Once Upon a Horses Tail: Laitner Brush Co.

Perhaps the greatest commodity of the American Civil War, a prized horse in 1864 was worth $3,000, that is, over $46,000 in today's dollars. In this sense, horses were seen as more valuable than soldiers. Cavalry units relied on these noble steeds (and their not-as-noble cousins, the humble donkey and mule) for efficiency and ultimate military victory.

"The solid-hoofed, plant-eating domesticated mammal with its flowing main and tail was used for riding, charging into battle, carrying wounded soldiers and pulling loads, such as cannons, wagons and ambulances," recounts historian and writer James R. Cotner.

From Ulysses S. Grant's horse, Methuselah, to Robert E. Lee's famous mount, Traveller, these creatures needed daily care as much as the men who rode them. Besides consuming about 20 pounds of grains and hay a day, a Civil War horse also required the brushing of "its flowing main and tail." Enter the indispensable tool of the 19th century: a handheld horse brush.

According to the Federal Army's Ordinance Manual of those times, an official horse brush was crafted of maple wood, Russia bristles from wild boar, one hand strap of fair leather, glue and screws. While prepping the bristles was dirty business, piecing the bristles through the wooden blocks called for the deft hands of a master brush maker, many of whom were immigrants from Europe.

One such enterprising fellow was Alois Laitner. He first setup shop in southwestern Germany, where he was known for his progressive stance on employee welfare. But the German rulers didn't care so much for his notions of social advancement, so Laitner and his family emigrated to Detroit in 1846. By 1855, A. Laitner & Sons was established as a premier brushmaking business in the region, namely as one of the chief providers of excellent horse brushes for the nine Michigan cavalry units during the Civil War.
"Without the task of making horse-care brushes for the cavalry, we would not be around," says former Laitner owner, John Kolarevic.  

After the war, Laitner & Sons had established their business as reliable, innovative and trustworthy - qualities that would stick by their name as the decades rolled by. In 1906, the family of craftsmen setup shop on Brush Street. Like most businesses during the Industrial Revolution, they installed a brush-filling machine to replace the time-consuming task of hand-lacing bristles.

With the advent of automobiles, the need for horse brushes had dropped off significantly, so Laitner & Sons focused their product development on more applicable industries, like automotive, consumer hardware and janitorial demands. The name changed to Laitner Brush Co. in 1947.

In the 1980s, after 130 years of the Laitner family at the helm, the company was sold to Christoper Shotwell, who moved the business to Traverse City, Michigan, its headquarters still today. Shotwell teamed up with Douglas Denike in 1989 and the two ran the business until Laitner Brush Co. was bought in 2000 by John and Mike Kolarevic.   

"We knew nothing about the brush industry when we bought the company," laughs John Kolarevic, in a 2005 article for the Traverse City Business News. "We were just looking for our own company to run."

And run the company they would, tripling growth in just five years. With updated computer systems and more aggressive moves in international trade, the Kolarevic brothers brought Laitner into the 21st century with a bang. Over his 13 years as president, John Kolarevic came to find that the people who worked at Laitner reflected the best part of the brush industry: relationship building. Kolarevic adds that this was only amplified with Laitner's role as a founding member of the American Brush Manufacturer's Association.
"[The ABMA] really understands the industry," says Kolarevic, adding that the ABMA has been so positive for Laitner in growing their network within the brush making community. 

In 2012, Cequent Consumer Products purchased Laitner Brush Co. A leading automotive aftermarket products company, Cequent now oversees all aspects of Laitner, from product design to distribution. This acquisition has not only welcomed but nurtured Laitner's rich history and tradition, enabling the American-made brushes to be showcased on the world's stage.

While Laitner has rolled through the ages, surviving and thriving during wartime, we pause to raise a glass to their resiliency and passion for consistently delivering high-quality brushes. From floor squeegees and mops to automotive detail products and accessories, the Laitner Brush Co. charges forth (with nary a horse in sight), ready for another century of passionate brush making and ethical business.

Contributed by ABMA (American Brush Manufacturers Association)

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