The Rouge Shadow

I see my grandfather in the background in Diego Rivera’s North Wall mural at the Detroit Institute of Art, (here’s a link; these famous works aren’t free for reproduction), dwarfed by the scale of the machinery and the enterprise around him. For decades, he worked at the legendary Ford Rouge plant, where Great Lakes freighters brought sand (for glassmaking), iron ore, and coal to the mile-long factory, and, every 49 seconds, out rolled an automobile.

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan (photo: wikimedia)

Today, a tour of an auto plant suggests a relatively clean job. Robots do the heavy lifting, with just-in-time sourcing of parts. In the 1920s to 1940s, when my grandfather worked there, the Rouge was the country’s only auto factory with its own steel mill, and clouds of sulphurous smoke and grit filled the air. It had a tire-making plant, a glass furnace, plants for making transmissions and radiators, its own railroad, and even a paper mill. As I understand it, one of my uncles was in charge of keeping the steel mill’s fires stoked, which explains why he always had to work Christmas Day.

My grandfather was born in 1888, and I could not find his immigration record until I realized the Hungarian spelling of Frank is Ferencz. Even then I had to search using all the spellings of the family’s last name my various uncles used: Hadde, Hedge, Hegyi, and Heddi. By the process of elimination, my best candidate is Ferencz Hegyi, who immigrated from Fiatfalva, Hungary, in 1906 and arriving at Ellis Island aboard the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II. (Alfred Stieglitz’s photo “The Steerage,”—called “one of the greatest photographs of all time,” was taken aboard that ship.)


Fiatfalva, Hungary

“Looking over Fiatfalva” by Rimager, Flickr

Fiatfalva is now in Harghita County, Romania, at the eastern end of the Transylvania plateau, with the closest large town Sighişoara, where Vlad the Impaler (Count Dracula) was born. Although settlement in the area dates back to prehistoric and Bronze Age times, the first mention of the name of the village is found in 15th c. documents. Fiatfalva now has only a couple of streets and about a thousand residents, including a significant Roma population. The Romanian name for the town is Filiaş. An outdoor museum in Bucharest, Romania, displays representative buildings from all parts of Romania. The gate pictured below is typical of dwellings in the Harghita region.


Transylvania, Bucharest, Fiatfalva, house gate

(photo: author)


The ship’s manifest listed Ferencz’s destination as Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, in the far western part of the state. If he went there (and vague family rumors suggest he did), he was but a few miles from the presumed destination of Maria Krausz , who immigrated almost three years later. The ship’s manifest for Maria, whom I believe was my grandmother, indicates she was headed to “Allegheny, Pennsylvania” (Pittsburgh).

The 1910 Census (so far) is not much help pinpointing her whereabouts, but there is a record for Frank Hagyie, age 21, who was born in Hungary and immigrated in 1906. In 1910, he was single and living as a boarder in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and along with many other young men in the neighboring rooming houses, he worked in a tin mill. At that time, New Castle was the tin plate capital of the world and was linked to Pittsburgh, 50 miles away, by a trolley line.

The fact that these two people separately crossed the ocean and ended up so near each other, when immigrants were scattering all across the United States, is perhaps the strongest piece of evidence that I’m on the right investigative track!