In commemoration of Detroit's 300th birthday, the Detroit 300 Commission began a recognition program honoring businesses still operating in and around the city that are over 100 yearsold. Many of those businesses have a DAC connection. This is the first in a series of stories profiling some of Detroit's historical businesses.
By Jeff Kaplan
Detroit was a small city surrounded by an expanse of wilderness in 1827 when Edwin Jerome arrived from New York. Jerome came with his father and three brothers, who intended to go into the lumber business. Edwin opened a school at the corner where Larned and Randolph now meet and taught during the winter. The city had a population of 2,000.
To keep busy during the summer Edwin, with a penchant for math, a compass and a 100-link chain, started surveying land for sale in and around the Detroit area.
Since then Detroit has grown to cover 135 square miles of land, expanded to a population of over a million and become a titan among the world's industrial cities. And the company Edwin Jerome founded has been a part of it all.
George G. Jerome Sr., 62 and a DAC member since 1972, is the fifth generation Jerome to run the company.
Now known as George Jerome & Co., the firm boasts of having, "participated in almost every 'new' building that you can see on the Detroit skyline," including the City-County Building, Ford Auditorium, the Detroit Bank and Trust Building, the People Mover and the National Bank Building. The company also helped in the alignment of the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.
Edwin's work is a permanent fixture in the city. It was Edwin who first parceled land at "Gross Point" in 1835, mapping the area on the back of a shopping list. He also laid out Shelby, Cass, Wayne and Congress roads.
The Historical Society of Michigan recognizes the company as Michigan's oldest continuously operating business. It was established in 1828 on Woodward Ave. and has seen five Jerome men run it. A sixth generation, George Jerome Jr., is now working for the company.
Edwin began the company nine years before Michigan gained statehood. John Quincy Adams, who ran as a Democratic-Republican, was only the sixth president of the United States. It would be 11 years before Abner Doubleday would codify the rules of baseball and the first Confederate cannonball wouldn't penetrate the gates of Ft. Sumter until 1861.
The company has been handed from father to son as follows:
Edwin (1805-1880), son of Horace Jerome and Betsy Bell, founded George Jerome & Co. Edwin passed the company on to Franklin (1846-1906) and Franklin passed it to George (1870-1942). George turned the company over to Gilbert (1900-1971). Gilbert's son, George G. (1938-), took over in 1970. George G. had George G. Jr., who now works for the company.
It seems the Jerome's might be genetically disposed to surveying. George G. said the family tree can be traced to the country's forefathers. His great-great-great grandfather's wife Betsy was related to George Washington, himself a surveyor by trade.
Under George's ownership (third generation) the business incorporated and in 1928 moved to the First National Building. His father lived where the Statler Hotel stood. Before that it was located on Woodward Ave.
Gilbert (fourth generation) would take over the business and expand to employ 40 plus people, the largest the company would ever become. George Sr. would take over from his father in 1970. Although today the business is going strong, George Sr. had some difficult decisions to make in the late 1970s.
Staffing problems would leave him with only 12 employees and a slow economy would force him to move the company to Roseville in 1978 to take advantage of expansion in the suburbs.
None of the Jerome women wanted to join the comany, so it was up to the men in the family to keep the business going- and it wasn't easy.
Although Franklin Jerome had five children, only George would have kids. And of George's kids, only Gilbert would have children. George Sr. said he was never pressured to take over the company but his father involved him with the business at an early age, bringing him to the office to observe. At 14 George Sr. began working for his father's survey crews. Likewise, he said he never pressured his son, George Jr., to work for the company. "I think George is certainly smart enough to see an opportunity there that he wouldn't have had at anything else," said George Sr.
George Jr. received his degree in civil engineering from Wayne State University. George Jr. expressed his pride in the company's history.
"It means our family always had a stake in the city of Detroit and the surrounding areas and the development of that area and most of the companies in that area." Jerome Jr. said that because they're older than any other business in the city, they have done business with just about every major company in the city, including the city itself.
"It's certainly nice to have a company that's well established and has a long tradition," George Jr. said.
George Sr. said the company's longevity provides it name recognition and a certain security that other surveyors don't have.
Because their records go back farther than any other surveying company in the state, the Jeromes are often challenged to reassess property lines. One of the problems they encounter is that many of the old landmarks surveyors originally used to measure are gone. Even so, according to George Sr., measurements weren't very accurate. In the early days a few feet, give or take, didn't matter much to land owners. Today, for tax and zoning purposes and because the technology exists, measurements often have to be accurate to the hundredth of a foot. Today the business involves computer technology and electronic measuring equipment.
The Jeromes have also begun another tradition, although not as long or continuous. The family has been socially and politically active in Michigan since Edwin's generation. Edwin's youngest brother David became governor, while his brother George was a senator. Two other brothers became lumber barons in Saginaw.
George Sr.'s grandfather, George, was on the new DAC's baseball team in 1915. He also served as Detroit City engineer and was one of the founders and first president of the state's Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors in 1920s.
Today George Sr. serves on the DAC's Boxing Committee and is an active bowler. George Jr. joined the DAC in 1998.
George Jerome & Co. still does land and mortgage surveys but much of their business now is civil engineering. They design freeways and bridges, sewer systems and waterworks. They have done work for the State of Michigan and many of its municipalities and counties; the big three automakers and McLouth Steel; Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward and J.L. Hudson; the University of Michigan and University of Detroit.
Great Lakes Steel is Jerome's oldest client, sharing a 70-year relationship.
Asked what it meant to him to be the fifth generation to run the family business, George Sr. said, "I guess it wouldn't have meant much if there hadn't been a sixth generation Jerome."
George Jr. was asked if he would encourage his children to continue the tradition.
"I don't have kids," he said, laughing. "But if and when, yes."