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U-M–D collects auto histories

The Center for the Study of Automotive Heritage (CSAH) at U-M–Dearborn has launched a pilot program to collect oral histories of workers employed in automobile plants during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

While similar programs in metropolitan Detroit have told the stories of workers from the larger automobile groups like the Rouge plant, the CSAH program will explore the tales of workers employed in smaller, lesser-known plants, according to economics Prof. Bruce Pietrykowski, CSAH director.

Bruce Pietrykowski (left), Kae Halonen (right), and U-M—Dearborn's video crew collect oral histories of automobile workers. (Photo courtesy U-M Dearborn)

There tends to be a stereotype of the automobile industry, similar to the image depicted in Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural, where men, dwarfed by gigantic machinery, are seen as machine-like, Pietrykowski says.

“That’s one account and it is important, but there are other worker experiences as well,” he says. “We’re trying to capture some of the stories from the small auto plants you don’t always read about in historical accounts of auto production.”

Earlier this year, Pietrykowski and Kae Halonen interviewed four men who worked at Ford Motor Company’s village industry plant in Milford in the 1930s and ’40s. Dave Daniele, Greg Taylor and other members of U-M–Dearborn’s video production crew taped the interviews.

Pietrykowski says videotapes of the interviews will be edited and made available to researchers, community members and faculty for use in classes. The tapes will be used in distance learning and in courses for a new minor in science and technology studies with a focus on the automobile, which begins this fall.

The project complements another U-M–Dearborn program for which the University received a $220,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a Web site and online archive for studying and teaching the impact of the automobile and the industry on American life, labor and culture.

The Web site and online archive is a collaborative project combining archival materials from the extensive collections in auto history at Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village with texts written for the site by a group of distinguished scholars and educational materials developed by U-M–Dearborn faculty.


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