Henry Ford had many unusual ideas that distinguished him from professionally trained businessmen and engineers. At the end of World War I, he developed an idea for Village Industries. His huge Highland Park plant produced thousands of Model T’s every day; indeed, production was so high and increasing so rapidly that he began shifting vehicle production to the River Rouge plant that he developed for building boats for the Navy. Ford needed ten of thousands of small parts every day for his production lines. He decided to build small parts plants in villages and towns near Detroit. Apparently, he had several reasons for doing this, but there is still debate about those reasons.
Henry Ford often expressed his sympathy for farmers because of their physically difficult jobs and irregular incomes. Indeed, Ford may have moved to the machine shops of Detroit to escape the drudgery of farm labor. By locating parts plants in basically rural areas, men could farm but also earn salaries at a Ford plant, thereby providing themselves with a steady income. Cities, at this time, were often viewed as corrupting places where men found jobs, but also many temptations. Residents of rural areas and small towns, presumably, retained the Jeffersonian virtues that were assumed, at one time, to be responsible for this nation’s character and political system. By putting plants in rural areas, rural residents could capitalize upon the jobs of the new industrial age, but continue to live in places where virtues were inculcated. Henry Ford also had a strong interest in energy. Indeed, one—but only one—of his motivations for purchasing the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad was to demonstrate the feasibility of using electrical power for trains rather than steam engines. Many of Henry Ford's Village Industry plants were located in former water-powered mills. Henry Ford adamantly opposed the unionization of workers and this may have been part of his motivation for the Village Industries. By the end of World War I, the IWW had organized one major auto plant in Detroit—the EMF factory on Piquette that produced Studebakers. By spreading his employment across rural areas of Michigan, perhaps Ford hoped to block the union movement.
The Village Industry project led, eventually, to the establishment of 19 plants in villages within 60 miles of Dearborn, with employments ranging from about 60 workers to 1,000 in the largest plant that was in Ypsilanti. Ford purchased four acres at the intersection of Griswold and East Main in Northville in, I believe, 1919. Interestingly, this property, just like his property in Dearborn, was bounded by the River Rouge. The Ford plant began operating here by 1921. The building for the production of valves that you see was designed by Albert Kahn and completed in 1936. This was the first time a modern factory was constructed for a Village Industry. Albert Kahn added a water wheel, but I believe it was more for decorative purposes rather than to power this plant. The architecture might be described as Art Deco as applied to a modest factory. However, you have to look closely to see reminders of the Art Deco style. The brickwork and styling around the entryway may suggest Art Deco. Perhaps the choice of a rather appealing warm yellow brick is also consistent with the Art Deco architecture of that era.
The auto industry suffered greatly in the Depression decade as many smaller producers and parts suppliers closed their doors, never to open again. The Big Three saw their sales drop by about 75 percent from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s. I am always surprised to find that the auto firms consistently spent seemingly large amounts of money during the Depression to both bring out new models with innovative features almost every year and to build some new plants such as the one you see here in Northville.
The Ford Company discontinued the Village Industries program
in 1947, about one year after the death of Henry Ford. This Northville plant,
to produce valves until 1978. This plant was the longest lived of Henry Ford’s
Architect: Albert Kahn
Date of Construction: 1936
Architectural style: Art deco as applied to a modest sized factory building
Book: Recasting the Machine Age: Henry Ford’s Village Industries by Howard Segal (Amherst, Mass.: University of
Massachusetts Press, 2005)
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P 3556
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Not yet erected
National Register of Historic Places: #95000866 Listed August 1, 1995
Use in 2006: A component of this attractive factory building is used by an industrial firm while another part
serves as a facility for a fitness center.
Photograph: Ren Farley, December 2, 2006
Description prepared: December, 2006
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