in population between 1880 and 1890 (16). Unfortunately, many American immigrants didn’t receive the prosperous life that they had hoped for. They crowded together in similar areas, causing some places to have up to 700 people within a single square mile. These close living conditions caused disease, a lack of clean water, and overall rough living conditions. Many families slept on piles of rags, housing around seven or eight people in a single room (18).

Michigan, in particular, was one state with a huge increase in immigrant population and industrial innovation, which is why the Brugmans moved there. They lived in one of the German parts of Michigan, making their hometown, Manistee, and the surrounding counties very diverse. Michigan was the epicenter of the car industry in America, which led to Detroit being the leading car manufacturing city in America. They also felt that Michigan was the best place to start their new lives, with the smallest risk of falling into a poor financial situation.

All of this growth in the car industry is what led to Otto and Henry being prosperous by immigrant standards. They opened a bike shop in the 1890s, which not only gave them money, but satisfied their tinkering habits. They started building the car in 1899 as a side job and hobby (10), four years before Ford Motor Company was even established by Henry Ford (14). When they finished the car in 1902, they named it the “Manistee”. It was a simple car, powered by a two opposing-cylinder steam engine, located under the seat, and was started with a crank on the side of the vehicle. Opposing cylinders were more common in steam engines, and made the engine slightly less powerful, reaching a top speed of only 25 miles per hour (5 & 7 & 10). The car was intended to serve as a taxi service for people in their community.

A steam engine is an external combustion engine (ECE: the fuel is combusted away from the engine), as opposed to an internal combustion engine (ICE: the fuel is combusted within the engine). While gasoline-powered ICE cars have an operational thermal efficiency of 15% to 30%, early automotive steam units were capable of only about half this efficiency. A significant benefit of the ECE is that the fuel burner can be configured for very low emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and unburned carbon in the exhaust, thus avoiding pollution (19).

The Brugman brothers success slightly preceded the industrial car growth in Michigan, but their little operation was nowhere near on the same scale as the big car corporations. Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company in 1903, and he made gas-powered cars cheaper and more accessible for America’s general public, which drove little car companies out of business (14).  

The Brugman’s bros, undeterred, opened up an auto body garage where they fixed cars for the general public. They stayed up to date with the technology of the changing car industry, fixing the many cars of the still-growing Michigan population. The need to keep cars up and running provided ample business for Otto and Henry, who became quite stable financially as a result, something not very common among immigrants. Typically, automobiles ranged in price from $490.00 to $2000.00 fully loaded. A $500 car compared to a worker’s pay in 1912 would be like paying $47,000 today. (19) They also rented out cars from their shop, and hired workers to help manage their growing demand (10). They were able to update their storefront, drawing in even more customers, and made themselves respectable and well-known men in their county (10 & 11).

The brothers went on to succeed in life, as they opened up the Manistee Tire Co. They owned and operated the business up until the 1930s, and it’s still running today.

Otto and Henry went on to live prosperous lives, having achieved their version of the American Dream. Otto married and sent his two daughters to college, while Henry continued to live his single life, focusing on the business and reaping the benefits. He spent his later years at a cottage he bought on a lake, a sign of wealth in those times (10). The Brugman Bros and their family are a model of what American immigrants hoped for in coming to America, and show how revolutionary the growth of the American industry really was.