Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A century of Ford cars made at Torrence Avenue

     The Ford Model T automobile was made of wood. The car required 250 board feet of hard maple — most of it used in the body — the reason the company's Chicago Assembly Plant was built on the Calumet River, at Torrence Avenue and 125th Street. Henry Ford had announced he wanted all of his new plants located on navigable waterways.
     "Making possible lake shipping direct from the Ford Plants at Detroit and establishing water connection with the Ford lumber supplies in Northern Michigan," the Ford News noted in 1923, celebrating the completion of the "'Last Word' in Progress Toward Ideal Factories."
     Wood construction of autos didn't endure. But the riverside facility did. Operations at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant began Feb. 24, 1924 — 100 years ago last Saturday — and continue to this day, bigger than ever, a miracle in an era where factories shutter and manufacturing seems always either moving overseas or to the cheap labor South.
     Torrence Avenue is Ford's oldest continually operating plant, chugging away for a solid century — with occasional breaks, for strikes or remodeling. I was slightly surprised at the lack of attention — every 15-year anniversary of a brew pub gets ballyhooed by what's left of the media. But nobody seemed to notice, never mind celebrate this milestone. Ford says that's coming in the months ahead.
     No need for us to wait, though. The history of Ford and Chicago is closely bound together, and not just because the first Ford motor car sold — a two-cylinder, 8-horsepower, Model A in red, the only color then available — was purchased for $850 by Chicago dentist Ernest Pfennig and delivered to 18 Clybourn Avenue at the end of July, 1903.
     Two years later, Ford opened its first branch office in Chicago; the first assembly plant began operation in 1914 at 3915 S. Wabash.
     Ford also was inspired to create his revolutionary assembly line by watching the overhead dis-assembly of cows at Chicago's Union Stockyards.

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  1. I must say, I’m astonished the Taurus was still made through 2019. I assumed it had been cut off a decade or so ago.

  2. FWIW, the address 18 Clybourn Avenue in 1903 -- before the Chicago street renumbering of 1909 -- would now be located at 1217 N. Clybourn.

  3. I recall driving past that HUGE plant many times as a kid. Feels good to know it's still there.

  4. Knew about the bloody labor strife of 1937, but not about the three UAW organizers who were beaten by company police in front of the plant, There's a famous photograph of UAW organizer (and later president) Walter Reuther being beaten by Ford thugs in Detroit that same year. Ford was infamous for having a huge private army that broke strikes and broke heads, and was the last major automaker to recognize the union.

    Chicago's Ford plant, on Torrance Avenue, is not far away from where ten Republic Steel strikers and sympathizers were killed by Chicago's finest on Memorial Day, of whom were shot in the back as they ran from the gunfire. It was the most violent year of the 20th century for American labor. There were over 4,700 strikes in 1937, resulting in scores of deaths.

    1. My uncle, a fervent union man, used to tell a story (perhaps apocryphal) of Reuther being shown robots first being utilized in a Ford plant. The company representative couldn't help commenting, "Impressive, eh? And they don't pay union dues." To which Reuther replied, "And they don't buy Fords either."


    2. Heard that same story, probably in a documentary about unions, or about Reuther. He was a very interesting historical figure. I still have an old license plate bracket that reads "I work for Ford...I drive a Ford..." And it has both the union logo and the company logo.

      Actually, I've done both...but at different times, and in different states. I drive a Ford now, and I like it, but I can't put that bracket on the car. I'm retired, so that would be telling a falsehood. I may drive a flivver, but I'm not a fibber.

  5. Fascinating, great article. When I first came across it on-line yesterday, it was not showing your byline at the top, but your writing style is more than distinctive.

    It's kind of neat that the assembly line photo of 1964 Ford Galaxies at the top of today's EGD page seems to have been taken at almost the same location and slight upwards angle as the 1924 Chicago Architectural photo from 40 years earlier, judging from the identical pattern of roof trusses giving them all that open space below for adding, subtracting and rearranging machinery as needed, as well as lots of natural lighting in the daytime.

    If you're as much of a factory geek as I am, you will thoroughly enjoy "The American Auto Factory" by Barney Olsen and Joseph P. Cabadas. It covers the first century of car building in the U.S., with huge photos and some very perceptive captions, highlighting details that might otherwise be missed, such as noticing in a 1949 photo that a Ford worker in the background is wearing an U.S. Army Air Force shoulder patch. He's wearing his old uniform shirt from World War II, which had ended just four years prior, and turned him out into the reconstruction and recovery workforce.

  6. It is wise to remember a time when corporate interests were not just indifferent to workers welfare, but actually willing to murder those who would stand against them. Today there is a softer tyranny that has seduced us to ignore the inequities of wealth versus poverty and champion those who would destroy democracy and empower a Deep Money state and oligarchs.

  7. I visit my bedridden, not-long-for-this-world 93-year old uncle each week—Korean War vet (served on a tank crew) who worked at the Torrence plant most of his life. In fact, he was the president of the UAW local there for about eight years in the 80’s and ‘90’s. I look forward to reading him today’s column. He’ll really enjoy it. Thank you!


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