For members of the Society for Industrial Archeology, their first tour of the day at the General Motors Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kan., did not disappoint.
About halfway through Friday’s tour, where the group was able to see every detail in the assembly process, the tour guide pulled the group into a plain, quiet room off the main assembly floor.
“You’re standing in a $600 million room,” she told the group.
They were impressed.
Society members, holding their annual conference in Kansas City, don’t care as much about cars as they do about industry and how the past and future connect.
This room surrounded the new paint facility GM installed at the Fairfax plant. They weren’t allowed to enter the painting area, but that didn’t stop the group from peppering the guide with questions about precisely how the new system worked and what the space looked like before.
Throughout the tour, most of the questions centered around how things worked within the plant and how they came to be that way.
The group, founded in 1971, has members who range from academics in technology history to those who have found their way to the group in less conventional ways. Some in the group caution against calling this a hobby — it is much more than that.
“It is true intellectual interest from everyone who is here, whether it’s their field or not,” said Ann Ditcher, a member of the group from Forest Hills, N.Y.
Saul Tannenbaum joined the group about 12 years ago and came to the conference from Cambridge, Mass. He said he originally heard about it from a 2002 New York Times article that detailed the group’s tour of industrial plants in Brooklyn.
“I read the article and looked at my wife and said, ‘Wait, there are other people like us?’” Tannenbaum said.
Tannenbaum, a board member, said that it’s often about connecting the tours to a larger understanding of how the history of manufacturing connects to the current American economy.
“It’s often a nondescript industrial building off a highway — what do they do?” he said. “How do they fit into the economy of America?”
The society does tours like these twice every year in cities across the country. During the spring conference, academics within the group also present papers and research over related topics.
Cydney Millstein, a Kansas City-based architectural historian, organized this year’s conference. Of the group’s about 800 members, 120 are attending.
“Kansas City, from an industrial standpoint, has so much history to offer,” said Millstein, who has been a group member for 20 years.
Steven Walton, a professor of history of technology at Michigan Technological University, where the group is based, said the group always does a mix of historical and active tour sites as a way to connect the history of industry to modern technology.
“One of the most important things I try to get across in teaching is that there’s this continuity,” Walton said.
Walton and others noted that the group and its tours are a constant reminder that manufacturing is still alive in America, even if it looks far different than it used to.
“People say ‘We don’t make stuff in America anymore.’ Really? We do, and it’s directly connected to history,” Walton said.