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Ford's Rouge reborn: Tours take MTV approach to industry

Former Ford engineer Bill Johnson, right, takes the Williams family — Harry, Anne-Marie and Philomena — on a tour of the Rouge plant. More than 800 visitors sold out the factory’s first day of tours since 1980. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)

By Joel Kurth / The Detroit News

The Rouge Factory Tour opened Monday with a bang. Literally. Clare Fisher’s ears may still be ringing.

Bangs, booms, strobe lights, mist and other special effects wowed 825 visitors who sold out the factory’s first day of tours since 1980. The MTV approach to heavy industry had Detroit eighth-grader Donovan Allen high-fiving his friends. Fisher, 69, refrained from whooping it up.

“I took my hearing aid out because it was so loud,” said Fisher, an apple farmer from Tonasket, Wash.

He came to satisfy a lifelong curiosity about industry. Donovan came because that’s where the bus from the Detroit Academy for Science Math and Technology took him and 35 other students.

“If you go on a field trip, some are just boring. Nothing to do,” Donovan said. “But some are just the bomb. This is the bomb.”

That’s the reaction they were hoping for at The Henry Ford: America’s Greatest History Attraction, the Dearborn tourism complex that operates the tours. Once a mainstay for generations, the tours resumed with a razzle-dazzle approach that might have shocked the straight-laced namesake of the tours.

Visitors marveled at the redesigned factory floor. It’s clean, cool and pleasant, hardly like the grimy stink bomb from the heyday of the Rouge, when 100,000 workers toiled in what was then the world’s largest industrial complex.

The relative quiet of the factory is offset by a film about the making of an F-150 that precedes the plant. Lights flash. Drums boom. Strobe lights flicker. Mist sprays the crowd, and eyes dart among eight screens in the round theater.

“It’s like being in Disney World,” said Cindy Hinks, a Canton Township paralegal. It’s almost fake, but I thought it was cool. It might inspire kids to become engineers.

The tours are sold out this week and most of next week, said Andrew K. Johnson, spokesman for The Henry Ford. Attendance is projected at 300,000 a year, which would generate $23.7 million.

Barbara Brown, manager of the tour, said the museum attraction was designed to appeal to all generations.

Maybe so, but Chuck Grech said kids seemed to be the primary audience.

“They’re smart,” said Grech, 54, of Clinton Township. “Kids come here, tell their parents about the great tour and maybe they buy Fords. When they turn 18 and want to buy a car, it could be a factor.”

Grech is biased. He’s retired from DaimlerChrysler’s Sterling Heights Assembly plant.

Donovan is also biased now. The Detroit fifth-grader left the tour a Ford fan.

“It gives you a real insight about the kind of cars you want to buy later,” he said. “Me, I’m going to get a Mustang.”

Opening day struck a nostalgic chord among others. Terri Seraceno sneaked into the Rouge when she was 15. Her father, Manny Seraceno, was a welder. Her husband, Joe Lapinski, 56, grew up riding bikes around the sprawling complex.

“Back then, it was nasty, hot, the guys were filthy,” said Seraceno, 44, of Farmington Hills. “All I remember is thinking that I was glad I didn’t work there and feeling sorry for my dad. … He’d be amazed to see this place.”

Dave Criss knows the feeling. The 56-year-old engineer from West Bloomfield worked at Rouge Steel from 1996 to 2000. His son and daughter-in-law, Dan and Suzanne Criss, planned their trip from Puyallup, Wash., so they could go on the first tour.

“I had no idea what he did or where he worked,” Dan Criss said. “This is neat.”

 

F-150 plant tour revels in past, shows off future

The doors to Ford Motor Co.’s famous Rouge factory once again are opening to the public. At its peak, the Rouge was the largest manufacturing center in the world, with 93 structures on 2,000 acres, 100 miles of railroad tracks, 120 miles of conveyers, a fire department, a police force and a hospital.

The massive complex represented a revolution in industrial production, the realization of Henry Ford’s vision for self-sufficient manufacturing, where everything needed to build automobiles was on a single site.

Ford invited the world inside for a first-hand look. Public tours of the Rouge began in 1924 and drew as many as 250,000 visitors annually before they ended nearly a quarter century ago.

The tour is returning in conjunction with an ongoing 20-year, $2 billion renovation of the Rouge complex from a gritty icon of 20th century American industry to a marvel of 21st century manufacturing.

The cornerstone of the project, and the focus of the tour, is the all-new, state-of-the-art 2.5 million-square-foot Dearborn Truck Plant.

The plant is home to Ford’s F-150 pickup and incorporates the latest innovations in auto assembly and environmental science.

Visitors will get more than a walk-through.

The new tour was jointly developed by Ford, The Henry Ford, the United Auto Workers union and Burbank, Calif.-based BRC Imagination Arts.

BRC designed General Motors Corp.’s attractions at Florida’s Epcot Center, as well as the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which chronicles America’s journey to put a man on the moon at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Ford and The Henry Ford realized early on that the new tour could not just be a remake, said Bob Rogers, chairman of BRC Imagination Arts.

The old tour won’t make it with today’s visitors, he said. All of those visitors have been to Disney World … If you don’t measure up, then you’re boring.

The result is a five-part, multisensory Rouge experience that mixes history and technology in a sophisticated attraction designed to appeal to contemporary audiences.

Visitors will learn how the Rouge operated 75 years ago, then see, hear, smell, touch and feel life on the plant floor today.

Bus tour showcases century of Ford history, landmarks

The Ford Rouge Factory Tour begins with a 15-minute bus tour from The Henry Ford to the Rouge. Ford Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. welcomes visitors with a recorded greeting during the trip. Among the sights:

Greenfield Village. The living history museum includes the house where Henry Ford was born in 1863 on the banks of the Rouge River.

Ford Motor Co.’s Co.’s proving grounds along the Southfield Service Drive. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the property was used for the Ford Airport and was home to the Ford Tri-Motor plane, a workhorse of the early airline industry.

Springwells Golf Course. In the 1860s, the neighborhood was known as Springwells Township and was the original site of the Ford family farm.

Tool and die plant, Dearborn engine plant, stamping plant. The engine plant, built during World War II, employs more than 1,000 people today and produces more than 200,000 engines and over half a million fuel tanks annually for Ford cars and trucks. The tool and die plant was built in 1939 by industrial architect Albert Kahn. Today, the plant employs more than 500 workers who custom build the assembly and stamping dies used at the Rouge. The stamping plant, first built in 1925 and rebuilt in 1939, is the largest building on the Rouge site and is equipped with giant presses that stamp out all the metal parts that form the body of a car and truck.

Rouge’s glass plant. The plant once built all of the glass used by Ford.

Dearborn Assembly plant. Remnants remain of this plant, first built in 1917. It first produced Eagle Boats for the U.S. Navy. The plant later built Model T parts, Fordson tractors, the Model A, the Ford V-8, as well as the Thunderbird and Mustang.

The Power House and the tall exhaust stacks of the Rouge Steel complex’s blast furnaces. Opened in 1923, Rouge Steel provided all of the steel required on the site.

Phytoremediation research center. Plants are used to clean up and remove contaminants from soil at the Rouge site. The center is operated by Ford and Michigan State University.

Rouge Overpass. In 1937, Ford’s security personnel attacked Walter P. Reuther and other union organizers to keep the United Auto Workers union out of the plant. Public outcry over the incident prompted Ford to eventually recognize the union.

Rouge plant milestones

1915 | Henry Ford begins buying marshland along the Rouge River, eventually acquiring 2,000 acres.

1917 | Ground breaking on first Rouge building. Eagle Boat warships made there were designed to hunt down German subs in World War I.

1924 | Public tours start; more than 7 million visit before tours end in 1980.

1927 | Model A production begins; first car to be built at the Rouge.

1937 | A group of union organizers, led by Walter P. Reuther, attempting to distribute union literature at the Rouge, are beaten by Ford security personnel and a gang of hired thugs. The event became known as the Battle of the Overpass.

1941 | Ford signs its first contract with the UAW after years of discord.

1945 | Twenty-eight-year-old Henry Ford II talks with employees at the Rouge in 1945, the year he succeeded his grandfather, Henry Ford, to become the company’s president.

1954 | Thunderbird production begins at the Rouge.

1964 | Mustang output begins.

1981 | The Rouge steel operation is established as a separate company, called Rouge Steel Inc.

1989 | Ford sells Rouge Steel, including about 900 acres of the original 2,000-acre Rouge property.

1992 | Ford plans to stop production of the Mustang, but under pressure from the UAW, redesigns the Mustang and decides to modernize the plant.

1999 | Power plant explodes, killing six and injuring 30. The blast cut all power to the Rouge, leaving it dark for three days.

2003 | Plant-covered living roof is installed atop the new Dearborn Truck Plant, one of many environmental advances incorporated into the $2 billion redevelopment of the Rouge complex.

2004 | Production of Ford F-150 begins at the Dearborn Truck Plant, and the factory is opened to the public for tours.

 

Source: Ford Motor Co.