The Rouge plant -- the art of industry

An aerial view of the Ford Rouge complex in Dearborn in 1947.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s the Ford Rouge plant became the largest industrial complex in the world, as well as the most advanced, architecturally and technically.

Because Henry Ford was determined to be independent of suppliers, he developed the Rouge into an almost self-sufficient and self-contained industrial city. Construction began on April 1, 1917 and 10 years later the facility contained 93 structures, 90 miles of railroad tracks, 27 miles of conveyors, 53,000 machine tools and 75,000 employees. Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed most of the complex.

Today, the Rouge is only one of many Ford Motor Co. manufacturing and assembling facilities. But it is still unique in American industry.

Situated on more than 2,000 acres in Dearborn along the Rouge River, a tributary of the Detroit River southwest of downtown Detroit, the Rouge plant was built to easily receive iron ore from Upper Michigan and coal from Pennsylvania by ship. A huge basin in the Rouge allowed the freighters room to easily dock, unload and maneuver out.

Henry Ford had purchased the site in 1915 as a new home for his revolutionary automated assembly line, perfected at his Highland Park facility. On May 26, 1927, the last Model T came off the line at Highland Park. In September of that year the new Model A began rolling out of the Rouge plant. Over the next 15 years, 15 million cars paraded out of the Rouge.

The Rouge incorporated all phases of auto production. In addition to steel forging and stamping operations, manufacture of parts and the assembly of automobiles, the Rouge also included a power plant, glass plant, cement plant, and byproducts plant which produced petroleum products, such as paints, fertilizers, and charcoal.

The company fed the Rouge with its own iron ore mines in northern Michigan and Minnesota and coal mines in Kentucky and West Virginia. Raw materials were brought in on Ford-owned railroad lines and on Ford ships to be processed at the Rouge mills.

Ford established his own lumber operation in northern Michigan to provide wood used in car bodies, and a rubber plantation in Brazil for tire production.

Other operations included shipbuilding and tractor and airplane manufacturing.

Henry Ford, left, was the mechanical genius. His son, Edsel, right, was the force behind styling.

The Rouge complex reached its maximum effective size between 1929 and 1936. It was not until the end of World War II, when war production ceased, that a decentralization policy began transferring many manufacturing and production processes to other Ford properties.

While Henry Ford created and developed these industries, his son Edsel pursued and promoted advanced industrial design. Henry’s manufacturing genius created the Rouge as Edsel sponsored artists to glorify the industrial renaissance.

As early as 1927, Edsel helped create new models, personally approving all designs before production. Also in that year, Edsel invited renowned photographer Charles Sheeler to record the Rouge complex for posterity.

Excited by the prospect, Sheeler, a well known painter as well as photographer, began work almost immediately. The sheer glory of the Rouge overwhelmed him. He compared the huge technological marvel to Gothic cathedrals.

Sheeler had produced fashion photos for Vanity Fair and Vogue and had recorded in pictures the new skyscrapers which proclaimed the growing dominence of New York.

He spent six weeks at the Rouge complex and produced 32 photographs, spending hours setting up each shot. Only 12 negatives have survived.

Ford asked Sheeler to produce a series of enormous photo-murals for the interior of a Rotunda under construction. (See related story, When flames consumed a Christmas fantasy.) The area to be covered — 20 feet high by 600 linear feet — could not be painted in time for the opening.

A Ford staff photographer, George Ebling, produced another 28 images on 97 panels greatly influenced by Sheeler’s work. Quotes from Henry Ford appeared between the images.

The beauty Sheeler discovered amid the smoky factories surprised many and the style dominated photography for years. Sheeler, a New England Yankee, felt that big industry would better the human condition. His images are infused with a sense of the power of the huge complex.

Henry Ford, left, discussed expansion plans at the Rouge complex with John. F. Wandersee, a Ford metal specialist, and son Edsel in 1938.

      . “In revealing the beauty of factory architecture, Sheeler had become the Raphael of the Fords. Who is it that will be the Giotto of the UAW?” asked a writer in 1949. The answer to that question was Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who was brought to Detroit by Edsel Ford and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, William R. Valentiner, approached him about inviting Rivera to paint the walls in the museum’s Garden Court, an enthusiastic Edsel also promised to pay for the project. In his Detroit frescoes, Rivera focused on the relationship between man and machine.

This photo of molten steel being poured for sampling took third prize in a Graflex Photo contest in 1956. The photo was taken by Richard De Longe, a Ford cameraman.

      According to a Detroit Institute of Arts catalog of an exhibit honoring the 75th anniversity of Ford, which showcased Rivera and Sheeler’s artwork of the Rouge plant, Valentiner said, “Edsel Ford was the only person in Detroit industry who had any interest in modern art. … Diegeo Rivera and Edsel Ford understood each other very well … Diego confessed to me that Edsel had none of the characteristics of an exploiting capitalist, that he had the simplicity and directness of a workman in his own factories and was like one of the best of them.”

Rivera spent several weeks studying Detroit auto plants, looking for inspiration. A devout Marxist, he visited the neighborhoods of workmen and the factories, especially the Rouge plant. He saw Detroit, he said, as an expression of the steel that goes into automobiles and skyscrapers.

Diego Rivera works on a mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932.

      He also picked up on the diversity of the workers in a heavily ethnic city. He not only sought to glorify industry, but to glorify the dignity of the workers.

Rivera explained the symbolism in his murals:

“The yellow race represents the sand, because it is most numerous,” he said. “And the red race, the first in this country, is like the iron ore, the first thing necessary for the steel.

A section of the Rivera murals on the south wall of the DIA’s Garden Court.

“The black race is like coal, because it has a great native esthetic sense, a real flame of feeling and beauty in its ancient sculpture, its native rhythm and music. So its esthetic sense is like the fire, and its labor furnishes the hardness which the carbon in the coal gives to steel.

“The white race is like the lime, not only because it is white, but because lime is the organizing agent in the making of steel. It binds together the other elements and so you see the white race as the great organizer of the world.”

Despite Rivera’s romanticized explanation, there was much opposition to the work. Marygrove College president Dr. George H. Derry proclaimed the sentiments of many:

“Senor Rivera has perpetrated a heartless hoax on his capitalist employer, Edsel Ford. Rivera was engaged to interpret Detroit; he has foisted on Mr. Ford and the museum a Communist manifesto.”

Nevertheless, Rivera’s industrial murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts influenced a generation of artists who found work in President Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA program and remain among the most important examples of 20th century public art.

The murals glorified the worker.


A Charles Sheeler photo at the Rouge complex.

Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo at the Rouge complex in 1932.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Vivian Baulch and Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News