Henry Ford Did Work Here

May, 2007.

Sneaking into an abandoned building with a historical marker out front was a new and kind of bizarre thing for me. It underscored just how terminally f@#$%d-up our region is, and how like the fall of Rome its decline was beginning to look when our absolute most historic places are not only abandoned, but apparently spiraling into oblivion. Luckily this building would get a second chance, as you will soon see.

On October 7, 1913, Henry Ford launched the first moving assembly line here at the Highland Park Model T Plant, giving birth to a new era of industrial mass production. The use of the assembly line shortened the time it took to build a Model T from 12 and a half hours to 93 minutes, enabling Ford to catch up with consumer demand, and simultaneously reduce the price of the automobile.

This allowed more people of lower economic status to be able to afford a car; moreover, to be able to afford the items they labored to manufacture in the plants of their employment was kind of a new thing in those days.

In 1914 the success of the moving assembly line allowed Ford to increase general wages from $2.34 a day to $5, while simultaneously reducing the work week to 40 hours per man, so that the plant could be kept in continuous production with three rotating eight-hour shifts. The combination of all these conditions under one roof essentially facilitated the creation of the American Middle Class and ushered in the modern era of mass commodity as other industries began copying Ford methods. Ford even used his position as a Wayne County Road Commissioner to turn this stretch of Woodward Avenue into the world's first modern paved highway.

The world was quite literally changed forever on this very spot, in a number of different ways. So naturally, I was pretty awed when I saw an exploitable way to sneak into part of this historic plant, even if it was just the sales building.

According to one article, Ford began producing Model T's at Highland Park on January 1, 1910 using the traditional station-build process, the same as used at the Piquette plant with teams of workers moved from car to car, though he was already brainstorming ways to streamline his production processes.

This plant was the largest factory in the world (probably several hundred times bigger than Ford's previous Piquette Avenue plant), sitting on 230 acres. It grew to around three million square feet of floor space, though I think I have seen much larger figures quoted (the Packard Plant was 3.5 million, and I am pretty sure this plant was significantly larger than it).

An article in the Detroit News states that Ford put the factory in Highland Park because it was outside of the urban core, and to avoid Detroit's extremely high city taxes. Ford quickly realized however that this relative isolation from established shipping routes was a mistake.

A railroad strike that occurred soon after this plant opened made up Henry's mind that it was imperative to have access to more than one mode of transportation, i.e., maritime shipping, which naturally led to the construction of the Rouge Plant in Dearborn just a few years later. 

While Henry Ford is often looked on today as this great and wonderful father figure who benevolently gave birth to the luxurious modern life-of-plenty that we all enjoy today, he was also a complete asshole, and if he was a father figure at all then he was the overbearing father you hated when you were a teenager.

Sure, he announced this great new era of doubled wages, reduced work hours, and increased benefits, but when 12,000 men showed up at his plant the next day to sign up and only a couple thousand of them were needed, Ford had his security men blast those who were still hanging around after the hiring was done with fire hoses on that freezing cold day, which resulted in a minor riot (minor by Detroit standards, anyway).

Policemen were attacked, and the plant suffered many broken windows. More hopeful men kept coming in the following days. The rest of that year was dismal for the working class of Detroit; the resulting deluge of newcomers to the city meant that there were now far more men living in the city than there were jobs available, regardless of sector. 

This fueled an economic panic that lasted until spring, and the winter of 1914-1915 was one of the hardest in Detroit's history in terms of mass unemployment and unrest. Many desperate men came from the Upper Peninsula copper mining ranges after the attempt to unionize the Michigan mining industry came to a catastrophic end, hoping that Ford's promise of work in the Motor City would pay off, but most arrived to only disappointment and poverty. 

Another effect of the unheard-of $5 pay-raise announcement was a rebellion by stockholders who could not believe that the company would be able to withstand the massive hike in production cost. In response, Henry Ford bought up all of the Ford Motor Co.'s stock himself, and it remained firmly under his own private control for the rest of his life.

Another thing that people often overlook when thinking back on the innovations of Henry Ford in regards to the improved conditions within his plant is that he added better lighting, circulation, and working space strictly out of humanitarian ends, and to make his workers more comfortable. 

In reality Ford was more concerned with these improvements because they allowed him to fit more work stations into the same amount of space, allowing him to save on cost per square foot. His interest in making his employees more "comfortable" was also more related to increasing his bottom line, since he knew that he could then demand more speed and productivity from his employees. 

Once the honeymoon was over and the media hype around the $5 workday had passed, the reality of the grueling factory life inside the "utopian" Crystal Palace became evident. Despite the 200% pay raise and increased benefits, the turnover rate at the plant was very high, simply because most men could not keep up with the nonstop pace of the work, or the repetitive monotony of the tasks required.

Where once a man was asked to build an entire magneto, a series of varied and complex tasks, now he was limited to just a few tasks before handing his work off to the next station of the assembly line.

And so it went, hour after grueling hour, with most men quitting because they simply could not tolerate the inhuman repetition (or for that matter the stress of the glaring taskmasters holding stopwatches and firing anyone who deviated from his rigidly defined set of tasks). The rapid pace of production enabled Ford to pay his workers far higher wages, but it also created a relentless monotony that many of his employees detested.

But as a Detroiter, I realize that it was these very same initial sacrifices made by my great-grandparents that ultimately bestowed upon me the ability to experience the higher quality of life that I enjoy today as I sit here in this well-maintained 1930s bungalow sipping wine and eating chocodiles with a laptop balanced on my stomach. Okay, I'm not really doing those things, but you get the point--I don't take my relative privilege for granted.

By the way, this area was not a factory floor, it was the executive garage; it was where the big wigs (such as Henry Ford himself) parked their personal vehicles:

Other revolutionary perks of employment at Ford Highland Park besides the pay were an on-site infirmary, a commissary, a top-notch trade school for boys as well as adult education classes in English and citizenship for immigrants.

The plant also saw the inauguration of Ford's "Sociology Department," which could easily be seen as corporate paternalism run amuck to its most extreme logical conclusion (as well as Henry's own neuroses!).

The Ford Sociology Dept. men made visits to workers' homes to ensure they were keeping a clean and properly run household, and were not consuming alcohol or spending money frivolously. Transgressors would be fired. Nonetheless, Charles Berlitz, of the famous Berlitz language schools, said Ford Motor Co. was "responsible for more people learning English than any other institution."

The Detroit News said that Ford's "interest" in his workers' home lives had a positive, lasting impact on the face of Highland Park itself. "Blocks north and south of the plant were lined with beautiful, well-built old homes that the company helped fix up for its workers." Prior to this plant's existence, the town population was 425. By 1910 with the plant beginning to churn, Highland Park's population grew to 4,120. By the end of 1914 it was up to 27,170.

By 1924 production had moved to the Rouge in Dearborn and this plant was basically being used as a giant machine shop, but it was this period during which it reached its peak employment level--69,000 men. That essentially made it the fourth-largest city in Michigan. Not Highland Park--the plant itself. And they all apparently voted against annexation into the rapidly expanding city of Detroit, resulting in Highland Park remaining an autonomous island within the city to this day. 

With so many people working there, the limited municipal streetcar system was often overtaxed, resulting in problems with getting workers into their stations on time. Ford decided to stagger starting and quitting times so that the streets would not be routinely clogged at shift change.

On May 26, 1927, the 15 millionth Model T was built, and on May 31, the last Model T rolled off the line here; the Model A was ready for production at the new Rouge Plant. There are still almost 300,000 Model Ts in existence today.

The c.2008 book Inside the Crystal Palace: A History of Henry Ford's Highland Park Plant, by April Key Jacques says that after completion of the Rouge plant in 1925, the Highland Park plant was no longer used for car production, but Ford tractors were built here until 1928, then again from 1945 to 1973 when the Ford tractor plant in Romeo was opened.

Besides tractors, Ford Motors continued to use this plant for processes such as textile production and dying, trim fabrication, machining, production of glass, radiators, roller bearings, wire, and batteries. 

According to Jacques, Calvin Coolidge and the Prince of Wales have even toured this plant, as well as hundreds of thousands of other curious tourists. President Coolidge spoke before 20,000 people here.

He wrote that the administration building housed an auditorium, photo gallery, post office, telegraph and telephone exchange, and "even a movie theater." I don't recall finding any of these things during my visit--perhaps I was too busy looking for an entrance to the Paymaster's Tunnel...

Henry Ford believed in paying his employees in hard cash, just like in the "olden days." So according to the book How Detroit Became the Automotive Capitol by Robert Szudarek, when the company payroll swelled to massive proportions, Ford had a tunnel built underneath Manchester Street from the Paymaster's Office to the Highland Park State Bank next-door, to safely dispense such large sums without fear of robbery.

Henry loved his secret tunnels. A hand-operated winch pulled a cashbox through the tunnel according to Szudarek. Unfortunately, I was not able to locate the tunnel or any sign of it; I think the Paymater's Office may have been in the other building that was demolished?

The book Albert Kahn, Architect of Ford, by Federico Bucci explains that it was the Highland Park Model T Plant project that not only brought Henry Ford into his own as an industrial giant, but Albert Kahn equally so. This was Kahn's biggest, most important contract to date, and it was what really put him on the map as possibly the world's foremost industrial architect, and it was the direct result of his much-lauded recent work on the Packard Plant.

There is a popular urban legend that the two men never met face to face, and that it was a stipulation of their working together that they never crossed paths. Kahn of course was a Jew, and Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite.

Nonetheless, together they revolutionized the industrial world forever in a matter of a decade...not only did Kahn's ideas give form to Ford's business methods, but Ford ideas also began to permeate into Kahn's business methods.

This plant was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978, and Ford sold the building in 1981 to a management company, but still rents space for storage in the large factory buildings.

Once, the Packard Plant offices had bannisters this fancy too, if you remember:

Large portions of the plant have been demolished over the years, including the iconic powerhouse, with its five tall smokestacks. One of its nine gigantic dynamos sits on display in the Henry Ford Museum to this day.

Again, I must say I was more than a little awed, or humbled while strolling through the halls of this office building. Henry, Edsel, Harry Bennett, Charles Sorenson, James Couzens, Albert Kahn, Edward Gray...all these important historic Detroit personages had spent time in these halls at a time when the world was being changed forever.

A vault:

This fire escape was how I accessed the roof, if I recall correctly:

What's ironic is that I was in here exploring on almost the precise 100th anniversary of Henry Ford dreaming up the idea for this plant. I doubt he could have foreseen this:

In 2013, the Woodward Avenue Action Association (WA3) were trying to raise $125k to buy this building (and the attached executive garage) for conversion into a museum and tourism center. And yes, I did make a donation to their cause.

By December, the WA3 met with success and had raised enough money to purchase this building. The volunteers of the Detroit Mower Gang recently took up the task of maintaining the grounds on behalf of the WA3 while they begin the work of restoration.

American Odyssey, by Robert Conot
Inside the Crystal Palace: A History of Henry Ford's Highland Park Plant, by April Key Jacques
Designing For Industry: The Architecture of Albert Kahn, by Grant Hildebrand, pg. 43-54
Albert Kahn, Architect of Ford, by Federico Bucci, pg. 37
Detroit Perspectives: Crossroads and Turning Points, by Wilma Hendrickson
How Detroit Became the Automotive Capitol, by Robert Szudarek, pg. 152-156
The Lower Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER, 1976


  1. The main building you toured there, Nailhed, was the Sales Building. The administration building was torn down as was closer to the old powerhouse building. Mr. Ford was a real showman and his powerhouse building was all glass on the Woodward Avenue side of the building and there sat nine 6,000hp gas-steam engines, with a balcony for the public to view them from. This link is to a artist's conception of what it looked like 'in the day'. One of these engines survived and Henry Ford had his museum built around it- an interesting story in itself of the process to get it the ten miles to Dearborn.

    1. Thanks for the correction on the Sales Blg...noted.
      I am very familiar with the old powerhouse engine at the Museum; as a kid growing up, it was one of the things that struck me with the most awe in the museum.

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