About Howard Earle Vestal Coffin
Howard Coffin was born on 6 September 1873 in the small town of West Milton, Ohio. He attended the University of Michigan, majoring in mechanical engineering, and used his proximity to Detroit to get involved in the burgeoning auto industry. From 1902 to 1906 Coffin worked for the Olds Motor Works in Detroit and Lansing, advancing to the position of chief engineer. From 1908 to 1910 Coffin was employed by Chalmers Detroit Motor Company where he served as vice president. At the beginning of the new decade Coffin was named vice president at the Hudson Motor Car Company and spent the next twenty years of his career there. While at Hudson, Coffin worked to standardize parts in the auto industry and became the president of the Society of Automobile Engineers. He was one of the earliest proponents of standardization. Coffin's experience in industry prepared him for his work during World War I, where he helped to lead the effort to gear the national economy for war by spreading the gospel of standardization.
St. Simons History VIII. LATER RESORT DAYS Automobiles, the Causeway, and Sea Island
The early resort period had been largely limited to the people who could come by train and ferry. The resort consisted of wooden buildings clustered near the pier, most of which were boarded up for nine months of the year. The island was still largely wilderness, with few roads.
This picture changes rapidly with the coming of the mass produced automobile and the improvement of roads for these cars. St. Simons Island was about the only one of the Georgia coastal islands still available for development. Most of the islands were the private property of rich people holding them as a private retreat and hunting grounds.
Many persons saw the possibility of development, but the story can best be told in relationship to the vision, imagination, and wise judgement of Howard Coffin.
Mr. Coffin was an automobile engineer in the very early days of the new industry. He was born of Quaker parents on a farm near West Milton, Ohio; attended high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan; then studied engineering at the University of Michigan. He had the vision of producing a low cost car which would sell for less than a thousand dollars and would therefore be available to a mass market.
In 1902 he went to work for the Olds Motor Works of Detroit, thus beginning a career which would soon make him one of the most famous of the automobile builders and very wealthy as well. After Olds decided to stay with the expensive car, he served other companies until he was able to achieve his dream of an inexpensive car to sell to the average man on the street. With the financial backing of the Hudson department stores of Detroit and with their customers in mind for the cars, he brought into being the Hudson car, the first model a four-cylinder roadster selling for $900. This company boomed, and so did his fortunes.
The first visit of Mr. Coffin to the coast of Georgia was in 1910 to attend the Savannah Road Race. Early automobile manufacturers liked to test their latest models in races over winding dirt roads, and the race held at Savannah had attracted wide attention. Mr. and Mrs. Coffin made this trip to watch their cars perform, but making it a vacation trip in a way, coming in a leisurely journey by train. They immediately fell in love with the beauty and history of the Golden Isles of the Georgia coast. Being well able to afford a private island, like many of his rich friends already had, he purchased the 20,000 acres of marsh and highland that made up Sapelo Island from the five families who owned it. Thus, he had a vacation retreat, a showplace to entertain, and a reason to return often to the Georgia coast.
His real importance to St. Simons Island history, however, is the vision he had for development with the coming of the automobile roads. Soon after the end of World War I the mass sales of autos far surpassed the improvement of roads for their travel. Gradually a coastal highway began to inch down from the north, and it was only time until the now U.S. 17 would bring the tourists. He knew that there was money to be made in owning land in strategic places along such a highway, particularly in areas where there could be resort activity. So he purchased many tracts of land.
The other factor in development of St. Simons Island, besides the coastal highway, was the building of a causeway. Imagine autos carrying carloads of people to the island in fifteen minutes, instead of the slow trip by ferry and then the lack of transportation after arriving at the pier!
No one knows who first thought of building a causeway to St. Simons Island. Probably across the years many people thought of this possibility. It has even been suggested that General Oglethorpe may have considered it as an escape avenue for his soldiers and colonists. Yet, the first person to talk about it long and loud enough to get movement in that direction was William T. McCormick in about the year 1920. No one would listen to him at first, but he continued to talk about it so much anyway that many people began to consider him slightly balmy. Finally, he did interest some investors in island property and access by a causeway. Money being so tight they planned for what seemed the shortest, less expensive route, which was from the coastal highway about ten miles north of Brunswick. They actually did begin construction by clearing a road from the highway to the marsh, but then running into difficulty and financial uncertainty, abandoned the project without ever getting out into the marsh.
This beginning, however, had sparked considerable interest in the project and soon popular opinion supported a joint bond issue by the City of Brunswick and Glynn County to provide the funds. With money available it was felt wise to construct it closer to Brunswick, and after consulting with state highway engineers a route was projected. Fortunately, they were wise enough to consult a native son and competent engineer, Mr. F.J. Torras, to check the route and make a survey of the marsh. His recommendation, which was adopted, brought it still another mile closer to the city and several miles closer to the south end of St. Simons. Construction proceeded smoothly, and the causeway was opened on July 11, 1924, with the greatest celebration in Brunswick history. Guests came by train, by boat, by automobile, by horse and buggy. Special trains brought guests from afar. More than 5,000 automobiles crossed the causeway that day; the first of the great parade had reached the island before the last of it had entered the new road. Officials in both high and low positions made long speeches. A great pageant was performed. A huge dinner was served; under old, moss draped live oak trees hundreds of tables were erected and a shore dinner was served to 7,500 visitors.
This easy access to the island was not lost on developer Howard Coffin. He soon purchased the land of former Retreat Plantation on the south end of the island and other tracts. The roads on this still almost wilderness island needed to be improved and new ones were needed. To go to the village and pier it was then necessary to cross to the east side of the island on Demeree road, passing Bloody Marsh, and following the old military road to the south end of the village. So he had a new road cut directly from the causeway to the south end of the island, which he named "Kings Way." He also built Retreat Avenue, a continuation of Frederica road on southward beyond Demeree to the entrance of Retreat Plantation. Here at Retreat he began laying out a golf course. Even though he did not play golf himself, he saw the "potential" in golf course development. He constructed a yacht club here and was in his mind projecting a hotel on the Frederica river.
Mr. Coffin had also purchased an island to the east which had a very fine beach and a short, mud-road causeway which had been dredged up by earlier developers to connect the island to St. Simons. For years this rather barren island had been used for no more than pasture for hogs and goats and other animals. In early days it had been known as Fifth Creek Island. We do not know whether this is from the Creek Indians or had to do with the counting of the numerous creeks. Some navigational maps refer to it as the Isle of Palms. By this time most people called it Long Island. Mr. Coffin at first named it Glynn Isle and later changed it to Sea Island.
A friend who had much experience with real estate development in Florida advised him to abandon his idea of building a big hotel on St. Simons overlooking the intercoastal waterway. Modern resort hotels were moving to the beaches, their windows overlooking the sea. He agreed that this little island across the marshes would be an ideal place for his development. Envisioned was an eight story, high rise hotel on the beach, with a community of "cottages" surrounding it. This was projected for the middle of the island between 29th and 32nd streets. Grading had already begun when Mr. Coffin started to have second thoughts. What kind of people would come to this resort? What would they want for entertainment? Who would be attracted to purchase the cottages? Would it attract some of the undesirable features already evident at some of the resorts in Florida?
Those who investigated for him in Florida, recommended that they "take it easy". So it was decided to settle for a small, comfortable inn, where people could stay and decide whether they liked the place enough to build a "cottage". The location for the hotel was moved to the south end of the island and was named the "Cloister." Opening celebrations were in October, 1928.
A tremendous publicity department was created, and over the next months were welcomed a continuing parade of tycoons, sportsmen, artists, writers, statesmen, and editors from all over the country. The new, little resort was quickly becoming known. An early achievement came in 1928 when President Calvin Coolidge was persuaded to spend his Christmas holiday with Howard Coffin and to pose for his picture planting an oak tree on the south lawn of the Cloister. This photograph was printed in all the newspapers of the country. Guests today may now see this tree with 53 years of growth. Such publicity allowed the Cloister to have in its first year of operation more bookings than it could handle.
So, with its reputation established, its type of clientele, and the wisdom of staying with a modest resort, the business was able to weather the soon-to-come depression better than most resorts and later, during World War II, was able to continue operation when most hotels had been taken over by the armed services. This small inn, across two rather rickety causeways, was not well suited for government use.
History of Detroit: a chronicle of its progress, its industries ..., Volume 3 By Paul Leake Hudson Motor Car Company. To organize a new business and market four million dollars' worth of product the first season is a rather remarkable record. So far as is known, it has never been equalled even in the automobile industry, and the Hudson Motor Car Company is the corporation that accomplished this unusual feat. The company, which was organized in 1909, produced first a low priced roadster model, and gradually since that time has increased the size and improved the quality of its output until now it stands as one of the dominant producers in the class of moderate-priced cars. The remarkable thing about the company's progress is that it is operated on "inside capital." There are ten stockholders and they are all actively engaged in the work of expanding the company's business. This means that every man's heart is in his work, and the unusual growth of this institution is indicative of such a policy. The company is essentially a young man's organization. At the present time, the average age of its officers is thirty-six years, and the aggressiveness that goes with youth has surely characterized the yearly growth of the company. The business was first started in a small, rented factory, but the demand for Hudson cars quickly necessitated more room. It was decided to purchase a large plot of land, and twenty-five acres were secured on Jefferson avenue, across from the old Grosse Pointe race track. A modern, concrete plant was built, and additions to this factory have been in progress almost continuously ever since. Today the factory has 341,525 square feet of floor space and a manufacturing capacity of fifty machines a day. It has been the policy of the officers of the company to obtain a commanding place in a certain field of the motor car industry and continue in that field. Each new season has served to more strongly entrench them, and a radical increase in the volume of business over the original four million of the first year has been annually attained. A great specialty has been made of bringing together unusual engineering brains within the Hudson organization. It is felt that however good all the other departments might be, the company must stand or fall upon the design of its cars. Engineers have been secured from all of the reputable automobile makers in the world and an engineering board formed composed of specialists in every line of motor car structure. At the head of this board of engineers is Howard E. Coffin, perhaps the most famous designer within the industry, and vice president of the Hudson Company. Complete and thorough organization necessitates that every department be well rounded out, and running through the whole institution is to be found a class of men who have had long experience in their own particular line of endeavor. There is essentially an esprit de corps among the Hudson employees that is invaluable. This very spirit of satisfaction and helping one another certainly argues much for the successful future of this corporation. The officers are Roy D. Chapin, president; Howard E. Coffin, vice president and consulting engineer; Frederick 0. Bezner, secretary; Roscoe B. Jackson, treasurer and general manager, and E. H. Broadwell, vice president. Messrs. Chapin, Coffin, Bezner and Jackson have been intimately connected with several of the well known motor car companies, and their experience runs back practically with the beginning of the industry, all of them having started with the Oldsmobile Company when it produced the extraordinarily successful curve-dash roadster, many of which are running even yet on the streets of Detroit. Mr. Chapin was general sales manager of the Olds Company, Mr. Coffin chief engineer, Mr. Bezner, purchasing agent, and Mr. Jackson, factory manager. Mr. Broadwell was for years identified with one of the larger tire companies, and in this way came closely in touch with the needs of the motor car user. Through this early experience it may be seen that an unusual diversity of ability has been gathered together among the Hudson officials. Popular approval has stamped the worth and attractiveness of the Hudson motor cars, and Detroit has emphatically gained by having this concern added to its long and splendid list of manufacturing industries. Howard E. Coffin. Fortified through fine technical knowledge and skill, comprehensive practical experience and marked facility and resourcefulness as an executive, Mr. Coffin has won for himself a prominent place in connection with the automombile industry, and is now identified with one of the important concerns of this line in Detroit, where he is vice president and consulting engineer of the Hudson Motor Car Company, concerning which due mention is made elsewhere in this publication. His status as a business man and as a progressive citizen well entitle him to recognition in this history of Detroit, where he has achieved success worthy of the name. Howard Earl Coffin reverts with a due measure of pride and satisfaction to the. fact that he can claim the fine old Buckeye state as the place of his nativity. He was born on the homestead farm of the family, near the village of West Milton, in Miami county, Ohio, and the date of his nativity was September 6, 1873. He is a son of Julius Cestal Coffin and Sarah E. (Jones) Coffin. The genealogy of Mr. Coffin is traced back to the well known Coffin family of Nantucket, Massachusetts, where Tristram Coffin the original American progenitor settled, upon his immigration from England early in the seventeenth century. The name has been one of no little prominence in the annals of New England and other sections of the United States. Reared to the sturdy discipline of the farm, Howard E. Coffin gained his rudimentary education in the district schools, and after leaving the same he continued his studies in the public schools of the village of West Milton, where he partially completed the curriculum of the high school. In November, 1889, in pursuance of a natural predilection for a line of activity radically different from that to which he had been reared, he came to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and entered its admirable high school, in which he was graduated as a member of the class of 1893. In the same year he entered the department of mechanical engineering in the University of Michigan, where he continued his studies until 1896, when he withdrew from the University to enter the United States civil service, with which he continued to be actively identified until 1901. He then resumed his studies in the university, and he left this institution six months prior to the completion of his course in mechanical engineering, but in June, 1911, the university conferred upon him the degree of Mechanical Engineer, in recognition of his practical accomplishment and marked ability in his profession. In leaving the university six months prior to graduation, Mr. Coffin took this action in order to accept, in 1902, employment in the shops of the Olds Motor Works in Detroit, and in the following year he was advanced to the position of engineer in charge of the experimental shops of this company. This incumbency he retained until 1905, when he became chief engineer of the concern. In the spring of 1906, however, Mr. Coffin severed his connection with the Olds Company and assisted in the organization of the E. R. Thomas-Detroit Company, which engaged in the manufacturing of automobiles and of which he became vice president and chief engineer. In the following year he further amplified his duties and responsibilities by assuming the position of consulting engineer to the E. R. Thomas Motor Company of Buffalo, New York. The Detroit concern was reorganized as the Chalmers Motor Company in 1908, and Mr. Coffin continued as vice president of this company until 1910, in which year he instituted operations of a more independent order in the same line of industrial enterprise. In January, 1910, he became vice president and consulting engineer of the Hudson Motor Car Company, and this dual position he has since retained. It is mainly due to his fine professional skill and executive ability that the Hudson car has been brought up to so high a standard and gained that distinctive popularity which makes for cumulative success. The company now has one of the finest automobile plants in the world, with the best of modern appliances and facilities, and the products of the same attest the skill of Mr. Coffin and his able corps of assistants in the practical details of the industry. In 1910 Mr. Coffin had the distinction of serving as president of the Society of Automobile Engineers. He was chairman of the rules committee of the Automobile Manufacturers' Contest Association for 1911. He has been a member of the executive committee of the American Automobile Association since 1909, is a member of the council of the Society of Automobile Engineers, and was for five years chairman of the committee on tests of the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers. These connections amply indicate his high standing in the automobile world, and also offer assurance of his enthusiasm in his chosen field of endeavor. In a more localized way Mr. Coffin is identified with the Wolverine Automobile Club, the Detroit Automobile Club, the Detroit Motor Boat Club and the Michigan Aero Club; besides which he is identified with the Aero Club of America and the Engineers' Club of New York City. In his home city he holds membership in the Detroit Club, the Country Club, the University Club and the Detroit Boat Club. Aside from his connection with the Hudson Motor Car Company, he is a stockholder in the Detroit Metal Products Company and several other manufacturing concerns. In politics Mr. Coffin is arrayed as a stalwart advocate of the principles and policies of the Republican party, but he is essentially a business man, and political office has had no allurement for him'. He is affiliated with the Masonic fraternity, in which he now holds membership in Palestine Lodge, Free & Accepted Masons, of Detroit. In November, 1907, was solemnized the marriage of Mr. Coffin to Miss Matilda Vary Allen, daughter of Edwin A. Allen, a representative citizen of Battle Creek, this state. The Allen family in America was founded by Samuel Allen, who emigrated from Dorchester, England, in 1630, and settled at Windsor, Connecticut. The father of Mrs. Coffin is a direct descendant of Joseph Allen, who was father of the illustrious patriot, Ethan Allen. Mr. and Mrs. Coffin have no children.
University of Georgia (UGA) Marine Institute and Administration Complex, Sapelo Island The UGA Marine Institute and Administration Complex on Sapelo Island includes a circa 1925 administrative building and greenhouse structures built by Howard E. Coffin, automobile pioneer and principal landowner of Sapelo Island from 1912-1934. The greenhouses have been abandoned since 1976 and are quickly deteriorating. The administrative building was abandoned in 2004 when UGA closed its doors. It has yet to be mothballed as agreed by UGA in 2004.