Ford plant creates boom town

Downtown Iron Mountain has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. To recognize this honor, The Daily News is publishing a series on the history of downtown Iron Mountain. These accounts were researched and written by Robert O. Christensen, National Register Coordinator from the State Historic Preservation Office in Lansing, and edited by Dickinson County Historian William Cummings.

The Ford Boom

Central to Iron Mountain’s 1920’s boom times was the “Ford Boom.”

In early 1920 the news broke that the Ford Motor Company was planning to build a sawmill and factory to make wooden automobile components somewhere in the western Upper Peninsula.

Ford had recently purchased 400,000 acres of timberlands in the area of Lake Michigamme in Iron, Baraga, and Marquette counties to provide the company with its own source of wood for manufacturing parts.

At the time lumber from the northern woodlands was shipped to the company’s plants in Detroit, made into parts, and then re-shipped to branch assembly plants. Ford’s plan was to establish a sawmill and body parts factory near the sources of the raw materials and ship the parts directly to the assembly plants.

Henry Ford with son Edsel and company general manager C. W. Avery visited several Upper Peninsula towns, one of them being Iron Mountain on July 7.

Menominee, Marquette, and Republic were also mentioned as prospective sites.

By July 16 Ford had decided on Iron Mountain, and on the 17th Ford engineers arrived in the city. Work at the site, soon connected to the Chicago & North Western Railway, began before the end of July. The company eventually purchased 3,000 acres. The tract was located just south of Iron Mountain and fronted east on Carpenter Avenue.

The first part of the plant to be built was a sawmill.

Planned to be three times the size of the Von Platen-Fox sawmill, it went into full operation during December 1921 (it was doubled in capacity in 1924).

A first “body plant” was built in 1921 and went into operation in March 1922. Later in 1922 this first building was enlarged and a second plant added.

A third body plant was built in 1923. By March 1924 the three body plants were making 69 different body parts and producing an estimated 350,000 wooden parts per day.

A chemical or distillation plant that converted the waste wood into wood alcohol, wood tar, gas, oil, and charcoal went into operation during September 1924.

As the Ford operation expanded, the company built the Ford Dam and Hydroelectric Plant on the Menominee River nearby to provide an adequate power supply. The power plant was completed in June 1924.

Employment at the Iron Mountain Ford operation, initially estimated at 2,000 to 2,500, reached 2,200 by September 1923, 3,000 two months later, 3,500 by February 1924, more than 5,200 by late September 1924, and more than 7,000 during October 1925.

During 1920 Ford began developing a residential area near Crystal Lake on the company’s property just south of Iron Mountain and built 50 houses, the first of many more Ford eventually built. At the same time other developers began a rush of new subdivisions and home-building on nearby properties.

The new residential development, accompanied by commercial development, created a new boom town where little had existed a few years earlier.

Establishment of a separate Village of Kingsford, named for Edward G. Kingsford, Ford’s cousin-by-marriage and head of Ford’s Upper Peninsula operations, was authorized by the voters August 29, 1923.

A census, conducted by city directory workers employed by R. L. Polk & Co. and completed December 10, 1924, revealed a population of 5,106 in Kingsford and 18,349 in Kingsford and Iron Mountain together.

For Iron Mountain itself, this represented a population increase of 5,000 in only four years.