July 13 2016 09:45 AM

C.S. Mott’s estate provides window into industrialist’s life

Author Susan J. Newhof holds her book, "Applewood: the Charles Stewart Mott Estate," in front of the historic Flint estate.
Photo courtesy of the Ruth Mott Foundation
While much of the attention given to Flint recently is focused on the city’s ongoing water crisis, one author is trying to bring some attention to one of the city’s underappreciated gems.

Applewood, the former estate of noted Michigan industrialist C.S. Mott, is nestled in the heart of Flint near Mott Community College. The 34-acre (originally 64-acre) farm, which has been remarkably well preserved, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Susan J. Newhof ’s new book, “Applewood: the Charles Stewart Mott Estate,” shows a side of the businessman and philanthropist few outside of his hometown knew about. Mott is mostly known as one of the founders of General Motors, but he also served as Flint’s mayor from 1912 to 1914 and unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1924 and 1940.

In Newhof ’s book, we learn that Mott was a locavore who cared deeply about the farm and its animals.

“The farm provided the family with the vast majority of its food,” Newhof said, adding that his family background and roots were “close to the earth.” Mott’s father made a living selling cider and vinegar.

Applewood still has 29 varieties of heritage apple trees under cultivation and shares the harvest with the community at an annual open house, just one of many community events held at the estate. During its heyday, the estate employed both a full-time resident gardener and a farmer. The estate and the grounds are open to the public for free tours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The last home tour starts at 4 p.m., and reservations are recommended.

Newhof also discovered the Mott family members were historians — some might say hoarders — who went to great lengths to preserve their own history.

“The Mott family saved everything,” she said.

Mott kept a diary for more than 40 years, beginning in 1928 after the death of his second wife. He would dictate his thoughts to a secretary.

“It was more like a journal,” Newhof said. “It was a platform for specific ideas about local politics and family issues, which he would send to family and friends.”

In addition to his diary, the family left behind thousands of photographs depicting life on the farm, including parties, dinners, notable visitors and even pool parties thrown for children in the community. The photos also show Mott in informal situations, like when he donned a hula outfit for a party or wore pajamas to a Sunday pajama breakfast. Many photos show Mott’s special relationships with his dogs, which he even brought to business meetings.

“There was always a dog not far away from him,” Newhof said. “He would be standing with businessmen and holding Lady or Taboo.”

The book touches on some of more difficult periods in Mott’s life. He was widowed twice before he was 55 and divorced his third wife after less than a year of marriage. He eventually married Ruth Rawlings, a distant cousin, in 1934 when he was 59 and she was 22. The couple, who had three children, were married until he died at 97 in 1973. Ruth Mott died in 1999, also at 97.

Newhof relates that the couple met when Rawlings was supposed to be on a blind date with C.S. Mott’s son. Instead, Mott switched the dinner place cards so he could sit next to her.

Following her husband’s death, Ruth Mott took over care of Applewood.

“She had to figure out what to do with the estate and its renovation,” Newhof said.

Mott wanted Applewood to be a resource for the community and opened it up for fundraising events and camps and even letting people explore the grounds and home.

“My intention is that Applewood be made available to the public for various activities and uses,” Newhof quotes Mott in the book. Mott also described the estate as “An oasis in the midst of buildings, parking lots and highways.”

After Mott’s death, Ruth Mott established her own foundation, the Ruth Mott Fund, which supports a variety of arts, environment and health projects.

Newhof began the writing process by exploring Applewood itself. It was a fairly modest estate during a time when most industrialists were building huge, castle-like structures.

“Most of all, I love the barns, which were built in the same style as the home,” Newhof said.

Following World War II, Mott’s interests shifted to philanthropic work, and the estate sold off the animals. Newhof, who raises chickens in her backyard in Montague, Mich., said the barns incorporated the best farming technology of the time.

“I loved the chicken coops,” Newhof said. “They show a great appreciation for the care and comfort of animals.”