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Museum Raises Money To Save 'Rosie The Riveter' Plant


Rosie the Riveter, with one of the most famous clenched fists in American history, embodied the message of hardworking women during World War II: We Can Do It. Now a nonprofit is hoping to carry on that legacy. In a little more than a month, the historic Michigan factory where Rosie and thousands of other women built B-24 bombers could face the wrecking ball. That's unless the Yankee Air Museum can raise enough money to salvage part of that massive plant.

As Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports in this encore story, the museum sees the factory as the perfect place to start anew, after a devastating fire destroyed its collections.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: It's downright majestic, the way this huge hangar door on the old Willow Run assembly plant opens. Thirty-two feet tall and 150 feet wide, the doors were built that big so that finished B-24 bombers could be rolled out of the factory, then tested on the airport runway here before going to war.

GRANT TRIGGER: And what's remarkable to me is this is more reliable than my garage door.

SAMILTON: Grant Trigger is cleanup manager for GM's former properties in the state of Michigan.

TRIGGER: Built by engineers with slide rules in 1942, and it still works today.

SAMILTON: For decades, Ford's former bomber plant turned out cars for GM. But with GM's bankruptcy came a trust fund to find new developers for sites like this. The iconic place where Rosie flexed her muscles during World War II seemed fated for demolition.

TRIGGER: The size of the space, which was phenomenal at the time, is simply too big for today's manufacturing facilities. There's 83 acres under one roof.

SAMILTON: Eighty-three acres under one roof, nearly five million square feet, or the size of a huge housing subdivision. Surely, someone would want at least a little piece of that history. Enter the Yankee Air Museum. This nonprofit with an annual budget of $2 million and a paid staff of six had a big collection of historic airplanes, some of which still flew, along with aviation history exhibits until 2004.

Ray Hunter is the museum board's chairman.

RAY HUNTER: We had a hangar full of artifacts. We had World War II uniforms. We had women in aviation. We had a World War I collection. We had a tremendous collection, and it all went up in fire.

SAMILTON: The flyable craft, luckily, were saved. Helmets and uniforms and aviation artifacts poured in from around the country. Today, the airplanes are off-site, but the museum is up and running again in a smaller space.

HUNTER: And next is our Rosie the Riveter display. The narrative that's on the TV screen was done by Vina Greer, who came here - got off the bus at Ypsilanti with a little suitcase - and ended up working in the bomber plant as a riveter.

SAMILTON: The Yankee Air Museum hopes to salvage 180,000 square feet of Vina and Rosie's former factory, getting the planes and the exhibits under one historic roof. But it will cost about $8 million to build new walls when the rest of the site is torn down, and to bring in electricity, plumbing and heat.

It'll be worth it, says Mike Montgomery, a consultant for the effort.

MIKE MONTGOMERY: This was an integrated, unionized plant where men and women both worked in manufacturing jobs doing equal pay for equal work in the 1940s when that was absolutely not the norm in American industry.

SAMILTON: GM donated $2 million to the campaign, but the Yankee Air Museum still has more than $3 million to raise. Museum staff can see the factory from their site. So if they don't raise the money in time, they'd be watching the demolition from there.

For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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