Manning the Middle West's Machines: Industry's Latest Answers to Restricted Immigration


THE cities of the Iron Men have kepton growing in size, efficiency, and social competence during the five years which have elapsed since the first ‘Iron Man’ paper was published in the Atlantic. The physical growth itself is enough to make one marvel at the power of tools and jobs to shift social orbits. Of these cities the one I know best had a population of 13,000 in 1900, 38,000 in 1910, 93,000 in 1920, 152,000 (by government estimate) in 1925; it will have 160,000 surely by the time this article is published, with the prospect of 200,000 by 1930. Whence comes this never-ending stream of humanity— individuals, brides and grooms, families?

In 1921 this city was still digesting painfully a too heavy diet of immigrants received from 1905 to 1914, when the war unexpectedly shut off the flow. The high spots on the city’s social map were then the various foreign colonies — Polish, Italian, Serb, Hungarian, Czech, German-Russian. After five years these colonies, while still present, are less noticeable and presumably less influential in holding their people to the old ways. The crust of old-world custom is weakening in many respects, though not yet to the extent of shutting off the supply of homemade liquors manufactured in sections where the older housewives still think boudoir

caps the fashion for shopping expeditions. But no more ‘green’ foreigners are arriving to stiffen old customs and to reënforce, through necessity, the use of outlandish tongues. Outwardly, in both raiment and bearing, the foreign men who were newcomers fifteen years ago are almost indistinguishable from the natives; their women reveal more of the European peasant influence, but the department stores are bringing them slowly but surely into line with American fashions.

Whence and of what sort are the folk who have taken the place of European immigrants in this procession toward these rising industrial centres?

Even at the crest of the foreign invasion the demand for labor drew heavily on farms, villages, and small towns. The northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula, once busy with lumbering, but a region with much waste land and no large-scale manufacturing industry, has been sending its surplus man power to the automobile cities for twenty years. So also have the copper and iron sections of the upper peninsula, their contributions increasing or decreasing relatively to market prices for minerals and conditions of employment. These flows still continue, and are at present brisk, to the delight of the employment managers.

From factory and school records I gather that the population of this absorbent city is now being recruited from the following areas in the order stated: (1) the northern half of the lower peninsula of Michigan; (2) the upper peninsula, notably the iron and copper country; (3) the South; (4) Canada; (5) Mexico; (6) the British Isles; (7) New England.

While floaters drift in by ones and twos from other sections than those named, this sequence is agreed to by all in close touch with the new arrivals — school authorities, employment managers, social service workers, church missionaries. Also there is general agreement on the social values of these various groups from the standpoint of the community and its industries.

New England sends skilled men only, chiefly expert mechanics who readily find work in the tool shops which supply the production machines with those precise appliances which permit close work in spite of quantity. I am told that it is easier now than ever before to get skilled mechanics of New England to change base, a point which the industrialists of New England may well ponder deeply. This reflects, I suppose, the growing conviction among conservative wage-earners that the mass-production industries of the Middle West have passed through the trial period and are now stable enough to tie to for good and all. Socially these New Englanders ‘shake down’ without a ripple into a community which still reveals unmistakable signs of having been pioneered by New England stock, via New York and the Western Reserve.

Of the British, whether coming direct from the British Isles or by way of Canada, only fair words are spoken in quarters where I expected to find some of that adverse criticism of the cockney so frequently overheard in Canada. Perhaps the reason for this difference in the welcoming note is to be explained by the fact that Canada seeks immigrants who will go on the land, a location as much in disfavor with the urban Britisher as with the urban American. In our Michigan cities this consideration does not apply; they want shop men, and these newcomers from Britain fill that bill admirably. Moreover, it is significant that in this so-called ‘open shop’ town, a somewhat euphemistic term in view of the penetrating questions that are asked about union affiliations in advance of hiring, employers are entirely satisfied with their new British hands on the score of unionism. No doubt the latter were union men in tightly organized Britain, no doubt going on strike is an old experience for them, but they have left all that behind them. This is a new deal and a better deal, from the standpoint both of wages in hand and of opportunities in sight, and the newcomers are accepting the terms as offered, apparently without reservation. All of which fortifies the view that labor unionism is a defense reaction; even he who is a bitter unionist in a severe economic environment loses interest in the cause when he strikes better pickings. The unions have never made any headway in the automobile trade, for the good reason that they have nothing to offer which will appeal to these highly paid men as worth the bother of going after.

Canada’s contribution to the citizenry of Motorland consists chiefly of Scots and English stock from near-by Ontario, with a smattering of French Canadians not yet important numerically. The Order of the Scottish Clans has chapters in all the automobile towns, and the birthday of Robert Burns is coming to be celebrated with almost as much feeling by Americans of Scotch blood as St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated by Americans of Irish blood. But, except on these festival occasions, the Canadians are indistinguishable from the native population.

Not so, however, with the sons of that other border beneficiary of our immigration laws — Mexico. Six years ago one heard of Mexicans in Detroit, but nowhere else in the automobile belt. All through the war period the quiet little brown brother worked his way north and east along the railroads, supplying the demand for section hands which the Italians met earlier, not only on the ‘Delaware Lackawan’,’ as the popular song runs, but also far into the Southwest, where rival Mexican and Italian gangs gave economic, and occasionally knife, battle. Now every Michigan automobile town has its Mexican colony, the only foreign colony of recent origin. Among three hundred men whom I saw applying for work one morning at a single plant, twenty-four were born in Mexico, and eight with Mexican names were born in the border states of the Southwest. With employers they have earned a good name as substitutes for the Italians, under foremen who know how to handle roustabouts in gangs. Patient and enduring though they have proved themselves to be, it is not thought they can stand the gaff of rapid and continuous production in the shops. Race does not seem to enter into the calculation at all; one of the top engineers in this same plant is a Japanese. Altogether the employers incline to be hopeful of the Mexicans, and the other workmen tolerant of them. Their manual dexterity, upon which the new educational system in Mexico is so largely based, has already attracted attention in these Northern factories; one employment manager said that he was continually being surprised by the beauty of Mexican handwriting as he saw it on applications for work. So it is possible that the Mexicans may find their way to production jobs and even to white-collar jobs. However, whitecollar jobs rate little if any higher here than shop jobs — a healthy sign!

This testimony bears out precisely an opinion I frequently have met with among American employers of Mexican labor in Mexico — to the effect that, while Mexicans are not the world’s best workers, they assuredly are not the world’s worst. The fictitious ‘greaser’ villain of the films, fortunately, has not migrated from wherever he does his dirty work.


Come we now to the South, third largest contributor to the population of this thriving Middle Western city. Of the three hundred applicants for work at the plant on the January morning when I visited the employment office, ninety-nine were born south of a line drawn east and west through Indianapolis. There were considerable quotas from southern Indiana and Illinois, and small delegations from as far away as Texas and Louisiana, but the large blocks were from Tennessee and the Ozark country of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. The superintendent of schools, after running hastily over the returns of the recent school census, lists Missouri directly after the two Michigan districts mentioned earlier as leading sources of the new population. The head of the Social Service Bureau, the Poor Commissioner, and a home missionary in one of the poorer sections of the city spoke, more in sorrow than anger, of ‘poor white trash’ when I asked them which element in the newer population required most public relief. So, beyond a doubt, the Southern contingent is growing.

The Southern drive on Northern industrial centres is no new phenomenon; But its present complexion is lighter than before. Southern negroes came north in droves after the war, but many have now returned to warmer climes, leaving the residue in Black Belts usually sandwiched between tolerant foreign groups. The movement continues, but the blacks have definitely yielded precedence in it to whites. Of the ninety-nine Southerners applying for work that day, only fourteen were negroes.

Local industrial testimony on the value of this Southern white labor is a little disconcerting to one who is at all prejudiced in favor of his own color and racial type. The Ozarks are frequently described as one of the two breeding basins of pure-blood Anglo-Saxons in the United States. Here are men of the good old stock, whose forefathers no doubt fought in the Revolution; and yet, on the basis of the record, they are the least satisfactory men to hire of the extremely mixed population which presents itself at the gate.

A company lawyer, in charge of compensation cases, described these Southern whites as ‘physically and intellectually sluggish. They get hurt more easily and stay hurt longer than any other class of labor we have.’ When I protested that this might be due merely to industrial inexperience and the difficulty of acclimating themselves, he said: ‘Then they ought to break in as easily as Italian peasants, but they don’t.’

The employment manager was more specific, but equally condemning. He said: ‘When I first encountered the Southern mountaineer type, during the war shortage of labor, I thought, “Here is just what the country needs in this emergency — an untouched labor reserve of tall, rangy American citizens, hundred-per-centers.” So we sent down to Tennessee for a batch. I soon saw they were not so strong as they looked. We tried to correct that by good feeding, since the men were housed in barracks and fed from a company kitchen. But you can’t correct the results of years of underfeeding by stuffing the victims to-day and to-morrow and the day after tomorrow. We did fill up the hollows in some of the gaunt frames, but we could not fill the hollows in their minds. They never seemed to get the idea that work is a serious business. They dawdled, laid off, played off, sulked, and in general behaved like irresponsible children. I think they might do better, a great deal better, at industrial labor in their own country, being greatly attached to kin and boyhood scenes. Southern industry appears to be doing well with labor we can’t use. One trouble with them in the North is homesickness. Of course there are exceptions, but they are too few to bank on.

‘This industry — in fact every massproduction industry—must accent reliability. When one man lays off or shirks he slows down output along the line. For the mass of our workers a high degree of skill is not important; but steadiness is all-important. Consequently my experience has taught me to put almost any other sort of man on the job in preference to a white Southerner. He lacks the patience of a green European peasant, who will stick by a stiff, disagreeable task in order to get a foothold in this country, or the roughand-ready good humor of the Southern negro, which helps the latter to bear many disappointments during his first weeks in the North.

‘I have been hiring men for twenty years. After testing theories found in books and presented in conferences on employment psychology, I have arrived at a simple little theory of my own which has the merit of working nine times out of ten. It is simply this: cold weather makes the best men for our business. While I was under the influence of Mrs. Blackford, I used to study an applicant’s features; now I study the answers on his questionnaire. Where was he born? What stock is he? Where did he work? If he was born north of Saginaw Bay he is almost certain to develop into a reliable worker and a good citizen.

‘One time years ago I brought three hundred and fifty men down here in a body from the upper peninsula of Michigan. All but fifty of them are still working in this plant. At least one hundred and fifty of them bought dwellings in one of our company subdivisions and live within eight or ten blocks of my home. They are downright good citizens; no town could ask for better citizens, and no employer deserves better employees than those men are. Not one of the whole three hundred and fifty ever fastened himself like a leech on the city’s poor fund or its charity. In fact, it’s a rare thing to be disappointed in a man from up State or any other place where the frost hangs on a long time. That’s why I say latitude counts.’

After this testimony to the correctness of one of the major premises of Buckle’s History of Civilization, I talked to the church worker in charge of a mission in a creek bottom. One of the most encouraging things about this busy city is that it grows too fast to let a slum come to foul maturity. Realestate values change quickly, and a progressive building code prevents the worst evils of overcrowding. In general the housing is far better than the Eastern level for industrial labor, the standard dwelling being an isolated one-family house standing on its own lot. But occasionally and temporarily one may find a neighborhood that gives every indication of becoming a slum if allowed to fester a few years more. Such was the creek bottom; each house stood on its lot, all right, but most of them were shacks and the others showed grievous neglect.

‘Our neighborhood,’ said this church worker, ‘seems to be especially favored just now by incoming Southern whites. They take one another in with the utmost hospitality. Frequently I find myself wondering where the duties of hospitality end and those of thrift begin. You will find it hard to believe the backwardness of these kindly people; their coming has been a revelation to me of the illiteracy and domestic sloth prevailing in the regions they still call home.

‘Recently I visited a young woman who is the mother of three children and is hourly expecting a fourth. “I hope,” I said, “that you know Jesus.” “Lady,” she replied, earnestly, “I kain’t say I do know that party. I’m so busy with my brats I kain’t get out much.”

‘In another house I asked the mother if she had a Bible. “Lawsy, yes,” she replied proudly; and going from the room she brought back a medical almanac, saying, “This is the book, miss.” At first I was completely mystified. Then it dawned on me that she could not read and came from the section where the Bible is “the book,” the only book in any house. Any book of any sort meant “Bible” to her.’

The secretary of the Social Service Bureau is equally unimpressed by these newcomers. ‘The best thing I can say for them,’ she observed, ‘is that a good many of them ask for help before they have been here long enough to earn a legal residence; that enables us to buy half-fare paupers’ tickets and send the whole family back home. There usually is a family, you know. A man of twenty-four motored into town from the Ozarks in a battered car with less than a dollar in his pocket. This is a busy town, all right, but no one ought to bring a family here with less than one hundred dollars in hand. Even when jobs are plenty a few days may be required to find one. Yet, as the factories are rather chary of Southerners, most of them become day laborers on construction jobs subject to frequent lay-offs. South of the Mason and Dixon line the idea seems to prevail that our streets are paved with pay checks. Would you care to look over these recent cases?’

Running through the typed records of indigence, I was not surprised to find, among many new names, several of the old stand-bys. Eight years ago I had administered Red Cross relief to these same families, enabling them to weather what seemed to be a temporary slump in their fortunes, due to the absence of a breadwinner. At least that was always the plea; yet here were some of the old faithfuls just as hungry and cold and ill-starred as if peace had not been declared nine years ago. While I sat musing on the vanity of human charity, and the stability, for better or worse, of character, in came the Poor Commissioner, sputtering, as befits a guardian of the public purse during an economy régime.

‘Here’s a case I’ll let you decide. Woman wants coal and groceries. House half paid for. Says her husband has taken the car and gone to Florida. I say automobiles and charity don’t mix. If there’s a car in the family, no free coal. Is n’t that a sound rule?’

I had to admit that it was; furthermore, I was almost ready to admit the futility of charity in general. Here is a city which, compared to the country at large, has reveled in prosperity. Wages are high and work is relatively steady. Moreover the local custom of selling real estate on contract with small down-payments, coupled with a thundering propaganda to ‘own your own home,’ makes it easy for a man to get a start. A stake in the community, so secured, is more likely to increase in value than decrease — will surely increase in the hands of a dogged man who hangs on to it through a temporary slump. A veritable stream of wealth has been pouring through this town for twenty years, occasionally slowing up. but coming back with renewed force later. Old families have grown richer, and newcomers have acquired riches; hundreds of rank-and-file workers have built up snug little fortunes in real estate; even outsiders, who have never set foot in the town itself, have cashed in on its earnings. But still there is a backwash of poverty on the shores of this golden flood; here are some who are just where they were eight years ago, just where their parents were twenty years ago — on the rocks. If ever chronic poverty could be cured by prosperity, these poor-relief rolls would be blank.


Unquestionably, however, the general level of well-being has risen. The men look better fed, better clothed, better satisfied. Unrest has pretty much departed from their conversation and demeanor. Since I saw them last they have had six more years of drilling under highly competent, and withal just, leadership. Many of them, through a joint savings fund under company control, have come into possession of stock in the enterprise. The operation of the savings fund, in which a dollar saved grows into eight or nine dollars in five years’ time, gives general satisfaction. It is not unusual to find ordinary production men of no particular skill whose dividends and profits from the savings fund run to a third of their annual wages. The result is a distinctly higher morale; what these workmen have lost in power to command their own destinies seems to have been compensated, not only by money, but also by the acquiring of just pride in a joint undertaking. Their confidence has deepened, and dread of the future has gradually given way to a sense of security. Five years ago these men, drawn from diverse regions, circumstances, and occupations, were in the midst of a difficult social readjustment. There is no longer any chance to doubt that they have now made that adjustment, and on the whole have made it willingly, after weighing the personal costs and advantages.

One sees this clearly in the prevalent attitude toward welfare work, which used to be one of suspicion. ‘ Put it in the pay envelope and let us spend it ourselves, instead of hiring white-collar boys to help real men who want nobody’s help.’ That was the old cry, with its unspoken appeal to the American tradition of independence. But now experience has shown that, in this particular town, welfare work is not a substitute for wages earned but not paid. The cash has come. Consequently the welfare workers get kindlier welcomes when they inject themselves into personal and domestic problems of employees. Among the older employees it is now generally understood that this particular welfare work is something more than a way of building company morale; it is an effort to bring the standards of living of the whole industrial group up to those which the more competent of the employees maintain for themselves, without guidance or assistance.

There is a legend hereabouts that little children, their noses glued to the windows while they wait for Father, rush to the door to ask him, ‘What’s G. M. to-day?’ That, however, is merely the hearty Middle Western way of exaggerating a good thing. The truth is that an extraordinary number of citizens, from factory roustabouts to bankers, hold stock in the foundation industry of their community. Some of these stockholders have risen to wealth thereby and take their new-found affluence rather boisterously; but the majority just plug along in the old ways. Saddle horses grow more numerous and there is talk of fox hounds and hunting; yet few quit work when fortune comes. After all, theirs is a civilization and prosperity founded upon hard work, and as such less given to exuberances than those founded on play in a blissful climate. Moreover the city is fortunate in that the social responsibilities of wealth have been emphasized repeatedly by local leaders. So, while one hears overmuch of money when General Motors is fluctuating briskly, at other times one hears far more of the new junior high school, the rising technical college, and the extension of the park system. During my last visit the scholastic triumph of two recent highschool graduates in passing the Eastern college board examinations was heralded as big and bracing news, which it was. Verily there is a strong and wistful spirit brooding behind the formidable mechanisms of Automobileland. These folk are going so fast that they neglect some things worth doing, but they will get around to those in time, never fear.

Perhaps the most heartening of all the movements under way in this dynamic environment is that which has accepted and now builds upon the thesis of the first Iron Man paper — the recognition that mass production involves such limitations on human nature that the fullest expressions of personality, for the routine worker, must come during his leisure time. The city, at this stage, gives every evidence of conviction on that point. Against the hindrances of sparse natural advantages, the park system has been pushed forward steadily, mopping up dumps and other eyesores in its progress. In the parks, which are connected by boulevards, are swimming pools, baseball diamonds, and a municipal golf course, which has proved so popular that two more are being added. The existing municipal course, crowded from dawn to dusk on holidays and Sundays, is self-supported on a modest schedule of fees. The two new links in prospect are coming in answer to agitation for them in the factories, A comprehensive city plan, prepared by a noted expert and administered by a local board almost completely divorced from politics, guides this whole general development. In summer a vast deal of loving care is lavished on lawns and gardens, as might be expected where the ordinary house occupies an individual lot. There is also brisk travel every fair week-end to lakes and camps and cottages, for these well-paid workingmen are steady buyers of their own products, and not a few of them possess country nests as well as urban real estate.

Winter entertainment runs strongly to movies, but each year sees more enthusiasm and more provision for active winter sports, both indoor and outdoor. The amount of athletic activity generated in this hard-working population is prodigious, and, unlike many industrial centres, this community emphasizes the amateur side rather than the professional. The city never has supported professional baseball well enough to let it endure, and at present it has no league team; but there are literally hundreds of shop and neighborhood teams which carry through long schedules. These activities are largely guided by a mutual association of the city’s workers, whose clubrooms occupy five floors of the largest office building in town, devoted to recreation and education.

Compared with the tidy, wellgroomed industrial towns of the East, this city always looks a bit unkempt, but that is because it keeps growing so fast that it never quite catches up with its needs. Yet I fancy one can see what it will be like a hundred years hence by stepping into the newest of its huge plants. Every industrial city, I think, follows in its social development the economic processes which provide the bread of life for the community and fix the habits of its producers. What one sees in these plants is industrial housekeeping of a high order, cleanly, systematic, coöperative, a mighty rhythm of toil in which tens of thousands of disciplined individuals keep step. Eventually the town will be like that, will be run as well as that, and will produce social boons to satisfy the common man just as regularly and as certainly as these plants produce goods to satisfy their customers.

The indiscriminate hiring of mere hands and muscles is no more; selection of employees proceeds upon the basis of character, upon the adaptability of the applicant to fit into a system which demands steadfastness and dependability. These, be it noted, are moral qualities, and as serviceable in citizens as in employees. The trend toward automatic production, while decreasing the responsibility of the individual, as a physical being, for the product, has increased his responsibility as a social being for that same product. The town depends on the works, and the works depend on the men, less as doers of this or that particular thing, because substitutions become less difficult, than as men of good intent who do what they have to do with a will.

An industrial school of this sort - and every manufacturing plant is partly that from the social point of view — is even more successful than a university in taking human material of all sorts, from widely diverse sections, and moulding men into a type. If, as seems likely, mass production becomes the paramount expression of our national energy, the process in which our science and organization find their most fruitful union, this Middle West type of factory man may become the typical American. There is cheer in that prospect. Compounded of many racial strains, he will stand forth distinctly against the background of his huge machines as a man who insists on good leadership and a good living, and, having these, will do a full day’s work without whimpering, looking to his leisure to satisfy those whims and crotchets of his nature which find no outlets in his disciplined, coöperative toil. His may not be the most inspiring environment in the world, but it will fit the type in both its advantages and its limitations, and consequently will produce a good deal of solid contentment — at least as much as man can stand without growing soft.