The Wallaceburg man who worked for Henry Ford

In the past I have written about James Couzens who was born in Chatham but made a real name for himself working for Henry Ford in the very earliest days of the company and who rose to a very high level.

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In the past, I have written about James Couzens, who was born in Chatham but made a real name for himself working for Henry Ford in the very earliest days of the company and who rose to a very high level.

Couzens was also credited with coming up with one of the most innovative approaches to dealing with labour in history by convincing Henry Ford to offer his workers an unheard of daily wage in 1913. The “five-dollars-a-day” wage plan rocked the entire labour market at the time and led to Couzens, in later years, becoming mayor of Detroit and a U.S. senator. Had he not been born in Canada, most people believe Couzens would have been nominated to run for president of the United States.

Yet, I did not realize (local history is always revealing new information) that another man by the name of Peter Edmund Martin – only the fifth employee to be hired by Henry Ford in 1903 – would become as important to the Ford Motor Company. But unlike Couzens, who was the company’s treasurer and early financial wizard, Martin’s forte was in production, and the real important fact about Martin was that he was born in Wallaceburg.

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Peter Martin’s relationship with Henry Ford and his company lasted for well over 30 years. During that time, he held many positions, including running of the Piquette Avenue Plant, the Highland Park Plant and the River Rouge Plant, where of course the main plant exists today. When Martin was supervisor over the plant, it was the largest such industrial complex on Earth.

Along the way, Martin so impressed Ford that he was made first vice-president of the Ford Motor Company, which made him one of only three members of the company’s board of directors. Who were the other members you might ask? Well, they were Henry Ford and his son, Edsel Ford!

Time Magazine reported in its Jan. 18, 1937, issue that Henry Ford drew dividends but not a salary. Edsel Ford was reported to have a salary of $146,056, while P. E. Martin drew a salary of $171,465! Now keep in mind this was 1937! In today’s dollar value, it was worth a heck of a lot more!

One of the most important innovations within the Ford Motor Company was the creation of the assembly line. Today, we take this innovation for granted and can’t imagine any worthwhile manufacturing and automotive company not having and efficient and smooth running assembly line. But this was not the case in the early 1900s.

When Henry Ford was asked in later years who was responsible for devising and implementing this innovative process that was responsible for turning out so many cars in such a unheard short period of time, he quickly responded that it was “the brainchild of only two persons … myself and Peter Edmund Martin.”

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Whether it was the pressure of the job or working for a notoriously difficult boss like Henry Ford, or maybe the pressure of have 14 children or just the luck of the draw, Peter Edmund Martin contracted cancer in his early 60s and was dead by the time he was 62 in 1944.

Although the Martin family moved from Wallaceburg when Peter was quite young, they often would return to Wallaceburg and had many friends and relatives they would visit throughout his parents’ lives as well as his own.

I am a little ashamed of myself for not knowing about Martin until this year, but now I know and now you do too!

The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.

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