Ford’s Mack Avenue plant is a historic icon, but much of the popular lore surrounding it is wrong—including where it was located and what it really looked like. Here’s a more accurate version, we hope.
Car enthusiasts will instantly recognize the building shown at the top of this page—it’s an important symbol of both the Ford Motor Co. and the American auto industry at large. This is the famed Mack Ave. plant where the Ford Motor Co. got its start in 1903. Or more precisely, this is the replica of the factory Henry Ford had built in 1945 in Greenfield Village, his historical theme park.
Constructed by Ford’s resident architect and building restorer at Greenfield Village, Edward J. Cutler, the Village building has been variously described as a quarter-scale or 40 percent model of the original plant. In truth, it’s not a terribly accurate replica. It’s a wood frame building with clapboard siding and double-hung windows, and that’s about as far as the similarity goes. Here’s a 1904 photo, looking from east to west down Mack Ave., that shows what the original building really looked like.
As we can see, the proportions, door and window locations, etc., are entirely different from those of the Village building. We’re not criticizing the discrepancy at all, only noting that Ford and his staff had a more romantic conception of historicity than we have today. Meanwhile, the Village structure serves its own worthwhile purpose as an exhibit space, hosting thousands of guests every year.
A backgrounder on the original Mack Avenue plant: Early in 1903, one of Ford’s primary investors in the Ford Motor Co., coal dealer Alexander Malcomson, arranged with a local carpenter, Albert Strelow, to rent a former wagon shop on his property to use as Ford’s assembly facility. This building, located next to a railroad line, adjacent to to Streilow’s business, and directly across the street from one of Malcomson’s coal yards, was enlarged and had a second story added almost immediately, as Ford’s production and sales were soon growing at an incredible rate. Ford occupied the Mack Ave. plant for only 18 months, moving into the new and much larger Piquette Ave. facility in the autumn of 1904.
The Mack Ave. building then went through a series of tenants, automotive and otherwise, and burned down in August of 1941. And since it no longer exists, misunderstandings have arisen about its actual location. Many historians have placed the plant on Mack Ave. miles west of its original site.
The confusion is understandable on several counts. There were not just one but three rail lines that crossed Mack Ave. at various points from west to east: 1) the Detroit, Grand Haven, and Milwaukee, 2) the Michigan Central Belt Line, and 3) the Detroit Terminal Railroad. Adding to the riddle, railroads merge or change their names on a regular basis. To make a long story short, the Ford plant was on the middle of the three roads, the Belt Line.
Also, on January 1, 1921, the city of Detroit totally overhauled its street numbering system. The plant, which resided at 588-592 Mack Ave. when Ford occupied the building, was now suddenly in the 6500 block. Setting aside all this confusion, these two photos illustrate exactly where the plant was located on Mack Ave, and where to find the site today.
This photo, taken no later than August of 1929, shows the ex-Ford plant as seen from across the Michigan Central Belt Line tracks, looking from west to east. The faded signage across the top of the facade reads Columbia Motors Co. In the early 1920s, this building and the former Aerocar/Hudson plant across the street (and diagonal to the rail line) served as the Columbia manufacturing facilities. Note the railroad switching tower next to the tracks, the street crossing semaphore in the up position, and the streetlamp next to it.
Here’s a photo taken from the same spot in the fall of 2013. Only one element from the older photo remains today: The old-fashioned streetlamp. However, one can easily make out the grade elevation in the street for the old Belt Line rail crossing, although the rails were pulled up years ago. The Belt Line ran parallel to and between Bellevue and Beaufait Streets from the Detroit River to Hamtramck.
To look up the site of the Ford Mack Ave. plant yourself using Google or other online mapping systems, search 6520 Mack Ave., Detroit, MI 48207.
Ford postcard circa 1904