This is a State of Michigan historic site because it was the location of one of Henry Ford’s Nineteen Village Industries. Shortly after World War I, when Henry Ford was building and expanding the world’s largest manufacturing complex at River Rouge, he also experimented with village industries. These were small plants located in rural areas fairly close to Dearborn that would employ modest numbers of workers to make component parts for his vehicles or for their production. Henry Ford never wrote a long explanation for why he experimented with village industries. Furthermore, since he made all the key decisions for his firm, he did not have to present a management plan to a Board of Directors or gain the approval of federal agencies. Those who have written about the village industries speculate that Henry Ford knew that farmers’ incomes were low and that some of them could work in a nearby plant and still maintain their farms. This may have been his motivation. Henry Ford also had a consistent interest in what we now call alternative sources of energy. By the end of World War I, Ford believed that the world would someday run out of petroleum. He used coal extensively to power his plants. Indeed, he owned coal mines in Kentucky and purchased the Detroit Toledo and Ironton Railroad to bring that coal to Dearborn. He knew the relatively high cost and challenges of burning coal. Many of his village industries were former mills or on sites of mills and used water power. Ford stated his own belief that the United States would not become a nation of huge cities. He expected the growth of many moderate-sized cities, so this view may have encouraged him to experiment with village industries. By the time he started his village industries—about 1920—the Studebaker plant in Detroit had been unionized. Ford consistently opposed unions and this may have played a role in his decision to create small plants in rural areas, but I have never seen any documentation of this.
Henry Ford established 19 village industries: the first one—in Northville—opened in 1920, while the last one—in Cherry Hill—started production in 1945. Only two of the 19 small factories closed before the end of World War II, but 16 of them were shuttered between 1947 and the late 1950s. The one in Northville remained in operation until 1989. The employment in the factories ranged from a low of just 19 workers in the Sharon Mills plant to about 1,500 in the Ypsilanti plant. Newburgh Mill was one of the smaller village industry plants with an employment of about 32. Henry Ford was known for hiring many black workers in his Detroit and Dearborn plants, but apparently no blacks were employed in any of his village industry plants until President Roosevelt Fair Employment Practices Employment went into operation in 1942. Remarkably, I believe that all of the plants used in Ford’s village industry program are still standing in 2009. Most of them are in use, but for purposes other than manufacturing.
Ford donated land to Wayne County for the Edward N. Hines Parkway under the condition that the county dam the Middle Rouge River so that water power could supply his Nankin Mills and Newburgh Mill plants. A mill of sorts probably was located on this site before Henry Ford chose this location. I believe that work began on the building you see pictured above in about 1933, but Henry Ford visited and found that it did not meet his standards. His expectations were very high since he had Albert Kahn design many major buildings. He then hired local men who constructed the small Art Deco structure you see and were subsequently employed in it. Apparently, men in this area were extremely grateful to Ford for his decision to rebuild the structure since very few jobs were available during the Depression. From its opening in 1935 until its closing in 1948, this modest plant turned out about 95 percent of the twist drills used by the Ford Motor Company. This is known as the Newburgh Mill since it was located near the village of Newburgh that is now included with Livonia. Nearby on Ann Arbor Trail, you will find Newburg Cemetery and Newburgh United Methodist Church.
Some years after Ford closed this operation, the building was taken over by the Sheriff’s Department and/or the Parks Department of Wayne County. A large barn building next door was converted into stables for the Wayne County Sheriff’s horses. It is still used for that purpose and the Newburgh Mill itself appears to be an office building linked to the horse unit.
Architect: Unknown to me
Architectural Style: Art Deco
Date of Construction: 1934
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25,331 Listed September 7, 1989
State of Michigan Historic Marker: None put in place
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Use in 2009: This building is used by the Office of the Sheriff of Wayne County and the Wayne County Parks Department. A nearby building is a barn that houses the horses used by Wayne County Sheriff deputies.
Book describing Henry Ford’s Village Industries: Howard P. Segal, Recasting the Machine Age: Henry Ford’s Village Industries (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005)
Photograph: Ren Farley, March 27, 2009
Description Prepared: March 29, 2009
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