Welcome to the Pettibone Creek Hydroelectric Station
(or what we call around here, the Powerhouse)
Milford's Powerhouse is the visible icon in the graceful Art
Deco Style that reminds us there is a story to tell. Our little Powerhouse is
part of a much bigger story about the origins of the world's automotive center
and its impact on the world.
Welcome to a journey back in time that carries us into the
Henry Ford changed the world some 100 years ago, not because
he built cars, but because he invented and refined a system the world had never
seen before: the assembly line. This invention brought about an Industrial
Revolution that impacted the world, dramatically changing the way things were
manufactured, as well as the social and economic structure of society.
Tranquil Hubbell Pond (at this point you would be looking at the
Lower Mill Pond) before you and the sound of the water rushing underfoot remind
us of how important water power has been in Milford's history. Milford boasted
of its water powers since the early 1800's. Elizur and Stanley Ruggle built
their primitive saw mill at the base of the Huron River, near the south end of
Main Street. In the following years, a grist mill, a woolen mill, a tanner and
a cooper shop were built along Milford's waterways. All in all, Milford soon
had 14 mills. (There is an orientation
marker on Main Street at Center Street
Park downtown with a locator map of these mills.)
The Pettibone Mill on this site was originally built by W. E.
Hubbard in 1846 as a flour mill. (There
is a marker outside the Powerhouse describing it's history.) This site was the
sole survivor of the mills in Milford's early history and Frank Hubbell was the
last owner of the mill.
In 1892, some 60 years after settlement, a hydroelectric
plant was built near the bridge on Peters Road at the east end of the present
day Hubbell Pond. (You can access Peter's Road just west of here from Commerce
Road and see another historic mill marker.) In the Peter's Mill, Joseph Wellman
installed a 500 volt Dynamo for supplying electric current to the Wells
Cultivator plant on the upper mill pond. Milford's enterprising citizen, Frank
Hubbell conceived of the idea of using the surplus current for lighting the
local stores in the evenings. and using the river's waterpower to electrify
Milford's street lamps, long before Detroit Edison found its way to Milford.
And some 25 years later it was Frank Hubbell who became
friends with and brought Henry Ford to Milford.
What Interested Henry Ford?
In the early 1900's, the automotive industry was young and
the early auto barons were bold, innovative men. Henry Ford was among the
boldest! Between 1920 and 1940, Henry Ford built 21 Village Industries where
parts and supplies were manufactured for the main production line at the Rouge
Plant in Dearborn. Ford searched southeast Michigan for early millponds, in
some cases restoring surviving mills and in others, building new to serve his
purposes. All 21 sites Mr. Ford chose
were within a 60 mile radius of Dearborn. Ford used his 'Mill in a Village'
concept in response to the social and economic changes brought on by the
rapidly growing automotive industry in Michigan and the worldwide Industrial
Revolution. This 'experiment' led to the development of small industrial
centers in these farming villages.
In March of 1935, Ford Motor Company acquired the rights to
the water power of the Pettibone Creek and Huron River, flowage rights of
Pettibone Creek and Moore Lake and lowlands between, as well as some Village
properties and a considerable amount of farmland. On Main Street just north of
Commerce there is another Auto Heritage marker at the Upper Mill Pond with an
aerial view map illustrating this water way connection and including the
factory we will talk about next. It was this carburetor plant that required the
electricity generated here.
The Carburetor Plant
In January of 1938, Ford began construction of his 12th
Village Industry, Milford's Carburetor Plant.
The building, also designed in the distinctive Art Deco style by Albert
Kahn, was a light colored one story structure that measured 60 by 200 feet. It
was lit during the day by sunlight diffused through its tall, wide windows.
Unique for its time, it was air conditioned throughout. The building cost about
$600,000 to build. Coming at the end of the Great Depression, this was a
significant investment in Milford. The factory began production in November
1938. The first day's output was 800 units and only about 80 men were employed.
The only machines that were working that first day were the punch presses and
the assembly line. (The manufacturing equipment in the plant was new and much
of it was of special Ford design. The entire production line was first set up
and tested in the Rouge Plant while the Milford Plant was being built. Then the
entire line was moved from Dearborn to Milford.)
One year later, the plant was
at full production. It employed about 350 men and women, over three
shifts. The plant had added a complete tool room, a foundry and a heat
Hey! What about the Power Plant?
Henry Ford was a man of many interests. He was especially
interested in the production of electricity. With the new year, 1939, Ford was
ready to begin construction of the two power plants that would generate
electricity for his carburetor factory. The larger Huron River plant was
constructed further southwest of the plant. It was the first to be completed
using a typical river dam. This power plant was put into operation first. The building has been razed but you can access
the site and another marker from the hike/bike trail off GM Road just west of
South Milford Road.
The Pettibone Creek Hydroelectric Station was put into
operation two weeks later. However, it was to be a showcase and it needed a
good deal more engineering. The site of the original mill would not have enough
water flow to consistently generate electricity. So, Ford used his ingenuity to
create a water flow to meet his needs.
So How Did It Work?
Ford took full advantage of his new rights for Moore's Lake
and the Pettibone Creek. He created a flume (4 foot in diameter steel pipe)
which was buried underground and laid across the Upper and Lower Mill Pond
beds, traveling 1 and 1/3 miles from Moore's Lake to this Powerhouse on Liberty
Street. He took advantage of the topography and also built a dam at Moore's
Lake, creating a 50 foot headwater the force of which when released would power
the generators at the Powerhouse.
Once inside the Powerhouse, the 48 inch diameter pipe was
split to feed the water to the two hydraulic turbines in the basement. A shaft
then connected each turbine to a generator located directly above on the main
level. This power from the turbines comes in the form of mechanical energy and
the generator's job is to turn that power into usable electricity. The
generator panels were mounted on a large pully system (above your heads you can
see the steel beams the panels were mounted on.) Panels could be moved in and
out of use for repairs and for increased power generation. The two generators were rated at 75 and 62.5
KVA. When synchronized with the Huron River plant, the power was distributed to
the carburetor plant via underground cables that ran across the lower mill
The large tank here is
13 feet in diameter and 22 feet high. It stands 42 feet from the ground to the
top. The tank is connected to the flume
in the basement and acted as a surge suppressor to absorb the shock of the
moving water when the turbine gates were closed. The top of this tank is
exactly the same height as the water level established at Moore's Lake, thus
taking advantage of water's unique property of reaching its own equilibrium and
cutting off any further surges of water from the lake. Both hydroelectric
plants could be operated from a control room in the carburetor factory. They
could be operated independently or together. Their electricity arrived at the
plant to the tune of 4600 volts. It was directed to a third powerhouse inside
the carburetor factory where it was reduced to 220 volts and fed into the
machinery. The Carburetor Plant was later equipped with a 375 horsepower steam
engine for generating electricity in the event water levels dropped too low.
Albert Kan was a German architect who is sometimes referred
to as the 'architect of Detroit' and was known as an innovative industrial
designer. He had a genius for elegance in architecture. He is best remembered
for his design of the Ford Rouge, Highland Park and Willow Run Plants and the
Gem Theater and General Motors Building in Detroit. So Henry Ford commissioned Kahn to design
this building. Kahn had to keep in mind Henry Ford's vision of an attractive
building, in which the machinery inside could be visible, and that would
complement the area surrounding it.
The building itself is octagonal in shape and small in size,
only about 39 by 24 feet. Besides the wide glass windows on the main floor,
there were Pewabic Pottery tiles lining the inside walls. The tower was made
attractive by the addition of 2 panels of glass block running up each side.
Rows of Elm trees were planted along both sides of Liberty Street and the
grounds were landscaped. Albert Kahn's design stood out as unique in Milford,
with its sleek design, glass block, curved wings and large window openings, all
elements of the Art Deco style. At the time, Milford's streets were lined with
Italianate designed buildings, with their ornate cornices, window caps and
The large glass windows were an integral part of Ford's
vision. He wanted the public to see the machinery at work. While there was a
full time maintenance man at the plant all the time it was operating, he would
only go inside when switching or repairs were needed. The noise of the rushing
water underneath, the turning of the turbines and the shafts, was deafening.
Several years after the death of Henry Ford, Ford Motor
Company choose to end the Village Industries experiment. In 1953, the powerhouses
were decommissioned . The carburetor factory was shut down and production of
the carburetor was moved to Rawsonville.
The Huron River Hydroelectric Station was demolished in 1977.
The carburetor factory was razed in 2001. There remained only one building left
of Milford's part in the Village Industry experiment.
The Village acquired the property in 1970, but with a deed
restriction which required it to be used for park or recreational purposes
Time was not kind to this beautiful building, and between the
weather and vandalism, the Powerhouse became an eyesore and liability to the
In 1999, the Village Council set aside $60,000 to demolish
the building. The Milford Historical Society stepped up to the plate, and
established the Powerhouse Restoration Committee. They were able to use the
demolition money, in addition to a $25,000 Americana Foundation Grant, to hire
an historic architect to guide them in the planning process and restoration of
the building. The Michigan Department of Transportation recognized the
importance of this building with the largest funding grant. Years later, with
the help of the many donors you see listed here, the restoration work was
As the Powerhouse sits in the Village's National Historic
District, all restoration work had to conform to the historic standards. So, as
the building now stands, the outside appears as it did when the Powerhouse was
put into use in November of 1939.
So What Made the Village Industry in Milford so Unique?
factory employed about 350 men from the surrounding farms. Besides making a
record setting $6 an hour, a side benefit to being steadily employed was that
the workers had the opportunity to cultivate gardens. Two of the workers continued
to work their 200 and 400 acre farms while working full time!
at the end of our country's Great Depression, steady work was welcomed. Milford
High School graduates, both men and women, were first in line to secure a job
at the carburetor factory. One June, the Carburetor Factory employed every male
graduate of Milford High School that year.
plant produced the entire Ford carburetor which consisted of 150 parts. It was
the only plant in the U.S. which was independent and in a position to make and
assemble an entire product.
end of the assembly line featured testing equipment which measured the
efficiency of the parts as they worked with each other and how the carburetor
would function in the entire variety of conditions which it would meet in a
Ford engine. And thus was created Quality Control!
carburetor plant had to be run steadily to supply the Rouge plant and the
assembly line branches. But there were a few operations that produced parts
faster than the assembly lines could use them. Ford used his ingenuity once
again. With careful coordination, it was possible to continue some operations
in manufacturing parts for other Village Industries and the Rouge plant. The
spring winding machine that produced springs for the carburetor was also used
to wind springs for cigar lighters. And the iron foundry was kept busy with the
production of small bearings for the Rouge plant.