Traverse City was just beginning to show promise in 1874 when Frank Votruba started a tiny harness shop in a wooden building on the edge of the Boardman river behind the Traverse City State Bank. One has to wonder if he ever envisioned that his shop would still be thriving 140+ years later. Frank immigrated to East Jordan from Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, in 1870, according to Gretchen Votruba, who married Frank’s son, William. In 1874 he moved to Traverse City and opened the Votruba Harness Company downtown, making and repairing all sorts of horse gear. He had been trained in leather work in Czechoslovakia and was a certified leather man. In 1878 Frank married Amelia Bartack who was born here in 1856. Amelia’s brother, Tony Bartack, formed a partnership with Charlie Wilhelm and Frank Votruba to build the City Opera House building, a feat which was accomplished in 1891. When the City Opera House was completed, Frank moved the Votruba Harness Company into the east third of the ground floor. While the retail end of the business was located there, he also had a harness repair shop in an attached building out back, which is still there today. Frank and Amelia’s son, William took over the store during the 1920’s after he returned from World War I.
William and Gretchen ran Votruba’s until September, 1967, when it was bought by Earl and Martha Glaesmer. Prior to that, Earl was manager of the Sears Roebuck store in Traverse City. Earl had always wanted to own his own business so one day he casually mentioned that to a friend in real estate. The universe was at work, because Bill Votruba had put the store up for sale that very day. The Glaesmers snapped it up! Although they were tempted to re-do the store from time to time, customer outcries prevented them from doing so. Both locals and returning customers from downstate said the vintage nature of the store was what they loved about it. Their children – Diana, Gregory and Kerry were all involved in the store but it was Kerry who eventually took the reins when his father passed away in 1987. He continues to run the store today.
Votruba’s currently carries a wide mix of luggage, travel items, leather goods, games, manicure sets, Swiss army knives, globes and briefcases. When Frank Votruba opened the store in 1874 his stock was mostly horse Gear. Steve Harold, archivist for the Grand Traverse Pioneer & Historical Society, noted that most harness shops at that time may also have sold saddles, sleigh bells, wagon and buggy materials and veterinarian supplies. In addition, they may have carried suitcases, trunks, belts and valises, such as those carried by doctors. Fancy leather collar boxes and hat boxes were common back then as well. According to Gretchen Votruba, who ran the store with her husband, William Votruba (Frank’s son), in the 1950’s and 60’s, Frank employed 11 men at one time. These men built and repaired horse gear out back in the attached harness shop. If you drive along the alley behind the store, you’ll see the attached building where the harness shop was located.
William and Gretchen also sold horse gear during their reign, adding square dancing supplies like cowboy boots and western clothing. They also carried shoe repair supplies in the basement and even had a “man on the road”, Gretchen said. “That was back in the days when shoes were repaired”. When Martha and Earl Glaesmer bought the store in 1967, they continued the line of horse supplies and also added other pet supplies. “We had an older gentleman who would do repairs on the saddles”, said Martha. “He used to make our harnesses, so he was a real leather person. He worked for us part-time when we first took over the store.”
Those repairs took place in the building behind the retail store, which is basically the same set up used by Frank Votruba and, later, his son. Kerry Glaesmer said they still do repair work, primarily on the items they sell. Martha and Earl carried most of the same items sold in the store today but Martha noted that the merchandise wasn’t displayed openly as it is today. “A lot of it was behind the counters, and you had to ask for it”, she said, adding that they also had to hand-write receipts and figure out taxes. “Of course, that’s all done automatically now”.
William and Gretchen ran Votruba’s until September, 1967, when it was bought by Earl and Martha Glaesmer. Prior to that, Earl was manager of the Sears Roebuck store in Traverse City. Earl had always wanted to own his own business so one day he casually mentioned that to a friend in real estate. The universe was at work, because Bill Votruba had put the store up for sale that very day. The Glaesmers snapped it up! Although they were tempted to re-do the store from time to time, customer outcries prevented them from doing so. Both locals and returning customers from downstate said the vintage nature of the store was what they loved about it. Their children – Diana, Gregory and Kerry were all involved in the store but it was Kerry who eventually took the reins when his father passed away in 1987. He continues to run the store today. Even when Kerry was young he always wanted to take over the reins of Votruba Leather Goods Co. from his father, Earl. Kerry went out into the world for some training first. After graduating from St. Francis Senior High School, he earned a degree in marketing from Ferris State University. He then spent several years in the management training program of K Mart Corporation. After his dad Earl passed away in 1987, Kerry officially took over management of the store.
The luggage industry has certainly changed a lot over the years, and people are traveling more than ever. Easy-to-carry, lightweight and durable luggage is a must for today’s traveler. Long ago, luggage found its way into harness shops as the need for horse gear waned. At the time, much of the luggage was made of heavy duty leather – a far cry from the light-weight nylon luggage now preferred. “There are still leather pieces made”, said Kerry Glaesmer, owner of Votruba Leather Goods Co. in downtown Traverse City. “But not like the old, heavy, thick leather. Today, it’s a different type of leather, and there are alternative materials”.
Nylon, the most popular material, is easier to lug around, and new materials are actually stronger than leathers, not to mention cheaper. “To do a whole set of luggage in leather is pretty expensive,” Glaesmer said. Votruba’s still carries a trace of the past, though – traveling trunks. They were first sold when Frank Votruba started the store in 1874. Gretchen Votruba, who took over the store when her husband William, Frank’s son, in the 1950s and ‘60s, noted that trunks were a necessity in the late 1800s. People didn’t have the backpacks and suitcases that they have now, they had trunks.
In addition, travel in those days was generally a long-term affair, requiring a good amount of gear and clothing. When people say “you get what you pay for”, it’s true when it comes to luggage. There are all types of luggage in all price categories. Expensive and cheap pieces may look surprisingly similar but the quality of the fabric, frame, zipper and hardware, not to mention general workmanship, all factor into how well the luggage is going to hold up when it’s being tossed onto a conveyor belt at the airport.
Keep in mind that what seems expensive in the short run will undoubtedly save you money and inconvenience in the long run. The Leather and luggage Goods Manufacturers Association recommends buying luggage to meet your most demanding travel needs. People who travel extensively for business or for adventure, or who often check their luggage all have very different needs than those who enjoy occasional leisure travel.
Now let’s talk about choosing a leather that lasts! One leather wallet is just a good as the next one right? Not so. There are many different grades of leather and that’s why you can’t tell a wallet by its “cover”. Kerry Glaesmer, owner of Votruba Leather Goods Co. in downtown Traverse City, which carries top-grain leather wallets, purses, tote bags, briefcases, belts and portfolios, offers these tips in eyeing the difference:
- Look more than skin deep – The better leathers are usually softer and are dyed all the way through. That’s why scratches don’t show as much on a better piece of leather. With a lot of cheaper leathers, the finish is almost like it’s painted on so if you get a scratch with cheaper leather, that color will come right off.
- Feel the difference – The tanning process on better leathers also makes them softer. That’s a desirable quality that most people are looking for. You might have a billfold for $10 and one for $60, and the basic difference is the type of leather they’re using. There are more steps involved to make it a nicer leather. It takes a little more to get that soft feel which is what most people like about leather… the softness and the richness.
- Read between the lines – Some more inexpensive leathers are made from scraps, comparable to particle board in the building industry. It’s almost glued together, called a bonded leather. A lot of cheaper leathers are made of that. Although the untrained eye may not be able to tell the difference, there’s more grain to a nicer piece of leather and you can see the grain in it and the scratches and wrinkles show through. In a cheaper piece you don’t get the natural markings. It has a more uniform appearance.
- Material matters – Most leathers are made from cattle, although exotic leathers like water buffalo, lizard, eel and alligator are some other opti0ons, albeit generally more expensive. There’s a lot of different skins that are used but probably 95 % of what we have are cow hides with a few deer skin gloves and wallets thrown in for variety. Like a lot of other products, many leather goods are made overseas but there are still a few places manufacturing them in the US. The stock at Votruba’s is about half and half.
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