Kingsford fuel: The burning history of charcoal briquettes
KINGSFORD – Many Michiganders may not know the familiar Kingsford brand of charcoal briquettes they use for summer barbecues had its roots in a company that started in the 1920s in Dickinson County — and had ties to Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford.
In 1880, 18-year-old E.G. Kingsford began his career as a timber cruiser for a land agent in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As time passed, he also dealt in logging, timber sales and real estate across the Upper Peninsula.
In 1890, he married Mary Frances “Minnie” Flaherty, who lived in Iron Mountain and was a first cousin to Henry Ford. That marriage set in motion the events that led Kingsford’s name to becoming a national brand.
Ford and Kingsford went on a number of hunting trips together in the Upper Peninsula over the years and developed a trusting relationship. They seemed to be cut from the same cloth as hardworking and industrious men. Henry Ford often sought Kingsford’s advice, which did not always sit well with Ford management in Dearborn, since they knew Kingsford had Ford’s ear whenever needed and did not have to go through normal channels to talk to him.
Carl Miller, a family friend of the Kingsfords and an acquaintance of Henry Ford, was interviewed for a Ford Motor Company oral history project during the 1950s. Miller revealed that one day while he was out fishing with Kingsford, the man pulled 20 $1,000 bills out of his pocket and told him the money was a bonus from Henry Ford.
In 1908, Kingsford secured the distributorship for Ford automobiles throughout the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin. It was through that relationship that Ford enlisted Kingsford, in 1919, to help him establish a massive plan to boost Model T production in Dearborn and Highland Park. Kingsford became Ford’s agent in the Upper Peninsula, was in charge of the Michigan Iron, Land and Lumber Company, and oversaw the Northern Michigan operations from about 1920 to the mid-1930s.
Naturally, Ford and Kingsford did not always agree. It is said locally that Ford would fire Kingsford one day and hire him back the next, exemplifying a bump in the road between the two every now and then.
Besides buying timber land and existing sawmills, Ford wanted to build the largest, most modern wood-processing facility in the world. Wood alcohol-based chemicals were a much-needed part of the Model T’s production. Kingsford swayed Ford into locating the facility on a piece of flat farmland south of Iron Mountain’s city limits in Dickinson County. The Michigan Iron, Land and Lumber Company oversaw construction, which included building a five-story carbonization and a distillation structure for wood chemical extraction. The company also monitored operations until it was absorbed by the Ford Motor Company in 1923.
Ford employed the Stafford-Badger process of the distillation of wood. The list of products used in the Model T’s production included tars, pitches, methyl alcohol for antifreeze, ethyl acetate for artificial leather and alcohol for paints.
Lump charcoal was the final byproduct of the distillation process after all the chemicals were removed from the wood. At its peak, the Iron Mountain Ford Motor Company Plant produced 100 tons of lump charcoal, but there was also limited resale market for it.
According to the U.S. Patent Office, the charcoal briquette as we know it first was patented in 1895 by a man named W.P. Taggart. Noted as a “Lump of Fuel,” it was not initially designed to be used on the grill. At that time, wood cook stoves were a common appliance in kitchens. Charcoal briquettes were marketed as a method to produce a safer, hotter and more evenly controlled temperature.
Taggart transferred ownership of his patent to Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania, who created his own design for a “Lump of Fuel” in 1897. Initially, Zwoyer made limited use of the invention. After World War I, the Zwoyer Fuel Company built charcoal briquette manufacturing plants in Buffalo, N.Y., and Fall River, Mass., but was unable to gain national distribution, since many small companies across the country already were producing briquettes for their local markets.
With the help of Henry Ford, a few decades later, charcoal briquettes finally caught on. Not wanting to waste anything from Model T production, Ford added charcoal briquetting equipment to his Iron Mountain operations and began mass producing, mass marketing and bagging charcoal briquettes under the Ford brand name. National distribution through his automobile dealerships turned out to be a successful way to push the product.
Ford’s charcoal briquettes were advertised as “Fuel of a Hundred Uses.” He also experimented and had some success with using charcoal as a heat source to smelt iron. Later, he marketed small charcoal grills at a cost of $1, $2 and $3. With Ford’s $5-a-day policy and 40-hour maximum work week for employees, the average person could afford to buy a car — a Ford, of course — and had more leisure time to take his family out for a picnic. It was during this time that charcoal grilling gained popularity.
Due to a large influx of employees at the Iron Mountain Ford Motor Company Plant, peaking at more than 7,000 by late 1925, a severe housing shortage occurred in Dickinson County. The unincorporated area surrounding the plant had been slowly subdivided, which led to the establishment of the village of Kingsford in 1923. It was named in honor of Edward G. Kingsford, who helped make it possible. Kingsford was a well-respected businessman who took great satisfaction in helping the village grow and prosper.
The village of Kingsford was chartered to become the city of Kingsford in 1947. Four years later, the Iron Mountain Ford Motor Company plant closed. A consortium of industrialists, local and otherwise, took over the former Ford facilities and formed the Kingsford Chemical Company.
The Kingsford Chemical Company began distilling wood and briquette charcoal under the Kingsford brand name. The company resumed the sale of charcoal grills and targeted the outdoor grilling market. It was also instrumental in developing charcoal starter fluid, a product of the wood distillation process. Ford grills were sold with excelsior wood shavings to start the charcoal.
The company closed the plant in 1961, citing rising labor costs as the reason, and moved operations to other existing facilities. The Clorox Company owns the Kingsford brand name today.
Edward G. and Minnie Kingsford and Henry and Clara Ford kept in touch with each other throughout their lives. Minnie Kingsford died May 8, 1943, after a lingering illness, and Edward died suddenly less than three months later on July 29, 1943. They died well before the Iron Mountain Ford Motor Company plant was closed and the Kingsford Chemical Company was formed.
Although E.G. Kingsford did not manufacture charcoal briquettes himself or own any part of the briquette business, he still became the man behind the name.
Guy Forstrom is on the board of governors of the Menominee Range Historical Foundation in Iron Mountain and is the author of the book “Camping in Cloverland with Henry Ford.” His family roots in Quinnesec go back to the turn of the century. This story was first published in Chronicle, a membership publication of the Historical Society of Michigan. Photos are courtesy of the Menominee Range Historical Foundation, unless otherwise noted.