Web Exclusive! From Cars to T-Bars

October 6, 2003
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The first installation in a three-part series detailing the history of Bathey Manufacturing Company's T-Iron property markers.

Prologue

When man first began to cultivate the soil, "it became necessary for the sake of peace and harmony that there be definite boundaries established" (Clarke, 1922).

Large stones were first used to mark boundaries. As centuries passed, wood posts came to be used as markers. The refuse of daily life was also used-broken brick, charcoal, fragments of glass, pottery, broken stones and the like. This material would be placed in a post hole two to three feet deep to mark a corner. This practice continued well into the 19th-century.

In general, metal objects would have been too valuable to be used as property corners, even if the object was broken. Instead, small pieces of broken metal would have been melted down and reshaped into serviceable products rather than adapted for use as landmarks.

But in the mid 19th-century technological change made steel and iron cheaper and more readily available. As a result, there was less recycling of metal items. Soon various types of scrap metal began to find their way into the ground as property corners-iron pipe, axle shaft, plow points, round-bar, square-bar-the variety limited only by the imagination of the surveyor and the local availability of the metal.

This account deals with one such type of scrap metal and a surveyor, perhaps one of many, who favored it as a corner marker. The settings are fictional, the product of informed conjecture and supposition. The details, however, are based on facts, or at least the facts as written or recalled, subject to human error.

1933

The pattern ran the full length of the outer wall, in each of the openings formed by the structural steel of the building. Mounted on a chest-high brick wall was a broad arrangement of glass panes joined together on edge by narrow strips of thin, rusting metal. Stacked in tiers six to 10 high, sometimes more, with 14 to 20 or so in each row, the number of panes depended on the spacing of the columns and the height of the overhead beams.

The industrial town that was Flint, Mich., had hundreds of such walls in buildings spread all across the city. They were a testament to both the current trend in factory design and the prosperity of the not too distant past.

But in the present, the present that was four years into the Great Depression, prosperity had disappeared. Banks had closed their doors. Commercial failures numbered in the thousands. Farm prices had reached the lowest point in recorded history. Industrial output was grinding to a halt.

Down on the factory floor of "the Buick," a lone figure stood motionless in front of one such panel wall, dwarfed by the metal and glass and brick. On the floor beside him a small box held the personal items (a few books, some drafting equipment, a nameplate reading "Bud Aikman") that had just been cleaned from his desk in the Experimental Motor Engineering department.

He had a slight build, slim and not too tall, and his hair was slicked back and shiny, in the fashion of the day among young men. But he looked much older than his 24 years as he stared out at the traffic on Industrial Avenue.

Eventually, his vision fell on one of the metal ribbons joining the panes one to another as they rose to the top of the bay. He wasn't sure of the name for this metal strip, a muntin bar or perhaps, mullion, he thought, and for a moment he forgot the crisis at hand. But the moment was brief and soon his thoughts were once again mired in disappointment, uncertainty and anger.

At this point in his life his career was much like any two adjacent panes. It could quite neatly be separated into opposing categories; the past and the future, the known and the unknown.

This he knew; it was no mere accident that he worked for one of the automakers. He was there by design and it was a design of his own making. From an early age he'd shown an aptitude for things mechanical as well as an interest in automobiles. He recalled the times in his youth when he would rest from his chores at the family bakery in Port Huron, Mich. Once outside he'd watch intently for the motorcars bumping noisily along Union and Tenth Streets. He knew them all on sight-the Fords, the Buicks, the occasional Packard-and he dreamed of the day when he would not only have his own, but would somehow be involved in building them.

As impressive as the automobile itself was, he found the means in which it was mass-produced even more fascinating. From his daily work at the bakery he had developed an appreciation for the skills needed to regularly turn out a product: the organization, the scheduling, the division of labor, the discipline, the day-to-day management of a diverse, collective effort. Early on in life he foresaw a similar career for himself. But the product of his labor would be made of metal.

To that end he enrolled at the University of Detroit in 1928. The following year he transferred to General Motors Institute (GMI) in Flint. GMI students worked on a co-operative program split between the campus and the auto plants. The prospect of concurrent education and experience appealed to him and once he was enrolled, GM's Buick Motor Division became his co-op employer.

It wasn't all work and study. During his first year he joined Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and served as house manager until graduation. The duties of this position intruded on his free time, but it also helped build friendships with the young men who would be his peers in manufacturing.

In 1931, armed with a degree in engineering management and three years of practical work experience, he went to work at Buick full time.

But in the four years that followed the stock market crash, automotive production had been falling sharply. Finally, inevitably, in 1933 Buick produced only 40,000 cars, its lowest output in nearly two decades. Thousands of workers lost their jobs.

He had found other employment, so compared with others newly out of work, he still had promising prospects for the future. Soon he would begin working in the insurance division of General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC).

But this he did not know: because of the economy, this new job might be as tenuous as the one he was leaving. And he doubted it would be as stimulating as his job in manufacturing.

Ultimately, however, the decision wasn't his to make. So he tucked his personal items under his arm, turned away from the glass and steel, and left the factory for what he hoped wouldn't be the last time.

Click here to read Part 2.

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