You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 9:01 a.m.

GM Willow Run: Memories, history remain as historic manufacturing plant closes

By Nathan Bomey


Machine operator Rich Laviolette works in the last days of General Motors' 5 million-square-foot Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti Township.

Melanie Maxwell |

Half a dozen straw brooms linger mostly unnoticed in a tattered metal bin, reverently almost, as if something important has happened here and, although useless now, they feel like they should stay.

Lockers, scratched and bruised over time, sit mostly empty now -- but for a few locks here or there.

A long-inactive, dusty snack stand -- the kind you’d see at a county fair -- offers a snapshot of what used to be.

A massive conveyor belt still runs slowly, oil-encrusted hulking steel hooks carrying transmission parts here or there. Small signs of life.

Taking one last stroll through General MotorsWillow Run plant before it closes Thursday offers a reminder of what used to be. Painful. Remarkable.

This 5 million-square-foot manufacturing facility -- a massive casualty of GM’s contraction and its June 1, 2009, bankruptcy filing -- is soon to be abandoned, becoming the latest victim of Michigan’s economic disarray.

The Ypsilanti Township plant’s equipment -- machines that built Michigan, machines that built America -- already is being sold off. Some 320 people still work there, down from 14,000 at one point in the 1970s. The last employees will trickle out on Thursday, the plant's final day of operation.


Assembly team leader Thomas Blasinsky of Taylor steps in to work on the line at GM Willow Run plant.

Melanie Maxwell |

“I cannot imagine that place being silent,” said Randall Yagiela, a Tecumseh resident who was an hourly worker and later a supervisor at the plant during his tenure there from 1975 to 1985.

Yagiela was one of countless cross-generational pairings at the plant. His father, Frank Yagiela, worked there from 1953 to 1983.

“I remember him turning and smiling to me and turning and walking out the plant. It was his last time,” Yagiela said. “It was quite the day.”

It was quite the era.

Sizing up history

The Willow Run plant is one of the largest buildings in the world. It has more square footage than the Willis Tower in Chicago, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

The exterior of the plant is 1.25 miles long, and the facility is unbelievably big. Chances are you’ve never seen anything like it. The legend is that you can stand in the middle of one of the main aisles, look toward either side and not be able to see the end of the building. Actually, that’s not a legend -- that’s true.

For many years, workers used bicycles and scooters to get from one end of the plant to the other. Due to safety concerns, 8,000 bikes were given away to charity a few years ago, though a few remain.

An operating room served workers who got injured, a fire department provided emergency services, and massive amounts of food was made and consumed there.

“A small city is what it was,” said Glen Weathers, an Ypsilanti resident who has worked at the plant for the last 33-1/2 years. “It was almost unbelievable when you think about it.”

'Most enormous room in the history of man': history and facts

Video inside the GM plant in its last days

When thousands of workers filled the place in years gone by, it was common for employees to quit after their first day, overwhelmed by the size, the noise, the smell, the entire atmosphere.

“I was scared to death when I first started,” said Thomas Blasinsky, a Taylor resident and assembly team leader at the site who joined GM 10 years ago.

Imagine, then, what it was like to work at the complex back when Ford Motor Co. owned it during World War II. Henry Ford, in fact, built the plant specifically to produce B-24 liberator bomber planes for the Army Air Corps.

At its height during the war, an astonishing 42,000 people were working at the facility -- including many women entering the industrial workforce for the first time, people from all 48 states at the time and several foreign countries, according to GM. By comparison, the city of Ann Arbor had 30,000 residents in 1940, one year before plant construction started. (See related story for more history.)

GM Willow Run plant: Center of 'arsenal of democracy'

After GM took over the site in 1953, the facility became one of the automaker’s largest manufacturing sites.

GM ultimately produced millions of components and more than 82 million complete transmissions there, not to mention thousands of Chevrolets and other cars made at the next-door assembly plant that was shuttered in the early 1990s.

Transmissions were secondary, though. What the plant really generated was a way of life that many workers fear is fading.

Some workers are in denial that the plant will soon be gone. For them, it was a lifeline to the middle class, a source of hope.

“There’s still people thinking it’s going to be open,” said Greg Burkeen, a maintenance supervisor and Brooklyn resident who’s been working at the site for 34 years. “There will be people in the parking lot Jan. 3.”

“Disbelief, I guess,” Weathers added.

“Yes,” Burkeen said. “You’ve been here 35 years, you don’t think it’s going to be gone. It sent our kids through college. It’s been our house payment.”

That’s not to say the plant hasn’t experienced its share of turmoil. It’s seen injuries, poor air quality, labor strikes, tension between management and hourly workers and numerous rounds of layoffs, sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent.

And, of course, the bankruptcy filing and concurrent announcement that the Willow Run plant would close for good.

“Nobody thought that would happen,” Blasinsky said of the bankruptcy.

In time, the labor fights between GM executives and United Auto Workers employees seem senseless.

“There was a time when the relationship wasn’t what it needed to be, and it’s not just this plant, it was” all of GM, said Willow Run personnel director Jim McIntosh, a Milford resident who’s been working at the site for 34 years. “The issues we were fighting over seem unreasonable on both sides.”

Now, he added, “both the UAW and General Motors have realized they need to work together to survive.”

The end arrives

Soon the plant will be lifeless. The people who worked there -- the people who helped America win the war, who turned Michigan into the automotive capital of the world -- are gone.

But the memories linger.

The last complete transmission came off the line Wednesday. Workers gathered to autograph the transmission for preservation at a GM museum. Past workers were invited too.

“There’s a lot of people that won’t come because it’s too painful,” said Keith Tushek, a labor relations representative.

They want to remember the site the way it used to be.

Maybe they won’t come because memories can’t be confined in a museum. They stick with you even when you’d rather forget.

“I had a lump in my throat thinking about it,” said Yagiela, who worked at the facility alongside his dad, “especially when you see such a vital place.

“It was so vital. There was so much energy,” he added. “It seemed like it would go on forever and ever.”

Contact's Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's newsletters.


Bob Winkelmann

Tue, Jan 25, 2011 : 3:17 p.m.

Good job Nathan, it is totally impossible to cover every detail that this building has wrapped in its walls. I too worked there since 1963 and retired in 2008. Thank you for the memories.


Thu, Dec 23, 2010 : 8:14 a.m.

Hasn't anyone read my previous comments? The writing was on the wall 10 years ago. This facility has not figured in GM's plans for 10 years. This plant was going to close regardless of who owned it, the old GM or new GM.


Thu, Dec 23, 2010 : 1:32 a.m.

while it was time to lock the doors for the last time as the article said "memories linger".


Tue, Dec 21, 2010 : 11:24 p.m.

So I was part of a HS Robotics team sponsored by them between 2004 and 2007 (team was started in '98), and as a part of it, had to go into the plant several times to reach our robotics 'crib' as we called it. Additionally, our team went into the so called 'war room' at the beginning of the season to plan out what sort of robot we would build for competition during the year. It was great, and our coach (and a few others at the plant) made it a point to let us know what a historical site this was. The plant itself was something to get a good look at every day I was there. Orange lighting, stained walls, black floors with old metal files deep in them (and oh was I happy to see the files in the wheels on my rolling backpack when I got home), the occasional leak, those ski lift like devices lifting parts and moving them around, dark hallways, some with abandoned equipment (including near our build area). The place had a character about it, and it was likable. Oh yeah, the occasional vending machine, clean office areas scattered about, and once passed by the chapel in a trailer box. A lot of this is pictured in the gallery, which really did a nice job on. Perhaps ringing in my mind more and more are 2 things: 1.) the great people, and 2.) what one of those great people said as they drove by on a motor cart. He had no affiliation with the team, but knew one of the people helping out. Passing by he let us all know to pursue a college degree and stay the hell out of the place (basically). I was college bound and am in college right now, but his statement struck me as ironic. True, yes, but seemingly forgetful that the money he got from the job helped keep the economy going around here, and many had lost their auto job prior to him. This irony was one I would fully grasp after working 5 years in retail. Not the greasy, loud, danger ridden place the plant was, but the work was something, or at least what was expected of us. Left retail earlier this year, and don't have to return for quite a while yet (I hope). Nevertheless, this is a tremendous loss for Ypsi Township, and the surrounding communities. Really hoping the aerotropolis plan gets off the ground real soon to fill the void left by this and previous losses. Here's to better times. My thoughts and prayers are with those connected to the plant in any way possible.


Mon, Dec 20, 2010 : 10:31 p.m.

"It was then that I began to realize the historical magnitude of the place that turned out one B-24 Liberator each day during The War." Actually, what made the factory unique is that it produced slightly more than one B-24 per hour, not one per day. Various other B-24 factories existed in the US prior to Willow Run. No other B-24 factory could produce at a rate of more than one per day; most could not even manage to produce one per day. Henry Ford and his crew of industrial engineers showed the world how to build B-24 bombers literally twenty five time faster than it was thought possible. Phenomenal! They built nearly 10,000 in just a couple years at Willow Run. Willow Run, more than any other factory in the world, allowed the Allies to win World War Two.


Mon, Dec 20, 2010 : 11 a.m.

Nathan, thanks for this article -- comments are interesting too. I wonder, though, how it can be the case both that WR was "a lifeline to the middle class" and yet, at the same time, one looks back and says that the fights between the UAW and plant management were "senseless." There may have been some overreach on the part of the UAW at times, but without the UAW the plant at WR would not have been a "lifeline to the middle class." It seems contradictory and, moreover, implies that the struggles of the unions for better wages and benefits lead, inevitably, to the loss of jobs.


Mon, Dec 20, 2010 : 10:55 a.m.

I worked in that plant for 31 years. Yes, it was hot, noisy, and I worry about all the toxic things I breathed or came in contact with-but I still miss working there, and I miss the people I worked with,too. I don't regret working there for even a second. We were like a big family in every sense of the word. Sure,there were people I argued with, and some I strongly disliked, but it's all of no consequence now, and some of these people are good friends now. I used to walk that plant and search out the traces of the Bomber days,and I always sensed the history in that building-so many world-famous people have been inside those walls. Thank you for your fine article on this plant.


Mon, Dec 20, 2010 : 8:20 a.m.

The closing of WRPT is a big loss for SE Michigan. Hundreds of suppliers are going to lose thousands of dollars in business. The loss of tax revenue to our community will be hard to replace. This will have a ripple effect in stalling the economic recovery in our area.


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 11:29 p.m.

I worked there for about a year when I was 25 in 1985-86. I was laid off and got picked up by the Warren Hydramatic plant where I stayed for five years while I took advantage of the GM-UAW tuition assistance program. I was on the torque converter job. I remember working through the first Thanksgiving I was there. Probationary employees had to show that we were "team players" so it was considered smart to work all of the overtime the foreman offered. Being in the plant on Thanksgiving was downright erie. It was like being one of forty people on an aircraft carrier. It reminded me of a scene from the movie Alien. Every once in a while something would drip from the ceiling and I'd get chills. This was the first year of the UAW's concession contract with GM. New hires made less money than other employees and had no dental or vision benefits for six months. It made for resentment between union members. It was a nail in the coffin for collective bargaining rights and began the UAW's downward slide into capitulation to the Big Three. I remember there was a scandal at the plant during that time. A foreman got fired for using plant employees to build his house. Four or five guys would come to work every morning, jump into the back of his pickup and he'd drive them right through the gate and to his new-home construction site. There was so much waste in the plant, no one ever noticed that four or five guys on the payroll never did any work. In winter, parts of the plant were so cold it was like working outside. In the summer, the place was hot and claustrophobic. Because there were two shifts, overtime for 1st shift--which began at 6:00am--meant coming in at 4:00am. For weeks, I got up at 3:00 in the morning to work day shift. For lunch, marijuana smoke poured from cars in the parking lot. In the locker room, there were entire lockers reserved for empty half-pint liquor bottles. Plant management looked the other way. On my breaks, I'd walk around to a get a look at the massive facility. I could never get far, as I had to be back when the production line started up again. One day, I came to the enormous bay doors at the end of the transmission-assembly building. It was then that I began to realize the historical magnitude of the place that turned out one B-24 Liberator each day during The War. I remember feeling like I was looking at part of our nation's history. I wouldn't trade my Willow Run experience for anything.


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 6:17 p.m.

uhm, Mr54, I believe tx2aa was referring to your accidental listing of having worked there from 1075 to 2006, which would put you working at the plant for 931 years to be exact. And for crying out loud, don't take yourself, or this article so danged seriously. You aren't the only one in the world who's worked in a dark, dingy, smelly, oily factory. I've worked in one myself. Unfortunately, it wasn't the kind that had retirement benefits attached to it or a paycheck big enough to keep me there for what is basically a life sentence. lighten up 53, texas 2 ann arbor was just making a joke out of your typographical error.


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 3:48 p.m.

And also. these people who say it's too painful to go back there and sign a transmission wanting to remember the way it used to be.. Get a life for crying out loud,you'll have a good pension and most important of all is you're still ALIVE!!!!!!!! after years of breathing that toxic crap that floated in the air.Find something else to do if you want to keep working. I DID!!!!!!


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 3:32 p.m.

TX2AA: Yes, i have a nice pension and as far as your sarcastic remark about a pen and watch is not worth a response. I spent 31 years at that godforsaken dump by my own choosing. These people who talk about the good times they had at that plant are way off in the sense they want to think people it was a great place to work. I challenge you to ask ANYONE who worked there and ask them if they enjoyed working there. Yeah, greasy oil soaked machines, greasy oil soaked floors,oil mist wafting thru the air and noise levels so high a person had to shout to be heard, why? We had to wear earplugs because it so damn loud!!!!! And, judging by your comment you sound like a person who doesn't have the slightest idea of what work life was like there.


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 1:45 p.m.

@mr54 - Wow, I hope you got a nice pen, or watch, for spending 900+ years employed at the WRPT.;)


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 11:15 a.m.

Not sure why they're not but these articles should be linked as the sentiments and comments are related: Also how about a Facebook style "like" feature for articles & posts?


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 9:55 a.m.

I cannot for the life of me understand how the closing of this old worn out facility is sad. I too am a retiree from WRPT I had been employed there from 1075-2006 and like most people who worked there have heard stories and plans that this facility was not in GM's plans for the future way before the bankruptcy of last year.Many people if not most had a choice of accepting early retirement programs which began in 2006 but chose to remain thinking that the plant was going to remain open way into the future. Based on information i received from sources the plant would have closed by the end of 2010 regardless of whether the old GM or new GM had control of the plant. At that facility we manufactured many product lines over the years and some if not most of the product lines were being discontinued due to the fact that GM did not have plans for various types of transmissions and would rely on one product line called the 6 speed. Gm did not want this facility to remain open to manufacture one transmission. So, the 6 speed is now being made in Toledo which was is GM's plan from the beginning. Why down there and not in Ypsi you may ask. Plain and simple,the Ypsi plant was way to large to keep open for one product line and therefore the move to Toledo because that plant is much smaller and more efficient to operate. And yes i was an hourly employee.

Nathan Bomey

Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 9:21 a.m.

@C6, Yes, most of that information is mentioned in this accompanying story detailing the extensive history of the plant (there's also a video, too, showing what the plant looks like today): That said, I would say there's so much history at the plant that you could easily fill up an entire book about it. In fact, I'd love to hear some memories from people who worked there.


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 8:45 a.m.

Oh, there's the majority of the missing information, in Nathan's OTHER Willow Run story...


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 8:33 a.m.

So, no mention of the years between Ford and General Motors when Kaiser-Frazer built cars in the Willow Run plant? No mention of the short-lived, you could almost say experimental, rotary engine production facilities and assembly line that were there in the early 1970's, or the M-16 carbine parts production during the Vietnam War before that? And no mention of the General Motors museum that was in the Administration Building there, documenting all the items produced during more than 50 years of work either. I hope the items and history from that museum collection were distributed to GM permanent collections and offered to interested outside organizations such as the Ypsilanti Heritage Museum, rather than just scrapped.