At 14 years of age, I would sit in an office and bind marketing books together for our sales department, writes Walter Pair of Midwest International. This was my gig every day after school. It wasn’t really an office, more of a storage room. It had no windows or ventilation for that matter. The lighting was an overhead fluorescent tube that would flicker on and off no matter how many times it was adjusted. There was a table with a binder, and a series of shelves to store photos, documents, and literature. There was a generator in the office, which supplied power to all the electrical outlets in the building in case of a power outage. The advertising manager in the office adjacent to me would make me close my door, enclosing me in this dreadful room because the sound of the generator was too irritating for him to listen to. It was a loud whining hum, like the sound of a weed whipper left on idle. A more logical minded person might have put on a set of earphones. But I just sat there and listened to it, grinding out sales brochures day after day.

I didn’t really know a whole lot about loading spouts back then, but the job would become my formal introduction. I guess it felt natural. After all, the loading spout industry was in my blood, and our family’s legacy had been defined by it. Midwest was our family’s patriarch. It was a rollercoaster, lifting us up when times were good and striking us down when times were bad. I remember driving up to Charlevoix for the first time with my mother, father and two sisters. It was sometime before my fourth birthday. Memories at that age are few and faint, but I recall being shoved into the back of our little white Dodge convertible, crammed between my sisters with my legs pressed against the red vinyl seat. We were moving to a small condominium at the Weathervane Terrace in Charlevoix. 

My father had just put our home up for sale in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. His company, Midwest International, which he founded in Detroit and moved to Charlevoix some years later, was going through a bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was a result of a whole host of problems; most recent was an embezzlement of the employee pension fund, which involved our company’s vice president and business attorney at the time. The embezzlement landed the attorney into a state mental hospital before he was sentenced to three years in a federal prison. The vice president (and former IRS auditor) would emerge unscathed, but would later be convicted (alongside a former ace pitcher for the Detroit Tigers) of a two million dollar embezzlement from a meat packing company near Flint, Michigan. He was ultimately convicted to seven years in prison.

Interestingly, the bankruptcy that ensued would trigger a battle between the bankruptcy court, district court and court of appeals, regarding a tax loophole that emerged during the bankruptcy proceedings. The loophole would protect the bankrupted party against having to pay various taxes, fees and interest to the government. The case, which would have changed the bankruptcy law and tax code, was upheld in the Court of Appeals in favour of Ron Pair Enterprises (Midwest International). But the US Supreme Court filed suit against Ron Pair Enterprises, where the case was argued in Washington DC in front of the likes of William 

Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Conner. In the end, the Supreme Court would rule against Ron in a 5/4 decision, and the bankruptcy would enter chapter 11.

At a moment of time when things were at their worst, a few employees jumped ship to compete across town. The expectation by many was that Midwest was finished. It was an expectation that would prove wrong. Ron would pick Midwest up from out of the mud and forge ahead.

As environmental laws became more stringent, the market for dust-free loading equipment grew. The cross-town competitors that defected from Midwest would eventually spin-off their own set of detractors and competitors; a pattern that would repeat itself a few more times until the present day. Although some of those loading spout companies are no longer in business, today there remain several in Charlevoix County. Some have even dubbed the county ‘The Loading Spout Mecca’, though I would describe it better as a soap opera. One that we turned off a long time ago.

But what one can’t turn off is the history of our industry and what ultimately brought us to Charlevoix.

Last December Midwest received a call from St. Marys Cement in Charlevoix. It was to replace the six loading spouts at their boat loading birth. It was a unique opportunity to bid a project in our hometown, but this project was particularly special because it involved replacing spouts my father manufactured 42 years prior. Midwest would ultimately be awarded the project, part of a major renovation St. Marys Cement had under way in upgrading its production, distribution and storage capabilities.
But it meant more than that. It represented a generational gap in our industry. I took over Midwest from my father in 2010. A year later, he died. A big chunk of Midwest died with him.
Having ridden the rollercoaster all those years, it was important for me to understand his legacy. The Charlevoix project represented that opportunity.

Over 40 years ago, Medusa Cement Company (now St. Marys Cement), alongside a host of equipment manufacturers, contractors, and consultants began orchestrating a network of high-speed cement terminals to meet the demand of an expanding cement market and compete with Huron Cement (now LafargeHolcim) which had dominated the Great Lakes region since 1908. This network would centre around a brand new cement plant in Charlevoix, Michigan and implement new high-speed loading/unloading technology. By the early 1970s, this vision became reality. In addition to the new plant in Charlevoix, Medusa constructed new silos in Milwaukee, Detroit, Manitowoc, and Cleveland. To make the network viable, Medusa converted an old but reliable steamship into a self-unloading cement carrier. The Medusa Challenger was born. Unlike Huron Cement’s

J.B. Ford carrier, the Challenger implemented a sophisticated high- speed unloading system highlighted by a first-of-its-kind vertical belt elevator developed by Webster Manufacturing. To complete the network, Medusa implemented new loading equipment at the Charlevoix plant. Fuller Bulk Handling (FL Smidth) installed shuttling airslide conveyors that could extend out over the Medusa Challenger. Attached to the end of the conveyors were newly designed bulk loading spouts by Ron Pair Enterprises (Midwest International) which allowed the high-speed loading of cement to be performed dust free. With the technologies in place, the new cement plant could offload its product onto the Challenger in just a matter of hours. The Challenger could then quickly unload at various terminals on the Great Lakes and swiftly return back to Charlevoix to receive another load. In 1972, cement distribution and transportation on the Great Lakes would be taken to unprecedented levels. Forty-two years later, the same spouts, same shuttling conveyors and same Medusa Challenger, were still chugging away.

That original project represented the old-school way of business, where companies were smaller, and built products 

because they believed in them. Companies would shake hands, roll up their sleeves and make the impossible possible. And if a company made a mistake, they would own up to it, and get it fixed. It seems a far cry from today’s business environment, littered with 300-page contracts stipulated by liability rather than substance, where finger pointing becomes the first reaction when anything goes wrong.

The new St. Marys Cement renovation in Charlevoix would make a connection to this earlier time, an older and arguably better generation. It would also signify the beginning of the bulk loading spout industry in Charlevoix, which stemmed from a relationship Midwest shared with Medusa in Detroit, Michigan.

In fact it started in the late 1960s on a cocktail napkin at Sinbad’s Bar and Grill on the Detroit River. On that cocktail napkin, Ron and Hayes Jensen, an engineer from Medusa Cement designed what would later become the MC22 bulk loading spout, a much needed answer to the problematic
dust emitted during the loading process; a problem that was worsening as silo withdrawal technologies were yielding higher loading
capacities. The loading spout provided a standard approach to dust-free loading and would make all other loadout apparatuses at the time obsolete.
As Ron Pair Enterprises began manufacturing these dust free loading spouts for Medusa, Peerless, and Huron Cement in the Detroit area during the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was that grand project surrounding the Medusa Charlevoix plant that would help bring the bulk loading industry to Northern Michigan.

Today, as the renovation at St. Marys Cement takes effect, and the new Midwest spouts begin their next 40-year voyage, it’s hard not to appreciate the efforts of a past generation and their contributions to our industry. It’s been a long time since my first days at Midwest, sitting in that dark little room, plugging away at books. But for a company that has been through the thick of it, and the family as well, we are ready, willing, and prepared for anything that comes our way.