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Hidden In Plain Sight: Argus Museum In Ann Arbor

May 7, 2018

Long before we started taking pictures on smartphones, you would see people wearing bigger and bulkier film cameras.  Among the more respected was the Argus camera and, as it turns out, it was made right here in Washtenaw County.  Argus is now out of business, but its legacy lives on.  As 89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan reports, you’ll discover that history in a 1,500 square-foot space at the corner of West William and 4th Streets in Ann Arbor, “Hidden In Plain Sight.”   

For generations, the name Argus was associated with cameras.  But when the Ann Arbor company was founded in 1931, it was called the International Radio Corporation.  As you might expect, the company made radios.

Cheryl Chidester is the curator of the Argus Museum.  She’s looking at a Kadette radio and reflecting on the company’s history. 

"Radio sales were slow during the summer months, reception was not good as it was in the winter and people didn’t buy as many radios.  So one of the founders, Charles Verschoor was traveling in Europe, he ran across a Leica and he thought, we could make  something that’s less expensive, easy to operate but still perform decently.  And he contracted with Belgium engineer Gustave Fassin and came from Belgium to Argus here in Ann Arbor and designed the first cameras," said Chidester.

In 1936, the company first produced its Argus A camera, and the public took notice.  Thirty-thousand were sold in the first week of release.  Argus revolutionized the market by selling its new camera for $12.50.  Kodak was the primary competitor at the time and it was selling its camera for about $60.00.  After looking at the museum’s Argus A camera display, Chidester directs my attention to the company’s next generation camera.

"And then by 1938, they made their most iconic Argus camera.  That was the C3.  They made that camera for over 25 years.  That was their bread and butter camera," added Chidester.

The Argus C3 became one of the most popular cameras in history.  About $2 million were sold in its production cycle.  The camera had built in flash synchronization and was known for its durability.  Chidester says that’s why it got the nickname, “The Brick.”

"The shape of it and it was very heavy.  And I was told by former employees that every once in a while they would drop a “brick” on purpose to the first floor from the second floor and that was their quality control.  If it still worked it was fine," said Chidester.

The Argus quality extended beyond the camera itself.  Ninety year-old Dick DeMara worked as a sewing machine operator at an Argus satellite office in Cheboygan from 1948 to 1956. 

"We made up all cases for Argus cameras, the leather cases.  So I worked in that.  I did a lot of the custom work for making the new cases when they needed to have them for show," said DeMara.

While DeMara’s contribution to Argus products made a difference, it was what he did with an Argus C3 camera after he left the company that earned him a spot on one of the Argus Museum walls.

"Just working on the bridge was the biggest job that hit the State of Michigan.  And I had the opportunity to be on it," added DeMara.                                                                          

You see, in 1956 and 1957, DeMara worked as an ironworker helping build the Mackinac Bridge.  While laying cable, 550 feet in the air, he decided to take photos of the construction of the bridge. 

"You can see the cable spinner working and what we did with them as we worked.  Going right from no wire up there to…we put 40,000 miles of wire by the time we got done up there," recalls DeMara.

To honor his work, the Argus Museum displays some of DeMara’s photos and the camera he used to take them. That’s just one in a sizable collection. There are over fifty cameras in the exhibit.

Jessica Dawson is an administrative assistant for O’Neal Construction.  That’s the company that now owns the Argus 1 Building at 4th and William.  The Argus Museum is found in the lobby area on the second floor.  To honor the building’s history, the construction company helped established the museum in 1987.  Meanwhile, Dawson says she can’t help but to look at DeMara’s photos when she walks by them.

"That’s very cool, that’s unique and it’s here at the Argus Museum.  So that’s part of history,' said Dawson.

Argus also made history during World War II and, that too, is reflected at the museum.  Curator Cheryl Chidester says Argus provided a number of products to the U-S Armed Forces.

"Prisms, signing devices, lenses.  They also made radio components.  The first actual military contract was to make aviation radio equipment working with Bendix Corporation.  But they made telescopes for the military, they made anti-tank signing devices for the military," said Chidester.

A few steps away from the military equipment, and behind another glass case, you’ll find employee badges.  A company is only as good as its employees and these are the names and faces of the people behind the Argus brand.

"During the war, they made a lot of products that really played a big role in World War II.  And they were afraid of spies…they were," said Chidester.

A little over a decade after the end of the war, Argus would go through changes.  The company was bought by Sylvania in the mid-to-late fifties.  The company had stopped camera production by the time Sylvania sold it off in 1969, though there were versions with the Argus badge sold through the 1970’s.  Today, the Argus brand is used on a variety of inexpensive digital cameras that are sold by an out-of-state company.  But, the original cameras are alive and well, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” and on display at the Argus Museum in Ann Arbor.

Visit the Argus Museum:

Open Monday-Friday 9AM-5PM or by appointment

Argus Museum - Argus I Building
525 West William Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
734-769-0770

Admission: Free

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu