The town of Onaway in northeast Michigan is home to the ruins of what was once the largest producer of steering wheels in the world. Though the factory is long gone, a giant steering wheel remains in Onaway as a memory of the industry it once led.
E.J. Lobdell was a manufacturer of bicycle parts, including saddles and wheels, operating out of Ohio. In 1901, he moved his business to Michigan to take advantage of the state’s abundant hardwood supply. Over time, and with the advent of the automobile boom, Lobdell shifted his manufacturing business away from bicycle parts. He started making steering wheels for the cars being built in Detroit, and called his new venture the American Wood Rim Company. It went on to become the world’s largest supplier of wooden steering wheels for automobiles, as well as boats, tractors, and other vehicles.
But that all came to a crashing halt the morning of January 14, 1926, when a fire broke out in a sanding machine. It spread through the blowers to different parts of the room and over the next few hours the factory went up in flames.
A park behind the burned-out ruins of Lobdell’s former factory is filled with sculptures, one of which is a 30-foot-tall steering wheel made by Tom Moran in 2014. The tribute to Onaway’s history bears an inscription that reads, “Onaway Steers The World.”
Know Before You Go
The city of Onaway is at the intersection of highways M68 and M33 in northern Michigan.