Getting to know Albert Kahn’s sister–the grandmother I never knew

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Touring the new Hudson Yards development in New York City with my sister Anne Fuchs Smith Towbes

My sister had the fine idea to organize a Kahn family cocktail party on our recent trip to New York. Anne and I are grandnieces of legendary architect Albert Kahn (1869-1942). Our grandmother Mollie (my middle name) was Albert’s sister.

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Architect Albert Kahn in his prime.

Over drinks, Cousin Al Butzel, a NY attorney, mentioned having a 7-page family history written by our grandmother. He said, “I imagine you’ve read it.”

“No!” I practically shouted. “I’d LOVE to see it!”

And so he sent us an email of a hand typed document, “Memories of My Life,” by Mollie Kahn Fuchs, who died before we were born. It’s dated Dec. 19, 1937, 2 days after Mollie turned 60. She died 3 years later. The quotes that follow are all Mollie’s.

Until seeing Mollie’s Memories, I knew nothing about her. I thought she started Multi Color Company, the blueprint business our father ran. Now I know its origins were more of a family affair.

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Mollie as a young woman.

I also learned my grandmother was a woman of candor, spunk and loyalty. My kind of gal.

Mollie’s father, Joseph, a rabbi and teacher, left Germany for America in 1880. In Germany, Mollie writes, “We were not any too flourishing financially.” (Considering what befell Germany, our ancestors’ poverty was a blessing.) The family arrived 6 months later. Albert, the oldest child, was 12. Mollie writes, “We greatly depended on Albert as he was the only one that could speak a little English.”

The Kahns settled in Detroit. Joseph started a restaurant on Woodbridge St. near the Michigan Central Depot. The family lived overhead. “My poor mother!” Mollie recalls, noting Rosalie did all the cooking for her 10 member family plus their diners. Albert stood outside the terminal beckoning passengers to visit his parents’ restaurant.

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Mollie in middle age.

Next, Joseph opened a saloon. Like the restaurant, it “did not prove a wonderful success.” Joseph kept trying. He taught French and German, then traveled for positions in a series of congregations. In between, he attempted selling sewing machines and spectacles.

Several of Joseph’s descendants have had more stellar careers. Son Albert was one of the top architects of the 20th c. He designed hundreds of factories for US car companies and tractor plants in Russia. Granddaughter Ernestine Ruben is a renowned photographer whose series on Albert’s Willow Run plant will debut in Ann Arbor next year. (Willow Run, near Ann Arbor, produced almost half the B-24 bombers that turned the tide in WWII; I wrote an earlier column about her very creative work at the site.) Grandnephew, Boston architect Howard Elkus, is currently designing interiors for Hudson Yards, a huge redevelopment project on NY’s west side. (In NYC, Anne and I toured the retail construction site.)

Back to Mollie. In 1901, during the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, Albert decided to create a device to reproduce architectural plans in color. Mollie, Albert and their father worked “until ten or eleven o’clock every night” on an invention called a Multograph. Joseph then started Multi-Color in the rear of his son Gus’s plumbing business. Mollie, in her teens, worked for her father and kept Gus’s books as well.

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FAMILY GATHERING, top row from left: Al Fuchs (my father), Miriam Fuchs, Walter Fuchs. Bottom row: Lisa Biegler, Mollie Kahn Fuchs and Mickey Biegler.

Mollie writes, “One day I said to Father, ’I think I could take care of this place if you would only give me the chance.’ At first he was somewhat skeptical, but in the end we tried it.” The architects she worked with became friends. She did well enough to move to larger space in a building her brother designed.

Mollie sent $35 a week to her parents and $6 a week to help with her brother Louis’ tuition. “I felt very proud to know I was really doing something toward helping the family. I was the happiest person and just loved my work.”

Brother Julius had also been working on an invention. “One day he came to me and said, ‘Mollie, if I get this patent, we’ll all be on Easy Street.’” He created a fireproof concrete bar to be used in construction. In the basement of their house on Detroit’s Frederick St., Julius mixed cement, then embedded the bar in it. “I remember well because I helped with putting in the cement. …Julius came home one day and said, ‘Mollie, I got it, I got it,’” (the patent). Julius started a firm later called the Truscon Concrete Steel Company. It grew to “international proportions” with plants in major US cities and abroad.

Mollie’s business flourished as well. She writes of a newspaper article done on Multi-Color Company, “describing the little black-eyed girl running it. You can imagine my thrill.”

At 18, Mollie expanded to larger quarters in the Penobscot Building— “at that time Detroit’s finest office building. This was my big moment, but I must confess I was a bit worried… My rent was much higher, and with ten boys now working for me, I felt we must do more business, in order to make expenses.”

Returning to Detroit from his latest pulpit, Mollie’s father rejoined her at Multi-Color. She writes, “Those 3 years were very hard for me. I felt that I understood the business pretty well and of course Father did not, so that when I had to take orders from Father, matters did not work out so well and the business did not function as smoothly as before.”

Mollie met Walter Fuchs, her “dear Sweetheart.” (Personal aside: To take a name like that, he must have been very dear. Anne and I begged our father to change our last name to Fox, its English translation. No luck.) Walter left the Burroughs Adding Machine Co. to help Mollie run Multi-Color. They eventually bought out her father. Mollie worked ‘til 3 months before her oldest daughter, my Aunt Libby, was born.

Mollie’s remembrances include a sweet mention of a funeral service she and her sister held for their only doll, her contracting of diphtheria, her leaving school after 8th grade to help with the household, a fire in which her baby brother was burned, many residential moves, a nickel savings stamp book savings account she set up with brother Julius, an offer to buy Multi-Color (she refused), various travels, and more.

What a lady! What a treasure!

Recommendation to Godsigns readers: Now, while you’re inspired, switch out of email or Facebook. Go to the Word function of your laptop. Begin writing your own story. Your descendants won’t care if you can’t spell or if you’ve done something of which you’re ashamed. They’ll just be grateful to know you.

Thanks again, Al, for one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. A glimpse into my history. Insight into a woman whose genes influence me and my family and my sister and hers. And, God willing, many more.

And God bless America.

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16 thoughts on “Getting to know Albert Kahn’s sister–the grandmother I never knew

  1. Bill Haney

    Suzy,
    Once again you and I are on the same wave length. The soul and spirit that you unlocked from “Mollie’s Memories” is so akin to what occupied me this past year in shaping the memoirs of ten intriguing souls in my forthcoming book. (I’ll send you a digital set of page proofs separately, as the book doesn’t launch until the October 19 event, when you’ll be out of town.) Synchronicity, and then some. Not the first time I have been moved or inspired by one of your God Signs.
    Love,
    Bill Haney

  2. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Gabriel Halstead on 9.20.16
    What an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  3. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from David Crouse on 9.19.16
    Love that story! Just loved it. It’s what built this country and continues to sustain it. Can you imagine? Immigrating? Wow.

  4. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Ginger Curtis on 9.18.16
    OMG Suzy! I just read your wonderful blog post and love it. What a treasure for your family to have that memoir from your grandmother. Memoir writing is in your genes! Such a “turning point” for you and your whole family to have this newfound family knowledge.

  5. Stan Schear

    Thanks for your history of your family,

    What a tradition and legacy they left for U and your family.

    Know that your boys will continue the legacy for generations to come.

    Stay well, and enjoy all that you were left.

    LOVE To all,

    Jackie & Stan

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