Saturday, March 9, 2013

Willow Run Bomber Plant Changes Ypsilanti Forever

Depot Town Today

At the turn of the century, before the second World War, Ypsilanti had an active downtown area along Michigan Avenue. Northeast of town, there was a thriving business district called Depot Town.

Depot Town was the area's commercial hub and provided services for weary train travelers. Ypsilanti's three-story brick depot station was ornate next to the depot in Ann Arbor.

The Norris Building built in 1861 was supposed to house a retail block on the ground floor and residential rooms on the two upper floors. Instead, the building became an army barracks during the Civil War. The 14th Michigan Infantry Regiment shipped out of Depot Town in 1862, as did the 27th Michigan Regiment in 1863. 

The facade of the historic Norris Building remains on N. River St., despite a recent fire which decimated the rear portion of this, the last remaining Civil War barracks in the state.

Michigan State Normal School, to the northwest of downtown, spawned a growing educational center, which later expanded its mission and became Eastern Michigan University. 

Ypsilanti's residential area with its historic and varied architecture filled in the spaces between. Surrounding everything was some of the most fertile farm land in the state of Michigan.

The water powered age of nineteenth century manufacturing on the Huron River gave way to the modern electrical age of the twentieth century. The soft beauty of the gas light to illuminate homes was replaced with the glare of the incandescent light bulb. The times were changing for Ypsilanti - ready or not.


The countryside was prime tillable ground with fruit groves scattered about the county. Henry Ford owned a large tract of land in an area known as Willow Run named for the small river that ran through it. 

The Ford patriarch wanted to plant soybeans on the land, but the United States government needed bombers for the Lend Lease program with Britain. On December 8, 1941, the Nazis declared war on the United States on behalf of the Japanese. We were at war.

The Roosevelt administration asked the Ford corporation, now run by Edsel Ford, to build a factory that could mass produce the B-24 Liberator Bomber. Edsel Ford, Charles Sorenson (production manager), and some Ford engineers visited the Consolidated Aircraft Company in San Diego to see how the planes were built. 

That night, Sorenson drew up a floor plan that could build the bomber more efficiently. His blueprint was a marvel of ingenuity, but the Ford corporation made one significant change in his master plan.

The best shape to build a front to back assembly line operation is in a straight line. 

But to avoid the higher taxes in Democratic Wayne County, the bomber plant took a hard right to the south on one end to stay within Republican Washtenaw County, which had lower taxes.

The construction of the plant in Willow Run began in May of 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed the largest factory in the world, but it would be his last project. He died in 1942.

The federal government bought up land adjacent to the bomber plant and built an airport which still exists today and is used for commercial aviation. The eight-sectioned hangar could house twenty Liberators.

Soon, workers flooded into Ypsilanti and the rapidly developing Willow Run area where makeshift row housing was hastily constructed. Overnight, the sleepy farming and university town of Ypsilanti became a three shift, 24 hour, blue collar community. 

Many people in Ypsilanti rented rooms in their homes to workers or converted their large Victorian homes into boarding houses. It was wartime; money was to be made

Some families rented "warm beds." One worker would sleep in the bed while another was working his shift, but still there was a housing shortage. Some people slept in their cars until they could make other arrangements. 

Ford sent recruiters to Kentucky and Tennessee to draw workers in from the south. That's where the derisive term "Ypsitucky" originated. Long time residents didn't like the changes they saw in their town. The bomber factory workers worked hard and drank hard. Fights broke out in local bars, and Ypsilanti was developing a hard edge and a dark reputation.

Because so many men were in uniform serving their country, there was a shortage of skilled labor, at first. But then the women of Southern Michigan stepped up big time. They donned work clothes, and tied up their long hair in colorful scarves. It was calculated at the end of the war that 40% of every B-24 Liberator was assembled by women. (Happy National Women's Month, Ladies)


Little known factoid: The first stretch of expressway in America was made with Ford steel and Ford cement. It connected workers in the Detroit area to their jobs at the bomber plant in Willow Run via Ecorse Road. It's still there and runs along the north end of the GM Hydromatic Plant and Willow Run Airport.


The following link has some vintage bomber plant footage