Battleground Kelsey-Hayes..."For the Union Makes Us Strong"

Photos are from December, 2004 and up.

Located on the north side of McGraw just east of Livernois Avenue is this old beaten-down shell of a ruin. You can tell it was an Albert Kahn design, and that it was probably related in some way to the auto industry, but like me, you might not realize that quite a bit of significant Detroit social history went down here. It was the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company.

According to coachbuilt.com, the company had a catch phrase in the 1920s-30s, "Tighter than Kelsey's Nuts," which of course was a reference to the quality and reliability of their wheel products, which were held on by lugnuts. Over time the phrase was used to refer to a person who was stingy, and eventually President Richard Nixon came up with his own version, "deader than Kelsey's nuts." If Detroit was the city that "Put the World on Wheels," then this is the plant that made them.


John C. Kelsey was born in Detroit in 1867, got his start in the paper business, and later partnered with Warren G. Vinton. By 1907 Kelsey's name appeared among others on a patent for a type of sprung automobile wheel, and the Kelsey, Herbert & Co. had a couple plants in the city, one of which was on Kirby and supplied automobile bodies and other subassemblies to car manufacturers, including Ford Motor. The sprung wheel idea fell out of favor and carmakers went back to wooden artillery wheels, so in 1909 John Kelsey reorganized two of his other companies into the Kelsey Wheel Co. to supply hickory spoked wheels to Ford.


A few other companies also bought wheels from him in smaller quantity, such as Cadillac, and later Hudson Motors, Chalmers, Paige, Studebaker, Saxon, and Huppmobile. By 1915 the Kelsey Wheel Co. had its main plant at 1230 Military (now renumbered to 3600 Military), and this plant on McGraw Avenue, as well as one in Windsor, Ontario on Howard Street. The Sanborn map shows these two concrete structures at 6100 McGraw labeled as machine shops, built in 1920.


In 1918 Kelsey came out with another major contribution to the auto industry, the introduction of the steel felloe, which is the outer rim of a wheel, into which the outer ends of the spokes are inserted. Having this part made of steel instead of wood made for a much more resilient wheel, and reduced the amount of repairs needed over time. Naturally this dovetailed perfectly into military production needs as America entered WWI that year, and Kelsey helped fulfill the inexhaustible demand for sturdy artillery wheels alongside Prudden Wheel in Lansing, who were credited with inventing the artillery wheel.


John Kelsey passed away in 1927, and was succeeded as president of the company by George Kennedy. Kelsey Wheel Co.'s directors sought to merge with their main competitor, Hayes Wheel, but in order to avoid a violation of a patent regarding the mountability of wire wheels that had been issued to Edward Cole and assigned to Packard Motors for the Wire Wheel Corp. of Buffalo, they were obliged to also buy the Wire Wheel Corp. and the rights to Packard's patent as well. Thus, the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Co. was born in May of 1927.


The Hayes Wheel Co. itself has its own history, and was founded by Clarence B. Hayes. Mr. Hayes got his start at the Kalamazoo Wheel Company, which built wooden buggy wheels. He quickly worked his way up however, becoming general manager of the Imperial Wheel Company, where he worked with William C. Durant, who went on to found General Motors.


Hayes bought out the National Wheel Company plant in Jackson, Michigan in 1908 and began producing automobile wheels under his own name. The company moved to Albion, Michigan in 1912, and soon came to manufacture 50% of all automotive wheel hubs in the nation, and, like Kelsey, started as a supplier to Ford Motor of wooden wheels for the Model T. Mr. Hayes also founded the Albion Bolt Co., which became the largest manufacturer of automotive nuts and bolts in the world.

For reference, Lansing's Prudden Wheel Co. got its start in 1903.


Kelsey-Hayes solidified their position as the dominant American automotive wheelmaker when they invented the drop-center steel wheel in 1934, which instantly became the industry standard, replacing the more easily worn-out wooden spoke wheel. The advantage was that the dish-shaped steel wheel did not flex laterally at the hub from centripetal force of a vehicle taking a corner, which was the main force that fatigued wood spoke wheels, leading to their replacement.

The Detroit Historical Museum's website says that during WWII, Kelsey-Hayes manufactured road wheel assembly parts, track supporting roller parts, volute spring suspensions and parts, M-7 tank track end connectors, universal carriers and parts, automatic type hub wheels, brakes and parts, aircraft parts, steel aim and disc assemblies, as well as three-inch and four-inch artillery shells. They also experimented in making magnesium wheels for the military.


All did not go smoothly during Kelsey Hayes's history however. An old strike meeting flyer from the AFL that circulated in the plant on May 5, 1935 was reprinted in the book Yesterday's Detroit, by Frank Angelo. It was typed in both English and Polish, and said:
It is the DUTY and PRIVILEGE of all employees to attend this meeting, inasmuch as the results of the vote [to strike] will affect ALL OF YOU. Every employee of the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company will have a opportunity to be heard. Many of you have had plenty to say in the past. Come and say it now, where it will mean something.
The meeting was to take place at the Polish Falcon Hall at 4130 Junction Avenue; 40% of this plant's workforce was Polish, Hungarian, or of otherwise northern European immigration. Kelsey-Hayes was one of the very first automotive plants in Detroit to be struck as part of the movement that resulted in the first lasting effort to organize the automobile industry.


I haven't been able to find out yet if there was actually a strike of Kelsey-Hayes in 1935 or not, but there were plenty of other auto plant strikes in Detroit before this, with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) calling the supposed first-ever strike of the auto industry at Detroit's Studebaker plants in 1913, according to the book We Make Our Own History. The first-ever recorded sit-down strike of an auto plant was at Nash Motors in Kenosha, in 1933, the book says. The book Working Detroit states that the November 1936 strike of the Midland Steel plant at 6660 Mt. Elliott was the first time in Detroit history that "a major auto company had been forced to come to terms with a union representing all its workers."

However, the Kelsey-Hayes strike just days later was the major victory that most spurred the movement which led to the United Auto Workers (UAW) eventually being recognized as the sole bargaining entity for the laborers of the automobile industry across the board. Unlike previous piecemeal attempts by the IWW and AFL, it was the first time all the car companies had to reckon seriously with Detroit changing from an open shop town, to becoming unionized. The Kelsey-Hayes strike heralded the beginning of the great strike of General Motors that would culminate in the historic Flint Sit-Down at Fisher Body, after which sit-down strikes became a bit of a fad across the nation for the rest of 1937--not just in automobile plants, but in all kinds of workplaces. I have heard that the Kelsey-Hayes plant in Ontario was the first auto plant in Canada to be unionized.


According to the book Sit-down: the General Motors Strike of 1936-1937 by Sidney Fine, the Kelsey-Hayes plant sat down along with most other GM plants "for varying periods." But this plant's involvement in the drive to get the UAW recognized was interesting, and one of the most important, because it not only directly affected GM production, but also Ford's.

The mighty Ford Rouge Plant was crippled by the stoppages because Ford still received almost all of their brake drums and shoes from Kelsey-Hayes. In the midst of this, the militantly anti-union Henry Ford advised GM to settle their dispute with the UAW, and simultaneously threatened the UAW to likewise resolve the situation, or (in a classic Henry Ford move) he would seek a court order authorizing the Wayne County Sheriff to enter the Kelsey-Hayes plant and seize the Ford dies that were used in the manufacture of the brake equipment.


But this was all part of the plan for a certain union man. It was his role in leading this strike that gave him a reputation, and brought him to a prominent position within the UAW later; that man was Walter Reuther, who would become known as "The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit," so to speak. His brother Victor Reuther worked at this plant, whereas Walter had until recently been employed at the Ford Rouge, but was fired for his radical politics.


The Reuthers knew just how crucial the Kelsey-Hayes Plant was to various automakers, especially Ford, and furthermore that it was especially vulnerable to an organizing drive, so they quickly decided that this plant would be the first major gambit in the labor battle over the auto industry. With 5,000 employees it was small enough to where they knew it would be easy to organize, yet still big enough to make a major impact, and several known "shop radicals" were already among its ranks.

The fact that Kelsey-Hayes was not directly a Ford or GM division undoubtedly made striking it a powerful show of solidarity amongst autoworkers, despite corporate attempts to keep men divided along company lines. At the time, 80% of Kelsey-Hayes's production went to the Ford Rouge plant, and Walter Reuther absolutely saw this as a huge step in the direction of eventually conquering that heretofore invincible goliath.


According to the book Working Detroit, by Steve Babson, the Kelsey-Hayes sit-down precipitated as a response to a speed-up that management had imposed on the plant in order to meet the demands of the production contract for Ford, and the near slave-driving of the line supervisors. The demands of the Kelsey-Hayes activists mainly included slower production line speed and better overtime pay. Several short "quickie" strikes led up to the big sit-down in '36 however, because at first Reuther was not sure that there was enough support amongst workers to pull off a full occupation of the plant. Furthermore, organizers had to be careful in their planning so that management would not get wind of any strike plans.


Walter Reuther and other UAW men arranged a meeting with the president of Kelsey-Hayes, George Kennedy, for December 11th, 1936 to discuss grievances. They then arranged for a woman on the line to pretend to faint on December 10th, which would be the signal for the strike to begin, right before a shift change. Victor Reuther jumped from his station and pulled the main switch to stop the assembly line, yelling, "Strike! We've had enough of this speed-up!" The other handful of union supporters then began rallying the workers and soon a crowd of hundreds had gathered where Victor was standing on top of a crate giving a speech.


The company at first remained stalwart, only agreeing to a wage increase, and refusing to acknowledge the UAW, so Walter Reuther called for the strike to continue. Kennedy feared that the plant would be occupied, and quickly ordered everyone in the building cleared out, or be prosecuted for criminal trespass. Many fearful left, but many brave stayed. Once Kennedy agreed to another conference, the sit-in was averted, but when the meeting came the following Monday, Kennedy was again intransigent. Reuther knew that it had become necessary to occupy the plant, and establish a picket line outside it.


A historic photo of the sit-down on page 73 of Babson's book shows a throng of striking workers dancing and clapping along with an accordion player in what appears to be the same area shown in the next photo. There was no polka music during my visit, however, only silence. The same stiff Detroit December cold was here though:


The strikers managed to get food into the plant during the occupation by asking the next shift to throw their lunches over the fence. Thereafter, a soup kitchen was established at the Polish Falcons hall, to bring in regular meals. The company attempted the usual propaganda to lure men out, such as sending false telegrams that wives or children had fallen ill, and sneaking spies and professional strikebreakers inside to disrupt the coup.


Twelve such men snuck in on December 18, under the pretext of inciting a violent incident that would justify police intervention, but the union was sharp in recognizing the move, and trapped the agent provocateurs inside the plant's infirmary. The use of agent provocateurs to incite riots is a tactic commonly used up to the present day (even by police) to disrupt protests that threaten the establishment.

Interestingly, the Wayne County Prosecutor's opinion on police intervention in strikes at this time was that striking workers were originally inside a plant by invitation of their employer, so no case for trespass could be made, and therefore police could not be used to break a strike.


It just so happened that there were several nearby union meetings in other locals that same day, and Reuther sent word out to them for reinforcements on the picket line. Soon there were thousands of sympathizers on the picket line from different unions, shouting, "Throw the scabs out!" and chanting an ultimatum of "Fifteen minutes!" 


According to the book Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit by Nelson Lichtenstein, the current police commissioner in Detroit was notoriously anti-labor, and would probably have loved nothing more than to storm the plant with swinging clubs and smoking pistols in another massacre like the Ford Hunger March, but he was restrained by Mayor Couzens, who didn't want to hurt his political career by looking like a strikebreaker in light of recent landslide election victories for Frank J. Murphy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. All the same, the police were apt to act on their own and clear the scene, "in which case a riot seemed certain that frosty night." After a brief standoff, Reuther assured police that the trapped (and thoroughly jangled) agent provocateurs would be allowed to retreat from the plant peacefully if they would escort them out.


Kelsey-Hayes management finally buckled to pressure five days later when Ford threatened to terminate their contract and find another brake parts supplier. Two thousand cheering people paraded from the plant with the UAW band; they had won a new minimum wage for both men and women, premium pay for overtime, seniority rules for job security, and a 20% reduction in assembly line speed.

The Reuthers went on to the momentous Flint Sit-Down immediately afterward, where an even greater victory awaited. The only reason Ford allowed Kelsey-Hayes to continue supplying under their contract was because they had not officially recognized the UAW as a bargaining entity in the wording of the concession agreement, but as history shows, it wouldn't be long before the UAW would get GM and the rest of the auto industry to recognize them.


Though not all of the more militant workers inside Kelsey-Hayes had been appeased by the deal, the union now had a foothold at least, and the workplace climate on the shop floor thereafter was changed drastically; no longer did the plant managers and foremen hold the workers in a grip of fear, and men conducted union meetings openly during lunch. Furthermore, the same spirit of resistance following the victory at Kelsey-Hayes flowed out to many other plants in Detroit, and soon the UAW's membership was swelling in the thousands. Eventually, company president George Kennedy decided to recognize the UAW Local 174 following the great Chrysler sit-down in March of 1937.


Divisions along racial lines however still existed within Kelsey-Hayes according to the book Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW by August Meier, particularly in regards to the foundry division, where of course blacks were the primary men in that undesirable occupation. They had been reluctant to join the unionization strikes out of fear that the seniority provisions being fought for would be applied unfairly against them, and that they could be bumped out from above by whites, as had happened in the past when times got tight.


To address these concerns, the UAW assured them that the foundry would be considered a separate entity in terms of applying seniority. Segregationist strife still occurred on occasion during war production in the 1940s, but it was not as problematic as in other major plants such as Packard. In late 1942, a significant precedent was set when Kelsey-Hayes agreed to provide assembly line jobs for 17 black women.


According to the book Who Really Made Your Car?, Kelsey-Hayes experienced a series of takeovers as the might of the Detroit auto industry began to wane; Fruehauf took over in 1973 and sold it again in 1989 to Varity (the former Massey-Ferguson), who spun it off in 1992 but then merged with Motor Wheel in 1995. Today it is part of Maxion Wheel.


There had once been a skybridge across McGraw Street connecting these two halves of the plant:


This steel-framed structure on the south side of McGraw Avenue was built in 1929, and demolished in autumn of 2010. Albert Kahn designed a similar structure to this one for Kelsey-Hayes in 1919, at 3600 Military Street, which is still in use today by the Olympic Steel Corp.


My buddy Crawly and I stopped into Kelsey-Hayes again in February of 2008 to briefly check out this large building, hence these more recent-looking digital photos.


As of 2017 nothing but cleared land remains on this spot, but the ruins of the concrete buildings on the north side of McGraw Avenue continue to stand. There has supposedly been a campaign to get a historical marker erected here commemorating the labor history of the Kelsey-Hayes site.


The company eventually moved to new headquarters in the suburb of Romulus, a facility which I briefly discussed in a different post.


In January of 2016, my friend Yaz and I made another return visit to see what was left of the plant on the north side of McGraw. We started in the company offices:


The "grand" stairway leading down to the factory floor:


I wonder if these steps used to be decorative like the ones in the Packard Plant? If there was ever any fancy wooden paneling or brass bannister, they're long gone:


December 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the Kelsey-Hayes strike.


The level of metal scrapping that has gone on here in the past decade blows my mind. The interior of this place is almost nothing like it was on my first visit:


All the window sash, and the smokestacks were gone.


Attached to the ceiling however there were still a few fragments of the old overheard conveyor of the assembly line:


The spot here where you could still make out the faded lettering on the plant where it used to say "KELSEY-HAYES" has since become mostly covered up by graffiti:



References:
Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 12, Sheet 16 & 47
Sit-down: the General Motors Strike of 1936-1937, by Sidney Fine, pg. 131-132
Who Really Made Your Car?, by Thomas H. Klier & James M. Rubenstein, pg. 262-263
Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW, by August Meier
Union Guy, by Clayton W. Fountain
Yesterday's Detroit, by Frank Angelo
Working Detroit, by Steve Babson
We Make Our Own History, by International Union, UAW, 1980
Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, by Nelson Lichtenstein, pg. 63-66
http://www.coachbuilt.com/bui/k/kelsey_herbert/kelsey_herbert.htm
http://www.albionmich.com/history/histor_notebook/960107.shtml
http://www.maxionwheels.com/en/about-us/history.aspx
http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/kelsey-hayes-group-of-companies-history/

1 comment:

  1. My grandfather had worked at the plant, taking me in there for an unofficial tour when I was a kid, but I remember that massive building and all the activity. This was back in the early 70s, so things were still going on there. It's a little sad to see a place that was so vibrant in ruins.

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