Ypsilanti: Home of the Automatic Toast-Butterer (Update1)

December 3, 2009 by  
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Ypsilanti has a long history of forgotten inventions. Black Canadian inventor Elijah McCoy’s railroad lubricating cup is locally well-known; his lawn sprinkler and folding ironing board are not. Some locals recall that Alva Worden created a whip-socket, a cylindrical clamp attached to the front of a wagon, in which the driver could conveniently store his horse-whip. Forgotten are his horse net and his “instrument for stretching elastic gaiters.”

Some decades after these men, during the Depression, Ypsilantian Robert Roy Dickerson invented an automatic “toast buttering device” in what may have been one ordinary man’s attempt to secure wealth and fame.

The oldest son of Willis merchant Charles Dewitt Dickerson and his wife Judith Fountain Dickerson, Robert grew up in modest circumstances. Around the time he attended high school, the family moved to a home on Summit Street. Robert attended Normal College (EMU) and graduated in 1913 with a degree in Manual Arts. He was not an athletic student, but participated in the Young Men’s Christian Association, the fraternity Alpha Tau Delta, and the Crafts Club, and was treasurer of the oratory club. His unsmiling senior picture in the 1913 Normal College yearbook suggests a steady, serious young man.

Robert married Hazel Kelly a year after he graduated and the couple left town for California. Robert became a school principal and later a superintendent in the newly settled southern California city of Imperial. His first child, Mark, was born in 1915.

In 1917, Robert registered for the WWI draft. His draft card says that he was a tall man of medium build, with blue eyes, light hair, and “not bald.” He was never drafted. He and Hazel had two more children, Robert Jr. in 1917 and Phyllis in 1919, after which the family returned to Ypsilanti.

It appears that Robert’s parents gave or sold him the Summit Street home upon his return. His parents moved to 509 Forest, where they ran a boarding house. In 1922, Robert opened a small restaurant in the home, at 235 North Summit near the water tower. Robert’s wife Hazel worked as a cook, and in 1922 gave birth to the couple’s fourth and final child, Charles.
When the Depression began with the “Black Thursday” stock market crash in October of 1929, the effect upon Ypsilanti wasn’t immediate. By 1931, however, the situation had worsened in town. In this year, Robert invented his toast-buttering device.

Made of 94 separate metal parts, and about the size and shape of a desktop printer, the electrical device contained a reservoir of melted butter and an overhanging rack supporting several pieces of toast. In his patent application, Robert said “an object of the invention is to provide a simple and comparatively inexpensive device in which slices of toasted bread for instance may be positioned and by a simple manipulation or leverage device [the machine could] raise a tray carrying melted butter [from the reservoir] to contact with one side of the toast.”

Robert thought highly of his intricate toast-butterer. His patent was granted, and he immediately incorporated the “Dickerson Butterfaster Company.” The 1931 city directory lists his occupation no longer as restaurant owner but as “salesman,” likely for the toast-butterer. He probably hoped to initially sell the device to the 2 dozen other small restaurants in town, which included the Wolverine Café at 207 W. Michigan Avenue, the Ypsi Lunch at 2 North Huron, and the stylish orange and black-themed coffee shop at the Huron Hotel (now the Centennial Center) at Pearl and Washington.

Robert’s hopes evaporated as, despite his efforts, he failed to sell his toast-butterer. Perhaps by 1931, Ypsilantians were eating out less and restaurateurs had less discretionary money. It also may be that the issue of speedy toast-buttering was less pressing than Robert had imagined, and that he had invented a solution for a problem that didn’t exist.

Robert abandoned his toast-butterer and his restaurant, and in 1932 opened the Tower Grocery Store, also at 235 Summit. In an era before large supermarkets, there were 34 other small grocers in town, who delivered groceries to homes. Competing with them were the cheaper, upstart “cash and carry” outlets of A&P and Kroger’s, which would later expand and out-compete the traditional small grocers.
From the Tower Grocery, Robert could watch the construction of the Ethel Terrace apartments across the street (now Flo-Mar Apartments). He witnessed many other changes in town as well, since the Tower Grocery stayed open until Robert, at age 60, sold it in 1950 to Thomas Theodoris. Theodoris tried to continue the little grocery but it closed after just a few years.

Robert vanishes from city directories by 1954. He is apparently not buried either in Highland Cemetery or in the Dickerson family plot in Ypsilanti Township’s Union-Udell Cemetery, although his daughter Phyllis, the last of Robert’s children to pass away, was buried there in 2008. It may be that Robert returned to California to live with his son Robert Jr., who was a minister there.

Robert was an ordinary man with a humble dream of popularizing a restaurant appliance. Though he failed, there was ingenuity and dignity in his attempt, and he adapted and switched to running a successful grocery. Permanently preserved in the U.S. Patent Office, his toast-butterer is a reminder of all the ordinary unsung Ypsilantians with the imagination and perseverance to create something new.

[Correction Dec 6, 2009. Elijah McCoy was a black Canadian, not African-American. The error was in reporting.]


One Comment on "Ypsilanti: Home of the Automatic Toast-Butterer (Update1)"

  1. YpsiNews.com — All Things Ypsilanti on Mon, 1st Nov 2010 12:22 am 

    […] is the nation’s birthplace of the Automatic Toast-Butterer, the breakfast cereal Wheat Hearts, and an improvement in stilts. All of these received patents. […]

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