I remember as a teenager driving during the summer and hearing the announcer on the radio pronounce it very incorrectly, “You can get your Levi Jeans in Trenton at M-u-l-eye-ss and E-l-eye-ss”. I shook my head at the way he butchered the names. It was very easy to say for us, “Mulias and Elias.”
This department store was a treasure in our city. It was like having J.L. Hudson or Lord and Taylor in the midst of a town of 20,000. The complex was formed in 1908 and over the years had several structural changes, including the front with a large overhang with a blue-ish background and Mulias and Elias written quite eloquently in script. Those who shopped there remember the experience quite vividly. M and E’s was the store where one could purchase the hard-to-find apparel or gift that no other store in the area carried.
Jerry Koch of Brownstown Township remembers the clothes at Mulias and Elias were of the highest quality, and recalls his mother spoke with pride when she would bring clothes home from there. “I bought this at Mulias!” It was like a seal of approval.
When young Larry Bennett needed a new suit, his grandmother took him to Mulias and Elias. The first one they saw was a grey suit in the front show room window. Larry said “I want that one!” Larry’s grandmother reminded him that conventional thinking doesn’t allow one to buy the first thing you see, so they went to 10 different stores, only to come back and buy the store front window grey suit. Another friend told of Mulias having the largest selection of sizes, as he was very skinny at the time and Mulias was the only store he could find with clothes that fit.
The last day of business for Mulias and Elias was June 24th, 1987. In the early hours I saw the fire department there, and after awhile it was determined to be a false alarm. Several hours passed since the false alarm occurred, and the fire trucks were summoned again. Initially there wasn’t any smoke or fire present.
Firemen Mark Hollandsworth and Dick Henderson were the first on the scene. Hollandsworth remembers walking through the front door and seeing business as usual — customers shopping, the air was clear, and everything appeared normal. Then, suddenly, as he looked up at the ceiling, Hollandsworth observed smoke. An orderly evacuation began of the store and other businesses, such as Uncle Harry’s restaurant.
Within five minutes the department store was pitch black. Meanwhile the Trenton Police began evacuating the tenants in the apartments above the stores. Rich Lyons, who was a rookie police officer, went door to door and told residents to vacate the premises.
The residents were reluctant at the start, but when they began seeing smoke they no longer needed persuasion. Inside the store in complete darkness, Mark Hollandsworth faced tremendous danger. He temporarily lost his fire hose which was his pathway to the outside world. At the last instant he found it and made his way to safety.
Then I witnessed a harrowing scene like something from a Hollywood picture. Fireman Lindsay Davis and his partner, Gene Darty, were trapped inside and just before they ran out of air, they dove through the front store windows and onto the pavement on West Jefferson. I later learned that their hoses disintegrated in their hands from the heat inside. Very scary indeed.
The situation caused further fears as there was a medical supply store in the complex with dozens of oxygen tanks. Trenton safety officials acted quickly to remove them for fear of explosion. Fortunately the firewall held and the fire did not penetrate.
Throughout the day and night fire crews from all over Downriver fought the blaze. Even the Detroit Fire Department boat came and pumped water out of the Detroit River. More than 100 firefighters fought the blaze and it wasn’t under control until the next day, and it was the lead story on all Detroit newscasts.
For the next few days, street reporters from the various stations conducted interviews with residents who lost everything they owned in the fire. The loss of property was estimated to be millions of dollars. The loss to the business community was immeasurable. At the time Mulias and Elias was the 11th largest taxpayer in Trenton. The silver lining was that no one perished in the tragedy.
After the demise of the store, there were rumors that a major chain might open in the location of West Jefferson and West where Mulias and Elias once stood. Crowley’s and Jacobson’s were two names bandied about. However, a lack of traffic probably scuttled those suggestions.
Gone were the days of “SEMTA” buses running until 11 p.m. up and down West Jefferson. The massive fire took out the heart of the business district. We will never know how long that store would have survived. In 1987 sales were in decline, and it seems questionable whether a family-owned department store could compete with Target, Meijer, Kohl’s, Macy’s and so forth in 2016.
A Trenton native born in 1986 told me he had never heard of the store. I proceeded to tell him about it. He said, “I wish I was around to shop then. You really had something there.”
Yes, we did.
Tony Mazzella welcomes readers to friend him on Facebook, where he frequently shares recollections about some of the interesting people and businesses in Trenton’s past.