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11:10 am
Mon August 5, 2013

Air museum hopes to save 'Rosie the Riveter's' factory

The Yankee Air Museum hopes to save part of the historic factory where Rosie the Riveter made B-24 bombers during WWII.

The historic Michigan factory where the iconic Rosie the Riveter and thousands of other women built B-24 bombers during World War II could face the wrecking ball two months from now.

A modest nonprofit is trying to raise enough money to salvage some of the massive plant, which Ford sold to General Motors after the war. The Yankee Air Museum figures the factory is the perfect place to start anew, after a devastating fire destroyed its collections in 2004.

The former Yankee Air Museum's headquarters at Willow Run Airport burned in 2004. Three historic aircraft were saved, but many artifacts, tools, and other museum pieces were lost.
Credit Yankee Air Museum

The huge hangar doors on the old Willow Run assembly plant are majestic in proportion. Thirty-two feet tall and 150 feet wide; the doors were built big so that finished B-24 bombers could roll out of the factory, then be tested on the site's airport runway, before going to war.

"What's remarkable to me," says Grant Trigger, cleanup manager for GM's former properties in Michigan, "is this is more reliable than my garage door. Built by engineers with slide rules in 1942, and it still works today."

Inside the dark factory, an intense smell of dampness and oil rises from the floor, which is still littered with old equipment and castoff work gloves.

For decades, the former Ford bomber plant turned out cars for GM. But with GM's bankruptcy, came a trust fund to find new developers for this and other sites the company no longer required.  No buyers emerged for this one, though.

"The size of the space, which was phenomenal at the time, is simply too big for today's manufacturing facilities," Trigger says. "There's 83 acres under one roof."

"The size of the space, which was phenomenal at the time, is simply too big for today's manufacturing facilities," Trigger says. "There's 83 acres under one roof."

That translates to nearly 5 million square feet, or the size of a housing subdivision.  

Surely someone would want a little piece of that history. Otherwise, demolition appeared the only option.

Enter the Yankee Air Museum.

Located about a mile away, the museum is a nonprofit with an annual budget of about $2 million and a paid staff of six.  The group had a collection of historic airplanes, some of which were operational, used in air shows and for passenger flights.

The museum also had other valuable aviation history collections, amassed over many years  - until 2004, that is.

Yankee Air Museum Chairman Ray Hunter
Credit Alana Holland / Michigan Radio

"We had a hanger full of artifacts," says Ray Hunter, chairman of the museum's board. "We had WWII uniforms, we had a women in aviation [collection], we had a WWI collection. We had a tremendous collection, and it all went up in fire. It all went up in the fire."

The museum went to work almost immediately to rebuild. The flyable craft, luckily, were saved. Helmets and uniforms and aviation artifacts poured in from around the country.

Today, the airplanes are off-site, but the museum is up and running again in a smaller space.

Rosie's former factory — at least 180,000 square feet of it, including those tremendous hangar doors — would allow the Yankee Air Museum to get its planes and exhibits under one, historic roof. But it will cost about $8 million to build new walls when the rest of the site is torn down, and to bring in new plumbing, electricity and heat.

It'll be worth it, says Mike Montgomery, a consultant for the effort. Montgomery says it's not just about saving something for aviation buffs.

Museum staff can see the factory from their site. So, if they don't raise the money in time, they'd be watching the demolition from there.

  "There was an integrated, unionized plant where men and women both worked in manufacturing jobs doing equal pay for equal work in the 1940s, when that was absolutely not the norm in American industry," he says.

GM donated $2 million to the effort, but the Yankee Air Museum still needs to raise $3.5 million.   The group didn't make the RACER trust's initial deadline of August 1, but the trust subsequently gave the group an extension, until October 1, 2013.

Museum staff can see the factory from their site. So, if they don't raise the money in time, they'd be watching the demolition from there.