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Boats, tanks and F-150s: 100 years at the Rouge complex

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Ford Motor Co. has been manufacturing at the Rouge complex here for 100 years — and Willie Fulton has been there for 65 of them. 

Fulton, 86, came from Mississippi in 1953 for a job at the Ford River Rouge Complex, and currently works four 10-hour shifts a week on a line that organizes parts.

Willie Fulton, 86, has been working at Ford Motor Company for 65 years and has no plans to retire.

"When I worked maybe 10 years I realized what I was doing," he said. "This is a family thing. I said, 'I'm gonna stay here,' and I stayed here."

The 7,000 employees at the Ford River Rouge Complex joke that the world revolves around this plant and the F-150s that roll off the line here every 53 seconds, every day, at the oldest continuously operating auto plant in the nation. Bill Ford Jr., Ford executive chairman, would say the world's been revolving around more than just Ford trucks since the Rouge opened 100 years ago — a milestone Ford will celebrate Thursday.

The trucks currently driving nearly all of Ford's profits in North America are just the latest product assembled on the sprawling plant grounds.

"There's no more historic or relevant plant in the country in the last 100 years," Bill Ford said. "There's no other factory in the world that has that kind of history."

During World War I, the plant built Eagle-class patrol boats to battle submarines starting in 1917. Ten years later, Henry Ford began producing the Model A at the factory, and a steady stream of vehicles followed. Under Edsel Ford, who sometimes took his boat to the plant from his home in Grosse Pointe, the factory built tanks, Jeeps, armored cars and trucks, and engines for planes, tanks and bombs during World War II as part of the Arsenal of Democracy.

It was the very first Ford plant Bill Ford set foot in. His father, William Clay Ford Sr., once helped arrange a tour for his son's second-grade class, during which his classmates expected him to know everything about the place.

Four generations of Mustangs rolled through the plant. And at the turn of the century, Bill Ford led a redesign of the facility to make it more environmentally friendly and effectively save the complex that some executives wanted to tear down.

"That was absolute heresy," he said of the suggestion to raze the plant. "So much came to life at the Rouge."

Walter Talamonti, corporate medical director for Ford, is the part of the fourth of five generations in the Talamonti family to work at the Rouge. The Italian-American family often referred to the automaker as "Tio Ford" when Talamonti was younger. Tio is Italian for uncle.

"Literally everybody in my family worked in the Rouge," he said. "That was the family business. That was always the talk at family parties."

The Dearborn automaker currently employs 7,000 people in five buildings that make up nearly 8 million square feet inside the complex on the south end of Dearborn. The plant now cranks out the F-150 pickup, Ford's most-popular and most-profitable vehicles in its latest iteration, which began in late 2014 after the plant was completely transformed to make aluminum-bodied pickups.

The plant brought the $5 daily wage to the masses in the late 1910s and helped create the American middle class. It was a battleground for unionization, was one of the first auto plants to hire African-Americans, and has a history of hiring workers with disabilities when other companies wouldn't. It inspired Diego Rivera murals. Labor organizer Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers infamously clashed with Ford security during the Battle of the Overpass here. The plant armed the U.S. and its allies through World War II, and became an example of ecologically friendly manufacturing by way of a new water retention and cooling system as manufacturing entered the 21st century.

And now it's a cornerstone for the automaker as it prepares to navigate fundamental changes coming to the industry by way of self-driving vehicles.

"It's been a leader in so much," and it's been a constant presence for one of the nation's oldest auto manufacturers, Bill Ford said. "The reason it becomes a comfort zone is because we always push it out of its comfort zone."

For now, that means building aluminum-bodied trucks while the rest of the industry uses steel. It's the single best-selling vehicle in the U.S., a profit generator and a stalwart in Ford's lineup as the automaker shifts resources and alters its vehicle portfolio to better meet demands for larger vehicles, fewer cars and more technologically advanced machines.

Willie Fulton isn't too sure he'll ever use a self-driving car. Too much new technology, he said. But Ford, and the Rouge complex that Ford built, is going to keep the world spinning, he said.

"Studebaker, Packard, they're not longer around because they were a corporation," Fulton said. "There was no family to keep them around. Ford is a big company. And a lot of people in Dearborn survive off what Ford does."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau