Features 2001

Remember the old Ford plant? I stayed to the end.

 ... the third woman to hold a job at the Somerville plant

by Bernadette Mahoney

My custom, built-to-order 1957 Ford, made in Somerville, Massachusetts
In order to tell you about my favorite car, I have to take you back to the years I worked at the Ford Motor Company's plant in Somerville. My sister Marie's best friend's husband Freddie was the paymaster there and he got me an interview with the personnel manager when I needed a job. Freddie told me to take whatever job they offered me, so I did.

The job was in the Suggestion Office and, when the plant manager walked me to my office that first day, I was a little surprised that we walked right by the front offices and out into the plant itself. We walked by the railroad tracks that brought the auto supplies and, finally, there it was, one of two tiny partitioned offices set up outside the cafeteria. The office had three or four file cabinets and two desks facing each other with a telephone in the middle.

Ford paid for suggestions that saved the company money and the men, both office and plant, kept our office busy processing them. I was amazed how many suggestions we received and how many won awards.

The young man I replaced was now editor of the Ford newspaper. He told me that I was the first female to hold the job. I didn't realize what that meant until all these men kept coming by our open door and looking in. Then, the assembly line arrived for lunch when the cafeteria opened at 11:30. They all crowded around the tables right outside my office. My desk faced the cafeteria so it was obvious that between 1:30 and 2:00 p.m., I had to work at my desk with my back to the cafeteria.

One day, during the lunch break I had a long distance call for my boss. Without thinking I went right through the cafeteria to get to the supervisors' dining room. The catcalls, the spoons hitting the glasses and the foot stamping was deafening. Needless to say, I went the long way around, past the front offices to get back to my office.

Once a temp, always a temp ...

Doug was a wonderful boss. Working for him never seemed like work. We had a great time and got the job done. The senior engineer came to see me every day and told me great stories about the early days at Ford. Forty years earlier, he had been hired as a temporary employee and that status never changed. Back then, he said, if a machine broke down, the men who worked on it had to punch their time cards out until the machine was fixed and then punch in again.

He also told me Ford only hired men -- no wonder there were only a few women around. There were only two other female secretaries besides me the whole plant!

While I was working in the suggestion office, Ford had two days, one when sons came to work with their fathers and one when daughters came. Management asked me to watch out for them. Thank goodness I didn't have to entertain them. There were clowns and games in the parking lot to do that. But did you ever "watch out" for 120 boys and 80 girls between 8-12 years old? Well, I can tell you it was exhausting but fun!

I stayed in the suggestion office for more than a year before my first transfer. During my four and a half years at Ford, I worked in four different departments. The work was never challenging, but the work environment was terrific. There was no pressure. I got along well with all the men and they seemed to get along well with each other.

But not everyone was glad I was there. I went back to talk to Doug one day and one of the plant supervisors came to see him. As he was coming in the door, he said to Doug, "It's kind of a relief not to have to watch my G.D. language." Then, he saw me! His face got red and he backed out of the room muttering something about being sorry, I think.

The customized, special-order Ford ...

I took advantage of Ford's program whereby an employee could order a car that would be built at the plant and purchased through a dealer for about $50.00 over cost. Ford would then add a car to the dealer's quota. The 1957 Ford I purchased that way turned out to be my favorite.

The car was gray with chrome on the side. It was supposed to have a fancy oxidized ornament under the chrome, but I didn't think it would look good on my gray car, so I didn't order it. However, because the ornament was part of the design of the car, I had to go down the assembly line on the day it was built to make sure no one put holes in the side panel to attach the ornament. I then watched my favorite car come off the assembly line.

A few months later, I drove past the front offices to the employees' parking area and, when I came inside, one of the managers said, "How come you're so smart?" I knew what he meant because I had already heard that the fancy oxidized ornament had pitted and looked terrible. I just gave him a self-satisfied grin and went on my way.

Problems, and the Ozalid incident ...

I can't remember just when the rumors started that Detroit considered Somerville to be a high cost and outdated plant. I certainly did know that the plant had a severe lack of storage space because parts of cars were stored everywhere. Universal joints and side panels were stored six feet high and about as wide outside the ozalid machine room. (An ozalid machine is a huge copy machine that can accommodate the oversized sheets of the engineers.) I used it to make copies of letters by putting a reverse carbon on the back.

One day I was half way down the narrow pathway to the door of the ozalid room when I could feel a stack of universal joints pushing at my back. A fork lift operator had bumped into a stack of universal joints while trying to add more to another stack. As he worked, he kept bumping into the stack at my back. I was being pushed into a stack of side panels in front of me. I started screaming but the noise of the fork life truck plus the fact that the operator couldn't see me made it impossible to get his attention. Fortunately, another fork lift operator came along. He could see me and signaled the other operator. The universal joints got the back of my jacket dirty but otherwise I was o.k. The lift truck operator, on the other hand, was a mess. He couldn't stop shaking so he had to go home.

The Edsel would solve the problems ...

It was shortly after that incident that Detroit announced that the plant would become a Mercury plant and we would make Edsels. The strategy was, I presume, that the company wouldn't make as many cars and they would cost more, thereby solving our problem.

Right after that announcement, many of our top men and supervisors stayed with Ford and moved to Detroit (my old boss Doug included). Meanwhile, the engineers started getting specifications sheets. The minute I saw the sheets showing the back of the Edsel, my heart sank. I decided right then that it was going to be an ugly looking car.

A model Edsel was built and put out in front of the suggestion office. It had just about all the gadgets that cars of today have and, maybe, more, but, as far as I was concerned, all the gadgets in the world wouldn't make me buy an Edsel.

It was a very sad time. I felt so bad for the employees who were left, especially the older men. They wanted the Edsel to save the Somerville plant.

With the closing of the plant, not only did the Massachusetts economy suffer, but also, we lost some of the nicest men I ever met to the new Ford plant in New Jersey and to the Mercury plant in Ohio.

I stayed to the end. March 31, 1958.

September 7, 2001

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