Jacksonville's Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant

In danger of demolition to pave way for a ship repair project, here is a comprehensive story of the rise and fall of Jacksonville's historic Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant.

Assembly plant workers line up for a company portrait between 1924 and 1932. At its height, the plant employed over eight hundred workers churning out two hundred Model A automobiles each day. Courtesy of Jerry Braddock Sr.

While Ford Motor Company was a fledgling start-up in Detroit, Michigan, Jacksonville was in the midst of rebuilding itself after the Great Fire of 1901. Both would experience rapid growth, and by 1920, Ford was producing 50 percent of all cars in the United States. Jacksonville’s population had increased to 91,558 residents, resulting in the construction of Jacksonville’s Ford Motor Company assembly plant.

The Ford Motor Company dates back to 1903, when it was founded by Henry Ford with $28,000 in cash from twelve investors. As owner of the company, Ford became one of the richest and best-known people in the world. In addition, he is credited with “Fordism”: mass production of inexpensive goods coupled with high wages for workers. Ford was also a pioneer of welfare capitalism, designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover, since efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. This was accomplished in 1914 by offering a five-dollar-a-day wage, more than double the rate of most of his workers.

During its early years, the company produced a range of vehicles designated, chronologically, from the original Ford Model A (1903) to the Model K and Model S (Ford’s last right-hand steering model) of 1907 before commissioning Albert Kahn to design the growing company’s new facilities.

Born in Rhaunen, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, Kahn came to Detroit in 1880 at the age of eleven. As a teenager, he got a job at the architectural firm Mason and Rice. Kahn won a year’s scholarship to study abroad in Europe, where he toured with another young architecture student, Henry Bacon, who later designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Kahn founded Albert Kahn Associates in 1895 and developed a new style of construction where reinforced concrete replaced wood in factory walls, roofs and supports; this would revolutionize factory design worldwide. This method gave way to better fire protection and allowed large volumes of unobstructed interior in the design of his first assembly plant for the Packard Motor Car Company in 1907.

This concept interested Ford, who commissioned Kahn to design his company’s Highland Park plant in 1909. The Highland Park facility would be the location where Ford consolidated production of the Model T and perfected the world’s first moving assembly line in 1913, which reduced assembly time from twelve and a half hours in October to less than one and a half hours by the end of the year.

Ford’s River Rouge plant. At its peak, the Rouge sprawled over more than 1,100 acres with 90 buildings covering 7 million square feet of total floor space.

In 1917, Kahn designed the half-mile-long Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, which eventually became the largest manufacturing complex in the United States, employing a workforce of 120,000. After the construction of his River Rouge complex, Ford began to see vulnerabilities in having concentrated operations and decided to have Kahn design satellite plants in Jacksonville and several other cities. Similar facilities were constructed in Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Copenhagen, Dallas, Dagenham (England), Edgewater, Kansas City, Long Beach, Memphis, Mexico City, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Paul and Toronto.

The arrival of the world’s largest automotive manufacturer was a sign of Jacksonville’s growing economic importance. In 1923, Ford agreed to acquire the ten-acre former Bentley Shipyards property from the City of Jacksonville for $50,000 to construct Jacksonville’s second automobile assembly plant. Ground broke for construction on January 23, 1924, and the $2 million, 115,200-square-foot factory was ready for operations by August 29, 1924.

When completed, the complex was said to be one of Ford’s most modern contemporaneous assembly plants in the country for the production of Model T automobiles, which began on November 26, 1924. Facilities making up the ten-acre site included a 100,000-gallon water tower for fire protection, an oil house, a screen house and a powerhouse featuring two 225-horsepower boilers. These boilers produced enough steam to generate five hundred kilowatts of electricity to power the factory’s around-the-clock assembly operations.

Modeled after Ford’s River Rouge Plant, the plant was constructed on approximately eight thousand wooden piles with a reinforced concrete floor on raised concrete piers. Extending several hundred feet in length, the building’s skylight panels were its most dominating architectural feature, providing natural light and heat to the interior. The assembly plant was designed to be served by three railroad sidings, including one allowing fifty rail cars to enter the north side of the building to deliver parts, engines, stampings and other products needed for assembly. Utilizing 3,500 linear feet of conveyor systems once the assembly process was complete, automobiles were either shipped by truck or freight car on a rail siding to the south of the building. Creosote blocks were used in various work areas to prevent damage to parts and tools and to minimize dust from concrete. A wharf was also designed for potential water transportation exports from Jacksonville to Sanford, Florida, via the St. Johns River. The western portion of the building featured an office, parts department and showroom. These facilities served as a supply center for the state of Florida and the southeastern United States. The showroom was designed with an Italian Renaissance interior for the exhibition of the company’s latest Lincoln and Ford automobiles.