PARK TOWNSHIP, MI – Yet another chapter is closing on the fabled history of the Holland Furnace Co., once Holland’s largest employer before it faded and folded up in the 1960s.
Hazelbank, the estate created by the company’s founders in 1920, is on the market for an asking price of $18.9 million.
Though Holland Furnace ended production some 50 years ago, hints of the company’s gilded legacy and faded glory can be found during a tour of the 38-acre estate.
In an entertainment room of the 13,000-square-foot mansion, there’s a large poster from the 1920s declaring, “Holland Furnaces Make Warm Friends.” The poster proudly proclaims the company is the “World’s Largest Direct Installer.”
Next to the horse stables, sits a dusty buggy that carried children in Holland’s Tulip Time parades. The pony-drawn carriage proclaims Holland Furnace Co. as “The World’s Largest Installer of Furnaces.”
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The 38-acre estate on Lake Macatawa’s Pine Creek Bay, once accessible only by rail, was created in 1920 by J.P. Kolla, a French immigrant who co-founded Holland Furnace.
Over the decades, the estate became part of the Great Gatsby-like legends that grew and faded with the company’s fortunes.
“It was a great employer; it certainly was the favorite place to work,” says Randall VandeWater, a retired editor of the Holland Sentinel who co-authored a 1993 book about the company.
“From 1906 to the 1960s, the Holland Furnace Co. was a major local employer and its activities sustained Holland during and after the Great Depression years,” VandeWater and his co-author, Don VanReken, wrote in their book.
When company employee P.T. Cheff married Kolla’s daughter, Katharine, in 1931, the scene was set for the next phase of the company and the estate’s history.
Cheff became a company director after Kolla’s death in 1933 and company president in 1946. He transformed Hazelbank into a horse lover’s paradise, hosting fox hunts and equestrian events on the grounds.
For Tulip Time, the company brought Hollywood stars like Dorothy Lamour, Fay Wray and Robert Montgomery to town aboard private railcars, VandeWater said.
“I think the Holland Furnace Co. had a lot to do with the success of the first decade of Tulip Time continuing into the 1950s.”
In 1952, the company sponsored CBS radio star Arthur Godfrey, whose coast-to-coast radio broadcasts brought national credibility to the company’s product line and national awareness to the city.
World heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano brought the sports world to Holland in 1953 when he trained at the company’s picnic grounds, while promoting the company’s furnaces.
The company’s demise began in the 1950s when it failed to keep pace with developments in the home furnace business, says VandeWater.
The company’s sales-driven focus also got it in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission, which fielded complaints about company salesmen who were dismantling existing home furnaces in an effort to generate new sales.
After fighting the allegations for nearly a decade, the company ceased production in 1962 under pressure from state and federal regulators.
Cheff’s legal problems continued as he was charged with contempt of court for failing to rein in his company’s high-pressure sales team. He was convicted in 1963 and sentenced to federal prison.
After several appeals failed, Cheff entered federal custody in 1966 and served two months and nine days before he was released early to tend to his wife, who died later that year.
Cheff remained active in equestrian circles. In 1970, he founded the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center near Augusta in Kalamazoo County. He also got remarried to Holly Palmer, the estate’s current owner, who grew up near Hazelbank.
After Cheff died at age 86 in 1991, Palmer razed their Tudor-style house and the Kolla house before building the 13,000-square-foot mansion that is now for sale.