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Ford City came into being from the plans of Captain John B. Ford, an industrialist interested in establishing a plate glass industry. In prior endeavors, Captain Ford had owned and operated, among many things, a river shipping line from which he drew his capitol. The site upon which Ford City is located consisted of roughly 460 acres broken primarily into three farms owned by the Ross, Spencer and Graff families.
Captain Ford’s explorations of our area prior to his land acquisitions had discovered the Allegheny River offered a unique asset in its composition. Besides the obvious advantage of low cost shipping, the Allegheny River is one of only four gravel bottom rivers in the world. Characteristic of this type of river was massive deposits of glacial sand, an essential element in the manufacture of glass. Also discovered in our area were huge deposits of natural gas, the fuel source required to fire the immense kilns used to melt the glass’ elements. Having secured his resources, all that Captain Ford required to begin his venture was a very large labor force.
As legend tells, Captain Ford sent agents to glass making towns all across Europe. From existing European glass enterprises, Captain Ford’s agents quietly recruited experienced glass workers. Offering a fair day’s wage and affordable housing, Ford’s agents were highly successful in getting the workers Ford needed. They were so successful, in fact, that some towns in Europe were left nearly emptied of male adult glassworkers. An excellent example of this took place in Stolberg, Germany from which Ford recruited a large number of Ford City’s first glassworking immigrants. From Ireland and France, Ford lured away men experienced in supervision of a glassworks. The early recruited foreman were offered an excellent wage and the promise of a house with marble mantled fireplaces. These early workers also brought with them their various faiths in God which manifested itself in the many different Catholic churches of Ford City, i.e., Holy Trinity, Christ, Prince of Peace (St. Mary’s) and St. Francis.
In 1886, Ford City submitted and received its charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. One of the men who delivered our original charter to Harrisburg was Mr. Robert Naismith, brother of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. Previously part of Manor Township, Ford City Borough became one of the fastest growing boroughs in the United States, gaining over three thousand in population in only ten years. Drawing workers and their families from over 35 identifiable European ethnic groups, Ford City became the quintessential example of America’s “Melting Pot.” Uniquely, Ford City never experienced racial of ethnic strife-Ford’s glass factory made all men equal.
Through the early Twentieth Century, Ford’s company-Pittsburgh Plate Glass-became the leading manufacturer of glass in the entire world. Producing a better type of glass at a lesser price than their European competitors, PPG’s efficiency and product quality virtually ended the importation of European glass to the United States. As demand increased, the need for more laborers in the Ford City Works also increased. Our town grew daily.
Through the early part of the Twentieth Century, Ford City prospered. We spoke proudly of how Ford City touched every skyscraper of the United States in the glass that formed the exteriors of the magnificent structures. Our common bond was found in the changing of the shifts at PPG and at the Friday night basketball games. Ford City High School basketball has seemingly prospered for the life of our town. Winning the section title was an annual event and our teams amassed a WPIAL record thirty-four section titles. It used to be said that every garage in every alley in Ford City had a basketball hoop attached to it. Boulder Park became a mecca of summer league basketball, drawing teams from as far away as Pittsburgh and New Castle. Our own “Lower End Gang” team featuring the Heffners, Commodore and Cutts brothers and others won their share of league titles.
In the early ‘70s, manufacturing changes at PPG caused a relocation of many of our town’s workers. This trend continued for twenty years-our work force gradually being reduced or transferred to PPG’s other plants until finally, in 1992, PPG permanently closed its gates and began the demolition of portions of the Ford City Works, formerly the largest plate glass factory in the world. At its peak, PPG employed over 4,000 workers. Its loss to Ford City was profound and deeply felt. To this day, the number of pensioned workers from the PPG Ford City Works is greater than the total workforces of many of PPG’s existing, operating facilities. The loss of PPG was economically devastating to our town, yet we remained bowed but not broken.
In the late 1990s, a new effort at Ford City’s Economic Revitalization was begun with lobbying missions to Washington D.C., Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Initiated by the efforts of Don Mains, the Ford City Economic Revitalization Project involved people from every sector of the community. Business leaders, citizens and local government officials all contributed heavily to a plan that used the remaining PPG buildings to attract new employers and the resulting employees. The plan was simple yet complex. The existing PPG Buildings deemed structurally sound by our engineers would be completely refurbished internally and furnished with the most modern amenities in an effort to establish a small business incubator and adjoining industrial/cultural museum. After a five year process of extensive lobbying and laborious grant writing, grant money from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Armstrong County and the Federal government began arriving. One of the first grants, a $3 million check, was delivered in December 2000 by Lieutenant Governor Mark Schweiker in the Ford City High School Auditorium. Congressman John Murtha followed up with another $2.6 million in federal grant money in June of 2001. Our reasons for optimism had greatly increased and remain there to this day. Captain Ford would have been proud to see that the buildings he had built over one hundred years earlier are once again being used to pump Ford City’s economic heart.
The anticipated opening of our new facilities is approximately the end of 2004/mid-2005. For more information concerning the Ford City Economic Revitalization, use this link to connect to the official Greater Ford City Community Development Corporation.
~ Drawn from John Englert's History of Ford City
~ Composed by Former Mayor Jeffrey Pyle