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May 13th, 2013

Brief History of Dearborn

A Brief History of Dearborn

The official seal of the city of Dearborn proclaims that it is the hometown of Henry Ford, but there was life in Dearborn before Ford.

What is now Dearborn remained a small farming community for decades after the first European settlers arrived in 1786.  A major change came in 1833 when the US government moved its arsenal from Detroit to a newly created township named after Henry Dearborn, Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of War.

The arsenal was an eleven building complex located on the main road between Detroit and Chicago.  After the arsenal closed in 1879 the powder magazine, located nearly 1000 feet east of the main arsenal for safety, was converted into a private residence now known as the McFadden-Ross House. The former powder magazine and commandant’s residence survive today as part of the Dearborn Historical Museum, and several armory buildings have been repurposed for commercial use.  The community around the arsenal incorporated as the Village of Dearbornville in 1838 and became the City of Dearborn in 1897.

At the same time, about four miles to the east, a smaller community was growing in Springwells Township. Springwells became a Village in 1919 and a City four years later.  Henry Ford, who was born in Springwells Township in 1863, began building a massive new factory on the banks of the Rouge River in the township’s south end in 1917.  The Rouge Plant, simply called “The Rouge” by locals, became the largest manufacturing complex in the world.  In 1925 Springwells renamed itself Fordson, in honor of Henry and his son Edsel.  At Henry Ford’s urging Dearborn and Fordson merged in 1929 under the name of Dearborn.

(Above)Entrance to Detroit Arsenal at Dearbornville, 1864 (image from Dearborn Historical Museum)


(Left) A view of the massive Rouge plant, 1948 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford)

Between the two communities was a huge swath of land on which Henry Ford had experimental, and largely unprofitable, farms.  After Henry’s death in 1947 the FordMotor Company gradually developed the property, which now includes the Ford World Headquarters (known locally as the “Glass House”) a variety of office parks, and Fairlane Town Center, the shopping mall complex that includes our conference hotel, The Henry.  The former Ford farmland continues to divide the city into West and East Dearborn.



(Right) Ford Motor Company World Headquarters, Dearborn






East Dearborn is home to the largest Arab-American community in the United States.  Attracted initially by jobs at the Rouge, immigrants from Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestine have built a vibrant community filled with shops, food markets, and restaurants.  The Islamic Center of America is reputed to be the largest mosque in America.


The Rouge Plant at its peak employed 100,000 people and was renowned for bringing iron ore in one end and sending finished cars out the other.  But the Rouge is also associated with two tragic events in labor history.  In March 1932 some 2500 “Hunger Marchers” approached the plant gates demanding jobs.  Dearborn police responded with tear gas and fire hoses, marchers responded with rocks, shots were fired, and four marchers died.  Some five years later minions from Ford’s innocuously named Service Department attacked United Auto Workers Union organizers on a pedestrian overpass leading to the Rouge Plant.  Public reaction to press photos of bloodied union leaders Richard Frankensteen and Walter Reuther made the “Battle of the Overpass” a turning point union organizing history.

(Left) UAW organizer Richard Frankensteen attacked by Ford Service Department men during the Battle of the Overpass, May 26, 1937 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford Museum)


(Below) Stout Air Lines Ford Tri-Motor 4-AT-34 at Ford Airport, 1928 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford)



In 1929 Henry dedicated The Edison Institute, his indoor-outdoor museum complex now called The Henry Ford.  It remains one of the great collections of American technological and cultural artifacts, as well as the area’s major tourist attraction.  Adjacent to the Edison Institute was the Ford Airport, which also contained the factory that produced Ford Tri-motor aircraft.  In 1947 the airport was converted to a proving grounds for automobiles.


No history of Dearborn is complete without mention of Orville Hubbard, the city’s nine-term (1942-1978) mayor.  He is remembered with affection for providing efficient government with a high level of services (helped by tax revenues from Ford).  He is also remembered with embarrassment for his blunt, unapologetic racism dedicated to keeping Dearborn an all white city.

Dearborn today is emblematic of much of 21st century America—once transformed and made wealthy by new technology and industry, it is in transition again, seeking its footing amid shifting economic and demographic trends.


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