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Dederer, Michael (1905-1995)

HistoryLink.org Essay 7205 : Printer-Friendly Format

Michael Dederer -- “Mike” to his closest friends -- devoted his life to the Seattle Fur Exchange, building it into one of the foremost fur auctions in the country and an international presence in the industry. He also devoted enormous energy to public service “in the economic, educational and cultural life of the community” (Seattle Times Magazine). His mother and father, German immigrants raised in Russia, were among the millions of refugees who came to North America around the turn of the century to pursue their dreams of freedom and a better life. Like many of those sons and daughters of immigrants, Dederer had a profound respect for the institutions that made their good life possible and he responded by plunging into a wide range of community philanthropy. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Michael Dederer First Citizen of 1960 for his civic service and leadership.

Immigrant Stock

Michael Dederer was born on October 20, 1905, in Wetaskiwin, about 45 miles south of  Edmonton, Alberta. He was the son of German immigrants Alexander and Christina Dederer, who were born in Russia. His father, Alexander, was a cabinet maker.

The Dederers were descendents of Germans who had immigrated to southern Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great (1729-1796), but were driven out by changes in czarist priorities. Alexander and Christina Dederer arrived in Canada with two children, Frederick and John. A daughter, Anna, had died in childhood. Four more children were born in Alberta: Michael, Alex, Edward, and Olga. Anti-German prejudices spawned by World War I and other factors encouraged them to leave Canada in 1914 and settle in Great Falls, Montana, though anti-German sentiment ran high in the United States as well. Later, Michael, along with the rest of his family, became a naturalized United States citizen.

In Great Falls, Michael found work during high school at the Beckman Bros. department store.  There he began learning about the fur business from his boss, Al Beckman.

In 1920, the family moved again, alighting in Seattle for good, but Michael remained in Great Falls to finish high school, living with the Beckmans. It was an all-American boyhood and he identified strongly with a passage from Wallace Stegner’s recollections in Growing Up Western: “We spent our weekends hiking down to the Giant Spring, or Black Eagle Falls …. We hiked up the Missouri and swam a channel and camped on Third Island.”  Stegner (1909-1993), called the dean of Western writers, shared the Dederers’ German heritage, peripatetic life, and a period in Canada.

A Career Begins

Michael attended the Great Falls Business College for a year after high school and joined the family in Seattle in 1922. “There wasn’t money or time for more schooling” (Gary Dederer). He worked briefly in a tannery and joined the Seattle Fur Exchange in 1923 as a janitor.

Fur trading in the Pacific Northwest began with Captain James Cook (1728-1779), whose crew traded with Native Americans for furs, and John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), who established the first fur-trading post in the Pacific Northwest at Astoria, Oregon, in 1811. The precursor of the Seattle Fur Exchange was an auction organized in 1898 by fur trader Walter Flynn. This was the nation’s first raw fur auction. In 1923, under the aegis of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, his operation was reconstituted as the Seattle Fur Exchange.

Progress and Promotion

Michael Dederer saw a future in fur and as he worked his way up the organizational ladder he also invested his savings in the company. He was named treasurer and general manager in 1936, and became president in 1939. According to Fur Exchange historian Robert Spector, “For the next 34 years, Mike Dederer was the Seattle Fur Exchange” (Spector, 26).

Michael married Clara Collon of Somers, Montana, in June 1929, and they had two sons, Michael Eugene and Gary Richard. Clara died of cancer in November 1940, at age 35.  In 1942 Michael married Josephine (“Jo”) Collon, Clara’s sister. Jo died in 1978, and in 1980, Michael married Emily Campbell, a widow with three children from her first marriage. Emily died in 1994.

The Great Depression devastated the fur market, because “middle-class families, the backbone of the American fur-buying market, since 1929 had been squeezed out ...” (The Seattle Times).  Michael worked diligently to upgrade and streamline the trade and improve the quality of hides, both wild and farm-raised. Pamphlets and other visual aids were distributed and he traveled extensively to promote his cause, visiting trappers, farmers, manufacturers, and retailers. “He was one of the first fur men to cover the then-Territory of Alaska by airplane” (Spector). Among the pelts Seattle Fur Exchange handled were beaver, muskrat, otter, lynx, ermine, weasel, marten, mink, and fox.

The Quality of Fur

Fur farming began in the 1920s, primarily mink, but the quality of fur was poor. Michael organized seminars that included veterinarians and geneticists to help improve quality. By the 1960s, farmers were able to raise mink in 40 colors. Today, 80 percent of the market is farmed fur.

The Seattle Fur Exchange became one of the major players in the world fur market, competing with the New York and Hudson’s Bay auctions.

The industry prospered in the postwar years, but troubles arose in the 1970s. A global depression hit the mink industry that year and about half of United States mink farmers went out of business. The upwelling of environmental concerns in the 1960s -- along with protests for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam -- affected the fur industry. Critics believed that wild-animal traps were inhumane and that fur farming -- raising animals for their pelts -- was criminal. "Dad and I saw it coming in the late sixties,” Gary Dederer said. “It was growing in Europe. The trade pooh-poohed it, but the trade finally had to react.”

The Mystique of the Fur Trade

Like his father, Gary Dederer was committed to the fur trade. “There is a mystique that’s part of the value and price. It gets into you.”

Michael retired as Fur Exchange president in 1975, but remained a director. He was “one of the best-known animal fur judges in the country” and “a master auctioneer” (Spector).

Fur rancher Archie Gardner said, “Mike had charisma ... a joy to be around. He was a tough businessman. He was straight as string” (Spector).

After World War I, $4 million worth of furs passed through Seattle annually. When Michael Dederer retired for good in 1986 (his son Gary was now president), it was $40 million. Today, the fur trade is global, with Russia and China the primary markets. “There are 1.5 billion people in China,” Gary Dederer said, and the winters can be cold. The United States accounts for less than a third of international fur sales and the Pacific Northwest represents less than 2 percent of the market.

Fur was a Dederer family affair. Michael’s brother Jack worked for the company until 1971, when he retired. Jack’s son J. William (“Bill”) became executive vice president and a member of the board of directors. Brother Frederick owned Dederer’s Fine Furs in downtown Seattle and also worked for the Fur Exchange for a time. Michael’s other siblings died young: Alex at 36, Eddie at 39, and Olga in her 30s.

Michael's son Gary joined the firm after discharge from military service in 1962, became president in 1975, retired in 1986, but remained active in the industry. The younger Mike worked for the Fur Exchange occasionally during high school and college, but chose public relations as a career, retiring in the late 1990s.

An Outdoor Family

The Dederers relished the Pacific Northwest outdoor lifestyle -- flyfishing, backpacking, golfing, and skiing -- and their sons inherited their passion. The fur industry is a seasonal trade, with most activity and travel concentrated in the fall and winter months, so the Dederer family was able to take advantage of Pacific Northwest summers more than most. “Hiking for miles with a 65-pound pack was routine for him,” son Mike recalled. Gary said: “On a fishing trip, a week-long pack trip, on vacation, we never talked business.”

His sons remembered him as “reservedly warm” with them, but “his grandchildren thought he walked on water.”

Service to the Community

Though he traveled the world for the Fur Exchange and served in leadership positions for many state and national industry associations, Michael Dederer also devoted uncommon energies to public service. He served as president of the Board of Regents of Washington State University (WSU) and Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) and headed the WSU Foundation. He volunteered for and chaired the Century 21 Corporation, which organized and ran the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair; served at various times as president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Community Chest and United Good Neighbor Fund (now United Way), YMCA, Rotary Club of Seattle, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Goodwill, and the Rainier Club. He was president of the vestry, Queen Anne Lutheran Church.

His honors include the National Conference of Christians and Jews Brotherhood Award; Junior Chamber of Commerce Boss of the Year Award, and Rotarian of the Year. The Dederer Family Conference Center at the YMCA’s Camp Orkila on Orcas Island is named in his honor.

He also served on the boards of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Pacific Science Center Foundation, Washington Children’s Home Society, Boy Scouts of America, and World Affairs Council. He was president of the Seattle-King County Historical Society and a member of its board for 20 years. Michael’s wife Clara also was active in public service, devoting time and energy to the Children’s Hospital and the Milk Fund.

First Citizen

It was for Michael Dederer’s lifetime of public service that the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named him Citizen of the Year in 1960.

He also was active in Republican Party politics, a supporter and friend of such leaders as United States Representative Joel Pritchard (1925-1997) and former Governor and United States Senator Dan Evans (b. 1925). It was a full, rich life of business, public service, philanthropies, politics, and family.

Michael Dederer died of kidney failure on June 24, 1995.  He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Seattle.

Sources:
Robert Spector, Seattle Exchange: 100 Years (Seattle: Documentary Book Publishers, 1998); Frank Chesley interview with Michael E. and Gary R. Dederer, June 28, 2004; Gladys Nelson, Seattle Times Magazine, April 22, 1962, pp. 12-13; Dederer family archives.


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