Reporting Bill Hudson
ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — In 1925, Henry Ford found the perfect spot to make his Model T’s. A natural waterfall to make power, plenty of available water and rail transportation and a pool of skilled labor. Together, all of that combined to make his St. Paul Ford Assembly Plant one of the company’s most productive.
“You became known as the absolute best workforce in the Ford system,” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said. “Your dedication and hard work has been recognized and that’s what makes this particularly bitter sweet.”
Mayor Coleman was speaking to a room packed with Ford retirees and current workers. At the company’s training facility, the Ford family gathered to face a grim reality and the end of an era.
“As the years have brought many changes to the plant we’ve also seen difficult shifts in the market segments. By customers and by competition,” said Jeff Wood, Ford’s director of manufacturing.
For 86 years, the plant on the banks of the Mississippi River adjusted through the market’s ups and downs. Every time there was a change in model or method of production, workers retooled their skills. From the first model T’s, workers produced armored cars during World War II, LTD’s and later, full-sized F-150 trucks. In 1985, the plant was retooled once again and began producing the smaller, fuel efficient Ford Ranger pickup truck.
When Ford made the decision it was discontinuing the Ranger truck, it meant the end of the line for workers like Margie Rios.
“At first, people were not really sure if it was closing, but now it’s for sure,” she said. “At first, they were in denial about that.”
Ford’s workforce was family in more ways than one. Third-generation autoworker, Art Wiegele, won’t end his career at the St. Paul plant like his father and grandfather both did.
“I’m one of the lucky ones being transferred. I’m going to Louisville, Kentucky, but it’s not easy,” he said.
Wiegele will pack up his skills and work at another Ford truck plant. Still he says, whenever sparks cease and the noise is silenced, the end is bittersweet.
After a century of auto making in Minnesota, a rich tradition and valued employer will vanish for good. Ford said the final Ranger pickup truck will roll off the assembly line on Dec. 16.