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There's a lot to learn from a forgotten Michigan innovator

Nov 5, 2015

The Next Idea

As The Next Idea continues to explore innovation in Michigan, it’s clear that amidst the new technology and new breakthroughs, some concepts stand the test of time.

One such concept was summed up by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods."

That was the key to the success of Michigan inventor, businessman and innovator Webster Marble.

Credit Jim Sorbie / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

His company, Marble Arms, was the go-to outdoor recreational supply company in the 1920s and ‘30s. Marble knives and compasses traveled to the North Pole with Robert Peary, went hunting with Teddy Roosevelt and flew with Charles Lindbergh.

The Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing has opened an exhibition focusing on Webster Marble.

Dennis Pace is the guest curator of the exhibit, as well as a member of Capital Community Angel Investors.

Pace calls Marble “the greatest Michigan inventor and entrepreneur that nobody’s ever heard of.”

He tells us that Marble was 15 when his father brought the family to Michigan in 1869, where he was trained as a surveyor and timber cruiser.

“A timber cruiser goes out for timber companies, maps and assesses stands of lumber, works alone, tells the timber companies how many board feet of this species or that species they have, assesses potential profitability, and spends weeks and months living out of a backpack and living off the land, carting surveying equipment around in the wilderness. It’s a fascinating job,” Pace says.

Pace tells us that in all that time he spent alone in the wilderness, Marble was not only doing his job but also “noting with great exactness” all the problems he found with the gear he was using, and sketching out basic ideas for improvements.

"By the time the first Model T rolls off the line in Detroit, Webster Marble and his company are a household name and he is selling products to millions of outdoor enthusiasts around the world."

When Marble quit timber cruising, he settled with his family in Gladstone, Michigan, where he opened up a sawmill and “a little company to make gun sights, which is one of the things that he thought about a lot while he was in the woods,” Pace says.

Then, in 1893, the economy took a dive, and Marble was forced to close both his businesses and take up timber cruising all over again. Five years later, he put the trade down for good to open up another business.

This new company centered on an idea Marble had for a safety pocket folding ax, and before too long, business was booming.

“The company doubles, and it doubles, and it doubles in size again. And Webster is spinning out these ideas,” Pace says, explaining that Marble was 45 years old at this point, and had had a long time to think about this stuff.

“He ends up with ideas for hundreds of products. He holds over 60 patents. And by the time the first Model T rolls off the line in Detroit, Webster Marble and his company are a household name and he is selling products to millions of outdoor enthusiasts around the world.”

According to Pace, modern Michigan entrepreneurs can learn a lot from what Marble accomplished a little over a century ago.

Lesson one: Solve real problems

“I would rather hear about the problem you’re going to solve than your product. In fact, I have to hear about that problem first,” he says.

Pace tells us Marble intimately understood the problems related to living in the woods and camping and fishing and all that good stuff because he did it for 20 years.

Lesson two: Have a constant stream ideas

According to Pace, throughout the history of his company, Marble introduced hundreds and hundreds of products.

“Some of them succeeded wildly, others stayed in a catalog for a year or two or were discontinued. But he continued to innovate,” he says.

Lesson three: Be resilient in the face of failure

Marble started and had to close two companies, but thanks to his backup career in timber cruising he didn’t have to give up entirely, and as soon as the economy recovered he was able to come back in a big way.

Lesson four: Not all money is good money

Pace explains that often young entrepreneurs will get themselves in trouble when seeking funding.

“Either the strings attached can bind them a little too tightly, or the people providing the money can want a little too much control,” Pace says.

When Marble needed money to start Marble Arms, he turned to Frank Van Cleave, one of Gladstone’s founders and a bank president, “and a very enthusiastic outdoorsman.”

“So he had a partner who was interested, and that meant patient money,” he says.

Dennis Pace is the guest curator of the new exhibit “Inventing the Outdoors.” It opens this Saturday at the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing and will run until next September. 

- Ryan Grimes, Stateside

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