Sunday, July 30, 2017

Willow Run Bomber Plant Changes Ypsilanti Forever


Original Three-story Ypsilanti Depot Station.
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 compared to the depot in Ann Arbor. In its day, it was said to be the nicest train station between Detroit and Chicago.

The Norris Building built in 1861 was across from the depot on River Street. It was originally 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 North River Street, despite a fire which decimated the rear portion of this last remaining Civil War barracks in Michigan. Work has begun on rebuilding the historic building.

Michigan State Normal School was located west of Depot Town on West Cross Street and northwest of downtown Ypsilanti. It spawned a growing educational center which later expanded its mission to become Eastern Michigan University. 

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

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 harsh 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 countyside. 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 used the land to plant soybeans, but the United States government needed bombers for the Lend Lease program with Great Britain. On December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Nazis declared war on the United States on behalf of their ally. America was drawn into the second world 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. This was at the insistance of Harry Bennett, Ford's head of security who had strong ties to Washtenaw County being a graduate of Ann Arbor High School.

The construction of the plant in Willow Run began in May of 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. Lengendary 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 college town of Ypsilanti became a three shift, 24/7, blue collar community. 

Suddenly the area was hit with a housing shortage. Ypsilanti homeowners rented rooms to workers or converted their large Victorian homes into boarding houses. It was wartime and 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. Many 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 is when the derisive term "Ypsitucky" originated. Long time residents did not 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 developed 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.

***

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 former GM Hydromatic Plant and Willow Run Airport.

***

The Yankee Air Museum housed on the east end of Willow Run Airport was established in 1981 to restore and preserve the almost forgotten history of Willow Run Airport, and to commemorate the achievement of the men and women who helped win the war by the sweat of their brow producing 8,685 B-24 Liberators.

Background history of the Yankee Air Museum: http://yankeeairmuseum.org/our-history/

The following link has some vintage bomber plant footage: http://www.annarbor.com/news/ypsilanti/pbs-to-air-documentary-about-ypsilantis-legendary-willow-run-b-24-bomber-factory/

Monday, July 17, 2017

Clinton LeForge Runs Amuck In Ypsilanti

Ypsilanti Daily Press--August 26, 1935.
To the reader: The documentation for this post was collected by the late George Ridenour and Lyle McDermott of the Ypsilanti Historical Society.

Clinton LeForge was known as a collector of Native American artifacts and fancied himself a self-taught expert in archeology. He spoke about his collection wearing an Indian headdress and a ceremonial robe and claimed Indian blood coursed through his veins.

"Whatever the Indian has done has been in defense of his wigwam and hunting grounds," LeForge said in an Ypsilanti Daily Press interview. "The Indian killed only in defense of his family. Trespassing on Indian land meant death in the native code." 

LeForge believed peace-loving Algonquins and the warlike Iroquois used the Ypsilanti area as a neutral burial ground. He gathered over 3,000 artifacts such as arrow heads, spear heads, tomahawks, and grinding stones from his property and searching along the Huron River, Ann Arbor Trail, and the Sauk Trail--all known Indian pathways.

Local farmers familiar with Clinton's interest in Indian artifacts would give him relics they found while plowing their fields. During the excavation of the Detroit Urban Railway in 1901, many Indian remains and artifacts were removed by souvenir hunters who damaged many of them. Clinton got his share, you can be sure of that.

Even a casual investigation of the LeFurge/LeForge family records reveals Clinton had nary a drop of Indian blood in his background. For that matter, he also claimed he was a veteran of the Spanish-American War, but there is no record of his enlistment. His 1930 Federal Census report indicates he had no military service. It is clear that Clinton LeForge was a raconteur and not above stretching the truth, nor creating it out of whole cloth when the purpose suited him.

When LeForge died in 1949, his estate included his Indian artifact collection valued at $2,488.50 and some Mayan pottery valued at $285. How this material was appraised is undocumented. What is known is his widow Grace LeForge did not share her husband's enthusiasm for Indian artifacts and sold the collection to a private collector for an unknown amount of money.


Ann Arbor News, March 15, 1935.
In 1931, tired of scratching a living off the land, LeForge tried his hand at selling insurance and practicing law. But in March of 1935, LeForge was named as a suspect in the murder of seven-year-old Richard Streicher, Jr, an Ypsilanti child found stabbed and frozen under the Frog Island Bridge in Depot Town.

Prior to the boy's killing, LeForge represented Mrs. Lucia Streicher in a divorce action which was dropped immediately upon Richard's death. The buzz around town was that Lucia and Clinton were having an affair. The day after the boy's body was found, LeForge went to the Streicher apartment at Lucia's request and removed Richard's toys from his bedroom, an act that raised eyebrows in the community and set idle tongues wagging.

Ypsilanti Daily Press, March 8, 1935.
Then, for some reason known only to her, Lucia Streicher turned on Clinton and implicated him as a possible suspect in her son's murder--a charge he vehemently denied. LeForge wanted to clear himself of malicious rumors circulating around town, leading him to take a battery of polygraph tests on two separate occasions hoping to clear his name--one polygraph given locally at the Ypsilanti State Police Post and the other in Lansing at Michigan State Police Headquarters. Lieutenant Van A. Loomis, state police polygraph examiner, wrote in his analysis of the data that he was convinced LeForge was innocent and knew nothing that would help solve the Streicher case.

Further damage to LeForge's reputation came eight months later when he was arrested on November 28, 1935, for the embezzlement of $3,685 from the estate of Darwin Z. Curtis. That was a huge sum of money during the Great Depression. LeForge pleaded guilty to the charge and made restitution to the Curtis Estate, paid $50 in court costs, and resigned from the Michigan Bar Association. The judge sentenced him to five years probation--a virtual slap on the hand. After LeForge's disbarment on September 8, 1936, nothing more is known publicly about his activities until his accidental death on August 30, 1946.

LeForge was operating a saw mill on his property at 7120 Ford Road. He was milling a 2" x 8" length of timber when the saw blade kicked the board back hitting him squarely in the chest crushing his ribcage. When Grace went outside to check on her husband, she found him dead on the ground. The Washtenaw County Coroner came to the farm and pronounced him dead at 6:00 pm. Clinton I. LeForge was sixty-four years old. He was buried in a family plot in Highland Cemetery on September 2, 1946, leaving a two-mile length of county road as his legacy.

The Richard Streicher, Jr. Murder: http://fornology.blogspot.com/2016/11/little-richard-streicher-ypsilantis.html

Monday, July 10, 2017

Clinton LeForge--Grandson Of An Ypsilanti Pioneer


To the Reader: The documentation for this post was collected by the late George Ridenour and Lyle McDermott of the Ypsilanti Historical Society.

One of the most colorful and controversial residents of Ypsilanti was Clinton Isaac LeFurge. He was born in Superior Township on June, 1885, to Insley B. LeFurge and Mary Ette Gale. In his mid-thirties, Clinton changed the spelling of his last name to LeForge. While looking through an heirloom family Bible, he found the names of twenty-two Leforge (sic) ancestors recorded on the flyleaf dating back to January 12, 1723.

Almost 200 hundred years later, Clinton chose to adopt that spelling and capitalize the letter F. LeForge is how his name appears in most public documents. The David LeForge family Bible is in the collection of the Ypsilanti Historical Society, contributed by Mrs. Dwight A. (Cora) Peck, Clinton LeForge's sister.

Young Clinton grew up a farm boy on his parent's 160 acre farm which ran along what was locally known as Paper Mill Road leading to the Huron River. He attended Bennett--a one-room schoolhouse on Geddes Road about a mile from his house. He showed promise as a student, so his parents sent him to Ypsilanti High School--a two mile walk.

The LeFurges: Insley/Mary and Clinton/Cora--1903.
It was common at the turn of the twentieth century for farm kids to drop out of school in the eighth grade to work the family farm. Many young women received little formal education beyond the domestic chores they learned at home. Graduating from high school was a significant achievement, but Clinton was not satisfied with that. He went on to earn a law degree in 1908 at Detroit College of Law, but it would be twenty-three years before he would practice law.

The following year, Clinton married Edith Grace Crippen and wasted no time starting a family. Soon they had two daughters and two sons. Earning a living to support his growing family through farming prevented Clinton from pursing his legal career. To compound matters, his father Insley died May 5, 1915, leaving him his mother's only means of support.

On November 12, 1920, Mary Ette transferred ownership of the family farm--160 acres of prime farmland--to her son Clinton in exchange for her "full use and possession of" the farmhouse until her death. For Clinton's part, he agreed to "keep up repairs and pay taxes during that time" as well as work the farm. The transfer was not recorded in the Washtenaw County Register of Deeds until January 30, 1924.

Sometime during the 1930s, Detroit Edison was stringing electrical lines in Superior Township and officially renamed Paper Mill Road, changing it to LeForge Road. In those days, it was customary to name county roads after the name of the predominate land owner. The same can be said for Gale, Vreeland, Geddes, Wiard, and Whittaker roads, among many others throughout Washtenaw County.

Clinton LeForge was a well-known figure in Ypsilanti as a self-taught Native American expert and collector of local Indian artifacts. For five years, he maintained a law office on South Huron Street before things started going wrong for him. More on that in my next post: "Clinton LeForge Runs Amuck In Ypsilanti."

How Ypsi Got Its Name: http://fornology.blogspot.com/2015/08/ypsilanti-michigan-history-whats-in-name.html