Closure of storied St. Paul Ford plant to end 86-year era
MINNEAPOLIS -- Del Peterson walked into the roar of the Ford plant for the first time, his eyes wide. Skeletons of vehicles rolled down snaking conveyor belts as workers in sunken pits tinkered with axles rolling over their heads. Others squinted...
MINNEAPOLIS -- Del Peterson walked into the roar of the Ford plant for the first time, his eyes wide. Skeletons of vehicles rolled down snaking conveyor belts as workers in sunken pits tinkered with axles rolling over their heads. Others squinted behind face shields, their welding guns unleashing sparks, or scurried to bolt tires into place before the next chassis rolled up a minute later.
As Peterson took his spot on the assembly line, adjusting front suspensions, an old-timer poked him in the ribs.
"He said: 'Hey, kid, you're crazy coming to work here; they're going to be closing this place,'" said Peterson, now 80. "That was the first day of June, 1949. It looks like he was right, but it took Ford quite a while to finally get around to it."
After decades of rumors and three years of reprieves, the last Ford Ranger pickup will roll off the line at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant around Dec. 16, ending an 86-year run of high-wage jobs cranking out everything from the Model T to armored World War II vehicles to Country Squire station wagons along the Mississippi River in St. Paul.
For the state and region, the plant closing is the latest economic domino to drop, after the Whirlpool plant on St. Paul's East Side, Northwest Airlines, Honeywell and others who helped forge thriving middle-class communities with good paychecks and benefits.
Since the late 1990s, Minnesota has lost nearly 100,000 of its 400,000 manufacturing jobs -- part of a wrenching transition that experts say will leave state and local coffers sorely missing the dollars generated by making goods that could be sold outside the area.
For the neighborhood, the final shutdown will mean the loss of a good corporate neighbor that donated land for Little League fields, sent volunteers to wash seniors' windows at a nearby public housing high rise and anchored the tax base. But only one of five Ford workers lived in St. Paul, and automaking's contribution amounts to less than 1 percent of the state economy. So, others downplay the economic effects and embrace the opportunity to transform 122 acres of prime, riverbank real estate.
For the thousands of Ford families that built more than 6 million vehicles in St. Paul, the end of the line, although long anticipated, will hurt nonetheless. More than a factory will be torn down.
"It's a way of life that will no longer be here," said Terry Dinderman, 69, who started installing accelerator pedals on Ford Galaxies in 1965.
Most of the longtime workers, who numbered more than 2,000 at the plant's peak in the late 1970s, have taken buyouts or transfers to places such as Louisville, Ky., or Kansas City, Mo. Only about 125 of the 800 workers left have full UAW status.
"The mood in the plant has changed to where people are quiet and not saying much," said Denny Dickhausen, 65, a 40-year veteran who cleans up overnight and met his wife, Brenda, on the body-build line. "I'll be the first to admit I'm going to shed tears because it's been a good part of my life. But I'm going to walk out of here with my head held high, very proud to say I worked at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant."
At least three factors prompted Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, to fork out $10 million and build their plant along the Mississippi River in 1924. A new hydroelectric dam offered cheap power. The silica sandstone caves of the river bluffs were perfect to excavate for manufacturing windshield glass. And the work ethic and buying power of the largely German and Scandinavian populace were both coveted.
"There is something about the hardy life of the farmers, most of them descendants of the Vikings, that led them to appreciate peculiarly the clean-cut strength of the Ford," a 1913 Ford Co. newsletter said.
They'd been making the Model T at two Minneapolis locations since 1912, turning out 92,963 so-called Tin Lizzies in 1923 alone. And with the transportation network developed to ship grain, lumber and iron ore out of Minnesota, a robust market stood ready to be served.
More than 20 St. Paul business owners trumpeted the plant's construction with an open letter to Henry and Edsel Ford in the June 24, 1924, St. Paul Pioneer Press:
"Every loyal citizen points with pride to the magnificent edifice you are constructing here -- an institution that has enabled Saint Paul to step ahead 10 years in one stride," they wrote. "Here, the laughter of sturdy children romping on the lawns of their comfortable homes will greet your workmen."
Within a decade, the plant would sit idle, the Great Depression shutting it down in 1933 and '34. Ten years later, the "workmen" became largely women as the plant stopped making civilian cars and produced World War II armored vehicles and airplane engine