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Museum faces final deadline to save part of Rosie's factory

The former Yankee Air Museum's headquarters at Willow Run Airport burned in 2004. Three historic aircraft were saved, but many artifacts, tools, and other museum pieces were lost.
Yankee Air Museum
Image of the fire that destroyed Yankee Air Museum

Historians say Henry Ford reluctantly became part of the American war effort during World War II.

But once he acquiesced, his huge bomber plant in Ypsilanti made a big difference in the ability of American pilots to fight the air war.

By 1945, the Ford signature efficiency and moving assembly line was turning out a bomber every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The factory became the workplace of a large number of female workers because of the shortage of males, who'd been drafted for battle.  The iconic "Rosie the Riveter" campaign was based on these women, a few of whom were actually named Rosie.

Ford sold the plant after the war; it eventually was acquired by General Motors.  The factory shut down completely when GM filed for bankruptcy.  Now, it's just one more, albeit massive, parcel in the RACER Trust's portfolio.  The trust was established to find new owners for properties deemed a burden for GM during the bankruptcy.

But initial hopes of finding a buyer for the 3,500,000 square foot structure were dashed.  The facility is too large and antiquated for a modern manufacturing site.

The entire building is now slated for demolition - unless the Yankee Air Museum can raise enough money to salvage part of it for its new home.

The Museum suffered a devastating fire in 2004, and now many of its historic airplanes are in a separate place from its exhibits.    The group figures this factory, with its ties to aviation history, would be a perfect new home.

But it's an expensive enterprise.  RACER Trust has agreed to sell part of the factory to the museum, if organizers can raise enough money to rehabilitate the structure, build a new wall when the rest is torn down, and install modern utilities. 

Originally, RACER gave the museum until August 1 to raise the $8 million required; a new deadline of November 1 was set when the fundraising fell short.  Now, there is one final deadline of May 1, 2014, before the entire facility will have to be razed.

The Yankee Air Museum announced two big contributions over the weekend - one million dollars from museum booster David Robertson - and a million dollars for environmental cleanup from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

There's still about $2.2 million to go - but Yankee Air Museum founder Dennis Norton says he's happy with the progress.

"Every week we've pulled in more money, week after week after week," says Norton, "and some of them are big donations like we announced today, but a lot of them are small -- $50, $100, $500 donations."

GM Foundation early on threw $2 million into the hat. 

But early talks with the building's first owner, Ford Motor Company, appear to have foundered.

As part of its fundraising campaign, the museum will try to break the record for largest number of women and girls dressed as Rosie the Riveter, on Wednesday (appropriately, the day before Halloween.)

The Museum will also raise money for the effort during its annual gala in November.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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