2:10pm

Sun August 4, 2013
History

Museum Tries To Save The Plant Where Rosie Riveted

Originally published on Sun August 4, 2013 6:38 pm

The historic Michigan factory where the iconic Rosie the Riveter and thousands of other women built B-24 bombers during World War II could face the wrecking ball two months from now.

A modest nonprofit is trying to raise enough money to salvage some of the massive plant, which Ford sold to General Motors after the war. The Yankee Air Museum figures the factory is the perfect place to start anew, after a devastating fire destroyed its collections in 2004.

The huge hangar doors on the old Willow Run assembly plant are majestic in proportion. Thirty-two feet tall and 150 feet wide; the doors were built big so that finished B-24 bombers could roll out of the factory, then tested on the site's airport runway, before going to war.

"What's remarkable to me," says Grant Trigger, cleanup manager for GM's former properties in Michigan, "is this is more reliable than my garage door. Built by engineers with slide rules in 1942, and it still works today."

Inside the dark factory, an intense smell of dampness and oil rises from the floor, which is still littered with old equipment and castoff work gloves.

For decades, the former Ford bomber plant turned out cars for GM. But with GM's bankruptcy came a trust fund to find new developers to sites like this. The iconic place where Rosie flexed her muscles during World War II seemed fated for demolition.

"The size of the space, which was phenomenal at the time, is simply too big for today's manufacturing facilities," Trigger says. "There's 83 acres under one roof."

That translates to nearly 5 million square feet, or the size of a huge housing subdivision. Surely someone would want at least a little piece of that history. Enter the Yankee Air Museum.

Located about a mile away, this nonprofit, with an annual budget of $2 million and a paid staff of six, had a big collection of aviation history exhibits and historic airplanes, some of which still flew.

"We had a hanger full of artifacts," says Ray Hunter, chairman of the museum's board. "We had WWII uniforms, we had a women in aviation [collection], we had a WWI collection. We had a tremendous collection, and it all went up in fire. It all went up in the fire."

The museum went to work almost immediately to rebuild. The flyable craft, luckily, were saved. Helmets and uniforms and aviation artifacts poured in from around the country. Today, the airplanes are off-site, but the museum is up and running again in a smaller space.

Rosie's former factory — at least 180,000 square feet of it, including the hangar doors — would allow the Yankee Air Museum to get its planes and exhibits under one, historic roof. But it will cost about $8 million to build new walls when the rest of the site is torn down, and to bring in new plumbing, heat and water.

It'll be worth it, says Mike Montgomery, a consultant for the effort. Montgomery says it's not just about saving something for aviation buffs.

"There was an integrated, unionized plant where men and women both worked in manufacturing jobs doing equal pay for equal work in the 1940s, when that was absolutely not the norm in American industry," he says.

GM donated $2 million to the effort, but the Yankee Air Museum still needs to raise $3.5 million. Museum staff can see the factory from their site. So, if they don't raise the money in time, they'd be watching the demolition from there.

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSIE THE RIVETER")

THE FOUR VAGABONDS: (Singing) All the day long, whether rain or shine she's a part of the assembly line. She's making history, working for victory Rosie the riveter.

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

The historic Michigan factory where the iconic Rosie the Riveter and thousands of other women built B-24 bombers could face the wrecking ball. That is unless a local nonprofit can raise enough money to salvage a part of the plant which Ford sold to GM after the war. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: It's downright majestic, the way this huge hangar door on the old Willow Run assembly plant opens. Thirty-two feet tall and 150 feet wide - the doors were built that big so that finished B-24 bombers could be rolled out of the factory, then tested on the airport runway here, before going to war.

GRANT TRIGGER: And what's remarkable to me is this is more reliable than my garage door.

SAMILTON: Grant Trigger is cleanup manager for GM's former properties in the state of Michigan.

TRIGGER: Built by engineers with slide rules in 1942, and it still works today.

SAMILTON: Inside the factory, it's dark. There's an intense smell of dampness and oil rising from the floor, which is still littered with old equipment and castoff work gloves. For decades, Ford's former bomber plant turned out cars for GM. But with GM's bankruptcy came a trust fund to find new developers for sites like this. The iconic place where Rosie flexed her muscles during World War II seemed fated for demolition.

TRIGGER: The size of the space, which was phenomenal at the time, is simply too big for today's manufacturing facilities. There's 83 acres under one roof.

SAMILTON: Eighty-three acres under one roof. Yeah, that big, nearly 5 million square feet, or the size of a huge housing subdivision. Surely, someone would want at least a little piece of that history. Enter the Yankee Air Museum. Located about a mile away, this nonprofit with an annual budget of $2 million and a paid staff of six, had a big collection of historic airplanes, some of which still flew, along with aviation history exhibits until 2004. Ray Hunter is the museum board's chairman.

RAY HUNTER: We had a hangar full of artifacts. We had World War II uniforms. We had a - women in aviation, we had World War I collection. We had a tremendous collection, and it all went up in fire. All went up in the fire.

SAMILTON: The museum went to work almost immediately to rebuild. The flyable craft, luckily, were saved. Helmets and uniforms and aviation artifacts poured in from around the country. Today, the airplanes are off-site, but the museum is up and running again in a smaller space.

HUNTER: And next is our Rosie the Riveter display. The narrative that's on the TV screen was done by Vina Greer who came here, got off the bus at Ypsilanti with a little suitcase and ended up working in the bomber plant as a riveter.

SAMILTON: The Yankee Air Museum hopes to salvage 180,000 square feet of Vina and Rosie's former factory, including two of those big hangar doors, getting the planes and the exhibits under one historic roof. But it will cost about $8 million to build new walls when the rest of the site is torn down and to bring in new plumbing, heat and water. It'll be worth it, says Mike Montgomery, a consultant for the effort. He says it's not just about saving something for aviation buffs.

MIKE MONTGOMERY: This was an integrated, unionized plant where men and women both worked in manufacturing jobs doing equal pay for equal work in the 1940s when that was absolutely not the norm in American industry.

SAMILTON: GM donated $2 million to the effort, but the Yankee Air Museum still has $3.5 million to raise. Museum staff can see the factory from their site. So if they don't raise the money in time, they'd be watching the demolition from there. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.