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End of historic line, as last Ford Ranger rolls from plant in St. Paul

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Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant Tour
Ken Grady assembles tires on the Ford Ranger production line at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul, Minn., Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. The plant is scheduled to close at the end of the month.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

A century of auto manufacturing in Minnesota ends Friday as the last Ford Ranger rolls off the line in St. Paul. Nearly six years after announcing its intentions, Ford Motor Co. is finally shutting down its Twin Cities Assembly Plant as part of a long-term corporate restructuring. 

Even as the company plans to hire workers elsewhere, nearly 800 people will soon be out of a job at Ford's oldest factory, an enterprise that has mirrored the fortunes of the U.S. automobile industry and the middle class. 

Next year the equipment will be hauled away and the buildings torn down, but the memories will remain for the thousands of people who built lives and careers there. 

Layton Woodley, 64, of Hastings, spent more than 32 years on the assembly line. He was part of a group of retirees who Ford recently invited back for a last look at the plant. 

"It supported my family and myself and we're very thankful for Ford," said Woodley.  "It's sad for the young people. I was fortunate that I never had to go anywhere else and retired here. "

As the retirees watched, the last few hundred Ranger pickups rolled along the final leg of the assembly line -- in fresh coats of blue, red, white and black.

IT BEGAN WITH THE MODEL T

Production began at the Twin Cities Assembly plant in 1925, but Ford first built Model Ts in two smaller buildings in Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to Brian McMahon, a local historian who has researched and written about the plant. 

Parts were passed down each floor, from worker to worker, until a new car rolled out onto the street. But McMahon said that method of car making was on the way out to make way for the moving assembly line. 

Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant Tour
Ford employee Brenda Schultz installs parts in the Ranger cab on the assembly line at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul, Minn., Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. The plant was open that day for retirees and members of the media to tour the facility before it closes.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"By the time the Minneapolis plant was finished, that entire building form was completely obsolete for the purpose of making cars, functionally obsolete," McMahon said.  

  With demand growing, Henry Ford picked the Mississippi river bluff site as a perfect spot for his newest factory, located in a still-rural part of St. Paul. There was easy barge transportation and cheap hydroelectric power. And the silica deposits underneath the site were perfect for making glass windshields. 

"It supported my family and myself and we're very thankful for Ford. It's sad for the young people."

Workers mined the silica and sent it up in carts on tracks to the glass shop. In a 1999 interview with McMahon for an oral history project, retiree Al Hendricks described the conditions in the tunnels beneath the plant when he worked  in the 1950s.

"The temperature is 52 degrees year round; the humidity is real high. You worked very little and you sweat like the dickens," said Hendricks. 

In the mid 1920s, the St. Paul Ford plant had all the latest industrial technology. But the jobs still required a lot of muscle, and managers pushed employees to work faster and faster. 

 "The line kept going no matter what," said the late Ken Muxlow, in a recorded interview with McMahon, who started working at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in 1929 tacking seat cushions on Model As. 

"If you had to go to the bathroom, you had to go, and you had to catch up your job when you got back, and that was it," Muxlow said. "They didn't give you any time." 

Labor leaders once lauded Henry Ford for his revolutionary $5-a-day wage. But as the century progressed and working conditions got more difficult, employees wanted to organize. 

Ford plant closing
Researcher and architect Brian McMahon interviewed more than 25 Ford plant retirees during the late 1990s. During that time, he collected old photographs, postcards, pieces of glass from the plant and other Ford memorabilia. McMahon, who is writing a book about the Twin Cities Assembly Plant and Ford, was photographed in his St. Paul office Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

McMahon said Ford stopped at nothing to prevent workers from forming a union. 

"For many, many years in the late '30s, the company was more intent on waging war on its workers than making cars," said McMahon. "And 10 percent of the workforce were basically spies trying to weed out potential union organizers."

The United Auto Workers finally organized Ford plants nationwide during World War II, when President Franklin Roosevelt threatened to cut off defense contracts. In St. Paul, newly unionized workers built tanks, armored cars, and aircraft engine parts. And for a time women were a major part of the workforce. 

The postwar decades brought the country unprecedented prosperity, and labor-management relations gradually improved. The St. Paul plant eventually produced a wide variety of vehicles from the Galaxie and Fairlane to the Country Squire station wagon. 

FROM TRUCKS TO CLOSURE

In 1978, the factory quit making cars altogether to focus on pickup trucks. The plant added a second shift and Gene Bovee got a job putting truck bodies together. Even though he didn't have much experience, Bovee doubled his salary when he came to Ford. 

"It made a difference in my life. It made a real difference. It allowed me to buy my home here, it allowed me to get married."

"It made a difference in my life. It made a real difference," Bovee said. "It allowed me to buy my home here, it allowed me to get married."

Bovee, 71, and his wife Nancy, 64, are retired and living in Andover. Bovee said his generation is the last to achieve a high quality of life with just a high school diploma.

 "If you had good hand skills, and good mechanical skills, you could build a good life for yourself. You could have the American dream," Bovee said. 

Nancy Bovee echoed the sentiment. 

"You could raise your kids, have a house, nothing fancy, but pay your bills, have a little bit for retirement...be self-sustaining, which it's very hard for people to do now," she said.  

Looking back on their careers, many Ford plant workers mention the financial security that came with the job. But they also are quick to mention the pride they took in making something that hundreds of thousands of people drive every day. 

Ford plant closing
Ford plant retiree Gene Bovee and his wife Nancy photographed with their Ford Explorer and Ford Probe automobiles outside their Andover home Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011. Gene Bovee spent most of his career working on the assembly line and credits the job with providing him with a middle class life. Nancy Bovee worked at the plant for about a year before she was laid off and changed careers.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Laura Wehrly, 52, is losing her job as a pipefitter at the plant . When she started working there in the early 1990s she said she'd stop Ford Ranger owners at red lights and gas stations and ask them if they liked the vehicle. 

 "It felt good to hear them say that they liked it. I'm not sure that anybody is more proud of the quality than the people who are actually putting the trucks together," Wehrly said.  

But despite this dedication, Minnesota was not immune to the upheaval in the auto industry. Ford had to shrink to survive, and in 2006, executives said the Twin Cities Assembly Plant would be closed.   City and state leaders made repeated attempts at keeping the plant open, and managed to delay closure a few times. But ultimately, they were unsuccessful.

Many workers who knew the plant closure was likely for years are facing unemployment during hard economic times.  Wehrly took a buyout in 2007, but returned to work as a contractor at the Ford plant in her same position. 

She said she has been to job fairs and is sending out resumes, but so far does not have a new job lined up. 

City officials have said it will take years to tear down and clean up the 135 acres of prime real estate where the Ford plant is located. Redevelopment ideas range from new industry to housing and retail.