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Wreckers Stir Up as Many Memories as Dust at Ford Plant

August 19, 1990|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — To the Ford Motor Co., it was the world's most modern and efficient factory of 1930, churning out one Model A every 93 minutes. To the city, it was a ticket to modern industrialization. And to some of the men who worked on its grinding assembly line, it was "a real sweatshop."

For more than a quarter of a century, the old brick plant at the edge of the Port of Long Beach buzzed with the mechanical genius of Henry Ford and helped turn a virtuous beach resort into an industrial boom town.

Now the plant is coming down. Although it has been nothing but an oversize warehouse since Ford moved out in 1959, the poking and prodding of workmen preparing it for demolition are stirring up as many memories--good and bad--as they are dust.

"This is a fascinating building, a building that represented the coming of age of Long Beach as a modern city," said Ruthann Lehrer, neighborhood and historic preservation officer.

"By today's standards, it was a sweatshop," countered Don Thomas, who worked on the upholstery end of the line in 1945 and was glad to leave it one year later. "They would complain if someone went to the bathroom on company time. The Ford Motor Co. (plant) was not an easy place to work."

Up to 2,000 men once worked under the hot lamps of the line, but today the huge factory stands hollow and vacant, except for a few homeless people who sleep there at night and an occasional pair of pigeons nesting in its rafters.

The sheer history of the place has qualified it for the National Register of Historic Places. Ford handpicked the site to manufacture the classic Model A, the car that helped turn a rich man's luxury into a poor man's staple.

But history has been bumped aside by progress. The Ford plant is an earthquake hazard, full of asbestos. And it's standing in the way of the expansion of a port that is one of the largest in the country and growing fast.

When port administrators announced recently that they would knock the building down to use the valuable land along Cerritos Channel for container storage, scarcely a word of protest was heard, even from usually vocal Long Beach preservationists.

There was some talk of turning it into a nautical museum or a restaurant for passing cruise ships, but the cost was considered prohibitive and the location--on the fringe of a gray industrial section of town--too remote.

By December, demolition experts say, it will be rubble.

"This is a fascinating building," Lehrer said, "one that means a great deal historically to the city. But from a practical standpoint, there's really no use for it anymore. I am always sorry to see a building of such overwhelming historical importance that has no future."

To compensate for the demolition, port administrators say, they have spent close to $100,000 to make a detailed photographic and historical record for remembering the plant.

A report already compiled by researchers--who deemed the factory eligible for national landmark status--tells the following story of a town and a factory that helped share a few years of industrial glory.

The Ford Motor Co. was young and booming in Michigan by the 1920s, and 2,000 miles west, so was Long Beach.

While Ford was pioneering an assembly line that spit out one Model T every 93 minutes, Long Beach was striking oil.

Before the Roaring '20s were over, there were 15 million Model Ts on the road--more than half of all the automobiles sold in the world. At the same time, the Pacific Fleet had come to Long Beach, creating a strong and growing harbor and positioning the city to attract nationally known manufacturers.

The first of them would be Henry Ford.

It was Christmas of 1927 when Ford decided to replace the fabulously successful Model T with the Model A, a modern wonder with roll-down windows that started without a crank. It would be built, Ford decreed, in a customized factory, his 36th in the country, at Long Beach Harbor.

Rumors were swirling in Long Beach over the arrival of Ford, by then a living American legend. "The key to Long Beach is yours," the mayor and several other city officials proclaimed in a full-page Press-Telegram newspaper ad.

The stock market crashed in the fall of 1929, but who cared? Ford was promising to employ 1,200 men. He had nearly doubled the minimum wage of the day to $5 and cut the workday from nine hours to eight.

On April 21, 1930, Lt. Gov. H.S. Carnahan pressed a button at the Pacific Coast Club (another landmark that would not survive the century) and an assembly line 1 1/2 football fields long began to roll at 106 inches a minute.

Ford's 29-year relationship with Long Beach would be as rocky as a torrid love affair, beset by labor problems, a world war, even an earthquake, then lifted to record heights by the prosperous postwar '50s.

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