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DATE: Sept. 9, 2002

Center collects automotive oral histories

DEARBORN---The Center for the Study of Automotive Heritage (CSAH) at the University of Michigan-Dearborn has launched a pilot program to collect oral histories of workers employed in automobile plants during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

While similar programs in metropolitan Detroit have told the stories of workers of 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.

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 themselves, according to Pietrykowski.

"That's one account and it is important, but there are other worker experiences as well," he said. "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."

So Pietrykowski set out to locate workers from the smaller plants, which turned out to be a challenge.

"Part of the adventure is tracking them down," Pietrykowski said. "Some of them are living in Florida in the winter. We're finding some of them in various states of health, and others felt their stories weren't interesting enough to be documented. Of course we don't agree with that. We feel that their recollections are vital to the documentation and interpretation of automobile culture in the region. Some have been waiting for people to talk to them because they did feel that they were a part of something special and unique."

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 1940s. Dave Daniele, Greg Taylor and other members of UM-Dearborn's video production crew videotaped the interviews, which took place at the Milford Civic Center in March.

"Kae is brilliant, very skilled at drawing people out," Pietrykowski said. "She is currently volunteering her time to be resident oral historian on this project. She has a labor history degree from Wayne State University, and was very effective in eliciting stories from the workers and guiding them through the interview process. Within two hours, we had captured all the topics we wanted to cover. Of course, while we may want to go back and pursue certain themes in more depth, this is an excellent start."

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

The project also complements another UM-Dearborn program in which the university received a $220,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to develop a web site and online archive for studying and teaching about the impact of the automobile and the auto 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 UM-Dearborn faculty.

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