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, Transylvania, 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.)

(2017 research unearthed my grandfather’s naturalization papers, which reveal a quite different story. It was hard for me to give up this Transylvania connection!)