Facts About Flint
The Saginaw Valley, particularly the vicinity of Flint, is considered by some to be the oldest continually inhabited area of Michigan. Regardless of the validity of this claim, the region was home to several Ojibwa tribes at the start of the 19th century, with a particularly significant community established near present-day Montrose. The Flint River had several convenient fords which became points of contention among rival tribes, as attested by the presence of arrowheads and burial mounds near it. Some of the city currently resides atop ancient Ojibwa burial grounds. In 1819, Jacob Smith, a fur trader on cordial terms with both the local Ojibwas and the territorial government founded a trading post at the Grand Traverse of the Flint River. On several occasions, Smith negotiated land exchanges with the Ojibwas on behalf of the U.S. government, and he was highly regarded on both sides. Smith apportioned many of his holdings to his children. As the ideal stopover on the overland route between Detroit and Saginaw, Flint grew into a small but prosperous village, and incorporated in 1855. The 1860 U.S. census indicated that Genesee County had a population of 22,498 of Michigan’s 750,000.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Flint became a center of the Michigan lumber industry. Revenue from lumber funded the establishment of a local carriage-making industry. As horse-drawn carriages gave way to the automobiles, Flint then naturally grew into a major player in the nascent auto industry. Buick Motor Company, after a rudimentary start in Detroit, soon moved to Flint. AC Spark Plug (now part of Delphi) originated in Flint. These were followed by several now-defunct automobile marques such as the Dort, Little, Flint, and Mason brands. Chevrolet’s first (and for many years, main) manufacturing facility was also in Flint, although the Chevrolet headquarters were in Detroit. For a brief period, all Chevrolets and Buicks were built in Flint.
For the last century, Flint’s history has been dominated by both the auto industry and car culture. During the Sit-Down Strike of 1936–1937, the fledgling United Automobile Workers triumphed over General Motors, inaugurating the era of labor unions. The successful mediation of the strike by Governor Frank Murphy, culminating in a one-page agreement recognizing the Union, began an era of successful organizing by the UAW. The city was a major contributor of tanks and other war machines during World War II due to its extensive manufacturing facilities. For decades, Flint remained politically significant as a major population center as well as for its importance to the automotive industry. A freighter named after the city, the SS City of Flint was the first US ship to be captured during the Second World War in October, 1939. The vessel was later sunk in 1943. The city’s population peaked in 1960 at almost 200,000, at which time it was the second largest city in the state. The decades of the 1950s and 1960s are seen as the height of Flint’s prosperity and influence. They culminated with the establishment of many local institutions, most notably including the Flint Cultural Center. This landmark remains one of the city’s chief commercial and artistic draws to this day.
In the 1980s, the rate of deindustrialization accelerated again with local GM employment falling from a 1978 high of 80,000 to under 8,000 by 2010. Only 10% of the manufacturing work force from its height remains in Flint. Many factors have been blamed, including outsourcing, offshoring, increased automation, and moving jobs to non-union facilities. This decline was highlighted in the film Roger & Me by Michael Moore (the title refers to Roger B. Smith, the CEO of General Motors during the 1980s). Also highlighted in Moore’s documentary was the failure of city officials to reverse the trends with entertainment options (e.g. the now-demolished AutoWorld) during the 1980s. Moore, a native of Davison (a Flint suburb), revisited Flint in his later movies, including Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.
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