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Mr. Lowell” or “Runci" C.H. Runciman

Mr. Lowell” or “Runci" C.H. Runciman

Popularly known as “Mr. Lowell” or “Runci,” C.H. Runciman spent 51 years in Lowell using innovative methods to build various businesses into tremendous successes, meanwhile serving and entertaining the community in countless capacities.

“He was a jolly person, it was almost like being with Santa Claus,” said Joseph Mapes, Runciman's grandson. “His laugh! He had such a high pitched belly laugh, often tears would come down his face because he'd be laughing so hard. I would call him a jolly, jolly man.”

Carlton H. Runciman was born and grew up on a farm near Chelsea, MI, on Aug. 14, 1889. He graduated from Chelsea High School in 1908 and attended the Ferris Institute until 1909 when his father died. Then he sold his horse for $105 and by 1911 he'd earned his degree from Michigan State Normal College in Ypsilanti. A large, athletic man, he played left end and was captain of the college football team. He also pole vaulted and ran the 100-yard dash, at one point he set a Southern Michigan Conference record.

Before he found his career in business, education was Runciman's early passion. He was superintendent of schools in Millington, MI for two years, taught in Saginaw, MI for one year and was superintendent of schools in Gross Isle, MI for three and a half years. He married Gladys Needham of Saginaw in 1913, the couple eventually had two children, Jane (Mapes' mother) and Carl Jr.

Runciman arrived in Lowell in 1917 at age 29 and, with a loan of several thousand dollars from his brother, purchased the Jakeway Elevator Co. in the middle of downtown. It was renamed the C.H. Runciman Elevator Co. and became Runciman's first successful operation. He eventually opened or obtained a Ford dealership, several grain companies, a coal company and many other businesses, but his greatest success came with beans. In his early days, Runciman drove around the Lowell area countryside from farm to farm in his pickup truck buying Navy, kidney, cranberry and yellow beans. His business acumen throughout the 1920s and 1930s was remarkable. He became known as an honest dealer and an entertaining character who was always willing to extend credit to those in need.

Introduced in the 1930s, Runciman's electric bean sorting eye was the first of its kind in the world and permanently changed the bean industry. Runciman also owned the Electric Sorting Machine Company in Grand Rapids that manufactured the machines for use by bean companies all over the country.

According to a magazine article from the 1950s, “[at the Runciman bean plant] there are scores and scores of them whirring away, each one handling more than 80 beans a second, holding each one on a pneumatic finger up to an electric eye. If it isn't pure white, a little metal kicker knocks it into a chute that falls to a common farm pail on the floor for later use as cattle feed. [...] The machine revolutionized bean handling and emphasized Lowell's position as a major bean center.”

“Growing up, we lived in Grand Rapids, so I loved coming into Lowell to visit,” Mapes said. “My dad took me into the office to visit. I would snoop around and go through the buildings where they sorted the beans. I remember where they had the electric eye bean sorters. It was fascinating to go look at them. That was the first one in the world, so that was quite something.”

Meanwhile, Runicman was a member of the Lowell village council, Board of Education, Board of Trade and Lowell Rotary and president of the Lowell State Bank. He served in many prominent positions outside of Lowell such as president of radio station WGRD, president of the Michigan Bean Jobbers Association, president of the National Bean Dealers Association, superintendent of the Michigan Education Association and he was a member of the Michigan Welfare Relief Commission. He was also a friend and mentor to the future 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford.

“I remember my grandmother saying that my grandfather encouraged him along in politics,” Mapes said. “My grandfather wasn't going to get into politics, but he was helpful to Jerry Ford and encouraged him along. He mentored him, you might say. Ford said in a letter to my grandmother [dated Nov. 29, 1968], 'I had no better friend than C.H., despite the difference in our ages.'”

For 22 years and 114 performances, Runciman acted as the “interlocutor,” the master of ceremonies, for performances on the Lowell Showboat, starting with the first one in 1932. Runciman had a tradition of entertaining the headliners at his home before the Showboat took off down the Flat River.

“As a kid I would go to the Lowell Showboat every year, it was really fun,” Mapes said. “On opening night they'd always have a pre-party in my grandparents' yard on Riverside Dr. Jerry Ford, as a congressman, was there for the opening night of the Showboat every year. Year after year they hosted so many people who were well known at the time, people like Dinah Shore. The Showboat loaded up right across the street, there were some concrete steps leading down to the river. They're still just barely visible. That's where they'd load up all the people who were performing, including the headliners. They would go inside my grandparents' house and sit in the den and wait there to load up. It was a wonderful time.”

It wasn't all so wonderful, though. Runciman was president of the Runciman company, his son Carl Runciman Jr. and his son-in-law Carl Mapes (Joe's father) were the vice presidents. Carl Jr. was an alcoholic and was therefore unable to run the company. Carl Mapes was alienated by this, quit the company and moved to Florida. He committed suicide in 1962. His daughter Gail did the same in 1965.

“Carl Jr. and my dad never got along,” Mapes said. “They were both vice presidents of the company, then my dad left the company and we moved down south. My uncle Carl was an alcoholic and that's why my dad left. My grandfather didn't want to boot him out of the company, that was his son, but he knew he wasn't able to run the Runciman Company, so he sold it to an outside firm. But he was still Chairman of the Board, he'd still go into that office every day. Then that company started having problems, its value was plummeting, so that company sold out to a second company, J.P. Burroughs.”

Runciman also began having health problems toward the end of his life, exacerbated by a knee injury sustained in a car accident.

“He had trouble walking, so he was walking with a cane,” Mapes said. “He hurt his arm or hand by slamming it in a car door. The infection went down to his knee eventually, and it always bothered him after that. He had surgery, but every time I went to visit that last year of his life, he would be lying either in bed or on this lounge chair that I still have, and he'd just be grimacing in pain with that knee. It bothered him a lot.”

The sale to J.P. Burroughs turned out to be the last straw for Runciman when he was informed that he would no longer be allowed access to the 115 S. Broadway office that had been his headquarters for the past 51 years.

“Harold Englehardt was a good friend of the family and just a fine gentleman,” Mapes said. “After my grandfather died I would go visit him sometimes. He was there when the second sale was closed on Nov. 12, 1968, and he told me that my grandfather was told by new owners that he would have to vacate his office. So, they had the closing of this second sale at the State Savings Bank [414 E. Main, now the site of Huntington Bank]. From there, he walked down to his office, sat in his chair, took out a .38 revolver and shot himself in the chest. It was apparently a rainy, snowy day. My grandfather had some galoshes that he took off and put in the closet when he went into Harold's office [at the bank]. He was telling me about this 20, 25 years later, and they were still there in the closet. He walked me over to his office closet and opened the door, and there were those same galoshes.

According to the article in the Nov. 14, 1968 Lowell Ledger, “Lowell police report that the incident occurred at about 12:15 pm in Mr. Runciman's office at the plant, located on South Broadway. They were called to the scene after three employees reported hearing the shot that terminated the life of the man affectionately known as 'Mr. Lowell.' The employees - Harold Kelly, Doris Draper and Jacqueline Raison - told chief Avery Block they rushed to the office and found Mr. Runciman mortally wounded. They called Dr. Donald Gerard at once, then notified police. Chief Block immediately requested assistance from the Kent County Sheriff's Department. Detective Robert Tanner answered the request as did Kent County Medical Examiner Dr. Ramon Lang, who pronounced Mr. Runciman dead on the scene of self-inflicted chest wounds. Several friends disclosed that Mr. Runciman was despondent over continued poor health and sale of the C.H. Runciman Co. just hours before by J.P. Burroughs, Inc. of Saginaw, which purchased the concern in 1963 for a figure estimated in excess of $1,000,000. The latest purchase had been negotiated by King Milling Company of Lowell, whose property abuts the Runciman plant. A milling company spokesman said that Burroughs had offered to sell the Runciman storage facilities and that the transaction had been completed late Monday. King Milling had announced plans last month to construct a new silo. Burroughs on Tuesday released nine-month figures indicating that its total operations through September 30 showed a profit of just [$.03] per share on profits of $48,000 from gross sales of $21,125,000. Over the same period in 1967, the company returned [$.31] per share sales of $20,825,000 and profits of $446,000. At the time of his death, Mr. Runciman was a director of J.P. Burroughs and maintained his office here. He reportedly was not active in actual administration of the plant here. Several hours before his death, Mr. Runciman had attended a meeting of the board of directors of State Savings Bank, of which he served as chairman. Fellow directors indicated he was in good spirits throughout the meeting.”

“I think he just felt lost,” Mapes said. “Health issues were also a major concern. I think it was losing his place in Lowell where he sat for 51 years doing everything he did, mostly out of that office. It was not a very big office. It's still there, you can see it right off of Main St. It's King Milling now. Personally, I think the final blow was the closing of the sale and being told to vacate his office. He felt lost and in pain and that was it.”

Upon hearing of Runciman's death, Congressman Ford issued this statement to the Ledger: “The death of Mr. Runciman came as a blow to me, as I am sure it did to the entire community. He was a close personal friend of mine. I even presumed to call him 'Runci.' He was a fine person, a truly good human being. The people of Lowell are poorer for having lost him and so am I. Mr. Runciman lived a full and a good life. He knew what it meant to give of himself, and this must have brought him happiness, for a person is happy only in giving. His was a generous spirit or he would not have spent nearly four decades in service on the Lowell Lowell Board of Education or would not have performed so gladly as founder, captain and interlocuter of the Lowell Showboat I was privileged to attend. Whatever he was of leaving this way of life, let us remember that Mr. Runciman gave his life to Lowell during the living of it.”



C.H. Runciman in his role as interlocutor on the Lowell Showboat.

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