MotorCities National Heritage Area

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25 MotorCities Programs 

Wayside Exhibit Program

MotorCities National Heritage Area covers 10,000 square miles, touching parts of 16 counties and 1 Canadian province. The story is even broader, touching every element of communities from its roads to its homes and people. The wayside exhibit program seeks to tell the stories of the people, places and ideas that made these communities and our region great. The project started with a grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation via the Federal Highway Administration. The project was truly driven by the people of these local communities who dug deep into their archives and treasure troves of memories to immortalize their stories. Since 2008, we have installed 270 of these interpretive exhibits around the heritage area, and there is no end in sight. Learn more here.

The Creation of the MakingTracks Website

The auto industry provided a new opportunity for those who lived in Michigan, as well as those who traveled from near and far. looks back at the African American experience in the auto industry. This culture represented the migration of workers and families to the Motor Cities. Their work was hard, and their paths were not smooth. The website talks about adjustment to the north; the climate in their communities and treatment at their jobs. It also highlights the triumphs and tragedies of a people who contributed to building the auto industry.

The Flint Vehicle City Arches
In 1899, a series of arches was erected down Flint's main street, Saginaw St. This installation was touted as the first to bring electrical lighting to a main street in the country. In 1905, the "Vehicle City" moniker was added to one of the arches to pay homage to the many modes of transportation being produced in the city. Whether it was carriages, bicycles, cars, buses or trucks, Flint could lay claim to them all. The arches were removed in 1919, and in 2002, a group of citizens launched the plan to resurrect the arches as they appeared a century ago. MotorCities was proud to support the effort with funds from its grant program. The first arches returned in 2003, and the last of the 11 arches were installed in 2008 during the General Motors Centennial. Pictured below in conjunction with this weekend's annual Back to the Bricks event, the arches stand today as a statement that there are many motor cities around the region, but there is only one "Vehicle City" and that is Flint, Michigan.
The "Community Heart of REO" Mural in Lansing
It is not often that a brand makes it to 100 years, but Oldsmobile reached that milestone in 2004. Its namesake, Ransom Olds, called Lansing home, so it was only appropriate that the community marked the occasion with a mural in tribute to Ransom and his impact on the Lansing community. The mural was painted in the aptly named "REO Town" section of the city. In 2014, after 10 years of wear and tear, the community again rallied to update the mural to tell even more of the REO story and it was reinstalled on the south wall of Lansing's Impression 5 Science Center in 2018.
The Gilmore Garage Works Program
From some people's perspectives, cars provide pure utility. They get you from one place to another. Sometimes classic cars provide entertainment or recreation as a nice weekend hobby. In the case of Gilmore Garage Works, cars provided invaluable life lessons. In 2012, MotorCities supported a grant to the Gilmore Car Museum to connect at-risk, Kalamazoo-area high school students with local mentors as they worked together on classic automobiles (pictured above). The incentive was that you needed to remain enrolled in school in order to continue in the after-school vehicle restoration program. What the students learned about body repair and internal combustion engines paled in comparison to what they learned from auto engineers and professionals from their community who showed them a world of possibilities. The program continues to be a success and now includes recently graduated students now acting as professional mentors.
The "Year of the Car" Commemoration in 2008
1908 was quite a year in the auto industry. Little did they know that the car that changed the world and the largest auto manufacturer in the world would both burst onto the scene a mere few days apart. In 2008, MotorCities spent a year recognizing the iconic Ford Model T as the car that put the world on wheels, as well as celebrating the centennial of General Motors as they looked forward through the lens of GM Next. There were lectures, student contests, books and special events to commemorate a year that should never be forgotten.
The Land Information Access Association survey project and the General Management Plan
After the heritage area was established in 1998, there was a need to assess the assets. MotorCities worked with the Land Information Access Association (LIAA), and after hundreds of meeting hours, a small army of dedicated enthusiasts worked to survey more than 1,000 auto and labor heritage sites across the region. These museums, homes, factories, union halls, cemeteries and landmarks constituted the pieces of the mosiac that would make up MotorCities.
Then came the task of how to approach managing activity across the 10,000 square miles. Over a series of community meetings and hundreds of hours of work by the small but dutiful staff, a guiding document was created. The organization's general management plan was approved by the Secretary of the Interior in 2002. It represented the blueprint of what the Automobile National Heritage Area would be and the goals and aspirations for all of the things that it could become.
"Second Shift"
In the mid-1990s, just as General Motors was celebrating 100 years of Oldsmobile, there came the news that, after the final year of production of the Olds Alero in 2004, there would be "no more product" for the production facility in Lansing. The "Second Shift" documentary picks up the story from there. The film follows first-hand accounts from the leaders in the community and industry to chronicle the unlikely result that saw the Lansing community pivot from loosing its auto plant to build three new facilities which continue to produce GM products to this day. Learn more about the project at
"Building the Engine"
With the growth of the young auto industry, there came the need to address the rights of the workers and community that the industry supports. The story of the labor movement has seen many twists and turns over the years. It is important that we take a look back at the past to bring focus to the future. In 2017, MotorCities and the Michigan Labor History Society worked together to present "Building the Engine: Auto and Labor, 1932-1937," a year-long recognition of the seminal auto labor moments from those years. Those events, including the 1932 Ford Hunger March, the formation of UAW in 1935, the Flint Sit-down Strike in 1936-37 and the Lansing Labor Holiday in June 1937 were all examined through lectures, tours, events, exhibits, and articles chronicling the triumph and tragedies of those years and what we are still learning from them today.
Auto heritage tourism represents a huge portion of the annual economic impact attributed to the MotorCities National Heritage Area. More than the economic impact, major automotive events represent the cultural magnetism of our region. Visitors travel to the region throughout the year for tent pole events like the North American International Auto Show, Autorama, Back to the Bricks and the Woodward Dream Cruise. Beginning in 2007, MotorCities partnered with the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau (now Visit Detroit) to unite these automotive event partners with an outreach program called Autopalooza. The program brought these events together to share best practices and engage in joint marketing to shine an even brighter light on the region. It connected visitors of one event to the opportunity to visit other communities and events later in the season. Over its 10 years, Autopalooza drove thousands of visitors to our region and improved the awareness, support and cohesion of these events -- allowing all to rise together. 

Ford Piquette Plant Museum

One of the things that draws visitors to the MotorCities National Heritage Area is the authenticity of the historic resources. There is no place in the world with a higher concentration of automotive and labor sites. One site that truly reflects the efforts of the heritage area is the Ford Piquette Plant Museum. This is the first factory that Henry Ford built for the Ford Motor Company. It is the birthplace of the famed Model T, the vehicle credited with making auto ownership an affordable reality in the early 20th century. Over the years, MotorCities has supported projects like its master planning, facade restoration, roof repair and fire suppression system. All of these projects assure that this National Historic Landmark is there for the tens of thousands who visit each year from around the globe. They relish standing in the same space where ideas and innovation changed the world.

Michigan Auto Heritage Day


In 2014, MotorCities launched Michigan Auto Heritage Day. This day has also featured the annual MotorCities Awards of Excellence, which recognize outstanding auto-related projects from across the region that have excelled in heritage tourism, preservation or education. The launch of the special day also marked the creation of the Michigan Legislative Automotive Caucus. It is difficult not to find a person who is not touched by the auto industry in Michigan, so it is not hard to understand why this caucus makes sense to a legislature that boasts more than a century of automotive history.

Highland Recreation Area

Though we work at it everyday, it is difficult to frame how influential the auto industry has been on our culture and way of life. Just one example is our concept of recreation. The advancement of cars necessitated roads, and roads connected cities and people. The ability to travel with relative ease allowed those who were now making a fair income to drive their new automobiles to places that would have otherwise entailed many hours of travel. The idea of road trips and weekend getaways was far more attainable. Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, was able to have a second "getaway" home called Haven Hill in what is now White Lake. This land is now part of the State of Michigan's Highland Recreation Area, having been donated by Eleanor Ford. The property entailed a number of buildings (garage, barn, lodge house, etc.). Though some of those structures have been lost or compromised, there is still a story of an auto magnate and his family sitting by the fire in the lodge or their children running through the trails. The Friends of Highland Recreation Area endeavor to tell that story. Over the years, MotorCities has supported multiple grants to restore and repair parts of the property, as well as installing interpretive signage throughout. Visitors today can stand where Edsel Ford's lodge stood and think back to how he and his family took a little break at what he called his "nerve retreat."


Packard Proving Grounds

It is difficult to imagine a time when icons like Chevrolet, Buick, Chrysler, Olds, Dodge, Ford and Leland were all working to find their place in this relatively new automotive industry. Whether it was cost, style, audience or craftsmanship, they were all contemporaries who were fighting to distinguish themselves from their competition. One name that stood out and became synonymous with luxury and reliability was Packard. The company began manufacturing in 1899. With the Packard Plant in Detroit undergoing demolition now, the only vestige of the Packard Motor Car Company that remains is its proving grounds in Shelby Township. Not to be overlooked was the need for these auto companies to test their innovations in a controlled, yet real world setting. Originally, this 560-acre site was the place where Packard would test their vehicles for reliability and comfort in order to ensure buyer satisfaction. Today, the Packard Motor Car Foundation operates 14 acres of the original property, which was gifted by Ford Motor Company. This portion of land includes the remaining historic structures (lodge, engineering building, garage, hangar), and MotorCities has supported grants for restoration or renovation of many of those structures. It is easy to stand in the garage and imagine the work that went into calibrating the highest quality. If you ever question the quality of a Packard, as their ads stated, simply "Ask the man who owns one."


MotorCities Kidz/Stephen Yokich Education Program

The story of the automotive industry has touched many generations. It has built communities and allowed families to flourish. The appreciation for the accomplishments of auto and labor must be passed along so as not to be forgotten. That was the exact intent in 2002 when the UAW began their support of MotorCities' educational programming. The educational outreach was aptly titled the Stephen Yokich Education Program, in honor of the former UAW President who had recently passed away. The goal was to bring these stories of ideas, innovation, social change, triumph and tragedy to schools across the region. After the first wave of schools engaged, the program expanded to a web-based curriculum called MotorCities KidZ, which served to inspire a new generation of auto enthusiasts. 


The Cherry Hill Village Center in Canton

Every preservation project begins at a different point and may launch with different motivations. Some are emergency intercessions that literally make the difference between saving a building and letting it crumble. Others are an opportunity to reclaim a piece of history that may have lost its luster. In the case of the Cherry Hill Village Center in Canton, the motivation was to restore an original Henry Ford Village Industry site to its former prominence. In 2012, the Partnership for the Arts & Humanities acquired the Cherry Hill factory, one of Ford's famed factories, where he didn't just develop the production facility, but the entire surrounding area. There would often be schools and homes built near these factories to accommodate children and families. In the case of Cherry Hill, Ford purchased the dormitory for disabled veterans working at the factory, which supplied parts to the larger Willow Run Plant. We are proud to have supported multiple grants over the years from master planning to window replacements. The Partnership has restored the factory and dormitory building with the purpose of providing services and programming for veterans again.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Watch for two more great MotorCities programs from the last 25 years!

25 MotorCities Champions - Coming in January!