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Pair of Ford’s Village Industries mills come up for sale

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Wilcox Mill in Plymouth, Michigan. Photo by Dwight Burdette.

Neither looks like they’d have much to do with automotive manufacturing or even the so-called arsenal of democracy, but a pair of buildings along the Middle River Rouge west of Detroit once played a role in both and may soon become part of a broad redevelopment project now that the county that owns them has put them up for sale.

Wayne County’s decision to sell off the former Ford Village Industries factories that it owns comes as part of a larger plan to create a greenway of parks and trails along the Middle Rouge, according to a recent article in the Detroit Free Press. However, instead of restoring the factories that once ran on hydroelectric power generated by damming up sections of the Middle Rouge, county officials are hoping local businesses will revive the plants.

“In every one of these projects, when we’re soliciting offers, one of the things we’re asking developers is do you have recreational components as part of your development and are you going to maintain that in the future? Those are the offers that are more attractive to us,” Khalil Rahal, the county’s director of economic development, told the Free Press.

Of the 19 Village Industries micro-factories that Ford Motor Company built according to Henry Ford’s wishes starting in the early 1920s, six of the first eight were located along the Middle Rouge, a branch of the larger River Rouge along which runs Edward N. Hines Drive, itself a result of Henry Ford’s donation of land to the county in exchange for building a series of dams along the Middle Rouge. At first, Ford had intended for the factories to contribute to the construction of Model Ts and later Ford automobiles and tractors at the River Rouge plant.

“(Ford’s) plan was to decentralize operations and provide work to rural populations during the winter months while still allowing farmers to work in the fields during summer,” according to The Henry Ford’s research into the sites. “Most of the Village Industries plants were located within 50 miles of the Rouge plant in Dearborn. These were all small villages, or rural locations, and most plants were located on water with the intent of utilizing hydropower to power the operations. The Village Industries plants were fairly decentralized, and Henry Ford oversaw and handled most aspects of the plants well into the 1930s. Each plant had a manager and sometimes assistants to oversee operations; the managers reported to the Rouge, but much of the decision making was done by Ford himself.”

As the United States entered World War II, the Village Industries plants switched over to the production of war material in support of the Willow Run bomber plant. One of the plants, located in Cherry Hill, even employed an all-veteran workforce. After the war, however, Henry Ford II found most of the plants to be inefficient, so, by 1947, he closed 11 of the 19 plants and sold off the buildings.

Not long afterward, Wayne County came to own four of the six Village Industries properties along the Middle River Rouge. County officials gave one — the former Nankin Mills site — to the Wayne County Parks and Recreation Department for use as a museum and headquarters. Similarly, they transformed another — the former Newburgh Mill site — into the horse barn and facilities for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. Others, according to the Free Press, were often just turned into storage space for old files.

The Nankin Mills site fit perfectly into the plan to create the greenway, but county officials considered the other three disposable. One has already sold — developer Rick Cox, who bought and redeveloped the Northville Mill into an office center, plans an assembly space and restaurant for the Phoenix Mill — but the other two remain on the market.

The older of the two, the Wilcox Mill in Plymouth, was built in March 1923 to assemble generator cutouts for Model Ts then later manufactured taps for government vehicles and Pratt & Whitney engines. The county has listed the two-story building and the 14.5-acre site for sale for $1.4 million.

The other, the aforementioned Newburgh Mill in Livonia, came along in July 1935 to manufacture twist drills, a function it apparently continued during the war. The county has listed the 4,196-square-foot building and the 1.83-acre site for sale for $400,000.

Both sites were designated state of Michigan historic sites in 1989. Neither are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Rahal told the Free Press that the proceeds from the sales will go directly into improving the county’s parks system.