Monday 22nd March 1926
The Ford Motor Company renamed its massive River Rouge facility the Fordson Plant. The name River Rouge, synonymous with Ford history, would continue to be used. River Rouge was established in response to the massive demand for the Model T. In the spring of 1915, Henry Ford began buying huge tracts of land along the Rouge River, southwest of Detroit. He later announced his plans to construct a massive industrial complex which would include its own steel mills. Ford proclaimed he would no longer be “at the mercy of his suppliers.” Ford Lieutenant William Knudsen disagreed with his boss’s notion that bigger was better. The pugnacious Ford responded to his advice with typical urbanity, saying, “No, William, no. I want the Ford business all behind one fence so I can see it.” The outbreak of war in Europe brought with it a scarcity of steel that threatened to halt production of the Model T. Ford ordered Knudsen to buy up all the steel he could. Henry Ford, a proclaimed pacifist, objected to the idea of preparing for war. He likened a war-ready nation to a man carrying a gun: bound for trouble. Nevertheless, once war was declared, Ford stood behind President Wilson and River Rouge became an “arsenal of democracy.” The largest industrial complex of its day, River Rouge looked like a small city. After the war, the factory remained a primary character in the Ford drama. By 1937, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler recognized the United Auto Workers (UAW) as a labor union. But, despite the fact that the federal government, with the New Deal, guaranteed a worker’s right to belong to a union, Ford refused to negotiate with the UAW. Instead, he ordered his strongman, Harry Bennett, to keep the workers in check. On May 26, 1937, union leader Walter Reuther led a group of men through the River Rouge Plant to distribute literature to the workers. Upon leaving the plant, Reuther and his companions were attacked by Bennett and his men. The event, named the “Battle of the Overpass,” received national attention. Ford’s reputation as a labor negotiator, already bad, grew worse. Amazingly, though, Bennett’s fear tactics postponed the inevitable triumph of labor leaders for almost four years, when a massive sit-down strike finally succeeded in shutting the River Rouge plant down. The Ford River Rouge plant is also well-known for a Ford family controversy over a series of murals by artist Diego Rivera, which were commissioned by Edsel Ford on behalf of the Detroit Art Institute. Henry Ford objected strongly to the communist aesthetic of the murals and ordered their production ceased. Edsel, in a rare moment of defiance, refused his father’s demands and the murals remained on display at the River Rouge Plant. Today, just as Henry Ford desired, the Fordson Plant at River Rouge really is “the Ford business all behind one fence,” where we can see it.