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Heater Glove Company

Columbia City has had its share of manufacturing companies over the years. One of the more noteworthy was the Heater Glove Company, located at 4812 Rainier Avenue. They were on the East side of Rainier, occupying the ground floor of the historic Masonic Temple building. They were directly across the alley from where Washington Federal Savings bank is today.  The panoramic photograph shows the 32 member work force standing in front of the glove manufacturing business. The ladies are all wearing skirts, one with a bow on her blouse and another with a bow on her shoe. Their attire is typical of the 1920’s when the photo was taken. Most of the men are wearing their leather aprons, apparently taking a break from work to have their group photo taken.

95.76.09.AFreeman Heater, standing at the far right, started the company in 1918. Their first location was one block south in a small building with room for only one sewing machine and a front door that opened onto the alley. They were directly behind Mayfield’s Restaurant and Hotel at 4914 Rainier Avenue. Since 1929 it has been known as the Columbia Café and Elbow Room.

The shop was against the back wall of the old Columbia Theater which was built parallel to Rainier Avenue, behind the other store buildings. The reason was to conform to a city ordinance at the time that stipulated theaters had to be a certain distance from schools.

I had an opportunity a few years ago to interview Bob Heater, Freeman’s son, when he was visiting Seattle. One thing he mentioned was about the family name “Heater”. It is a Dutch name and a family member in the past shortened it from the original “Van Heater-Jahn”. The Historical Society had quite a few photos and had some knowledge about the history of the Heater Glove Company but Bob brought us a lot more information and photos we didn’t have. They were mainly a manufacturer of leather gloves but they did get into making clothing. Bob remembers that the family all had leather jackets and hats made for them.

In the thirties there was a Northwest Products trade show every year in downtown Seattle  by the Pike Place Market. Freeman Heater would have a large window display showing all the products they manufactured. Photos of those display windows were included in the collection Bob gave to us.
Among the products they made were leather aviator helmets for the pilots during the open cockpit era of flying. The most noteworthy product the company produced was the helmet worn by Charles Lindburgh on his transatlantic flight. It was made of a very soft light brown leather. It is now on display in the Smithsonian.

That wasn’t the only notable product they made however. It seems that Freeman was a boxing fan and if you look close in the photo you can see the corner of a poster promoting a boxing event on the left side of the window behind the ladies. Bob said his dad was a friend of the famous boxer, Jack Dempsey, and the company made his boxing gloves for him. They also made them for Jack Sharkey and other local boxing champs.

One of the photos that Bob gave us showed him as a boy of about four years of age, he was called Bobbie then, standing in front of the new Columbia School under construction. It dates the time of the photo at 1923. It was a month later when I was shooting a negative of the photo for our files and noticed, in the right hand corner of the photo, the bell tower of the old Columbia School. I had always assumed the old school had been taken down and the new one built in its place but that wasn’t the case.

Now I realize the new Columbia was built behind and to the west of the original Columbia school. The main entry for the new school is on the South side facing Ferdinand Street. The old building’s main entrance was facing east toward Rainier Avenue. And it was situated on what is now the playground and the garden area of the new Columbia, an alternative school referred to as Orca at Columbia.

I was in the 7th and 8th grade at Columbia School in the late 1930’s and I had a regular routine on my way home from school. After performing my duty as captain of the School Patrol to see to it that all the students got safely across Rainier Avenue at Ferdinand Street, I would head for the back door in the alley next to Heater Glove Co. I would check out their garbage cans looking for scraps of leather big enough to make the pocket for slingshots. The rubber strips for them would come from old tire inner-tubes scrounged from Charlie Miles Mobil gas station half a block north. The wood handles in the shape of a “Y” we would cut from branches in the neat wooded hillside at 44th and Angeline Street where we had our “Cops and Robbers” battles. Amazingly the woods are still there. I reminisce every time I go by on my way to the post office.

After the business closed Freeman managed the bar at a dance hall on the lake shore in Bryn Mawr between Renton and Rainier Beach. It was in fact aboard a boat that was beached at the site of the old Vallley Lumber Co. mill. Bob said he and his sister used to perform for the customers at the establishment. He didn’t say whether they were singing or dancing.

The boat was actually one of the many passenger ferries that crisscrossed the lake in the early days. They drove pilings to stabilize it but it still kept sinking into the mud so eventually they decided to move it to a firmer location. First they cut it in half. I don’t know whether it was the bow or the stern, but they moved the “half-a-boat” up and across Rainier Avenue and they were back in business. This was during the prohibition era and rumor has it that it was a wild and popular night spot. It was later badly damaged in a fire and subsequently torn down. I can remember the old boat sitting on the hillside but I didn’t know the story behind it and of course I knew nothing about the wild times aboard. Bob Heater went on to work for the Government after World War II. He was in Europe working with the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe from the ravages of the war. He now is retired and resides in California.

I want to thank Bob Heater and Jack Collier for furnishing information for this article.

by Buzz Anderson

1999 "Days Gone By"