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The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant: Birthplace of the Model T
by Ronda Stiffler
Southeastern Michigan’s auto industry has long been a source of pride among its residents, and rightly so. The automobile revolutionized the world, ushering in a new era of leisurely travel and freedom, and it all happened right here at the bottom of the mitten.
The preservation of our state’s automobile history for future generations is a goal that Michigan historians take seriously. An example of this dedication is the Ford Piquette Avenue plant in Detroit, the first Ford Motor Company factory, which is preserved as a testament to the ingenuity of Americans and is open to visitors on Wednesdays and weekends from April through November.
Ford’s Forgotten Plant
In the early 20th century, automobile factories began springing up around Milwaukee Junction, the 1858 meeting place of two major railroad systems. Soon the area was bustling with production as numerous automobile companies sought out supplies for their products.
The three storied brick Ford Piquette Avenue plant was built between Brush and Beaubian streets in 1904 at 461 Piquette Avenue. In 1911, following the construction of another factory in Highland Park, the building was sold by Henry Ford. It became the property of its present owners, the T Automotive Heritage Complex, or T-Plex for short, in 2000.
During a recent conversation I had with Richard Rubens, a member of the T-Plex board of directors, I asked him why the Piquette Avenue factory is sometimes referred to as “Ford’s Forgotten Plant.”
He explained that at the time Henry Ford built his plant, Ford was, “…a small business man, so not much history was preserved. His Highland Park factory was much more famous because that was where he began mass production. But the Model T was born here.”
The Model T Was Born Here
The Model T is, of course, Ford’s most famous car, and it was born in Henry Ford’s third-floor Experimental Room at the Piquette Avenue plant after a ten-month design and development period. With a name like Experimental Room, it’s no wonder that it’s one of the most popular exhibits at the museum.
Other popular draws, according to Mr. Rubens, are Henry Ford’s office, the museum’s fine collection of antique automobiles, and the historic location at Milwaukee Junction.
“This is the cradle of the Detroit auto industry. Everyone in the auto industry is connected, somehow, to this area,” Mr. Rubens said.
Ford also produced models C, F, B, K, N, R and S at the plant. Photographs and descriptions of each of these models can be found at the plant’s website at www.tplex.org, a wonderful resource for those unable to travel to the museum.
From Mud Roads to the Moon
Mr. Rubens had a few more words for me about Detroit’s impact on and importance in history. He said that the automobile industry not only made it possible for the average person to travel more than sixty miles from home comfortably, but that its contributions in engineering the Lunar Rover made the moon landing possible.
“The thing to remember when you hear people bashing Detroit is it’s the largest engineering center in the world. Detroit took this country from mud roads to suburban sprawl connected by ribbons of concrete and on to the moon.”
If that isn’t incentive enough to go and visit Ford’s Forgotten Plant at Milwaukee Junction, then I don’t know what is.
Note from Hometown History Tours Director Karin Risko: The TPlex and Milwaukee Junction are sites we go by on the Detroit History Highlights Trolley Tours: Motor City Muscle – Putting the World on Wheels.