It is not easy for me to go back to the Rosenberg Fruit House. I have no pictures of it, no friends who worked inside to call upon, no yellowed newspaper articles, one only memento, and no souvenirs. There is nothing for me to use except my own memory and even then that might not be totally accurate. The last time I set foot in it was 1968, it burned down in 1970, and what's now left are only feathers in the wind. Though well gone, I think about it much, and even the memory of the place sometimes lulls me to sleep. It was profound; a large building with great activity and a larger piece my life. From boyhood to adulthood, in one way or another, the Fruit House was a part of me. Herein is both research and memory of a family business that contributed to who I am.
The building was constructed on Water Street in Flint at the very close of the late 1800's. The construction was wooden, and it had two stories and a basement. Located in an industrial zone, it was sandwiched in between and across the the street from some larger brick structures that housed the Durrant-Dort Motor Company that manufactured automobiles in the early 1920's. Most of the buildings on Water Street were built the same time as this one, and prior to vehicle production the structures were used to build carriages and buggies that were drawn by horses. I remember being told that the Rosenberg warehouse was actually used for the production of those carriages, and so the name of Durant relative to the building comes into being.
When the building was purchased by Ed Rosenberg, that date is unknown, but I recall his being a millionaire shortly after the Great Depression. I'll assume he bought it in the late '30s after dissolving a partnership at the Orleans Fruit House in the Detroit area, and striking out on his own in Flint at that same time.
My personal memory of the Fruit House begins in 1959. This was the year my family returned to Michigan after their business went defunct in Florida. I was then 10 years old. To a child of that age anything is immense, including my grandfather and the business he owned. I remember our return to Michigan very well. It was fall and the entire family was exhausted from several days of driving north on US 41. In early evening we arrived at Hotel Fenton and we joined my father's father in a private banquet room at the hotel. Edward was waiting along with my grandmother Rose. There were other family members, and even some of Ed's hired help. I know we had dinner and that we stayed at the hotel, because it was some of the very same employees who assisted us in moving into the summer cottage on Lake Fenton the very next morning.
That was some 60 years ago. If you would expect me to remember stepping foot in that warehouse during those past decades, I can't. I do not recall who I accompanied, but I'll assume it was with my mother. More than anything, the greatest and most acute memory I have of this reunion is not the sight of it, but rather the smell of it. Nothing on earth smells like a Fruit House and it is the earth itself that contributes to that smell. You have to sniff it to remember it, and once you've taken it in, that odor will never leave you.
Let me put it to you this way with a simple potato. They average about a half pound each in weight. Two hundred of them will fit in a standard size one hundred pound potato sack. At any given time, the main floor of the Rosenberg Fruit House would have those potatoes neatly arranged into rows that were about 10 sacks wide and 20 sacks deep. That's 200 sacks stacked upright in an area that is roughly the quarter of the size of an olympic swimming pool. Each potato is 80% water and although each is washed, it is still coated with a dusting of earth that is lightly sweating in a burlap bag filled to the brim with 200 of its potato cousins. Count the sacks, count the potatoes in them, and what drifts up from the floor is the smell of a sweet moist earth covering each potato that is multiplied 40,000 times.
That's just the potatoes. Now add in the smell of a hundred 50 pound sacks of sweet Spanish onions, include the aroma of tomatoes that are ripening in 15 pound flats stacked 10 boxes high in the adjoining aisle, compliment that by the smell of rows of peaches in 25 pound bushel baskets, throw in the rows of peanuts, season it with the bags of garlic, and then put all of it into the space of a swimming pool. This is the odor I dove into that can never be washed off. If there ever was was a gold medal for smell, any family that owned and operated a Fruit House would win it.
I played in that warehouse when I came into it at age eleven. I rode the conveyer belts up into the attic and played among the countless empty peach and tomato baskets. It was in the attic where Ed Rosenberg stored the summer dock from the cottage at Lake Fenton. It was in the attic where Ed placed personal items from his wife and his past. It was in the attic where I discovered this, and then later went back to it as a teenager and went through everything. It was there that I found a Victorian ottoman made of wood and cane rattan that I took and still have. It was there that I found a black suitcase of Rose Barnett Rosenberg's most personal letters and newspaper articles, and I read every one of them. It was there that I discovered a steamer chest used by Rose and Ed for train travel that I removed and refinished and gave away as wedding gift to a college friend. It was there where I admired the cigar band collection that my father kept as a little boy. Above the pulse of the warehouse below, I was amazed to paw through my grandparent's life and see photographs of Ed Rosenberg at a banana plantation in Cuba. I even tried to smoke the perfumed cigarettes from Havana that Rose brought back home. To me, the attic was my place to reach into a past that no one seemingly cared for. I reached, and I discovered. To this very day, I am still reaching.
Those who worked in this arena of fruits and vegetables on the main floor were sequestered either in the front or in the back. In the front was the office, and if you turned left after you passed the cage of transit billing and squeezed past the water cooler you were confronted with an open space of desks, telephones, chairs, and gigantic safe. If you continued on, you could make your way to another semi-private office with a similar desk setting to do business. If you turned right when you came in there was another semi-private office with that same setting. In both semi-private places there were doors that opened and closed into the biggest office of them all. It was there that Ed Rosenberg held fort. At either end, or by either choice, by the time you entered his sanctuary, you knew that you had arrived at a place of importance.
I was there countless times, as were many others. It was a place of finite business and finite relaxation. A coat rack was there, and a leather sofa, assorted chairs, and even an immense Victorian bar with swinging doors. Ed's desk was huge, and his large high-back swivel chair was so comfortable that when the the day of the Fruit House came to an end, grandson Lorry Goldman would take that chair away and use it to do business in his own office.
Everything took place in Edward Rosenberg's office, and I mean everything. Aside from the countless write-ups of perpetual orders, what went down was seen, heard, and then left in that office. It was in that office that the spoken words of my grandfather went his son, and then later to me: “What you see here, what you do here, you leave here.” I was taught it and I learned it. Potatoes don't talk nor do tomatoes. Believe me, nor did I.
There was even a basement in this setting, but it was so dark and so damp that no one had cause to enter it. Aside from the hooks where green bananas were hung to ripen, it was a space unneeded and unused. With railroad siding in the very back, to an open dirt-graded parking lot for all the trucks, this setting was complete to do the business of produce. Even a gigantic iron stove awaited you in the middle of the floor in the middle of winter for you to fire up, and if you were clever you would slip in several baking potatoes or an ear or two of corn to roast in the flip-holder on the stove's top. We did this numerous times while tastefully enjoying the by-product of shoveling in black coal to keep us warm.
The physical labor of the Fruit House was performed by the blue collar boys in the back end. Colorful and outspoken, once you entered the middle of the floor and then wound you way to the rear, you entered their world and not yours. At age eleven it amazed me. At age twelve I discovered all the coolers for storage. At age thirteen I was old enough to pick out whatever my mother told me to get. At age fourteen I climbed the railroad cars and I was on the top of the world. At age fifteen I discovered the girlie magazines and I was forever searching for more. And at age sixteen it all changed. My father delivered to me a used Chevrolet, and with my own car I drove to that warehouse every Saturday morning during high school and went to work. When summer came I was at it full time, and Monday through Saturday I worked through the back end and up into the front until my high school graduation. Believe me, I learned everything about the produce business and the men who supported it.
I also learned how to cook. I made countless deliveries to Flint's finest restaurants and I always paid attention to what was being prepared. Anticipating that the chef and the owner would be my future customers, my attention to their kitchens was acute. I sampled everything and I asked questions. Time after time I was on the learning curve of “what's cooking” and how to do it. To this very day my culinary skills are far above average, and that's simply due to five years worth of deliveries, five years worth of observation, and five years worth of questions.
When Ed Rosenberg dropped dead in his swivel chair sometime in the early '60s after arguing with the Sugar Man, the bank told my father to turn the key and shut the business down. He refused, and since the time of his father's death, Sherwin Rosenberg took charge of that warehouse and ran everything. A master of robbing Peter and paying Paul, he orchestrated and provided for everyone for almost ten years. Ten years! He ran that business and gave for everyone all the way until it could no longer hold up. With surrounding changes, incurring his father's debts, and changes in the industry, he went bankrupt. Things do change. They always will change. I still remember his last conversation with the leader of the Costa Nostra in the Toledo area who ran a legal trucking business as his front. Faced with a debt of $120,000 incurred by his father when he died, Sherwin had pared it down to $80,000 by the time the days of the Fruit House came to an end. “No one sticks me!” was the claim of the Mafia leader as I listened in on the phone, and my father replied, “I just did.” and hung up on him. It was then that I realized my father was a man of immense courage. I never forgot it, and I will never forget him.
I never had a chance to take the helm of a family business that provided for many through two generations of father and son. In those years of the building's existence came much achievement from a structure that was built in the late 1800's that burned to the ground in the late 1970s. As I figure it, that's almost 80 years from a structure that provided for everything from automobiles to avocados.
Dozen upon dozens of men labored and were able to raise families because of it. It provided for early transportation in Flint, and later fed the many hundreds in the Vehicle City simply because it was well managed and well run.
I played in it. I worked in it, and I still own a small piece of it. Most importantly, the aroma that lingers from it, and the wisdom I gained with it, is still a part of me. To my grandfather Edward Rosenberg, and to my father Sherwin Rosenberg, I thank you. With sincerity, I remain the very last of both of you.