Source: Sherman Publications

Second Front
Oxford's history is the pits

by CJ Carnacchio

April 28, 2010

There was a time when Oxford was proudly known far and wide as the “Gravel Capital of the World.”

Bud Zeitler wants to make sure the importance and history of the community’s gravel pits is never forgotten.

That’s why the 71-year-old Oxford resident is working diligently with the Polly Ann Trail Management Council (PATMC) to have a sign erected recognizing the significant role gravel mining played in the community’s development.

“It wouldn’t be Oxford without the gravel pits,” said Zeitler, who spent 18 years working for American Aggregates and 15 years working for Koenig Sand & Gravel. “I’m trying to save the history, basically, of Oxford.”

“I thought it was an excellent idea,” said Sue Bellairs, an Oxford Township trustee who serves on the trail council. “I’m glad that he proposed it.”

Before retiring in 2000, Zeitler spent his days operating heavy equipment for the gravel companies. He primarily worked a bulldozer, both clearing land to get at the gravel and reclaiming it when the mining was done.

“The gravel wasn’t just laying right on top,” he joked.

Zeitler, a 1957 Oxford High School graduate, would like to see a state historical marker recognizing all the gravel pits. His preferred location for it is on the Polly Ann Trail at the intersection of N. Glaspie and Powell streets.

“That’s where the old Fuller-Becker pit was,” Zeitler said.

According to the Oxford Leader’s 1976 Centennial Edition, the Fuller-Becker company operated a gravel mining operation here in 1921. Their plant was located just north of the Grand Trunk railroad tracks (which is today the Polly Ann Trail) on N. Oxford Rd.

Right now, the PATMC is considering whether to apply for a state historical marker or erect its own sign recognizing the importance of gravel mining. The item will be discussed, and possibly acted on, at the trail council’s May 19.

“We didn’t vote on it, so it’s not official, but if the state would put a sign up there (where Zeitler suggested), the pulse that I got is that (the trail council) would go that way,” Bellairs said. “I don’t think we would think twice if we knew that we could get it right there and it could be a state sign.”

“Obviously, we can’t go right into the middle of a gravel pit and say let’s plop this down here. So, it’s got to be somewhere where people are going to see it,” she noted.

Zeitler would prefer a state historical marker because he views that as more permanent than a trail sign, which could “come and go on a whim.”

“(A state historical marker) would be there forever,” he explained. “I’m afraid a Polly Ann Trail sign would be temporary at best.”

Bellairs noted obtaining a state historical marker could be very difficult because there are definite rules governing which sites qualify and where markers are placed.

“I think it has to be at the exact location,” she said. “The guidelines are very strict.”

Zeitler, who’s lived here since 1950, believes some sort of a sign is necessary to preserve Oxford’s historical connection to the gravel pits, many of which are now residential developments such as Oxford Lakes in the village and Waterstone and Mickelson Peninsula Estates in the township.

Many people aren’t aware they’re living on top of a former gravel pit.

“I want to save some history about Oxford before it disappears,” he said. “You can see how fast it’s disappearing.”

The pioneer of gravel mining in Oxford was William (W.O.) Smith, who came here in 1910. He bought stone from local farmers, crushed it, then sold it.

Smith, with financial help from F.W. Hubbard, bought 87 acres of farmland for the purpose of gravel mining. They incorporated as the Detroit & Oxford Gravel & Stone Co.

The first mining operation opened in 1912. After that, gravel mining took off in Oxford throughout the 20th century.

“When I moved here 40-plus years ago, it was the gravel capital and they had the big gravel festival,” Bellairs said.

Today, gravel mining operations are continued by American Aggregates, owned by the Edward C. Levy Co. Koenig Sand & Gravel has limited operations and there’s no work being done in the Sandman pits.

“They’re still graveling, but I don’t think people know that the whole community was basically built on that,” Bellairs said.

There’s no way to calculate exactly how much gravel has been mined in Oxford over the last 98 years, but Zeitler said there’s an old saying from his school days – “The Soo Locks hauled more tonnage than any locks in the world and M-24 hauled more tonnage than the Soo Locks.”

Back when the high school was located where Fire Station #1 is at the northeast corner of N. Washington and Church streets, Zeitler said he would look out the window at the gravel pits and dream about working there “instead of doing my studying.”

“That’s all I ever wanted to do,” he said.

His father spent 25 years as a crane operator for American Aggregates.

Bellairs noted the trail council is considering recognizing other places of historical interest in Oxford, Addison and Orion, be it through trail-funded signs or some other type of joint venture with other entities. Input is currently being gathered from the three townships and three villages that fund the trail.