These days, talk about Flint, Michigan and the subject is likely to turn to urban decay or worse, the once-booming industrial center the center of a scandal that saw thousands of residents poisoned by lead-laden drinking water.
But there was a time when Flint was at the center of the American industrial revolution. In fact, it was Flint, rather than Detroit, where the company that eventually became General Motors was born. And GM returned to its roots on Monday, formally unveiling the old factory where everything began.
“The vehicle history here is really incredible,” said Mark Reuss, GM’s global product development chief, during a ceremony at what was originally known as the Durant-Dort Factory One. It was here in 1886 that GM co-founders Billy Durant and Josiah Dort started producing a line of carts, wagons and carriages.
They eventually went on to create the Chevrolet brand and pull together an assortment of different car brands and automotive suppliers that became General Motors. The partners moved out of the facility before GM founded in 1908 and never made any of that company’s products in the 30,000 square-foot facility. But it is still seen as the birthplace of GM because of its role in getting Durant and Crapo’s Flint Road Cart Co. off the ground.
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Like the rest of Flint, Factory One was largely abandoned and fell into disrepair. A number of plans have surfaced over the years aimed at restoring the historic building, but there wasn’t much going on when Reuss visited the facility four years ago. After being told of its historic importance, “I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’” GM acquired the facility and “we went to work pretty quick.”
Reuss has some long-term ties to both GM and Flint. His father, Lloyd, ran the now-gone Buick City complex only a few miles from Factory One back in the 1980s, going on to become GM’s president.
But the Monday morning dedication also drew various members of the Durant and Dort families. The two men had a falling out in 1915 and, according to one of Monday’s speakers, it was the first time members of the two families have come together since a 1925 funeral.
Like Reuss, a number of other senior GM executives have ties to Flint, including Mary Barra, who attended what is known as Kettering University but which used to be called the General Motors Institute.
GM turned to Flint to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1958, but the maker largely walked away from the city between the 1980s and 2010, when it went through bankruptcy. That served as the subject of “Roger and Me,” the breakout film by gadfly filmmaker Michael Moore.
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Things continued to get worse, an emergency manager appointed to run the city deciding to save money by drawing drinking water from the Flint River. It turned out to be so corrosive that it started leaching lead from pipes – some as old as the old Durant-Dort plant itself. Thousands of local residents, many of them children, have been poisoned by the heavy metal.
In recent years, efforts have been made to help rebuild Flint. GM itself has stepped up its involvement in the city – with local investments of about $2.8 billion over the last eight years — and now employs about 7,200 workers in and around the city.
As for Factory One, it will be used for corporate and community events, as well as educational projects. Among other things, it will house the Kettering University free automotive research library, with an estimated 100,000 photos, documents and artifacts from the early days of the auto industry.
“Factory One is once again an asset to this community and will be for generations to come,” said Kevin Kirbitz, a GM engineer who will now serve as the center’s operations manager.
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