Arnold Boutell


1869 - 1947

He was short, slight of stature and bald, but he compensated for the latter by a precise Van Dyke beard which he wore with an ambassadorial flair. 

He was Arnold Boutell, who had many other claims to fame but was most proud of being considered the father of Saginaw’s council-manager form of municipal government. Small though he was, Boutell was one of the true civic leadership giants in Saginaw history. He was a devoted public servant and selfless in the real sense of the word. He was serving his fourth consecutive term as councilman when he died in office in 1947 at 77 years of age. Born September 8, 1869, in Evanston, Illinois, he was graduated in 1885 from the Northwestern Academy of Evanston. He began his career as a railway office boy in Chicago. 

In 1887, he came to work as a clerk at the former Saginaw Manufacturing Company on the west side, then one of the world’s largest manufacturers of wooden products ranging from pails and washboards to industrial pulleys. Five years later, superiors considered young Boutell ready for promotion. He was advanced from a clerk’s modest cubicle to the office of secretary-treasurer. He then was only 23. 

Business contemporaries marveled at his knowledge of finance and foresight in judging market conditions. His opinions on investments were widely sought. In 1929, he was named chairman of the board and treasurer of Saginaw Manufacturing Company. Two years later, he retired from active participation in the firm and as treasurer of its affiliate, National Washboard Company of Chicago. 

He was one of the organizers of the Welfare League, forerunner of the Community Chest, and for years was chairman of the Chest’s budget committee. He was County Fuel Administrator during World War I when Saginaw County still was an important coal mining center. He boosted the county’s coal production spectacularly. Government officials praised him highly. He was Saginaw County War Board director in World Wars I and II. 

As a member of the old Board of Public Works and Water Board during Saginaw’s aldermanic form of government, Boutell became conversant with its faults and virtues.  He came to regard the five-man commission form of government as outmoded and prone to inefficiency. 

When efforts were made in the mid-1930s to discard the commission government for something better, Boutell became a leader in the movement. As chairman of the charter commission named to improve conduct of Saginaw municipal affairs by building afresh with a new government, Boutell headed the necessary painstaking research. He performed most himself and paid his own travel expenses. 

In form and content, the terse, lucid 3,700-word city charter personified his genius for clarity of thought and understandable language. He was an everlasting foe of prolix documents of any kind. 

During the 11 years he served on the Saginaw City Council, he devoted more time to the study of city affairs and scrutiny of the council’s conduct than could be expected. He had a chronic feeling of an almost-personal responsibility for the new city government. He was a familiar figure in the city manager’s office and a frequent visitor to department heads. For a layman, his expertise on all phases of city government was remarkable. But he consulted council colleagues frequently for their opinions about upcoming council legislation. 

One of Boutell’s most valued confidants was the late Dr. F. J. McDonald, former Saginaw mayor. Boutell, having served with Dr. McDonald, knew the latter’s unerring ability to forecast public reaction. As an admirer and friend of McDonald, Boutell continued to solicit the latter’s opinion after the ex-mayor retired from council service. 

Boutell was a pioneer in the long quest for an improved Saginaw city water supply. He had a major role in achieving the Lake Huron pipeline in partnership with the City of Midland. Boutell was also largely responsible for establishing the Tri-City Airport with a generous federal subsidy. In large measure he was responsible for the city revamping its business licensing procedure which had been considered helter-skelter and inequitable. Boutell championed installation of city parking meters as a means of easing city financial distress caused by a 15-mill tax limitation. 

He was a man of careful dress, without ostentation. It was his habit to smoke expensive, foreign-made pipes. In them he used a pipe-cigarette tobacco which came in a cloth, drawstring bag which cost a nickel. Watching him fill and light his pipe after stoking it from the cloth bag was a ritual which sometimes made council colleagues stop to watch. 

Boutell maintained a summer home on the Au Sable River and owned a 2,400-acre estate in Alabama where he went winters for quail shooting. He was part owner of a private duck marsh near Tobico Beach, Saginaw Bay. An accomplished wing shot and skilled fisherman, he also raised some of the finest bird dogs in the country. Several were field trial winners. 

He owned valuable guns which he prized. Once he bought an expensive new shotgun by ordering it from the manufacturer after carefully reading its specifications and performance claims. After Boutell got the weapon, he set up a firing range to test the gun. He carefully noted shot patterns at varying distances. They were not as advertised. So he began to write letters to the manufacturer. The latter finally dispatched a man to visit the “Saginaw gun expert” and placate him with a new shotgun. 

Boutell married Gertrude Graves of Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1895. They will be remembered always for the more than $2.5 million Arnold and Gertrude Boutell Memorial Fund established for Saginaw’s public good and community betterment. 

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