Ford Motor Company chooses Memphis; 1912

Memphis Ford Plant: Back to the Future

Ford Motor Company recently announced plans to build its Blue Oval City manufacturing plant at the Megasite of West Tennessee, a $5.6 billion investment on a zero waste, carbon-neutral assembly plant that will manufacture electric pickup trucks. While certainly a milestone in regional manufacturing investment, it’s not the first time Ford has been an industrial power in the Memphis area. 

Ford Plant footprint at Memphis Regional Megasite
Courtesy Memphis Regional Megasite

This new project is expected to drive growth beyond the factory’s walls, much as Ford’s twentieth century investments in Memphis led to similar housing and commercial developments.

The Commercial Appeal article courtesy NewsBank

Ford Comes to Memphis

Ford opened its first auto assembly plant in Memphis at 495 Union Avenue near Southern Railway in late November 1912. Announced in July 1912, the plant cost $150,000 – roughly equivalent to $4.2 million today. Car parts, manufactured elsewhere, were shipped down to Memphis where workers assembled cars for distribution throughout the South. By 1916, The Commercial Appeal reported that the plant ranked “among the most efficient units engaged in assembling the doughty little machines that have won their way, without guile or unnecessary frills, into the very hearts of an exacting buying public.” Manager J.J. Wright told the reporter that the plant would assemble and distribute 20,000 cars throughout their territory in 1917. He also opened the factory to public inspection, offering “competent guides” to take visitors around the plant. Employees made up to five dollars per day ($139.69 today).

Memphis Ford Assembly Plant at 495 Union Avenue
The Memphis Ford Assembly Plant at 495 Union Avenue. Courtesy of The Benson Ford Research Center

The factory was a site of tragedy as well as industry. On August 10, 1921, Thomas T. “Red” Harris, brothers Orville T. and Jesse C. Jones, and Edwin Von Steinkirch attempted to rob the Ford payroll car. During the failed robbery, the men shot and killed police patrolman Polk A. Carraway and Ford special officer Howard Gamble. The tragedy compounded during the ensuing car chase. One group of officers ambushed a dark blue Cadillac thinking it was the getaway car. In fact, the car contained three police officers, a Ford mechanic, and grocer Joe Robilio. Lieutenant Vincent Lucarini was killed by the open fire, and three of the passengers were wounded. The company closed the Ford plant as a mark of respect on the day of Gamble’s funeral.

Growth in South Memphis

By 1924, Ford outgrew its Union Avenue plant and moved to a new 400,000 square foot facility at Riverside Drive and South Parkway, immediately north of today’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. The new factory could accommodate three times the workload. Executives chose to expand in Memphis because of the city’s strategic location; the convergence of railroad lines, cheap labor costs, and the ability to transport materials on the Mississippi River. Workers laid a joint track owned by the Missouri Pacific and Frisco railroads to connect the plant to the established tracks on Oklahoma Avenue, which the Illinois Central Railroad serviced. The factory originally overlooked the Mississippi River, but the construction of the Jack Carley Causeway in the late 1940s transmuted the view to McKellar Lake.

Industrial architect Albert Kahn (1867-1942), considered the father of modern factory design, drew the plans for the facility. A revolutionary hallmark of Kahn’s factory plans in Memphis and elsewhere were calls for structures with clean lines, built of fireproof reinforced concrete and glass. The design also kept Ford’s assembly line workflow in mind by incorporating a conveyor system to transfer cars throughout the operation before delivering a finished car, ready to drive off the property, at the front of the plant. The $1.5 million (roughly $24.3 million today) facility opened with much fanfare, and the first car rolled off the assembly line on November 3, 1924.

The Commercial Appeal advertisement courtesy NewsBank

With the plant moving to South Memphis, the need for nearby housing became readily apparent. R.M. Hammond offered 60 acres across from the plant on South Parkway for sale, naming the subdivision Fordhurst and marketing it to white workers. The South Memphis Land Company also got in on the action, selling lots in Longview Heights, a subdivision on Davant Avenue between Lauderdale and Orleans Streets. The ability to walk to the plant was a major selling point.

Other manufacturers flourished, in part because of the Ford plant’s needs in addition to the low cost of labor. Firestone built a tire plant in Frayser; the Fischer Body, a subsidiary of General Motors, purchased North Memphis’s Kelsey Wheel Company automobile body plant. 

The Great Depression severely impacted the Memphis plant. Executives suspended operations for several months each year, resulting in regular layoffs. In 1937, the United Auto Workers (UAW), an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), attempted to unionize the plant, dispatching Norman Smith to lead the efforts. Mayor Watkins Overton, backed by Police Commissioner Clifford Davis, told the press, “Imported CIO agitators, communists, and highly paid professional organizers are not wanted in Memphis…We don’t, and won’t tolerate them.” Three days later, assailants severely beat Smith and his assistant. The UAW ultimately recalled Smith to headquarters after another beating left him hospitalized. It took until the 1940s for plant workers to successfully unionize.

During WWII, the plant stopped auto production, closing in 1942 because of material shortages and automobile sale restrictions, throwing 1,100 employees out of work. After an idle year, the plant switched production to Pratt & Whitney airplane engine parts. Memphis workers machined and heat-treated components that were then sent to Detroit for assembly. The plant scaled up quickly, adding machinery and manpower, both male and female. In 1945, 886 plant workers participated in the plant’s “Gardening for Security” victory garden program on two community sites near the plant. Immediately after the war, Ford converted the plant back to car production and broke ground on an expansion building. The plant reached peak production in 1955. 

Goodbye, Ford 

After 43 years of assembling in Memphis, Ford closed the Riverside Drive plant on June 6, 1958 – the same year Ford closed branch assembly plants in Buffalo, Long Beach, and Summerville, closures that were due in part by the company’s infamous and ultimately failed experiment with the Edsel. Ford’s departure was also part of a larger trend of factories leaving the city as production moved towards cheaper labor markets abroad.

In all, workers assembled an estimated 1,570,000 Ford cars and trucks in Memphis. 

Welcome Back to West Tennessee

Local legislators, city planners, and business leaders are poised for the opportunity that Ford’s return to the region offers. It’s played out that way before, both historically in Memphis and in contemporary cities. The Daily Memphian has a ten-part series that looks at these expected benefits in detail, based on data from regional comparisons. 

There’s every reason to hope.

Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.

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