Henry Ford’s Legacy

Wilcox Mill

Henry Ford was the driving force of southeast Michigan’s industrialization and historic preservation movement. He was a man with ideas who desired a canvas to share and display them. The Dearborn area was the perfect place to realize Ford’s many innovations, especially since he actively supported and employed local community members. Throughout his work, Ford sought the balance of embracing new technology while also engaging in agricultural pursuits. 

Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, on his father’s farm (in modern-day Dearborn). In 1870, the young Henry traipsed along the Rouge River, taking in the quiet country, watching the water wheels of the local mills go round and round. It inspired him to create his own little wheel at home, which he then attached to a coffee grinder, the first mechanical device he ever built. 

Photograph of Henry Ford
Henry Ford, 1919 (https://commons.wikimedia.org)

Ford’s interest in mechanical devices only continued to grow as he got older. His interests expanded to and included watches and steam and gasoline engines. Yet, he “never forgot the song of the water wheel – the grinding of the mill stones, the strength of water, the efficient simplicity of those mills along the Rouge.” 

By 1918, Henry Ford had taken the world by storm with his automobiles and industrial assembly line. However, he was not satisfied with this accomplishment alone. Though proud of his work, Ford more than understood the side effects of mass industrialization. He believed that, despite these inventions, humanity needed to remember and embrace its natural environment. 

Ford’s Village Industries

A puzzle to solve, Henry Ford went right to work, imagining ways to fuse mechanical engineering with “social engineering.” He had already begun considering a network of facilities located along the Rouge River. It did not take him too long to envision and begin work on his next major project, his “Village Industries.”

Henry Ford’s “Village Industries” involved converting former 19th century local gristmill sites into small, water-powered local factories. This project functioned as an extension of his “old-fashioned, rural values.” Ford wanted to invest in local communities, and his Village Industries project could help him accomplish this goal.

The first mill site Ford acquired was Nankin Mill, located along the middle Rouge River. He purchased the site in 1918 from Floyd Bassett. Ford converted the site from a grist mill into a small factory that manufactured small automobile parts, including screws and stencils. Between 1919 and 1944, Henry Ford opened about twenty Village Industries. 

Staying true to his vision of connecting agriculture with technology, Ford employed local farmers. He believed that farmers could tend to their work during the warmer months and then work in the small factories during off season. It was his way of preserving nature and the rural life so many were discarding for the attraction of big cities. Ford had realized his idea of “one foot in the field, and the other in the factory.”

Ford’s Village Industries was only one facet of his creative output. In 1915, Ford began purchasing property, acquiring approximately 2,000 acres of bottomland along the Rouge River. Though he initially thought he would build a large bird sanctuary on the newly purchased land, in 1917 Ford began construction on what would become a massive factory, the Ford Rouge Plant, located in Dearborn. 

The Rouge Plant

Over time, Ford’s Rouge Plant became the world’s largest car factory. It brought to life Henry Ford’s vision of mass production at one site. In addition to cars, the plant also produced tires, glass, steel, and other car parts.

The Ford Rouge Plant not only had a global impact but also a local one. By 1929, there were 103,000 employees. Though numbers began to dip in the 1940s, employees were dedicated to the plant. Over time, they developed a strong sense of community and identity with their place of work. Generations of families in the metro Detroit area were employed at Ford’s massive auto plant. 

Ford’s Rouge Plant inspired pride in its employees and neighbors. Employees were dedicated to the plant even in 1992 when the plant only produced Ford Mustangs with a plan to eventually shut down all operations. Despite tense beginnings, the UAW (United Auto Workers) and Ford Motor Company worked together to bring the plant back to not only its former glory, but new and improved heights of success.