Since its founding in 1903, the Ford Motor Company has experienced its share of both fame and infamy. The Model T brought automobiles to the average citizen, the Five-Dollar Day revolutionized workers' wages, and the company was one of the few to keep its doors open during the Great Depression. Yet, the auto manufacturer was notably anti-union and many criticized the working conditions as so bad, it was "almost a living hell." Nevertheless, even during the rougher years, employment at Ford was a point of pride. Here, five employees share stories, ranging from the factory floor to the hiring office, that illuminate the Henry Ford years in Detroit, Michigan.

Joe Wash

Joe WashJoe Wash's family emigrated from Hungary to Michigan by way of Ellis Island. After Wash's father passed away during the influenza epidemic of 1918, his mother was left to raise him and his sister on her own. Wash started at the Ford Motor Company in 1934 when he attended the Ford Trade School. An accomplished trumpet player, he was soon recruited to play in Henry Ford's personal band. He later became a quality control engineer at Ford.

Wash describes his family history and the immigrant neighborhoods of Detroit.
[My parents] come from Hungary. My father was Austrian, because it was Austro-Hungary before World War I. They come to Ellis Island, and [they] couldn't speak [English]. My name actually is "V-a-s." But you know, the way to pronounce it in broken [English], it come out "wash," so they put down "Wash" instead of "V-a-s." Those people on Ellis Island couldn't understand the immigrants [who] were required to talk [English] and didn't have interpreters. So "Wash" is the way they left it.

Joe Wash, 2nd from right, and his band[In Detroit] we had different neighborhoods. Polish neighborhood was Hamtramck ... the Jewish section was Dexter Boulevard ... and [we] lived in Delray ... right by the Rouge River, next to a steel mill, where all the Hungarian people and Hungarian gypsies would settle. ... There were a lot of musicians that played violins and pianos and gypsy music. And I remember, I was just small then ... that's all you heard was a lot of music.

During the Great Depression, Wash's mother cooked and cleaned in two local theaters to make ends meet. Wash contributed to the family's finances by playing trumpet.
If my mother had spaghetti or bread, we used to take it over [to our] neighbors. And if they had extra, they used to bring it over [to] our house. [I played trumpet during the Depression.] That's what saved us -- [me and] my mother too, because even if I went to play for 50 cents a night, 50 cents was 50 cents. It bought a lot.

[During the Depression], these [train] cars ... carried coal into the steel mill. And they would naturally stop [at a busy crossroads for traffic]. The rail detective, instead of chasing us away, would turn his head while us kids would climb on top [of the train cars] and throw enough coal down to heat the house maybe a couple of days. He knew how tough things were, and we just collected the coal, and that's the way you lived.

Wash started at Ford Motor Company in the Ford Trade School, but he soon found a new job that utilized his musical expertise.
Ford had the Ford Trade School -- you had to take a big test to get in. But they paid you to learn. That's where he got all his skilled labor, electricians, pipe fitters, and machinists. I [passed] the test [for] industrial electricity. Lot of trigonometry and mathematics. So I was there for about 11 months.

One thing about Henry ... he wanted our machinery clean, he wanted the floor clean ... People used to chew tobacco and then spit. Well, the corners of the stairs would be white, painted white, because that's where they spit. And if he seen any spit on there, he wasn't for it. He was clean in that respect. And he wanted you to clean your machine up.

In the meantime I was playing trumpet, [just] making a few dollars ... Then a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to play for Henry Ford [who] liked to dance and wanted his own orchestra. ... So I said, "Is it a steady job?" [My friend] said, "Yeah, it's a steady job." So I took the job playing for Henry Ford.

The Ford Comedy Band playing a gig. Joe is 2nd from left.We played at his mansion, and we played at his Greenfield Village, at Lovett Hall, quite a bit ... Henry Ford liked the quickstep, like "Horse with the Lavender Eyes." "Rosalie." You probably heard of those. He didn't do the rumba or anything like [that] -- or the Charleston, or the Big Apple. [laugh] He didn't care much for jazz music, no. He wanted to hear the melody, and he wanted standards like, "Among My Souvenirs," and what's the other? "I Had the Craziest Dream." But they were all standards. "Stardust" and "Somebody to Watch Over Me."

We didn't only play for him; we played for Harry Bennett, his right-hand man, his muscle man. Bennett was tough ... In fact, he was a boxer before Henry hired him. Henry hired him to keep the labor in line, [which he did] before the union. He was tough on the workers. And what I seen there [in the factory] was tough. It wasn't easy.

Roman Kuzma

Roman KuzmaRoman Kuzma's father, Joseph Kuzma, emigrated from southern Poland to Detroit at the age of 23. He found work at Ford Motor Company in 1928 on the assembly line. Kuzma, one of six children, followed his father's 30-year career at Ford when he joined the company a few years after college. He started as an engineer and ultimately worked his way up to a supervisory position. After working at Ford for 41 years, Kuzma is now a member of one of the many company retiree groups, and owns his favorite Ford model -- the 1965 Mustang.

Kuzma's father arrived in the United States in 1913. After more than a decade of peddling vegetables from a cart and running a grocery and butcher shop on the west side of Detroit, he found work at Ford Motor Company.
My father came directly to Detroit [from Poland]. A friend of his from the village had been in the States for about six months, and he sent him a letter that said, "the industrial part of the United States is in Michigan." So [my father] came to Detroit ... [at the age of] 23. Victoria and Joseph Kuzma[His] education level probably was equivalent to fourth grade. He could read and write, [but] he had no knowledge of English.

In 1928 Ford was hiring big time and [my father] applied. One job that he had was casting and forging the connecting rod. It connects the piston to the crank. They'd be red hot, and they would come out twisted. [The workers] would put them on a surface plate and, with a big 10-pound hammer, flatten them.

The foreman was always trying to push you to do more, faster. You weren't paid on piecework, but still they were always trying to push the production rate. And it turned out that you would have to hammer quicker, or sometimes you didn't hammer it completely flat, and then there was a kickback, the fact that you didn't do it right. So you were always fighting the problem of: go faster, but do it right.

It was hot in the summer. They'd open the windows, fortunately, but the temperatures were probably in the 85-90s, and when you're perspiring and working and the air isn't circulating, it's pretty hard. There was a lot of smoke and dirt and dust. [My father] didn't work in the slaughterhouse but he knew friends that had. So he said, "Hey, this isn't terrific, but it isn't as bad as other people have."

[My father] was a good strong country boy. And he was only about 5-foot-3, weighed about 160-70 pounds, and he always was a pretty husky guy. But of course the job created that. I would say he was in physical fitness training all the time, just swinging that hammer.

During the Great Depression, Kuzma's father lost his job at Ford. Subsequently the family was unable to pay their rent and was evicted from their home.
The [landlord] opened the windows and basically threw our things out the windows. We collected everything up toward the curb. My dad stacked it all up. And here he's got his wife and five kids. I was four years old. It's five o'clock in the evening, and we're standing outside by our furniture, and it was beginning to rain. I looked up [at] my dad, I said, "What do we do now?" And he said, "Don't worry, everything be fine." That was his attitude. He never seemed to lose hope, no matter how bad things were.

Fortunately [he had] a plan. He had some friends down the street, and he sent my mother and the children to their home for the night, and my dad stayed with the furniture during the night. And then the next day we loaded everything up on the Model T, and went out to Belleville, where [a] friend was building a new [house]. [The friend] said, "Well," he said, "there's no water and no heat in the house, but you're welcome to live there." So we lived there for a few weeks until my dad managed to find another place to rent.

In later years, Kuzma's father was re-hired by Ford Motor Company and worked in the Rouge factory.
My father had a Ford badge. It said Ford Rouge, and [it had] a little silhouette of the power plant stacks. People were so proud that they were Ford employees that they would wear the badge to church. It indicated that you were working for a good company. Everybody knew, including the priest and the church attendees, that maybe because you had such a good job, your contribution might be a bit better.

Like many Ford employees, Kuzma's father purchased a Ford car.
My dad didn't Roman Kuzma and his father Joseph with their Fordknow what a car was in Poland. [But in America] he had Model Ts, two of them. One he'd be working on, or stealing parts from, so he'd keep [the other] one going.

We had friends in Belleville, and we had friends in Adrian, farm folks. Summertime was very important. Almost every Saturday afternoon, we would go to either one of those places because the one family had eight children, and us six. It was a mob! [The] six children, we sat in the back. Mother and Dad sat [in the front] bouncing around in the Model T, [which had] very hard, small tires. It wasn't too much different than [a] wagon, simply because you felt everything bump [that] there was. But hey, you were glad you were not walking, you were glad you were going someplace. The ability to go and visit friends 30-40 miles away with the whole family? That was a huge, huge joy.

Rudy Nelson

Rudy NelsonSeeking work in the auto industry, Rudy Nelson's father moved from South Carolina to the north end of Detroit in 1922. Within about a year, his father found employment at the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park plant. He later transferred to the River Rouge Plant Foundry, where he worked for most of his life. Nelson credits his father for helping him secure his earliest job at Ford in the Dearborn stamping plant. After a 37-year career at Ford, Nelson is now the president of the UAW Local 600 Retiree Chapter, the local union that represents 25,000 retired and current employees in the automobile industry.

Rudy Nelson's father joined an estimated five million African Americans who moved from the rural south to northern industrialized cities between 1915 and 1960 during what became known as "The Great Migration." In Detroit alone, there were 8,000 African American automobile workers by 1920.
My dad was from a littleRudy Nelson's father in his army uniform town called Camden, South Carolina. My mother lived in Sumter about 20 miles away. [After] he got out of the Service and they married, he did some farming. Being in the South, there [was] a lot of racial prejudice. That's the reason why he decided to come up North, to make a better life for him and his family, [where] they didn't have to deal with stereotype prejudice [from] the deep South. … He heard about the auto industry [and better wages] in Detroit, [and] he decided to come here and find work.

The Ford Motor Company's hiring practices were more progressive than other automobile manufactures in the early 20th century -- by 1919, over 21 percent of its total workforce included men and women with a physical disability, and by 1920 there were 16,000 African Americans on payroll. Within the company, however, African Americans composed the bulk of the workforce in the Rouge plant foundry, known for its physically demanding and grueling work environment.
[My father] must have worked about 34 years at Ford, [and] most of the time, he was at the Ford Rouge foundry. [His job] was one of the roughest jobs in the foundry. He was in what they call the shake-out. It was dusty and smoky, a really hot, dirty, sweaty place ... My father talked about how they worked an hour on and half-hour off because of the heat. They couldn't stay there just on that one job all full eight hours ... If you was African American, they sent you to the foundry, because that's where the roughest jobs were at. I heard one guy say it was almost a living hell. But it was work. And you had to do what you had to do to feed your family.

I'm told that when most of the people that lived in our area [that worked at Ford] came home on the Baker streetcar, all of them fell asleep [as soon as] they got on the [streetcar] because of a hard working day. All of them seemed to know where their stop was, and they'd wake up and get off [at their] stop ... When my father got home, he came in the back door and [would] go straight to the bathroom [where] my mother had to have his bath water ready for him, because he was dirty all over.

Ford employees were given small metal badges to wear as identification in order to enter the factory.
I think my father was proud of being a Ford worker, because I can remember him [wearing] that metal badge. He always displayed it -- even when he dressed up, he had it on. He was a proud worker for Ford's.

My father said some men even wore it to church, because that was a symbol of the status when you had a Ford badge. The men would dress up and [wear] that Ford badge on their suits, and they would get all kind of girls and everything, because you was a Ford man.

My father really bragged about Ford compared to some of the other plants like General Motors and Chrysler. He considered that if you worked at Ford, that was top of the line.

Between 1929 and 1932, the Ford Motor Company was forced to lay off nearly half of its workforce.
During the Depression they just laid [workers] off. I knew what [poverty] was like, because my dad was working [at Ford] maybe six months out of the year. Then what he had to do was get on welfare to help feed us. He did a number of other things to keep things going for us: he had a garden about three miles from the house, where he grew vegetables. In order to make some more money, he did what they called junking. [He] built a cart, and went down to the alleys in rich neighborhoods and got things that people had thrown away, like iron and rags, and then [resold] them.

Nelson's first job at Ford Motor Company was in the stamping plant.
After I came back outRudy Nelson in uniform of the Service my father got me [a job] at Ford's in the stamping plant. When I first got hired I tried to go to thank him. I had to walk down Miller Road to Gate 4 where the entrance to the foundry was. In the back part [was a] great big door. And as I was walking into the door, I could see all this smoke and dust, and I could see men appearing out of that [smoke], and I see these red lights flashing on and off. I was just too scared to go any further because I didn't know what to do. So I backed out, and I thanked him when he got home.

 

[When] I [started] in the stamping plant I worked on the fender line, stamping out parts for the fender. My first day there, I got cut because the steel was so sharp, just like a razor. One of the guys grabbed me by the arm and ran and took me to first aid, and they put about eight stitches in me.

The first thing you notice [in the factory] is the noise. And then you'll probably notice the grease on the floor; in the stamping plant there was a lot of slivers of steel all over the tar block floors. All these big giant machines all around, stamping out parts: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

You would think that that line is really running slow, until you get on the job. I was on one side of the line, and another older guy was on the other side of the line. We had to take the bumpers, put [them] on the car and then bolt them down. When I first got there, I was so [slow] that I was working about three cars or four cars in the hole, while [an] older guy was [keeping up with the line] at [his] workstation. Every day I got a little closer. I always asked the old guy on the other side, "Pops, do I have it yet?" He said, "No, you don't have it." So after the third day, I worked right up next to him. And I asked him again: "Pop, I got the job now?" And he said no. He shake his head. After the fourth day, I was able to work the job past my workstation, and jumped over the line and got a drink [of] water, and jumped back on the line. And Pop said, "You got it." So that was the criteria for learning your job, if you could get some water [while you worked] in the assembly line.

Dr. Horace Jefferson

Horace JeffersonDr. Horace Jefferson's family originated in Georgia. His father, John Lee Jefferson, heard about Henry Ford's "Five-Dollar Day" wage and moved to Detroit in 1919. After attending the Ford Trade School he became a "tool and die" maker -- a skilled and sought after position within auto-manufacturing. He worked at Ford for 46 years before retiring in 1965. Horace started working at Ford in 1943 making rotors for aircraft engines during the midnight shift, and after a two-and-a-half year service in the Army, worked again at Ford in the paint plant. In 1952, he graduated from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, and soon opened his own private general practice. Now retired, Jefferson is a member of the Detroit Westsiders, a group formed in 1995 to research and share the rich history of Detroit's "Old West Side" neighborhood.

Ford's five-dollar day drew Jefferson's father to Detroit.
[Ford's] five-dollar dayHorace Jefferson's father in uniform [wage offering] was a magnet that drew African Americans and many others to the Detroit area. It was that $5 a day that enabled people to up their level of living in those days. … That was a tremendous amount of money in those days. Tremendous. It was unheard of.

My father was discharged from the Army in 1919 in Hartford, Connecticut. He had heard about Ford's "$5 a day" offering, and he jumped on a train and came to Detroit knowing no one. He got off the Union Station ... walked up Griswold till he got to Michigan Ave., and there was a police officer [in the] middle of the street. He walked up to him and asked him, "Where can a fellow get a job around here?" [The officer] told him, "Oh. You a veteran? Get on this streetcar and go out to Ford. They're hiring out there." So [my father] went out to Ford and got hired and had a job before he [even] had a place to stay [in Detroit].

Jefferson's father, with his carpentry background and training at the Ford Trade School, became a tool and die worker. This position required mathematical skills and artistic talent to craft and refine the machine and cutting tools used to manufacture cars on the assembly line. Unlike thousands of other plant employees, Jefferson's father was able to maintain his position during the Great Depression.
[At Ford] you had toHorace Jefferson's father with some of the tools of his trade have [a badge] to get on the grounds of the plant, first of all. But outside of the plant, during the Depression, everybody was out of work. You had the soup lines and all that. [Those that had them were] so proud of their badges and that they had a job, that they wore their badges [out in public], put them on their lapel on their suits. My dad wore his Ford badge to social events.

Oh, he was proud of working for Ford, proud of the old man -- that's what they used to call Mr. Ford, the old man. …[My father] looked at that the Ford Motor Company -- gave him everything he had. He was able to buy a new home, was able to raise his family.

Jefferson describes the atmosphere in the factory and the coordinated streetcar shift changes when he worked at Ford Motor Company.
When I graduatedHorace Jefferson in his army uniform from Cass [High School] in 1943 I was subject to being drafted, at 18 years of age. So I said, "Well, I'm going on out here at Ford for a while, until they call me." And so in 1943, July, [I] got hired making rotors for Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines. It was the engines on the B-24 bomber, being built up at Willow Run.

[In the factory] there was noise, there was stamp presses going "boom, boom," drills going, assembly line carrying parts, "rararara." There was a constant, constant din of noise. You had inspectors and they would check to see if you were doing your job. Course in the assembly lines, they moved along at certain speed so you had to do your job or they knew you weren't doing your job. In my case it [was] kind of piecework that I was doing, so I had that barrel there [and] they could tell by how full the barrel was, whether you'd been goofing off.

... Few people owned cars in those days. Everyone went to work on streetcars. In the rush hour... the streetcars would come up [and they] would be letting off huge numbers of people … going to work during the shift change. That left an empty streetcar to move up, to pick up the people coming off of work. Everything was planned. … There was a conductor standing outside, telling you, "Come on, go in to the back of the streetcar." When the streetcar was filled up [that meant seats and people standing up to the door, holding onto the stirrups], he would order, "Okay, that's all." And [the streetcar would go], and then another streetcar would pull up. And the people lined up would get on it, and away it would go … down Trumbull or Grandview or wherever it was going … to take them home.

Jefferson fondly remembers the Model T from his youth and the Model A he owned while attending the University of Michigan.
I remember them cranking the Model Ts when I was a kid. "Tatatatata." They'd come up the street, [a] big old box with a little engine out front. There weren't many cars in those days. You still had milk delivered by a horse and wagon, the milk wagon. As a kid, I can still remember the "clop, clop" of the horses coming up the street and the milkman putting the milk on the front porch.

That one I loved … [was] the 1930 Model A. It had a large chrome hood on the front, I painted the spoke wheels yellow, and on the inside [it] was blue for [University of Michigan] school colors … [It was] dependable. You could not stop that car. …One month, the battery went down in the car and I parked it on a hill in Ann Arbor. All I had to do was release the brake and start down [the hill] before the thing even got moving hard. It'd kick over, and I'd drive to Detroit. And then in Detroit me and my brother would push the car, and then I'd jump in it (and) when it was coasting, [I'd] start it up, and I drove back up to Ann Arbor. …[I] put thousands of miles on that car. I drove it everywhere. It burned no [gas]. Just went.

OJ Nori

OJ NoriOJ Nori's father, a first-generation Italian immigrant who had worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines, moved to Detroit where he secured a job at the Ford Motor Company and worked there on and off for many years. Nori's own career at Ford spanned five decades -- as a young man he was hired in the midst of World War II and, after a stint in the army, got work in the Ford employment office, where he met thousands of job applicants and the infamous Harry Bennett.

Nori remembers accompanying his grandfather on his search for work during the Great Depression.
[During the Great Depression] my grandfather wasn't working. Every day he'd look for work [in] small shops or big shops. He would take me with him, almost with an understanding he wasn't going to find any jobs because they weren't available. We would walk miles. Eventually we went across the south end of the Ford Motor Company on Miller Road. Once you saw those ... eight famous smokestacks, you know you were close. We [got] over there, and it wasn't only my grandfather was there. He knew literally hundreds of people around him -- neighbors, friends, relatives. He would sit me down at the curb, tell me [to] stay there. I must have been about eight or 10 years old. He would [go] toward the gate [with the crowd], trying to get a job. More often than not, the police would be pushing back with horses, and he'd come back muddied up, dirty. All those people, just trying to get work. [Some people would ask] me, a kid, "Can you help me? You have any money?" I didn't have any money. "Do you have a nickel?" No. They wanted to eat. These men were hungry.

Nori describes the work conditions his father experienced in the factory.
My dad wasOJ Nori's parents a big guy and well built, about 6-foot-2 ... The big strong guys got the jobs quicker than the small guys [because Ford] had a lot of jobs available that the little guys could not do. Sure enough, [my father] got a job at Ford Motor Company. He started off in a rough job, [but] ultimately ended up in a semi-skilled job, as a cutter-grinder for the tools and machinery.

[He] had to do a lot of lifting manually. He worked in the motor building, [which was] about the length of two football stadiums, packed with people, one right after another, sweaty, hot, smelly. ... [But] once you got the work, [you] were very, very proud of staying there, sweating it out and working and getting paid, because for every one that was [inside], there were 100 on the outside, just clambering to try to come in, just to get a job.

Nori's job at the Ford Motor Company involved interviewing and assigning thousands of prospective employees to open positions in the Rouge complex.
In the frame and [coal header] building they had huge machines stamping, coming down, "boom," vibrating, "boom." We could never get anybody on those jobs because [it was] so loud, so noisy, and penetrating. One day, a couple of guys came in looking for work. They were deaf. So I says, "[These are] the ideal guy[s] for the jobs in the plant." I hired both of them. Well, three days after I hired these guys, they came back looking for me. And I says, "What's the matter?" "We got to quit. Do you have a different job?" "No. We gave you a job already." "We can't take that job." "Why not?" "It's bothering." "Bothering what?" Well, the vibration was bothering their ears. They couldn't take it. They couldn't take that job. It's not a question of hearing; it's a vibration through the body.

Nori recounts his first interaction with Harry Bennett, the head of Henry Ford's Service Department, known throughout the company and city of Detroit as the often-brutal enforcer of Ford's anti-union, anti-organizing stance.
One day ... HarryOJ Nori (left) talking to a prospective employee at Ford Motor Company Bennett was coming over to the building [where I worked]. He had two bodyguards with him. All the managers and all the supervisors that I was affiliated with scattered -- they were fearful of being asked a question and not being able to answer it, and possibly losing their job, just that fast. ... This is Harry Bennett, the muscle man. I mean real muscle, not only within the Ford Motor Company but in all the down-river area, Monroe. All the plants and all the police officers and all the chiefs were under his thumb ... [So] I saw [Bennett] walking in with his guards [and] I extended my hand. "Hello, Mr. Bennett. Maybe I can help you while you're here. I know the ins and outs of the area. Whatever questions you have," I backed off, "let me know and I'll see if I can help." In the meantime, [his bodyguards] were ready to jump on me ... So I just backed away.

He started walking through the area. In the back end of the employment office was what we called a bullpen, where thousands of people waited to be interviewed. People were allowed to come in, and there were four of us. We would talk to them, either with or without a job. Harry Bennett came through, into the bullpen area where the people just opened a path. They were not employees, but they knew the name of Harry Bennett. He just walked through, and all the guards [yelled], "Make way for Harry Bennett." And they just opened up. And he just walked through, very, very unconcerned, nonchalant. Out the front door, into his waiting car, and out.

That's the first time I saw Harry Bennett. I knew he [had] power. I knew he could make or break people. ... He was sort of the overall person responsible for employment, throughout the entire country. He wasn't involved in production because Ford had very, very skilled people [for that]. Harry Bennett took care of everything else. If he didn't like you, you were out, and anyone who was related to you was out, automatically.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

The United States has seen its share of industrial titans. Which of them do you think had the greatest impact on our country and our world? Henry Ford? Andrew Carnegie? Rockefeller? Or perhaps you think it is someone else? Share your story.



  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH