by Harold C. Ford
Ed. note: this historical analysis originally appeared in the September, 1983 issue of The Michigan Voice, (Vol. 7, No. 6). We are reprinting it with Harold Ford’s permission to complement and offer it as background to his current series “Where are the Journalists?” concluding with Part Three now available here. We reprint this piece as it appeared in 1983, except for lightly editing into AP and East Village Magazine style.
“The strongest bulwark of the capitalistic system is the ignorance of its victims.”
…Adolph Fischer, Haymarket martyr
On Sept. 16  Flint and other cities throughout Michigan will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the largest auto company in the world, General Motors, which was founded by Flint’s Billy Durant in 1908.
The week-long celebration may help Flint residents to forget that Flint, once the corporate showpiece of America, remains one of the nation’s most economically depressed cities.
The carefully orchestrated euphoria of parades and parties, music and media hype, will culminate in a $50 per person dinner at the Flint Hyatt Regency Hotel. Dinner guests will be given a coffee-table book on the history of GM and a copy of The Flint Journal’s commemorative section on the 75th anniversary.
But, missing will be the story of how GM joined forces with the local daily newspaper, The Flint Journal, to crush the pro-worker, Socialist administration of Flint Mayor John A.C. Menton back in 1912.
This now-buried, turn-of-the-century tale provides keen insight as to why progressive forces in America rarely succeed when confronted by Big Business and the press it controls. In 1911 and 1912, Flint became the key battleground between corporate heads and those who desired a more humane social order.
Flint—and the country—was at a crossroads. Would the government be run by the newly industrial rich or by the workers? The story of that struggle has never been told—until now.
At the turn of the century Flint became known as “The Vehicle City.” The city’s three largest carriage makers—Durant-Dort, Flint Wagon Works, and W.A Paterson—were producing more than 100,000 carriages, buggies and carts annually.
By 1900 the horseless carriage had come to America to stay. Durant-Dort continued to prosper, making Billy Durant a millionaire at 40, but the days for the carriage business in America were numbered.
David Buick, a Scottish immigrant, left a promising plumbing-fixture business and built the first Buick automobile by April 1901. The Buick Motor Company, located in Detroit, was incorporated May 19, 1903. By the end of that year the Buick factory was moved to Flint.
The Buick enterprise struggled badly until friends convinced Durant to join the fold in 1904. Putting aside his initial disdain for these noisy new contraptions, he used his limitless energy and financial conniving to build Buick into the most successful auto company in the country. Buick stockholders then turned over controlling interest in the company to Durant.
By early 1905, Buick engines, transmissions and bodies were produced in Flint and shipped to Jackson for assembly. Realizing the woeful inefficiency of this procedure, Durant proposed to centralize the operation in one city but money was needed for the move. Flint’s financial leaders sprang into action.
Four Flint banks raised $80,000. Dallas Dort, Arthur Bishop, James Wilson, W.C. Springer, George Wilson, J.H. Crawford and W.C. Orrell each pledged $2,500. W.A. Atwood chipped in $1,500. William W. Crapo, $1,000. The Durant-Dort Carriage Co. invested $100,000. Many other Flint carriage makers and individuals also became financial supporters.
Durant later recalled that, “in the small town of Flint, where I started Buick, in 48 hours I raised $500,000.” On Sept. 11, 1905, Buick’s capitalization reached $1.5 million. For good or bad, Flint was now permanently wed to the automobile industry.
After Durant orchestrated the purchase of the 220-acre Hamilton Farm on the north edge of Flint for $22,000, construction of the world’s largest auto factory—fourteen acres under one roof—began.
Durant’s first effort to organize a supply network for Buick lured the Weston-Mott Co. and Charles Stewart Mott to Flint in 1906. Weston-Mott would provide axles for Buicks. The lure for Mott was sweetened with $100,000 raised by Flint financiers, a site for construction of a factory adjacent to the new Buick plant and a big axle contract with Buick.
On Sept. 16, 1908 articles of incorporation for General Motors Company of New Jersey were filed with the New Jersey secretary of state’s office.
Also in 1908, 49 percent of Weston-Mott’s stock was exchanged for stock in General Motors. Later, in 1913, Mott exchanged the other 51 percent for GM stock. The future of C.S. Mott was inextricably connected to the future of the General Motors Corporation. Mott became a director of GM and remained one until he died in 1973 at age 97. With the incorporation under his belt, Durant now set out to build an auto empire. On October 1, 1908, GM bought Buick for $3.75 million. Soon thereafter, the W.F. Stewart Co. body plant was purchased for $240,000.
The Champion Ignition Co. of Flint was incorporated on October 26, 1908. The next year it became a subsidiary of GM and was later named the A.C. Spark Plug Division.
On Nov. 12, 1908, the Olds Motor Works was acquired for a little more than $3 million.
In 1909, GM consumed the Oakland Motor Car Co. which eventually became the Pontiac Division of GM. Cadillac joined the GM fold in the same year at a price of $4.75 million.
In the first two years of GM’s existence, Durant purchased all of, or a substantial interest in, 32 companies. According to Lawrence R. Gustin, author of Billy Durant, “Durant’s aim was nothing less than to gain control of some of the biggest and best automobile companies in America.” In fact, according to Gustin, “Durant almost bought the Ford Motor Company…”
GM grew by leaps and bounds. The sales volume of the company reached $29 million in 1909 and increased to $49.4 million in 1910.
Storm clouds gathered in 1910 however. Sudden growth had created a desperate cash flow crisis. Money needed to continue production dried up, workers were laid off and factories deserted.
Durant was forced to cut a five-year deal with big bankers to save his company. Durant gave $21,600,000 of GM securities to east coast bankers in exchange for $12.25 million to continue operations. A new board of directors included five New Yorkers, four Detroiters, one person from Boston, and Durant—all bankers except Durant. Durant had lost control of his company. GM was now in the hands of the banks.
As GM grew at a frenzied pace under the guidance of Durant, so did Michigan and its auto-oriented cities, especially Flint. According to author Gustin, “Flint became the fastest growing city in America.” The number of factory wage earners increased from 4,499 in 1908 to 15,000 in 1910. Between 1900 and 1920 the city’s population increased from 13,000 to 91,000.
In 1912, the gross annual payroll of the Flint factories was $6.5 million and the annual factory output was worth $30 million. Flint’s phenomenal growth led Billy Durant to declare at a later date, “In the history of the world, there was never any place like it…The whole world is talking about Flint today and with good reason.”
Industrial expansion and rapid population growth also forced enormous social problems upon Flint. According to Clarence Young and William Quinn, authors of the book Foundation for Living/The Story of Charles Stewart Mott and Flint, “The people came in waves and surges, from all over Michigan, from the South, from Europe, from almost everywhere. They could not be assimilated by Flint’s small-town social patterns, so Flint simply added masses of people who brought with them problems and differences which were to result in social chaos for years to come. Drawing in these masses of people, in the process of building automobiles, Buick and Weston-Mott were unconsciously creating vast human problems in the community, problems which were to become increasingly apparent…”
So it was that fabulous wealth and human misery characterized Flint at the turn of the century. The problems of inadequate housing, rodent control, water supply, health care, education, sewage disposal, fire protection, police protection and mass transit were serious issues confronting Flint. The frustrations of the workers earning pennies a day and living in tarpaper shacks created a climate for change.
A Socialist Victory
The Flint mayoral election of April 3, 1911, was a three-way contest. The Democratic candidate William Wildanger, Republican Edwin W. Atwood and Socialist John A.C. Menton squared off in what The Flint Daily Journal (now The Flint Journal) described as “the greatest battle of ballots that the city has ever known.”
The business leaders of Flint and its new corporation, General Motors, were shocked as Menton defeated his opponents handily. Menton amassed 3,456 votes to Atwood’s 2,615 and Wildanger’s 1,183.
The Flint Daily Journal observed that, “No election that the city of Flint has held within its history has been a source of greater surprise.” Flint had become only the second city in America to elect a Socialist mayor.
The Socialist victory was resounding. In addition to Menton, they elected three aldermen (city councilmen), two county supervisors, one justice of the peace, the city assessor, one member of the board of education, and one constable.
The Socialists had never before elected anyone to office in the city of Flint, primarily because they never had seriously campaigned prior to the 1911 election. Their victory could be attributed, in part, to a massive voter registration effort spearheaded by campaign manager William Jackson to get out the vote. The Journal reported “an energetic campaign has been waged in every ward by the socialists and they are working hard today to place themselves upon the city’s political map.”
Authors Young and Quinn wrote of Menton’s amazing victory: “This distinct shock to the ‘old Flint’ people and the business and industrial men suggested the unpredictability of the thousands of ‘new’ people who had been drawn to Flint from every point on the compass.”
Menton was hardly a newcomer to the area. He was born in Saginaw in 1866 and moved to Flint at the age of four. He spent 41 of his 45 years in Flint prior to the 1911 election.
At the age of 15 he left school and began as a cigar maker’s apprentice. Doctors advised him to take up athletics when work in the cigar factory resulted in a frail physique and failing health.
Menton was an accomplished swimmer, a baseball player and served as a manager and instructor in an athletic association.
For 28 years he had been a union cigar maker and served as president of the local cigar makers’ union. He served for ten years as secretary-treasurer of the Central Labor Union and was secretary of the state socialist organization from 1902 to 1905. He had also been the Michigan member of the Socialist National Committee.
Menton lived in a modest home, bought and paid for out of his earnings as a cigar maker. His wife was an enthusiastic
Socialist and the party’s candidate for a position on the school board.
Other Socialists swept into office with Mayor Menton included Aldermen J. Melvin Wood, Orrin G. Castle and Louis Trafelet.
The Flint Socialists reported to The Detroit News Tribune that their total campaign expenses for the 1911 election amounted to $96.90.
John Menton’s first public address as Flint mayor raised few eyebrows and generated little controversy. The Flint Daily Journal reported, “If there were any..who had the impression the socialists were about to offer anything of a revolutionary character in the conduct of the city’s affairs, they were disappointed.”
Menton, however, touched off a political tempest when he nominated a black man, George Artis, to become Flint’s police commissioner. Artis was a carpenter and a staunch Republican. The Journal believed the appointment to be the first of its kind in the country.
The Journal’s front-page headline exclaimed (all in caps) “COLORED MAN IS NAMED BY MENTON.” The accompanying article noted “…none of the aldermen…have anything against him as a man…but…they do not propose to have other than a white man holding a public office in Flint.” Despite their electoral success, the Socialists controlled only 3 of 12 votes on the city council and Artis’ appointment was never approved.
Menton later defended his appointment of Artis stating, “In my opinion, the fact that he is a colored man is no reason why he should not be recognized as a proper incumbent of any office that he is capable of filling.”
Many measures pushed by Menton’s administration caused little commotion. The Socialists pledged to stamp out disease, clean up dusty and muddy streets, improve parks, encourage property owners to comply with laws designed to prevent fires, close down blind pigs which sold liquor illegally, push for a new ordinance to create an office of electrical inspectors to oversee installation of electrical apparatus, support a boulevard plan which would lead to city ownership of the riverfront and provide better access to riverfront parks, get city council meetings started on time, improve collection of garbage, and push for inspection of milk.
Some measures were clearly pro-labor and often generated considerable controversy. They included plans to establish night schools in the north end for factory workers who labored during the day, attempts to build a labor temple which would provide meeting places for labor unions, putting pressure on factory owners to obey laws which protected workers, improve fire escapes in factories, provide better trolley systems to move working people to and from jobs and mount a strong effort to reduce the work days from ten to eight hours.
Menton managed a favorable vote from the city council for a plan to provide all employees of the public works department with an eight-hour day and wages not less than two dollars per day.
Menton pushed for city ownership of the municipal garbage plant and all other public utilities. He argued, “Under private ownership of these utilities, as a rule the people get poor service and pay high prices…I ask you to study this proposition so that we may acquire these utilities and thereby get better rates and service.”
As a presiding officer of the police commission, Menton proposed the discontinuance of clubs in the hands of day patrolmen. “A policemen with club in hand patrolling our streets in daytime looks disgusting and brutish,” he reasoned.
He also encouraged policemen to escort drunks to their homes rather than placing them under arrest in order to avoid the possibility of job loss and resultant hardship for families.
Menton’s humanitarianism was evident in a 1911 Memorial Day message when he implored, “Let us…hope the the time when no form of slavery shall exist; then war shall be no more; then the destructive machinery of today will be utilized for the uses of society.”
After assuming office, Menton appointed a 25-member commission which included representatives from all crafts and professions in the city to advise him on municipal matters.
Time to bring out the big guns
In February 1912, University of Michigan professor Carl Parry advised, “There is no danger that the Socialists will ever get into power in the state and nation unless they succeed in municipalities where they are now on trial.”
Socialists were now on trial in Flint. The monied interests that had been dumped by Menton and his followers were organizing to insure that the socialists would not succeed.
On Thursday, June 15, 1911, only 73 days after the election of Menton, ownership of The Flint Daily Journal passed to a new corporation known as The Flint Journal Co. Ralph H. Booth succeeded Howard Fitzgerald who had directed The Journal for nine years.
In a farewell editorial, Fitzgerald recalled, “It has been our ambition first to serve the news with absolute impartiality and with thoughtful consideration of the general welfare and happiness of the people of this community.” He referred to Booth and associates as “the strongest and most successful newspapermen in the state.”
The Flint Journal was, and remains, the only daily newspaper in Flint. Any semblance of objective coverage of Flint politics was at an end. The Journal immediately launched a shameless journalistic crusade to throw the Socialist rascals out of power.
On the very next day, June 16, 1911, an anti-Socialist letter-to-the-editor was prominently featured at the top of page two. The headline read, in part, “CRITICIZES THE SOCIALISTS/ SAYS THEY ARE NOT GIVING WARD REPRESENTATION.” The letters included the plea, “…I want someone to tell me where you get your ward representation, a socialist alderman who is controlled by an advisory committee from who knows where.”
In July of 1911 The Journal criticized five city employees who went on an ill-advised junket to Toledo, Ohio. The headline screamed, “ONE SOCIALIST MEMBER IS IN THE PARTY.”
The aggressive anti-Socialist campaign continued through and beyond the mayoral elections of 1912.
Another letter-to-the-editor carried the headlines: “WM. J. KELLEY ON SOCIALISM/ TAKES UP THE ISSUE AGAINST MOVEMENT/RIDICULES ITS LEADER/SAYS FOLLOWERS WILL BE ONLY PEAS IN PUDDLE/CLAIMS MOVEMENT IF SUCCESSFUL WOULD BRING ABOUT WORST FORM OF DESPOTISM.”
A “news” article in 1912 just prior to the election exclaimed, “SOCIALISM IS ATTACKED BY REV. FR. LUBY/HOSTILE TO SOCIETY/MAN IS AN ANIMAL/SOCIALISM DENIES GOD/SOCIALISTS, HAVE NO RELIGION/HAVE NO PATRIOTISM.”
Another news article’s headlines warned, “WHAT SOCIALISM WOULD DO TO THE WORKING CLASSES/GEO K. BARBER SAYS IT WOULD BE DESPOTISM/ IT WOULD MEAN MOB RULE/RELIGIOUS LIBERTY WOULD BE DESTROYED.”
The text of one news article contained an impassioned plea by an anti-Socialist University of Michigan professor. Dr. Florer, who was often featured in The Journal. “When you cast your vote for socialism, “ he wrote, “…you ballot against a republican form of government; against churches; against social codes, such as marriage…it’s a ballot to give up your home…”
The Feb. 22, 1912 Journal featured a headline at the top of column 3 on the front page which admonished, “SEES MENACE IN STATE SOCIALISM/TO PRESERVE THE REPUBLIC.”
Two other Flint papers, The Arrow and Wolverine Citizen, both weeklies, seemed solidly in the anti-Socialist camp.
The Arrow’s editor, Arthur C. Pound, authored “The Turning Wheel”, a history of the first 25 years of General Motors. Authors Young and Quinn write that Pound “…had edited the Flint Arrow supporting Mott’s (C.S. Mott, Menton’s 1912 opponent) first candidacy for mayor of Flint.” Pound’s father-in-law was W.A. Paterson who opened Flint’s first carriage factory in 1869. Paterson made road carts for Durant-Dort in 1866 and manufactured the Paterson auto from 1908 until 1921. Pound also served as Executive Secretary of the Genesee County Board of Supervisors.
The Arrow view of electoral politics was clearly stated in a March 1, 1912 editorial entitled ‘GIVING THE CAPITALIST HIS DUE”: “The fact is Flint owes its being to manufacture…” the column begins. “They (manufacturers) made Flint a good town for others as well as themselves…Yet they are blamed by the demagogues (socialists) for our civic ills…”
Prior to the 1912 mayoral election, Democrats and Republicans buried their differences and organized the Independent Citizens Party. An article in the March 11, 1912 Detroit News Tribune noted: “Several weeks ago republicans and democrats held a mass meeting and resolved to make a united effort to prevent socialists being elected to office this year.”
Walter Blair, an 82-year old Flint resident who remembers meeting Billy Durant and John Menton, surmised, “I can think of only one reason (for the merger) and that’s a practical one—to defeat the Socialists and remove them from city hall.”
Eugene Debs advised his followers, “to turn your back on the corrupt Republican Party and the corrupt Democratic Party…”
A reporter for The Detroit News Tribune analyzed the upcoming 1912 Flint mayoral election as follows: “Underlying the desire to beat the socialist mayor is a determination by the prominent businessmen of the city, if possible, to show the industrial interests of the country with which they have dealings, that, while Flint is known all over the country as a manufacturing city, it is not controlled by the socialists.”
To accomplish this, the newly-organized Independent Citizens Party nominated Charles Stewart Mott, the millionaire owner of the Weston-Mott Co. and one of the best and brightest in the GM stable of auto executives. It had been only five years since Billy Durant enticed Mott to come to Flint.
The headlines of a March 13 news article trumpeted, “ENTHUSIASM AT WARD MEETINGS FOR C.S. MOTT/SENTIMENT FOR HIM IN THE FACTORIES GROWS STRONGER/MEN LIKE HIS PLATFORM/BELIEVE HE WILL BE WORKINGMAN’S FRIEND/NEW CLUBS ARE ORGANIZED AND ELECTORS PLEDGE SUPPORT TO THEIR CANDIDATE.”
If the headlines weren’t clear enough, the accompanying text made it even clearer: “The sentiment that Charles S. Mott is in reality the workingman’s friend and will protect the interests of the laboring classes if elected is gaining…(supporters) pointed out the benefits that would be derived by electing as mayor a man who was pledged to represent all classes.”
In the introduction to their platform the Socialists declared, “The workers have no hope if private ownership of the means of life continues. The common people must choose between having their lives ruled by an autocracy of wealth or by a democracy of industry…we declare for the collective ownership of all means of production and distribution…We realize our program cannot be carried out until we obtain control of the law-making power…In the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class we shall always be found on the side of the working class. No party can represent both classes…”
The Socialist platform included municipal ownership of the utilities and free public baths and gyms. It read, “We insist that school buildings shall be open for the use of the public when not in use for school purposes.” (Authors Young and Quinn of the Mott biography write, “It is a delightful irony that this socialist demand of 1912 should have been brought into rich realization 23 years later in Flint by Mott…”) The platform also stated that, “We insist that our children should be educated against war, and shall be taught that war is against the interest and welfare of the working class,” and pushed for enforcement of labor laws favoring women and children. During the campaign, Charles W. Nash, general manager of Buick and a close friend of Mott, was arrested and convicted of violating state labor laws. The specific charge was that boys under the age of 18 had been kept at work by Buick for more than 54 hours a week.
The Flint Daily Journal had no immediate reaction to the Socialist platform. A few days later an article appeared in The Journal under the headlines, “SAYS SOCIALISM CANNOT SUCCEED/IS DOOMED TO FAILURE.”
The Detroit News Tribune said of the 1912 mayoral contest between John Menton and Charles Stewart Mott in Flint: “No municipal campaign quite like it has heretofore been made in Michigan.”
On April Fools Day, 1912, Charles Stewart Mott defeated John A.C. Menton by a vote of 3,920 to 2,358. Menton would never again serve as mayor of Flint. The defeat signaled the demise of the Socialists as a viable political force in Flint.
The tide had been turned.
Mott would be elected the mayor of Flint twice again. He became one of the wealthiest men in America and would organize one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the country—the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
Dozens of corporate heads in Michigan and across the country realized the significance of the election.
W.H. Little, a former Buick factory manager who helped to organize the Little Car Co. (predecessor to Chevrolet) telegrammed, “…you will have a number of political jobs at your disposal. Send list and I will tell you who to appoint…I feel peculiarly qualified to advise you on all municipal affairs being well acquainted with one of the select men of my native town.”
Robert Randall of the Consolidated Coal Co. in Saginaw wrote, “The people of Flint should be very much pleased from escaping Socialism…In our miners’ organization that we work with, there is a large number of socialists and they are certainly the limit when you try to do business with them.”
Mainstream press noted the importance of the outcome as well. The Detroit Free Press commented, “The probabilities are that socialism, like its forerunning frenzies, will prove to be ephemeral in our political life and that it will die out as quickly as Greenbackism and Populism and many other isms that have died out before it.”
The Flint Journal lectured, “Socialism must be brought in tune with American institutions before it becomes truly popular in this country. Some of the leaders realize that socialism is at present un-American and are bending their powers to the promotion of a brand of socialism more in accord with American ideals and conditions.”
The lines had been drawn and the workers lost out. If there was ever a chance to nip the industrial giant in the bud it was then, just three years after its formation. Corporate America realized the significance of what was happening in the birthplace of General Motors. Socialism had to be stopped and it was.
A year later, the city of Flint was on the track GM wanted it to be on. There was to be no more talk of worker ownership. A proud and happy William C. Durant and J. Dallas Dort climbed to the top of Flint’s tallest building one night to look down on the city they controlled.
“Everyone here owes everything to you,” Dort said to Durant.
“That is not true, Dallas, they owe it all to you.”
Harold C. Ford, now a contributing writer to East Village Magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the interest of full disclosure, East Village Magazine in 2017 is partially funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. To date, there never has been any attempt to influence or alter EVM’s editorial decisions or coverage.