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Sunday, May 17, 2009

The 75 Mile City

As most of my eight or nine readers are from Detroit (hi, Mom; hi, Kwame), today's column will have some local color for you. BTW, congrats to the Red Wings and their many fans for sending the Ducks (at least they're no longer called the "Mighty Ducks") back to Anaheim. Today's topic is Muscle Shoals, AL, but unlike most of my geographically oriented dispatches, I haven't taken, nor do I intend to take, a trip there any time soon. And since the closest military installation is the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, a good 70 miles away, my professional services are not likely to be required in Muscle Shoals either. Oh, and in case you're wondering, it is "Muscle" Shoals, not "Mussel" Shoals, which would seem to make more sense. I've read several lame attempts to rationalize the use of the word "muscle" in the town's name, all of which lead me to believe that it was bequeathed by a lousy speller.

General FYI: Muscle Shoals is a small town of about 12,000 in northwest AL, on the banks of the Tennessee River. Its principal industries are blah blah blah who cares, and it was incorporated in 19… just get on with it Bruck. Okay, here we go.

If you're like me, the sum total of your experience with and awareness of Muscle Shoals comes from the verse in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, "Sweet Home Alabama," wherein the singer waxes reverent about the "Muscle Shoals Swampers," whatever they are. But were you to actually go there, and if you're familiar with Detroit geography, you'd notice something really strange, a "glitch in the matrix," as it were.

Have a look at the map of Muscle Shoals, copied here under terms of fair use (my standard disclaimer) from Google Maps (you'll probably have to click on it to see it full size):



I won't copy a map of Detroit here for comparison porpoises, as anything small enough would be unreadable, but take a look at the Muscle Shoals map - what do you see? Hint - look at the street names. Familiar? Well, it's not an accident. In the early 1920's, Henry Ford concocted the idea of building the town into a metropolis, centered around a manufacturing complex attached to the Wilson Dam there. Ford's plan got some initial traction and attention from investors; Ford himself helped lay the foundation for the new metropolis, as can be seen in the street names.

So… then what happened? I've never heard of a car or truck built in Muscle Shoals…!

The short answer is, Congress put the brakes on Ford's plans, and that was the end of it, the only remaining vestige of which being a crop of street names lifted from the map of Detroit. And what of it? Streets have to have names, right? Why not copy them from one of the most historic and colorful cities in North America? Better than naming them after all the developer's employees' delinquent kids ("my address is 123 Alexiss Street, that's Alexiss with two esses, no, there's an x in the middle and two esses at the end, A-L-E-X-I-S-S"), or underpaid English major excretions like "Heatherdale Thistlebrush Chase." But it does make you wonder, what really happened behind closed doors, in the smoke-filled rooms, as it were?

According to the Almighty Internet, in 1921, Ford, along with his buddy Thomas Edison concocted the idea of creating an industrial metropolis 75 miles long, employing one million workers. Part of Ford's plan was to buy the newly-constructed, and as yet incomplete Wilson Dam for about 10 cents on the dollar. The US government had built two nitrate plants to produce ammunition during WWI, which Ford also attempted to procure as part of the deal, to make fertilizer. Congress put the kibosh on the whole deal, taking the principled position that such grandiose schemes should be mishandled by government, not private industry, and went on to develop the Tenessee Valley Authority. The leader in the fight against Ford's idea was Nebraska Senator George Norris, who quipped, "If the government turned Muscle Shoals over to Ford, it would be the worst real estate deal since Adam and Eve lost title to the Garden of Eden.”

But this was not before news of the plan sparked a speculative frenzy where developers laid out empty streets and people across the country bought lots sight unseen. And of course we can see Ford's hand in laying the foundation of the town in the names of said streets, many of which are copied directly from Detroit, others honoring Ford's friends (Edison, Firestone, Buena Vista).

Is that it? Well, not quite. Big people think big. That's how they get big, I suppose. We remember Henry Ford as the man who brought the automobile to the common people by employing efficient means of mass production in the form of the assembly line. (BTW, he got the idea from a Chicago stockyard when he observed a "disassembly line" in which cuts of beef were systematically removed by butchers from metabolically-challenged cows on a long conveyor belt.) Ford intended to end war. Yep, you heard me right. He also intended to wrest control of the world economy from international bankers. There was even talk of his running for president of the United States. I won't bore you with the tedious details, but the basic gist of Ford's and Edison's reasoning was that rather than issue bonds, and thereby pay silent investors, foreign and domestic, the principal plus copious interest, just print the money and get on with it. The underlying assumption was that the devaluation of the nation's currency would be less painful to the economy than paying out several times the bond's face value in interest over several decades. Of course this was impossible under the gold standard, when you couldn't just print more money on a whim, boy I'm sure glad we got rid of that onerous gold standard, aren't you? Well, that was part of the plan, too--get off the gold standard and instead back the currency with the ethereal concept of "public wealth," and supposedly remove the motivation for countries going to war. That worked real well; any more good ideas, Messrs. Ford and Edison?

What's this business about running for president? I'm not sure how much of this is fact vs. rumor, but supposedly President Coolidge, who took over upon President Harding's death, was up for re-election in 1924, and agreed to back Ford's plan only if he agreed not to challenge him for the nomination. Alas, neither prevailed against the stalwart Senator Norris.

Mind you, I'm not claiming that the Ford/Edison plan made sense; I'm just reporting the facts as I've found them. Supposedly the Muscle Shoals project was going to demonstrate to the world a new way of living, and a new way of managing public and private wealth, with Henry Ford and his industrialist friends at the wheel of a technocratic utopia. Personally I'm with Senator Norris in thinking that it all sounded a little too bad to be true.

Thus ended the saga of Ford's attempt to turn Muscle Shoals into a booming metropolis, end war, wrest control of the world economy from the international bankers, and run for president. Muscle Shoals has grown steadily over the decades and is home to other industries, including the recording industry. The Muscle Shoals Swampers, I've learned, are a group of particularly talented studio musicians.

Jim Hampton

Meanwhile, Detroit continues to be the epicenter of the American auto industry, whose fate is somewhat less than certain at this point, with about as many unemployed auto workers as employed ones these days. Your faithful editor is a former employee of the company that Henry Ford founded, having left it a few years ago to pursue my dreams of serving the public as a bureaucrat in Washington, DC. Now let's be practical for a moment, shall we? If you leave the auto industry, voluntarily or otherwise, and intend to continue working, dollars to donuts says you're also leaving Detroit. When you move, you'll have to relearn a whole bunch of stuff in your new locale, like doctors, schools, stores, where the White Castles and Coney Island places are, etc. etc. Here's what I'm thinking: if destiny guides you to Muscle Shoals, AL, new street names is one less thing you'll have to worry about!

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