Iron Mountain Division, Ford Motor Co. - 1929-1950 - Iron Mountain, Michigan
As the Twenties progressed, the depot hack gradually gave way to the closed vehicle we now call the station wagon, and in 1929, Henry Ford took the next step with the Ford Model A woodie, the first station wagon to be marketed as a regular production model. To make this groundbreaking move possible, he bought half a million acres of Michigan’s Iron Mountain forest to provide the wood needed to build the wagons. Consequently, Ford was able to dominate the station wagon market as it had done with depot hacks. Other makes continued to rely on the independent bodybuilders, but many suppliers of wooden bodies soon died out as the Great Depression began. Those that did stay in business did so by merging with one another or taking on other woodworking projects, such as pianos and furniture, to supplement their wagon building business.
Once the worst of the Depression was over, however, the station wagon’s popularity began to grow as it began to take on more duties than just working for the railroads. They could also be found at wealthy estates, hotels, country clubs, and national parks and while not everyone could afford them, they began to attract a small but growing audience, and more auto makers decided to get in on the action. Plymouth was Ford’s first major challenger, in 1934, and would usually run a distant second to Ford in station wagon sales through the Forties. Pontiac and Studebaker both signed up in 1937, followed by Dodge in 1938 (for one year only, until 1949); Chevrolet in 1939; Buick, Oldsmobile, Packard and Willys in 1940; and Mercury, Hudson and Chrysler in 1941. Hercules and Ionia were usually called on to build the GM bodies, while U.S. Body & Forging provided them for Plymouths.
The earliest woodies were usually listed by the respective manufacturers as commercial vehicles, more closely related to trucks than automobiles. They typically had fabric-covered roofs and snap-in curtains, instead of glass, for all windows except the windshield. The curtains were no picnic. They weren’t very durable, nor were they easy to see out of, and owners had the unenviable task of installing and removing each one individually. By 1940 all woodies would have, or at least offer, glass all around.
After the wartime blackout period, auto makers continued to build woodie wagons when civilian vehicle production resumed in late 1945 for the 1946 model year, with most makes continuing their 1942 designs. A few, most notably Ford, Mercury, Chrysler and Nash, even offered sedans and/or convertibles as woodies for a brief period. When the first postwar designs began to appear in the late Forties, the trend for woodies would be to more limited amounts of wood. Chrysler’s 1941 Town & Country wagons gave a hint of this trend, being the first to be built with a steel roof. Packard followed suit in 1948 when it introduced its Station Sedan, confining wooden components to doors, window outlines and tailgate; it would return two more years before disappearing.
The 1949 woodies from the "Big three" companies were designed in like fashion. Ford was the first of the three with all-new styling, releasing its 1949 Fords and Mercurys in June 1948; in fact, both makes even got a whole new body style, one with two doors instead of four. These woodies actually had all-steel bodies with the wooden components grafted onto the body. This style continued for 1950, the final year the Iron Mountain facility would build the wagon bodies, with Ford adopting its famous Country Squire nameplate for the first time. The 1951 models, with bodies supplied by Ionia, were the final genuine woodies that Dearborn would produce. Ford’s restyled 1952-53 Country Squire (a four-door model) used simulated wood decals with genuine wood framing, but this was replaced by fiberglass on the ‘54 models.
In announcing the new Model A for 1928, Ford also decided to manufacture its own station wagon bodies. Ford owned thousands of acres of ahs and maple trees around their Iron Mountain, Michigan plant, which was started in 1920 to make wooden parts for the Model T. After cutting and shaping operations at Iron Mountain, the maple station wagon body frames were shipped to Murray Body Company in Detroit, Michigan or Baker-Raulang in Cleveland, Ohio for final assembly.
For 1932 Ford contracted with the Mingle Co. of Louisville, Kentucky to supply the wood for its new Model B Suburban bodys. The old assembly contract with Baker-Raulang was dropped in favor of a new one with Ford favorite, Briggs of Detroit. Murray also continued to assemble the wagons as before, the parts just came from Mingle instead of Ford's Iron Mountain forests.
For 1935, Ford reverted to its Iron Mountain subsidiary for its wood station wagons, and ended its three year experiment with Mingle Co. Murray's Detroit plant was now the only concern assembling Ford's wooden wagons.
In 1937 Ford ended its wagon assembly contract with Murray and began assembly of all wood-framed station wagons at the Iron Mountain facility.
During WWII, Ford produced gliders made of pine and balsa wood at the Iron Mountain facility. They were sent disassembled in large boxes on transport ships and assembled at air bases in Europe. Remarkably these large single-use engineless vehicles were towed behind bombers and helped transport troops and supplies to forward battlefields in the European theatre.
Ford at Iron Mountain – by David Featherston, American Woodys
Henry Ford was a man of vision who enjoyed a challenge and the opportunity to build his company into a self-sufficient organization. To this end, he wanted to be able to manufacture every part of his vehicles, using the raw materials to create finished automobiles.
His vision was blinded somewhat by his enthusiasm and he found it was not the simple process he had first envisioned. His paternal instincts to look after his work force did have a darker side. He paid them well but expected hard work.
By 1919 Ford had managed to get almost full control of the company from the minority stock holders. His new factories in Dearborn and Highland Park built Model T's at an enormous rate and Ford hoped to venture his interests within Michigan for logistical reasons. He figured that owning holdings in all the sources of raw materials would enable him to lower his production costs and thus raise profits. Not only did he have access to Michigan's vast railroad systems but he also owned raw material cargo ships which carried his minerals between mines and smelters, and the timber between mills and factories.
On one of his now-famous camping trips, Ford discovered that he could obtain iron ore, coal, silica, limestone and timber in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This information was provided by his cousin by marriage, KG Kingsford, who was a Ford dealer and a real estate agent in Iron Mountain, Michigan. Ford toured the area and was delighted to find the place just as Kingsford had described. Within a short time he had formed a grand plan: he would purchase as much timberland as he felt necessary to create a permanent supply of hardwood for his factories. Each Model T sedan required 250 board feet of hardwood and he hoped by owning the forest that he could gain an enormous savings in costs. The plan included farming whatever land was cleared and building small communities for his workers. In the process he hoped to use the minerals and scrap wood for chemical, charcoal and heat production.
By the fall of 1919, Kingsford had purchased for Ford a vast tract of 313,000 acres of timberland around Iron Mountain on the Southwest corner of Upper Peninsula, and two iron ore mines further north.
Using Kingsford to purchase the properties shielded Ford from initial public knowledge of the transaction, keeping prices at market value until the majority of the sales were completed. Immediately, the real estate value skyrocketed, as you can imagine. Part of this move to create a new northern Ford empire also meant the purchase of most of Iron Mountain, a small town started in 1879.
Ford began the construction of a huge sawmill in Iron Mountain immediately and on the 12th July, 1921, C.W. Avery opened the mill at 1.30 p.m., throwing the switch which started the huge band mill running. By November, the 3,000 acre sawmill was shipping all the timber to the Rouge needed for Model T production. To go along with the sawmill, Ford also built a huge wood-working shop which prepared wood products for shipping to Briggs and other body builders that Ford used in Detroit.
Iron Mountain was not the only Ford operation in Northern Michigan. Over the next 30 years Ford operated a sawmill in Munising, built a hunting lodge at the Huron Mountains Club in Big Bay on Lake Superior, operated iron ore mines at Blueberry and Imperial, and another huge sawmill at L' Anse, with a model community town at Alberta to house the workers and the whole town of Pequaming.
Alongside Iron Mountain, Ford rapidly built up the town of Kingsford into a thriving town. One hundred houses were built for workers, and the sawmill expanded with a new hydroelectric power station on the Menominee River.
By 1923, the sawmill was producing an astronomical 375,000 board feet a day which supplied the 52 electric drying kilns. Green wood was cut and prepared for the drying kilns. It was then moved to another section of the mill where it was cut to a specific size and shape, milled and finished for use in Ford automobiles.
As a supplement of the sawmill, Ford built a chemical plant to use the vast amounts of wood wastes produced by the sawmill.
The chemical plant opened in 1924 employing 140 men and producing charcoal briquettes, methanol and ethyl acetate. The methanol was used for formaldehyde and anti-freeze production and the ethyl acetate was used as a solvent by the paint industry.
By the end of 1924 the facilities at Kingsford and Iron Mountain employed 7,600 men. The lumber initially came from the forestry camp at Sidnaw, 65 miles north of Iron Mountain. Ford foresters practiced professional forestry, saving young trees, replanting where necessary, and clearing the forest of fire hazards.
Ford's other major investment in 1920 was the Imperial Mine, 80 miles north of Iron Mountain. The iron extracted, here was not high grade much to the complaints of Ford metallurgists at the Rouge. The mine continued in operation until it was closed in 1933. The Blueberry Mine started production in 1929 but it also closed in 1933 as a result of declining sales brought about by the Great Depression.
When Ford introduced its 1929 Model A station wagon, the mills in Northern Michigan were cutting all the timber used in the assembly of station wagons. The graders at the mill were very fastidious about what timber they selected. At first the timber was rough cut and then later it was trimmed to finished sizes and surface contours before it was shipped to Briggs Manufacturing, Murray in Detroit, or Baker-Raulang in Cleveland. These companies provided the assembly and stamping work on the many Ford cars and all of their wood-bodied station wagons. Production of the new station wagon did not really get rolling until well into the 1929 model year and only 5,200 were delivered.
The method of providing outside body builders with raw materials to build the station wagons continued for some time but Henry Ford found that he could have the Mingel Company in Louisville, Kentucky, make the wood parts cheaper, with. Briggs and Murray still doing the assembly. Surprisingly, Iron Mountain's waste wood products division remained very profitable especially with such sidelines as charcoal briquettes. These were used in many industrial processes and for domestic cooking and heat.
However, Ford's first scheme to provide wood to build his automobiles was fading quickly as automobiles were using less and less wood in their construction. This led to less mill time and idle workers which, combined with the effects of the Great Depression, took a large toll on the Iron Mountain plant and its workers.
As Ford had created a highly skilled labor force he felt responsible for them. The Ford sawmills managed to keep running, milling other wood products, providing pre-cut timber patterns for aircraft manufacturers, ship building, railroad cars and the mining industry. At the height of the Depression Ford's policy was to take only workers from local welfare lists who had families to support.
In 1938 Ford's contracts with Briggs Manufacturing were canceled and the station wagon production moved to the Iron Mountain wood shop. With this change, Ford redesigned the plant to bring full body production to Iron Mountain during 1937 to 1939.
By late '39 Ford was assembling the 1940 station wagon using 445 board feet of lumber including gum or mahogany for paneling, birch and maple for framing, and basswood for the inner roof slats. To build the 1940 station wagon, the Rouge Plant in Dearborn shipped Iron Mountain 25 box cars a day containing the steel parts for the station wagon which included a floorpan, inner rear wheel panels, rear fenders, a yowl, a front windshield frame plus a selection of smaller hardware needed. to assemble the wagon.
These parts were acid dipped, then pressure washed with hot water and dried in an infra-red baking oven. They were spot welded on the assembly line and painted before being moved into the station wagon line. The floor pan was painted black and the external sheet metal was finished in body color. This floorpan assembly was set on a framing fixture and the cowl was attached by hand. The "B" and "C" pillars were installed and the roof was set in place. The assembly was then set in a fixture to make sure the side panels were in complete alignment before the doors were installed.
The assembly of each wagon required 167 sizes and shapes of wood from long stingers to tiny framing blocks. The bodies also require a further 750 different parts from screws to safety glass.
Once the body was finished it was cleaned with a wash of Naptha gas. Then it was sent into the varnishing booth for its first coat. The varnish was dried, sanded and re-varnished twice more. From there it went to the trim line for interior fittings, minor electrical work and the installation of the seats.
The station wagon assembly line employed about 300 workers who turned out 70 to 80 finished wagons a day. The line was 500 feet long with 2,000 feet of conveyor belts feeding it. By the end of each day, eight to ten box cars of finished station wagons were shipped out.
The move to the Iron Mountain wood shop was apparently a great moral booster for the workers who had previously seen their pre-cut wood parts shipped south for assembly. The workers took great pride in creating a finished product which resulted in a dramatic improvement in fit and finish of the bodies.
The 1941 and 1942 models followed but, with the advent of World War II, many employees signed up or were drafted for military service. This loss of manpower brought about the closure of several saw mills including ,the giant Iron Mountain mill and wood working shop. During the peak of its activity, 1800 men worked at Iron Mountain. This included woodworkers, metal fabricators, painters, seat builders, upholstery makers, electricians and installers.
In mid-1942, Iron Mountain closed and was opened again in 1943 as a glider factory using Iron Mountain's remaining highly-skilled wood workers. These craftsmen built 15 and 30 passenger gliders for the Army Air Force which were used for the Allied invasion of Europe after D-day when masses of troops were flown into France, Belgium, and Holland. During the (following two years the factory built over 4,200 gliders.
At the end of the war the face of Ford changed. Henry retired and Henry Ford II took over operations. Ford II immediately returned the company to civilian automobile production using facelifted 1942 models. Henry also immediately started selling off his grandfather's unprofitable sideline businesses, including most of the timber mills, towns, mines and forests in the Upper Peninsula.
Station wagon building resumed at Iron Mountain and all of the Ford and Mercury station wagons and Sportsmen convertibles were built here. The station wagons were four-door and lasted until the new 1949 model which was only available as a two-door. With the introduction of the "New Generation" Ford, the amount of timber used in the station wagons was cut around 85 percent. No structural wood was required as the wagon bodies were steel structured with mahogany-skinned panel work and maple framing.
Mercury also used the same body for their wagon but the doors were cleverly restyled to flow into the wider front sheet metal of the Mercury. The new design was the work of E.T. "Bob" Gregorie and his team at Ford.
The steel body structures were built in Detroit and then shipped by rail to Iron Mountain. Here the wood panels were installed and the bodies were painted. The work required a lot of hand assembly to make the doors and side panels fit cleanly.
The panels for these New-Generation wagons were assembled using advanced fabrication methods with one of the first microwave curing processes. Some section framings were created out of six loose layers of ash with a two layer overlay of maple.
The door and side panels were then formed in a press using loose wood-plys topped with a thin layer of Honduran mahogany. This jig-formed panel was then put into a micro-wave bonding oven under pressure. At the time, this process was referred to as "radio frequency bonding." The new process cured the panel in five minutes rather than the 48 hours it normally took! Once the bodies were completed they were shipped out by rail to assembly plants around the country.
The final run of Ford's "wood" Station Wagons looked somewhat similar from 1949 to 1951; however, there were many small differences in the wagons. These were the years of the "single and twin-spinner" Fords and in 1950 there was an attempt to lower the production costs when Ford dropped the wood graining on the tailgate and replaced it with a painted tailgate. The rear quarter windows were eliminated, the interior trimming was changed, with wood-grained Masonite door panels and a painted dash board replacing the wood graining. Other running changes were made with some items re-introduced and then dropped again on the 1951 model. As so many minor changes were made to this series of station wagons, restorers have a hard time determining exactly what a correct year model should or should not have.
Around October 1950, the mahogany paneling on the station wagons was replaced with Di-Noc plastic vinyl sheeting bonded to steel panels. Chrysler had been using this trimming idea on their Town and Countrys since 1948. Chrysler dropped Di-Noc and converted over to body color panels and wood framing in mid-1949.
Ford continued building the Ford and Mercury station wagons at the Iron Mountain plant until December 1951, when the plant was closed and 3,500 workers were laid off. To take up the loss of production of Ford and Mercury station wagons, production was moved to Mitchell-Bentley in Ionia, Michigan.
With the introduction of the '54 Ford station wagon, production returned to Ford, however Mitchell continued building station wagons for Mercury into the later part of the Fifties until the model was absorbed into normal production lines.
By 1955 virtually everything that Henry had invested in, or created in this section of Northern Michigan, had been sold or closed. The Iron Mountain property was acquired by the Kingsford Chemical Company who eventually closed up or sold off the facilities by 1961.
The history of Iron Mountain on Michigan's Upper Peninsula is an entangled tale of a business endeavor driven by Henry Ford's wish to contribute to people's lives with clever social ideas mixed with business savvy. While Ford's dream of a great empire in Northern Michigan did not last into the second half of the century, it has left us the legacy of these delightful wooded station wagons and convertibles.
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The Ford production line at Iron Mountain evolved from the production of wood station wagon parts to complete station wagons. This 1940 wagon is being masked up prior before heading into the varnishing booth. The soft padded top is yet to be installed, as well as the glass, interior and door hardware.
This 1930 Ford Station Wagon was positioned perfectly by a Ford photographer at a railway station for this promotional picture. The models are complete with hats and heavy coats which would have been quite necessary given the lack of windows or side curtains. Built by Briggs or Murray using timber and parts milled at Iron Mountain, it was one of the 3,510 station wagons built that year. Priced at $650, the station wagon did not come with the chauffer as shown.
The main mill at Iron Mountain covered over 3,000 acres and here you can see green hardwood maple heading down the line into the drying racks. Rough cut lumber stacked after drying in the yards alongside the line. Inside the mill the timber was milled to an exact size for use in the carpentry shops. The mill was opened on the 12th of July, 1921. By November, the sawmill was shipping all the timber to the Rouge that was needed for Model T production. By the end of 1923, the sawmill was producing an astronomical 375,000 board feet a day, using 52 electric drying kilns.
The production line at Iron Mountain was converted to a regular steel body line for the station wagon in 1948. Here wagons, still in raw metal, head to the paint shop. At the end of 1950 the line was closed and the body production was moved to Ionia.
Above: This cute Sportsman-like convertible was built by Ford employees as a gift to young Henry Ford II. They built it at the beginning of the 40's using a model A chassis and running gear. Henry apparently took a shine to the car but did not get to do much wheel time because of the war. At the war's end he took over more and more responsibilities at the company and no doubt, when the Ford Sportsman was proposed, Henry II was delighted to see his little sports car move to a production model.
Left: The 1938 Ford Station wagon was one of the most gracious wagon designs of its time. Not only was it practical and good looking, it was comfortable and well built. Interestingly, the design of the '38 was an evolution of the '37 which eventually evolved into the '40 model. This '38 was photographed at Valerie Jean Dates in Coachella, California, for a Ford press release
Right: Bonding press operator, M.L. Crenshaw, removes a finished, laminated frame pillar blank for a '49 Ford/Mercury station wagon from his 75-ton microwave bonding press. In these early times this process was referred to as high-frequency bonding and was used as a rapid curing method for the glue used in laminated wagon body parts. The wood plys for the pillar were molded into a graceful compound curve for use in making a door, a quarter panel, a tailgate and window frames.
Left: This panel set for a ’50 Ford Station Wagon shows window frames, door and rear quarter panel, along with tailgate trim and inner panel assembly. Each piece was made up of multiple pieces of wood and then listed as a single part number.
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