Story of the Week

Posted: 05.18.2009
Assembly Line Realized at Highland Park
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In 1908, Ford Motor Co. developed plans for a new facility, one that had a worldwide impact on manufacturing. It was Fords Highland Park Plant, which still stands at the corner of Woodward and Manchester. Legendary architect Albert Kahn created the factory. He had built a modern plant for Packard using many of the same materials and concepts later employed in the Highland Park Plant.

FORD EMPLOYED some 20,000 workers at the Highland Park Assembly Plant and they must have looked like a rather impressive audience to President Woodrow Wilson when he spoke at the plant.

Kahn used reinforced concrete for the construction, which allowed for large, open rooms that could efficiently accommodate machinery. More importantly, he included large windows and louvers that admitted fresh air and sunlight into the work spaces.This allowed a much more pleasant environment for Ford workers. Kahn also designed the building to be easily expanded to add additional capacity. It was called the Crystal Palace because of the use of plate glass, said Ford corporate historian Bob Kreipke. It was the largest, most modern factory in the world at its time.

According to Kreipke, Ford put the factory in Highland Park because it was outside of the city and more or less on the outskirts of the urban area. This was also an attempt to avoid Detroits extremely high city taxes. However, Ford almost immediately realized it had made a mistake in locating the factory there. It was landlocked, with the only real shipping access to the site being via railroad. A railroad strike soon after the plant opened convinced Ford it was important to have water access as well for shipping purposes (this predated the prevalence of trucks as a shipping medium). That led to the construction of the Rouge Plant less than a decade after the Highland Park plant opened.

THE HIGHLAND PARK Assembly Plant was designed by legendary architect Albert Kahn and at the time of its opening was the most technologically advanced factory on Earth.

The Highland Park Plant was not only notable for its architecture. It truly made its mark in history as the site where Ford introduced the moving assembly line. This reduced assembly time for a Model T from 728 minutes to 93 minutes and allowed Ford to produce vehicles in great volume and at ever more reasonable cost. The modern plant also saw the inauguration of Fords sociology department. With many immigrants coming in to work at Ford plants, the sociology department oversaw English classes that would run during lunch hour.

THE ASSEMBLY LINE Henry Ford developed was fully realized at the Highland Park Plant, where the assembly time for a Model T plummeted from 728 minutes to 93.

The sociology department would even make visits to workers homes to ensure they were keeping a properly run household. Henry Ford was quite fanatical on living the clean life and having a nice place to live, Kreipke said. Although the sociology department is considered paternalistic and intrusive by modern standards, thousands of people learned English that might otherwise have struggled. Charles Berlitz, of the famous Berlitz language schools, said that Ford Motor Co. was responsible for more people learning English than any other institution.

Fords interest in his workers home lives had a positive, lasting impact on Highland Park as well. Blocks north and south of the plant are lined with beautiful, well-built old homes that the company helped fix up for its workers. Kreipke notes with a laugh that Ford was instrumental in closing down many of the bars in the town as well. At the time the plant was built, there were four times as many bars as there were churches in Highland Park, which was an affront to teetotaler Ford.

The Highland plant included a factory hospital to treat on the-job injuries, a film plant to document the manufacturing process, and a tunnel that until quite recently ran underneath Manchester Street to the bank across the street. The tunnel facilitated the movement of tens of thousands of dollars in cash every day. The plant was visited by President Woodrow Wilson, who spoke to more than 20,000 Ford employees gathered at the plant. Tours were also offered to the public.

After completion of the Rouge plant in the 1920s, the plant was used for trim fabrication and tractor assembly. It gained National Historic Landmark status in 1978. Ford sold the building in 1981 to a management company, but Ford still rents space for storage. A large shopping center called Model T Plaza opened in the 1990s on several acres of the land.

For more on Fords Highland Park Plant and other historic sites, visit MotorCities National Heritage Areas website at www.motorcities.org


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