In September 1862, Prussia’s newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Otto Von Bismarck, made his most famous speech to the Prussian assembly. Seeking approval for military reform, he said “not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided… but by iron and blood.”
A rather ironic thing to say in a speech of all things, but it worked. Bismarck went on to unify Germany in under a decade after cunningly instigating three short wars with Denmark, Austria, and France making him undisputed champion of European geopolitical strategy. He undoubtedly inspired Germany’s burgeoning youth generation and one Martin Cordes who was a part of that Generation.
Martin was just 10 years old when Bismarck became Chancellor of the German Empire in 1871. And judging from the life Martin lived, he took Bismarck’s words and actions to heart. Now Bismarck obviously meant weapons and soldiers, but for Martin, as a machinist and mechanic who raised his kids to be the same, iron and blood meant work and family and the two were united. And when he brought these to 1827 Broadway he, like Bismarck, often had to perform some geopolitical strategy of his own.
Martin Cordes was born in 1861 in what was then the independent city-state of Hamburg. As the terminus of Germany’s central rail line and the home of the Hamburg-America Line shipping company, it was a major industrial and international trading center. So chances are that Martin’s father worked on trains and/or steamships and introduced Martin to the profession as soon as he came of age. However, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The panic of 1873 put the post-unification boom economy (aka Gründerzeit) into a tailspin. Heavy industries and their workers were hit hardest leading more of them to push for socialist reform. In response, the ruling class started cracking down and outright banned the socialist party in 1878. Martin, none too pleased, left for the U.S. on September 10, 1879. Germany didn’t appear to be a place for a young worker hoping to catch a break and over the next 30 years (bonus material!) he would try to catch one.
Through thick and thin, he worked at various machine shops in California, Germany, and in nearby Auburn. All while raising eight children with his wife Katherine. However, simply toiling away for the benefit of others wasn’t the answer. Rather, “iron and blood” was the answer, remember? So they moved to Seattle in 1912 to start their own auto repair business.
Setting up shop
Martin, Katherine, and their younger children moved into 1148 Broadway (currently The Polyclinic): right on the doorstep of auto-row while some of the older children shared a place at 1013 ½ E Pike (currently Bimbos and Cha Cha Lounge). From here, they took their time getting the lay of the land and opened their first shop at 1112 E Madison st in 1914. They called it Cordes & Sons and a few years later they moved to 1827 Broadway after a grocery concern called Getz & Lewis went out of business. The existing design of 1827 wasn’t quite to their needs, so they hired Henrikson & Company to raise the ceiling by two feet among other things.
Their new name would be Cordes Auto Repair and within a year, they made national headlines. Martin Cordes Jr built the first 8-cylinder automobile engine by simply connecting two 4-cylinder engines in tandem on a standard Ford chassis. At 50 Horsepower, a Phoenix newspaper called it an “8-valve demon.”
Martin Sr., obviously proud, became all the more so the following year when everyone was working in the family business. A dream come true. However, this period of national fame and unity proved brief, necessitating Martin to start channeling his Bismarckian side.
The Geopolitics of Broadway and Denny
Like any brilliant Prussian geopolitical strategist, Martin sought out ways to expand his sphere of influence. 1830 Broadway, a larger facility across the street with a showroom, repair shop, and lower garage on a double-corner, appealed to him immensely. It was currently Alfred G. Ayerst’s Ford dealership and anyone who understood Fords as well as the Cordes family did, probably knew Ford was destined for bigger and better things. Sure enough, in October 1921, Ayerst announced his departure from 1830 in the Seattle Times to a sprawling two-story mega dealership at Third and Stewart. Martin, jumped at the opportunity and set up shop at 1830, but alas, it was too good to be true.
Ayerst’s opulent new facility induced one of the largest Ford dealers in the country to buy Ayerst out in February of 1922. Ayerst, now a rich man, decided he wanted his old place back so he could sell Rickenbackers instead. Although, Martin didn’t have to outright leave. Instead, it appears he shared influence over this highly coveted piece of real-estate while splitting his time between it and 1827. That is, Ayerst, in a sense, was the Austria to his Germany. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in the House of Cordes.
Treason, Rebellion, and Death in the House of Cordes
Martin’s son Mathias had accumulated a debt of $540.90 (worth about $7,750 today) while working in the family business and quit before Martin could deduct it from his wages. Martin, wasn’t having it. So he sued Mathias in court and won the case. However, in a stroke of poetic justice, Mathias went to work for Ayerst selling Rickenbackers just a few months later. Don’t worry though, Martin eventually got the last laugh. But first, the next trial for the family came when Martin’s youngest son Henry had a rebellious streak. In 1925 he almost landed himself in jail after getting drunk with a friend, stealing a car, and crashing it into a telephone pole on Westlake avenue. Luckily, he avoided jail time by promising to pay for the car. Finally, in June 1926 came the ultimate tragedy: death. Martin’s wife Katherine, passed at the age of 60. The 1920s were obviously a heavy period in the personal lives of the Cordes’. So Martin’s children started taking an on-again off-again approach to working at the family business. They all probably just needed a little space. Nevertheless, the business moved forward.
The Geopolitics of Broadway and Denny Round 2
In 1926, Martin got another shot at 1830. Ayerst’s decision to throw his weight behind the Rickenbacker proved disastrous. Eddie Rickenbacker, the overzealous WWI ace who founded the company, kept pushing for evermore luxurious and powerful automobile designs until prices skyrocketed and sales nosedived. Luckily for Ayerst, he bailed before Rickenbacker went bankrupt and eventually started a finance and warehousing business. (Martin’s last laugh!) From here on out 1830 would remain under Martin’s control until his retirement. Otherwise, 1827 would effectively function as a protectorate where Martin could install one of his many vassals. One of which was the House of Quinlan.
House of Quinlan, Vassal to the House of Cordes
Johnny “Second-Chance” Quinlan, as I like to call him, gets the name because of all the chances he gave and received. For example, he took a fancy to giving failing towing garages a second chance by taking them over and rescuing them. One of them was Nagle Place Garage at 1831 Nagle Place, which is on the rear side of 1830 Broadway. He eventually renamed it “Utility Towing Service Inc”. with his wife Helen as a trustee and bookkeeper. The timing was good. As cars were both aging and growing more plentiful, towing and emergency roadside services were in ever greater demand. Further, it appears Seattle Police first started having cars towed and impounded for traffic violations in 1925. Meaning, anyone with a tow truck and garage could potentially reap considerable profits. This meant that the Quinlans really needed a larger space. So when Martin Cordes took over 1830 Broadway in 1926, he had just the place for them: 1827 Broadway, right under his watchful eye. Now, despite John and Helen having a rocky relationship, their business carried on through the 1920s, but by 1930, it was over. Apparently they had mortgaged their towing equipment to Helen’s father to secure a $1300 loan from him (worth $18,000 today). When they couldn’t repay it, Helen’s father foreclosed on the mortgage in July of 1930 and auctioned off the equipment. Don’t worry though, some years later, they got a second chance. (more bonus material!)
House of Miller, Second Vassal to the House of Cordes
Martin, no doubt displeased, decided he couldn’t leave 1827 Broadway vacant, so he installed another business there called A C Garage. Martin had taken over the A C Garage after the original owners failed to pay their rent at 1831 Nagle place in 1928. He managed it himself for a while, but decided to pass it off to a couple named Otto and Katherine Miller somewhere between late 1930 to early 1931. Unfortunately, the Millers hardly got a chance to prove their worth. In February of 1931, they were wrongfully arrested for holding 12 gallons of moonshine in a padlocked truck that a couple of bootleggers had towed over to their garage. The Superior Court dismissed the Millers nine months later when authorities found the original bootleggers. Left with the bad taste of moonshine in their mouths, the Millers decided to leave the garage to Martin.
At this point, Martin was pushing 70 and probably looking to retire soon. He couldn’t keep up all this maneuvering and clearly having strangers manage the garage business just wasn’t working. So he must have then remembered those iconic words “iron and blood” and knew what to do. In 1933, he passed the whole business, repair shop and garage, to his son Walter. Walter renamed the A C Garage to “Cordes Garage” and brought it back over to 1831 Nagle Place in 1935 effectively cutting 1827 Broadway loose for good. Martin handled the bookkeeping for a while before retiring and died on December 2, 1945. The repair shop ran until 1951 at its final location of 101-109 Broadway. Its remnants can still be seen today. Thereafter, Walter and his brother Herman appear to have focused solely on their towing business into the 1960s. After jockeying with other towing companies for the highly coveted city towing contract, they eventually became one of two companies to claim the prize. A towing empire of sorts. And thus Martin Cordes’ original dream of “iron and blood” at least in some form anyway, carried on and became a legacy that lasted over a hundred years.