History collides on Park Street

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Stan Uher, right, and his 1915 Gray-Dort paid a visit to James Lizotte and Thomas Smith of Gentry Manor Sunday, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Gray-Dort employees club, which occupied the same building that now houses Gentry Manor.

By Bruce Corcoran

Two pieces of Chatham-Kent history came together Sunday to celebrate a common milestone.

The folks who own Gentry Manor on Park Street in Chatham played host to a 1915 Gray-Dort and its owner, Stan Uher, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Gray-Dort employees club, which was located in the same building that now houses Gentry Manor.

Uher, who operates Classic Coachworks, a vintage vehicle restoration shop, in Blenheim, is a local Gray-Dort expert. On a fresh spring day, he brought his very classic car to Chatham to showcase it in front of Gentry Manor, to the delight of Manor owners Thomas Smith and James Lizotte.

“They would have social gatherings, functions, dances, theatrical productions, and comedy shows. It was just a great, great employees club in the truest sense of the term,” Uher said of the club. “It was an appreciation for their help in building the business.”

The club opened on Feb. 26, 1921. The building, built nearly 50 years prior, had begun as the Chrysler Ward School in 1876. Robert Gray purchased the property at the turn of the century and turned it into a buggy repair shop for Gray buggies, before being renovated again to be used as the employees club.

Uher said when Gray opened it for his employees, it was likely that about 700 people worked in the factory here in Chatham. The company’s partnership with Dallas Dort of Flint, Mich. soured a few short years later, and by late 1924, Gray-Dort’s factory was closed.

“In 1921, the sky looked blue and who knew what the future held for cars at that point,” Uher said. “As it turns out the Dort Association in Flint pulled the plug first. And because the Grays were closely associated, it was just a matter of time that the Gray-Dort company would fold.”

In the wake of the closing of the Gray-Dort plant and the demise of the company, the Chatham landmark on Park Street has housed the YMCA, then served as the site of the local Masonic Temple, and then became Gentry Manor, Smith said.

“And we’re celebrating 25 years,” he said.

It was Lizotte who connected the dots in terms of how this year marked the 100th anniversary of the employees club’s opening. It was all over a Christmas present.

“I got the Gray-Dort book (‘The Class of the Light Car’) for Christmas. I read it in a day, and that date (Feb. 26, 1921) just stuck with me,” he said.

Uher commended Lizotte and Smith for being so supportive of the Gray-Dort history.

“They’ve been so in tune with the Gray-Dort story all the time they’ve owned the building. They’ve welcomed our reunions and have been great people for perpetuating the history,” he said.

The building, at 9 Park St. in Chatham, is the only business structure that is still directly related to Gray-Dort that is still standing, Uher said.

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