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Del Peterson walked into the roar of the Ford plant for the first time, his eyes wide. Skeletons of vehicles rolled down snaking conveyor belts as workers in sunken pits tinkered with axles rolling over their heads. Others squinted behind face shields, their welding guns unleashing sparks, or scurried to bolt tires into place before the next chassis rolled up a minute later.
As Peterson took his spot on the assembly line, adjusting front suspensions, an old-timer poked him in the ribs.
"He said: 'Hey, kid, you're crazy coming to work here, they're going to be closing this place,'" said Peterson, now 80. "That was the first day of June, 1949. It looks like he was right, but it took Ford quite a while to finally get around to it."
After decades of rumors and three years of reprieves, the last Ford Ranger pickup will roll off the line at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant around Dec. 16, ending an 86-year run of high-wage jobs cranking out everything from the Model T to armored World War II vehicles to Country Squire station wagons along the Mississippi River in St. Paul's Highland Park.
For the state and region, the plant closing is the latest economic domino to drop, following the Whirlpool plant on St. Paul's East Side, Northwest Airlines, Honeywell and others who helped forge thriving middle-class communities with good paychecks and benefits. Since the late 1990s, Minnesota has lost nearly 100,000 of its 400,000 manufacturing jobs -- part of a wrenching transition that experts say will leave state and local coffers sorely missing the dollars generated by making goods that could be sold outside the area.
For the neighborhood, the final shutdown will mean the loss of a good corporate neighbor that donated land for Little League fields, sent volunteers to wash seniors' windows at a nearby public housing high rise and anchored the tax base. But only one of five Ford workers lived in St. Paul, and automaking's contribution amounts to less than 1 percent of the state economy. So others downplay the economic effects and embrace the opportunity to transform 122 acres of prime, riverbank real estate.
For the thousands of Ford families that built more than 6 million vehicles in St. Paul, the end of the line, although long anticipated, will hurt nonetheless. More than a factory will be torn down.
"It's a way of life that will no longer be here," said Terry Dinderman, 69, who started installing accelerator pedals on Ford Galaxies in 1965.
Most of the longtime workers, who numbered more than 2,000 at the plant's peak in the late 1970s, have taken buyouts or transfers to places such as Louisville or Kansas City. Only about 125 of the 800 workers left have full UAW status.
"The mood in the plant has changed to where people are quiet and not saying much," said Denny Dickhausen, 65, a 40-year veteran who cleans up overnight and met his wife, Brenda, on the body-build line. "I'll be the first to admit I'm going to shed tears because it's been a good part of my life. But I'm going to walk out of here with my head held high, very proud to say I worked at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant."
'A magnificent edifice'
At least three factors prompted Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, to fork out $10 million and build their plant along the Mississippi River in 1924. A new hydroelectric dam offered cheap power. The silica sandstone caves of the river bluffs were perfect to excavate for manufacturing windshield glass. And the work ethic and buying power of the largely German and Scandinavian populace were both coveted.
"There is something about the hardy life of the farmers, most of them descendants of the Vikings, that led them to appreciate peculiarly the clean cut strength of the Ford," a 1913 Ford Co. newsletter said.
They'd been making the Model T at two Minneapolis locations since 1912, turning out 92,963 so-called Tin Lizzies in 1923 alone. And with the transportation network developed to ship grain, lumber and iron ore out of Minnesota, a robust market stood ready to be served.
More than 20 St. Paul business owners trumpeted the plant's construction with an open letter to Henry and Edsel Ford in the June 24, 1924, St. Paul Pioneer Press:
"Every loyal citizen points with pride to the magnificent edifice you are constructing here - an institution that has enabled Saint Paul to step ahead 10 years in one stride," they wrote. "Here, the laughter of sturdy children romping on the lawns of their comfortable homes will greet your workmen."
Within a decade, the plant would sit idle, the Great Depression shutting it down in 1933 and '34. Ten years later, the "workmen" became largely women as the plant stopped making civilian cars and produced World War II armored vehicles and airplane engines.
After the war, the Highland Park neighborhood grew up around the plant -- a surprisingly tranquil co-existence.
"If you were to tell residents of other cities that one of our finest neighborhoods abuts the Ford plant, they couldn't believe it -- but it's been true for a long time," said George Latimer, the former St. Paul mayor who teaches history at Macalester College.
"As a kid growing up in St. Paul, it was kind of a mysterious place," Coleman said, comparing the Ford plant to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. "It was just really cool when you saw this product coming out of this factory."
'More than a place to work'
One recent morning, Ford let workers show family and friends where they spent so many years. Dave Selbo pulled his 14-year-old grandson, Garrett, out of school in Prior Lake and walked him down the line as, one by one, Ranger bodies were lowered on to chassis and workers and robots, working exclusively on the left or right side of the pickups, added brakes, hoods, electrical systems, wheels, doors, radios and wipers.
He showed Garrett the elevator that lifted one chassis after another up for a run through the paint line in the sprawling, cavernous plant. It covers more than a million square feet, 22 acres under one roof that workers joke has been leaking since 1925.
Selbo started on the assembly line in 1967 before working his way up to a supervisory job. He retired after 30 years but went right back to the plant as a representative for parts suppliers. At the sidewinder line, where pickups roll sideways toward bays where computers test their brakes, Selbo told his grandson: "This was more than a place to work. We spent more time here than we did with our families, so these folks became our family."
He greeted old co-workers with hearty handshakes before they ran into a familiar face. Rick Gueltzow -- Garrett's dad and Selbo's son-in-law -- was working at the plant for the end of the run.
After nearly 20 years at Ford, Gueltzow, 47, took an education buyout, one of four generous packages Ford and the UAW Local 879 negotiated as the plant began inching toward this final shutdown.
Some workers cashed out with $100,000 buyouts, but Gueltzow's package paid him half his $60,000 salary for four years, full benefits and $15,000 a year to go back to school. He spent two years at Normandale Community College before moving to Augsburg, where he'll graduate with a triple major in economics, finance and accounting.
He's grateful for Ford's generosity, although it led to some awkward moments for a guy in his 40s going back to college. "I had to go over to a 16-year-old's house one night to do a group project," he said. "He was receiving postsecondary education credit as a high schooler and it was a little weird."
As Selbo and Garrett headed down the line, Gueltzow said: "It's great my son got in here -- it's nice for him to see what it was actually like."
But bittersweet, too, according to Garrett's grandfather.
"I hate to see industrial jobs disappear in this country," Selbo said. "People think this country can be strong without building anything -- it can't."
Did it have to die?
The plant closing continues a dire trend that precedes the latest economic downturn. Since 1979, 270 of the 450 automaker-owned plants in the country have closed, according to Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The St. Paul Ford plant quit making cars in 1978, producing only pickups since then.
At first, that was good news as the energy crisis of the late '70s heightened demand for small trucks that didn't guzzle gas. But Ford's overall market share shrank from 24 percent in 1990 to 17.4 percent in 2005, its lowest numbers since the '20s.
And Ranger production plummeted 57 percent between 2000 and '04, prompting the closing of the Edison, N.J., plant. As the final day approaches, the St. Paul plant is producing just under 500 pickups per day.
Dziczek said another factor was the recent stripping of job security language in UAW contracts.
"It used to cost companies an arm and leg to close plants in the automotive diaspora because they had to continue to pay those workers," she said. "Without those protections, it became easier to close regional outposts."
Minnesota's distance from auto parts makers in the Michigan-Ohio rust belt further doomed the St. Paul plant, as parts had to be shipped from far away. Despite those factors, some experts insist the St. Paul Ford plant could have been saved if state leaders had more manufacturing expertise and foresight.
"It was a gross piece of stupidity for the state of Minnesota to let this plant die," said Fred Zimmerman, a retired University of St. Thomas manufacturing professor.
He said state leaders could have come up with a plan to build an integrated metal stamping facility, perhaps in the sandstone caves below the plant, and that might have helped solve the costly problem of shipping in parts.
"They never mobilized to alleviate that single most significant disadvantage the plant had," Zimmerman said.
Coleman insists Ford honchos in Michigan had made up their mind that St. Paul didn't fit in their worldwide strategy before he took office in 2006, but doesn't dismiss Zimmerman's analysis.
"If we got into the game earlier with a more aggressive statewide strategy, there's no question we would have had a better chance," the mayor said.
Now, Zimmerman says, leaving out its agriculture sector "Minnesota is, to some extent, a Greece in the making." Losing high-wage Ford jobs will hurt a state with mounting unfunded public pensions and other budget challenges.
"You have to make things and export them out of the community to pay the bills," he said. "It's a great tragedy to lose one of the best places for employment in the entire state."
Coleman says the plant's slow death, first announced in 2008, has let the city go through several stages of grieving. "That doesn't mean when the final key is turned and the gate is closed, that there still won't be tears to shed," he said.
Latimer, his predecessor, has a different take. With only about 15 percent of Ford workers living in St. Paul, it won't be as devastating to the local economy as the Whirlpool shutdown in 1984 that wiped out 600 blue-collar jobs.
"That was a real trauma for the economy of St. Paul and you can't say that about Ford despite its powerful presence," Latimer said. "However wrenching this closure is, it's also a terrific opportunity for a much higher use."
A task force shaping the future of the Ford site will mark its fifth anniversary in January, but despite its efforts, uncertainty remains. The hydropower dam has been sold to a Canadian company. The UAW's union hall on Ford Parkway will soon go up for sale.
Ford has its own redevelopment arm. It is expected to tear down the building within months and hopes to sell the site. Cleaning up contamination, the extent of which hasn't been determined, could take years.
And with the sluggish economy, dreams of a major riverfront development that combines green space, housing, boutique malls and job-creating light industry seem distant.
"We still hope to develop this into a little jewel for the metro area, but it's not going to happen overnight," said Bill Klein, a business attorney and task force co-chairman who lives two miles away. "It's going to be a long process."
Added Coleman: "We're not just going to take the first operation that comes in and says they'll take the whole site and create 200 jobs. That's not acceptable to anyone." Among his concerns: replacing Ford's diverse workforce. "I've always been impressed by the number of women of color working in that plant," he said.
In the meantime, memories and stories will be all that's left to swirl after the assembly line shuts down this month.
"I hope they can come up with something so this place isn't just forgotten," said Cindy Fangel, 54, of Burnsville, who's part of a four-generation Ford family.
She has worked in the comptroller's office for six years. Her two sons, Chad and Blake, worked at the plant in recent years. Her husband, Jeff Fangel, took a retirement buyout. Her father, Gordon Best, worked as a body-build superintendent. And her grandfather, Randolph Monson, helped build the plant, worked in the glass operation and remembered the days before the UAW's 1941 arrival when you couldn't take a bathroom break, let alone a vacation.
"Ford has supported me my whole life and I can't imagine it not being here," she said.
Barbie Fodor, who spent 24 of her 27 years as a human resources associate, spearheaded the plant's volunteer committee that sponsored the nearby public housing high-rise through the 1990s. "This is all so sad," she said, "but I don't think they'll appreciate everything we did for the community, and all the taxes we paid, until we're actually gone."
Some of the longest memories belong to Cecil Kleinendorst, 96, who started decking fenders in 1949.
Kleinendorst remembers the armored trucks coming in the plant gate on paydays, where wages were paid in cash. He earned $1.32 an hour for screwing in the covers that fit snugly around the shift panels on the floor.
"We got so fast at it that we set up a chess board between us," Cecil said. "We'd hurry up and screw in the gear shift panel and make our chess move while the other guy did his job and made his move."
His son, Dave Kleinendorst, 64, worked on the line making Galaxies for nine years before moving into management. He retired from the plant, too.
"You didn't even know this plant was in the neighborhood until you dropped right on top of it," he said. "But it gave you a job that could support your family right out of high school -- if you didn't mind lugging 900 tires and screwing them on every day. Now we're moving away from being laborers and it's too bad because it's been part of St. Paul's legacy for a long, long time."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767
Watch video about the plant's legacy at www.startribune. com/video
The history of the Twin Cities Assembly Plant, including all the models made in St. Paul. A19
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