One of the most imposing ghosts of Detroit’s east side is Dodge Main, the burly auto factory that once brooded over the border between Detroit and Hamtramck and whose emotional influence lingers more than twenty-five years after it was demolished. So central was Dodge Main to the industrial experience of Detroit’s east-side neighborhoods that its name has become a kind of literary shorthand, an emotional touchstone, a talisman that conjures up all that it meant to be of the working class in Detroit in the Twentieth Century.
The factory’s history spans just over seventy years. It began in 1909 when brothers John F. and Horace E. Dodge bought land in Hamtramck to build a factory where they would manufacture parts for sale to the Ford Motor Co. By June 1910, construction was under way and the Dodge brothers soon were turning out parts for Ford. But the relationship with Ford was not easy. John Dodge annoyed Henry Ford by driving a car built by competitor Packard. By late 1914, the Dodge brothers were using the Hamtramck plant to turn out their own brand of automobile (Pitrone 66). Production — and the factory — grew quickly. The factory had twenty acres of floor space in 1914, but by 1916, it had expanded to 72 acres (Pitrone 73).
The growth got a boost from the U.S. military in 1916, when Gen. John J. Pershing, and a young Lt. George S. Patton, used Dodge cars to chase “Pancho Villa and a raiding party across the border into Mexico.” In that action, three Dodge cars led the first motorized attack by U.S. forces against an enemy, and the military was happy enough with the performance to buy 250 Dodges for the Mexican campaign (Pitrone 73). Dodges were also the first motorized vehicles to cross the Gobi Desert in Mongolia (Woutat and Walker-Tyson).
In 1924, four years after the Dodge brothers died, the Dodge company — along with the Hamtramck factory — was sold, first to a banking syndicate, and then, in 1928, to Walter P. Chrysler, for whom it became the cornerstone of his own landmark automotive company. But while the huge old factory was working its way into auto industry history, it was also shaping — and being shaped by — the diverse culture of the working class neighborhoods of Hamtramck and Detroit’s east side.
Dodge Main provided jobs for thousands of Poles and other east European immigrants who had settled in Hamtramck and nearby neighborhoods in Detroit. As continuing immigration and population shifts within the city changed the ethnic and racial makeup of those neighborhoods, bringing more African Americans, Arabs, Ukrainians, and others into the area, these changes were reflected in the workforce at Dodge Main. Immigrants needed jobs, and Dodge Main had lots of them — 40,000 at the peak of production during World War II. It is no surprise, then, that Dodge Main became synonymous with work in Detroit. Eventually, however, as the U.S. auto industry declined in the 1970s, Dodge Main was closed, turning out its last car in 1979 and being demolished in 1981.
Over the next several years, controversy stormed around the site as the factory and much of the surrounding neighborhood were leveled to make way for General Motors to build its Poletown assembly plant.
Though few authors have focused their work closely on Dodge Main, a number have used its history to summon, in a few short words, an evocative image of working class people and their lives. Loren D. Estleman, for example, uses Dodge Main as a shorthand key to minor characters in two of his novels. Early in Jitterbug, a detective by the name of Zagreb arrives on the scene of a murder and has a brief conversation with a homicide inspector about the murdered woman and the surrounding circumstances:
“Where’s the husband?” “In the bedroom, bawling his head off. Polack, works at Dodge Main. I don’t think he did it. It’s a deep wound. There’s a carving knife in the kitchen, but it’s clean.”(29)
Similarly, but in a more backhanded and sarcastic exchange, Estleman uses Dodge Main to delineate the personal history of an undercover police officer, named Paul Kubicek, who turns up at the scene of a triple shooting in an elite social setting. Again, two detectives are discussing his role:
“You mean he was there as a guest?” “Oh, yeah. Kubicek’s old man worked in the block plant at Dodge Main seventeen years. Every Saturday night he climbed out of the coveralls and into a tux and went to the ballet with Abner Crownover. Paul and little Caryn played doctor behind the tennis courts at Fairlane. Shit. What do you think he was doing there? He was working?” "Private security?” Bookfinger smiled primly at his partner. “We’ve got a born detective here.”(42)
Estleman also includes Dodge Main in a more broadly designed cultural reference later in Jitterbug when a couple goes out one evening during World War II to the Michigan Theater in Detroit. The audience breaks into applause when an “Arsenal of Democracy” feature includes images of the River Rouge Plant, Willow Run, and Dodge Main (160).
Dodge Main shows up briefly in another piece of fiction by Rayfield Waller as a way of exploring ethnic change in Detroit. In the first chapter of Winter, the main character, Lewis, is walking along Cass Avenue near Selden, reflecting on the changes he’s seen along the street:
Almost all the stores were Arab. No more Colored stores like there used to be. Somehow the Arabs had taken over most of the stores and the supermarkets. Years ago when Lewis had worked at Dodge-Main assembly plant, they’d all made fun of the Arab workers because it had been so hard for the Arabs to pick up Colored talk. They had to work all day with mostly Coloreds so they’d had to learn to talk like Coloreds. Lewis had had Arabs, slack-mouthed, confused, hanging on his every word. He’d thought that was funny. Now it was the other way around. If you wanted to eat, you had to pick up their talk. Well, in a way it was fair. In a way. (72)
Even more than in fiction, however, Dodge Main has served poets as a powerful and concise image for conjuring up the blue collar world of Detroit’s east side. In his ironically titled “Civic Pride,” Dennis Teichman explores the accumulation of auto-related debris in his neighborhood. One neighbor’s yard, he fantasizes, “should be featured/ as a special pullout section of ‘Cosmo’/ magazine — Junkpile Trends.” But then he reflects on the significance of the junk:
. . . It’s easy to imagine the reckoning of the Ameridream as a worrisome penchant for collecting everything, from Dodge Main brick to lumber of burnt out garage, their values ranging from real to surreal. . . . (50)
Philip Levine also uses Dodge Main to help with quick character descriptions on occasion. In his poem, “In A Grove Again,” for example, Levine tells of standing in a grove of trees while it snows and describes his companion as “an underpaid Negro named / Eugene hired on seven years ago at Dodge Main ”(Not This Pig 13). In “The Three Crows,” from his 2000 collection, The Mercy, Levine makes another passing reference to the factory while writing about his great aunt Tsipie:
A deeply spiritual woman, she could roll strudel dough so fine even the blind could see through it. Overweight, 62, worn out from mothering three daughters and one husband — an upholsterer on nights at Dodge Main — she no longer walked on water or raised the recently dead. (14)
In these poems, Levine puts Dodge Main to only superficial use, for the resonance it carries in the history of working people in Detroit. The references are brief, though telling.
But Dodge Main is more intimately woven into two of Levine’s other poems. “Saturday Sweeping,” from his 1972 collection, They Feed The Lion, is a reflective poem that looks back on 1952, a time of war and economic struggle, from a vantage point twenty years later, in another period of war and economic struggle, then hones in sharply on the dilemma of working people, pressed on both sides by the harshness of the times:
Detroit, unburned, stumbles away from my window over the drained roofs toward the rivers to scald its useless hands. Half the men in this town are crying in the snow, their eyes blackened like Chinese soldiers. The gates are closing at Dodge Main and Wyandotte Chemical; they must go home to watch the kids scrub their brown faces or grease cartridges for the show down . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Meanwhile, our masters will come on television to ask for our help. (New 77-78)
In this context, Dodge Main becomes a symbol of the worker’s struggle to survive economically and even physically. The image of workers crying in the snow as the plant gates close underscores the harshness and desolation they contend with.
Levine again uses Dodge Main to draw a broader picture of working class struggle and the poignant impact of war in “A Walk With Tom Jefferson,” the title poem from a 1988 collection. This poem was written in the aftermath of the factory’s demolition and the decay and devastation of the neighborhood is reflected in the poem’s opening lines:
Between the freeway and the gray conning towers of the ballpark, miles of mostly vacant lots, once a neighborhood of small two-storey wooden houses — dwellings for immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Poland, West Virginia, Mexico, Dodge Main. A little world with only three seasons, or so we said — one to get tired, one to get old, one to die. (New 277)
Equating Dodge Main with countries and states, Levine sets up the plant, and the neighborhood, as an almost independent entity. But it is a run-down nation of vacant lots that appears well on its way toward the third season.
Dodge Main arises again in the story of Tom Jefferson, Sr. and his garden. His son, Tom Jr. tended the garden when Tom Sr. went off to fight in World War II. Tom Jr. went to fight in Korea and was killed there. The narrative follows the life of Tom Sr. in the wake of his son’s death, amid more snow imagery to accentuate the atmosphere of desolation, death, and decay:
He’d leave for work in the cold dark of December. Later, out the high broken windows at Dodge Main he’d see the snow falling silently and know it was falling on the dark petals of the last rose, know his wife was out back hunched in her heavy gray sweater letting those first flakes slowly settle into water on the warm red flesh of the dime store plants Tom Jr. put in on his own. (New 285-286)
The poem wonders at the depth of the loss, at the moving continuity of father handing off responsibility for the garden to his son and the son giving it back, at the unspoken grief shared by father and mother for their lost son. “That’s Biblical,” Tom Sr. says, and in the same way the poem takes from Dodge Main and gives back to it that Biblical sense of the human struggle to find strength and faith amid the sorrow and loss of life.
Stephen Jones teaches history at Central Michigan University and taught English for ten years at Detroit’s Chadsey High School. He has taught history at Michigan State University and Wayne County Community College and English and history at Baker College in Clinton Township. He is co-author, with Eric Freedman, of African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History, published in 2007 by Congressional Quarterly Press. He received his B.A. in English, and his M.A. and PhD. in American Studies from Michigan State University. For more than twenty years he was a newspaper reporter and once covered the auto industry for the Associated Press.
Estleman, Loren D. Jitterbug. New York: Doherty, 1998.
---. Stress. New York: Mysterious, 1996.
Levine, Philip. New Selected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1991.
---. Not This Pig. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan UP, 1992.
---. The Mercy. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Pitrone, Jean Maddern. Tangled Web: Legacy of Auto Pioneer John F. Dodge. Hamtramck, MI: Avenue, 1989.
Teichman, Dennis. V8. Detroit: Past Tents, 1989.
Waller, Rayfield. “First Chapter of the Novel, Winter,” in Nostalgia For The Present: An Anthology of Writings (From Detroit). Detroit: Post Aesthetic, 1985.
Woutat, Donald and Joyce Walker-Tyson. “Dodge Main Was Hamtramck’s Life.” Detroit Free Press 31 May 1979: 1A.
Photo Credit: The Virtual Motor City, Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
Last update: September 29, 2007