The real story of the Ford Mack Avenue plant

Ford Mack Ave replica 2013Ford’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.

 

Ford Mack Ave 1904

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 Mack Ave. postcardFord postcard circa 1904

 

20 thoughts on “The real story of the Ford Mack Avenue plant

  1. Loved the article and the pictures really brought it to life. Especially the postcard at the end which expanded upon the first photo and gave Detroit wonderful blue skies.

    • Good research to dispel revisionist history. The GV one looks like a retail-bicycle shop, certainly too small to assemble an entire car, or store very many.

  2. great piece, Mac. I really enjoy these historical stories. The street light – is that one of the 40 percent in the city that don’t work?

    • If you look close at these old streetlights with foot pegs to climb them, you will notice that they are actually made of wood with iron pegs. They date to the gaslight era, if not shortly after. This may be why the scrappers didn’t get them.

  3. The small building next to the Ford plant is a switching tower used by the railroad. Inside there were levers that change the position of the railroad switches to direct the train to the proper track. There appears to be a switch next to the building.

        • what makes you think that pulled them up?

          They most likely paved right over them. If you notice on google maps that there are attempts to fix the road right where the tracks were. That is most likely because the metal from the tracks keeps coming through the asphalt.

          Just an FYI…. Any ideas on what caused the fire in 1941?

          • The beltline ran right up the middle of the block like an alley, with buildings erected on either side. it’s clear that the railbed and rails are removed. However, a number of the sidings have been paved over, as you say.

  4. I appreciate the article. The unanswerable question that I have is why didn’t Henry Ford buy the building and relocate it to Greenfield village when he had the chance. No doubt he considered such a move.

    • The 6th paragraph of the article:

      “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.”

  5. Great read! I am fascinated with roads, railroads, and buildings that are significant and how they change over time. Loved it!

  6. Great story, thanks for sharing. My grandfather had a Dort Motor car dealership at Michigan and 8th in the 20’s and I would love to find a picture of it or any info. “St.Amour Sales and Service”. Thanks, Gary

  7. I question the 1904 date on the colored postcard which seems to have been derived from the first black & white picture. The sign above the nearest door says “Detroit Auto Painting Co.” Not so sure auto refinishers were significant businesses that long ago. Suspect the picture might have been taken a decade or two later (before building burned down) after commercial auto repainting became commonplace and the buggy-like vehicle parked beside the building was placed there for “atmosphere”

    • I date the postcard as “circa 1904” because it is so clearly a painted version of the famed photograph, which is known to be taken in 1904. Note that the photo also includes the buggy and the intriguing Detroit Auto Painting Co. sign. One of the two boys along the fence at left is said to be Edsel Ford. We can be confident about “circa 1904” as Ford moved into the Piquette Ave. facility in Autumn of that same year.

      Thanks for your interest. mcg

    • Early cars were brush painted by hand often with varnish over a color. They needed to be repainted or clear varnished on a regular basis. Spray lacquer painting didn’t hit the market until the mid-’20s. Ditzler was an innovator in the material & equipment technology.

  8. Great article ,thank you for your research. Just visited the Greenfield Village replica and what stood out to me was the safe inside of the building and the boiler at the other side of the building that had 1903 on it & Mack Avenue also. I wonder how authentic these to pieces were……they looked great but were they from the original Mack Avenue plant…..they would have survived the fire.

  9. Update: That old-fashioned light pole is now gone, replaced by an entirely new, wooden one. Also, if you check out Google Maps you’ll see that the same railway line is still in place starting on the northside of Warren, and if you follow the entire route from the old Ford location north you can easily see where most of the land where the tracks existed is still open green space. And how many mostly now-vacant factories were built along the route to take advantage of the rails.

  10. There was an article somewhere recently about how that street light was found and preserved.

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