By Ed Jacques, LEJ Editor
Weyhing Brothers Manufacturing Company in Detroit, Michigan is part museum, historical society, manufacturing plant, and an artist’s studio all wrapped into one. The company has a 100-year history of producing jewelry, awards, medals, tokens, pins, class rings, and above all, custom-made badges.
Over a century ago the Weyhing family brought generations of experience hand tooling fine jewelry and precious metals from Germany to Detroit. They erected their own stand-alone building and over the next five decades built their business and part of Detroit’s history by producing products for some of the world’s biggest companies and most renowned individuals.
In 1917, Henry Ford toyed with the idea of minting his own money. His plan was not to replace the legal tender but to create an issue intended to commingle with change then in circulation. Henry Ford’s profile was substituted for Abraham Lincoln with the motto reading “help the other fellow”, a favorite saying of Ford. Henry ordered one million substitute pennies and trial pieces were made before World War I and the U.S. Government forced Ford to abandon his idea. The Dodge Brothers, Ronald Reagan, and heavyweight champ Joe Louis were also customers, with Louis ordering one hundred ten carat gold boxing glove charms. At one time, nearly every car made in Detroit, including the Packard, Studebaker, and Edsel displayed customized pieces manufactured at the plant. The company made so many silver dollar money clips for the Pontiac Motor Company that it depleted all local banks’ supply. Seventy-five thousand rings honoring Detroit area veterans returning home from World War II were made with pride at the plant. During this time, Weyhing Brothers were also building the reputation as the Midwest’s and probably the country’s finest maker of police and fire badges.
In its heyday, the company employed over 30 full-time employees who worked at individual stations performing specialized functions. The company was bought in 1983 by Joe Garofalo and with so much history behind it, Garofalo had no intentions of changing its name. Today it is a 100% family-run business with his wife Shirley, daughter Rose, son Dean and Joe’s nephew Terry being the only employees. Walking into the building is like taking a trip to Greenfield Village with almost all of its original equipment still operational. Joe, age 76, still makes his badges the old fashion way with quality materials and expert craftsmanship.
The Weyhing Brothers process begins with a four-inch by a four-inch brass plate which is cut into its customized shape. Garofalo states that the metro style badge is the most popular in Michigan. The hydraulic hammer is then dropped on the badge up to eight times because Weyhing’s unique manufacturing process calls for some copper and zinc for a higher quality product. After eight hits the badge must be reheated and the process repeated until a perfect badge is formed. Ribbons, rank, insignias, eagles, etc. are then soldered and hand engraved by the old master himself. All gold badges receive the extra expense of copper plating to ensure the proper adhesion. The badge is then trimmed and any enamel is gound to bring out the details. The next stop is the polishing room where the badge is cleaned, plated, and finally shipped to the customer.
Although Weyhing Brothers still produce products for a fair amount of Michigan Police Departments, some, including the Detroit Police and the Michigan State Police now order badges from out of state, cheaper manufacturers’ that use less expensive materials and simply machine press the entire badge. Because of Weyhing Brothers’ quality, old badges can be re-plated and repaired to look like new. Garofalo fondly remembers the days when Detroit police officers would stop by his shop and he could do on-the-spot repairs. Joe gets frustrated when the newer badges from other manufacturers need fixing and he cannot assist the officers because the cheaper badges can’t take the heat necessary to conduct the repairs.
Walking into the Weyhing Brothers Manufacturing building is a unique Detroit and Michigan history lesson. The original workstations, tools, dyes, and stamping equipment is still intact. Overlooking Gratiot Ave. from its second floor, you can almost feel the hustle and bustle of a once vivacious City of Detroit with its trolley cars running along its crowded sidewalks. The Garofalos’ has seen better times in Detroit but are still committed to keeping their manufacturing plant in the city. The city and state have ignored that loyalty and put the price of a product over the importance of its quality, especially a badge and everything that it represents. Whatever happened to Governor Granholm’s commitment to buy Michigan’s products?
If you are looking for a replacement or retired badge or any other product that Weyhing Brothers manufacturers, or if you’re in the Eastern Market area, stop by the store at Gratiot and McDougall and say hello to the Garofalos. You’ll feel good knowing that you are supporting a century-old business that refuses to skimp on quality and embraces a family tradition. If you are really lucky you might get a tour and a slice of American history.