Magnus Butzel

Providing Safe Passage Along the Underground Railroad

Magnus Butzel (1830-1900) left his native Bavaria in the 1840s to join his brother, Martin, in New York. The two men had learned the trade of their father, a sash and blind maker. Nine years later, Magnus was offered the opportunity to join his brother-in-law, Emil S. Heineman, a successful merchant and clothing manufacturer, in a partnership in Detroit. Magnus hiked up his trousers and came west. One year later, Magnus’ brother Martin joined him in business and the firm became known as Heineman, Butzel and Company, which later was shortened to Butzel Bros. and Company. The Butzel company not only provided uniforms to the Union soldiers during the Civil War, but the brothers also helped provide safe passage for slaves making their way along the Underground Railroad.

In 1869, Magnus married Henrietta Hess of Cincinnati, and the couple bore five sons: Maurice, who served in the Spanish-American War; Henry, who became a Michigan Supreme Court justice, and his twin, David, who died in infancy; Fred, and Lawrence.

Magnus Butzel was an active member and leader in several entities. He served on the Detroit Public Library commission from 1883 until his death in 1900. He championed the concept of libraries being for the people and had to serve as a municipal asset. Butzel also advocated for the establishment of library "branches" in neighborhoods. In 1913, the Magnus Butzel Branch of the Detroit Public Library was built in his memory. Architect Albert Kahn designed the building, built at a cost of $40,000, and was the only branch Kahn designed. It was demolished in 1998.

Tags: Emil S. Heineman, Civil War, Henry Butzel, Fred Butzel, Detroit Public Library