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One of the earliest twentieth century industries in the area was the J.H. Williams Company of Brooklyn, New York. In 1941, the Williams Company began construction of their million dollar drop forge plant just east of 344 Vulcan Street, on the northwest corner lot of Kenmore Avenue and Vulcan Street. As World War I progressed, more industries established plants in western Tonawanda. Manufacturing interests were supplied inexpensive power from the Buffalo General Electric Company's 1916 facility on River Road located northwest of Lot 103. The same year, River Road was illuminated by power generated from the new electric plant.

This map shows the industrial growth of the area during the late 1930s. Large factory complexes have all but replaced the farmsteads and canal buildings. Farrel-Birmingham can be seen in the center of Lot 103 along with neighboring industries of General Motors, J. H. Williams, and Curtis-Wright.
During the 1920s, the Niagara River industrial corridor catered to plants engaged in steel, rubber, chemical and aircraft manufacturing. The Town witnessed substantial residential growth as well. Soon after, the Depression era impeded significant industrial development while the onset of World War II helped revive industrial activity along River Road. Additional workers from surrounding areas were employed at local Tonawanda plants during the war for the manufacture of needed supplies and materials. A circa 1939 Works Progress Administration Map of Tonawanda identifies several industries along River Road and Kenmore Avenue. By that time, both Farrel Birmingham and GM are recorded on the map. Neighboring industries include the Dupont Corporation, the J.H. Williams Co. and the Curtis Wright Group.

The Buffalo area was a prime industrial location for the wartime effort since the aviation and automobile industries had established themselves earlier in the century.
The Pierce-Arrow plant, located on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, New York. *
Just as the industry began to flourish in Detroit, Michigan at the turn of the nineteenth century, car manufacturing plants began dominating the local industry scene in Western New York. In the early period of the twentieth century, there were 30 different car-manufacturing plants in the area. One of the most popular local manufacturers was the Pierce-Arrow Corporation. Unfortunately, these smaller car manufacturers could not compete with large companies such as Ford and General Motors who also opened shops in western New York.

General Motors purchased Lot 102 in 1937 and began construction of their Engine Plant facility by mid-June of that year. GM contracted Albert Kahn, at the time an internationally recognized industrial architect and the architect of the Ford Motor Company, to design the new factory. In fact, in 1915 Kahn designed Ford's plant at 2495 Main Street in Buffalo. He also contributed to the design of the Piece-Arrow plant on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo.

Albert Kahn **
Kahn was instrumental in the transition from the preferred multi-storied daylight style factory of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century to the widespread adoption of a more efficient steel frame construction. Kahn's new design plan accommodated the quickly evolving technological advances of the automobile industry. He designed factories for optimum utility and efficiency in order to increase manufacturing production. Unfortunately, Kahn's original 1937 design of the original GM Plant has been significantly modified and has been largely expanded with subsequent additions. It retains little architectural integrity, for in addition to its exterior alterations, the interior has been vastly modified to accommodate new manufacturing technologies.

According to a 1939 promotional booklet distributed by the Chevrolet Motor & Axle Division of General Motors of Tonawanda, the factory was completed and operations were started within eight months of its construction. After the first year of operation, the plant employed approximately nineteen hundred workers. In 1940, Chevrolet was awarded the first U.S. Government contract for war materials. Within two years, GM had greatly intensified war production. From February 10, 1942 to September 9, 1945, no single passenger cars for civilian use left the GM assembly line as GM dedicated all manufacturing efforts to the nation's war effort. With all of its homefront operations, GM was one of the greatest suppliers of World War II. Over twenty thousand outside suppliers and subcontractors coordinated with 94 GM plants in over thirteen states to produce a wide range of much needed material and services for the military.

The GM plant as originally designed by Albert Kahn
The main facade of the General Motors Tonawanda Engine Plant as seen from River Road. This image shows the original design created by architect Albert Kahn.

Aerial view of the GM plant circa 1937.
An aerial view of the General Motors Tonawanda Engine Plant in 1937. Note that the main building is not connected to the rest of the plant.
A more recent view of the GM plant.
A more recent view of the General Motors Tonawanda Engine Plant. Albert Kahn's original design has been completely rennovated and the building is now connected directly to the plant.

General Motors had several war supply contracts with the U.S. Government for airplane engines, parts and accessories. The Tonawanda plant produced the 2800 model engine for the U.S. Army which was used in trucks, planes, and boats. Military production demanded a large work force to carry out continuous operations. Local newspaper accounts during the war illustrate the need for additional workers to help meet demanding U.S. Government supply contracts.

It is at this point that Farrell-Birmingham enters the story.


* Photo credit courtesy of Chuck LaChiusa - Buffalo Architecture and History Web site (http://ah.bfn.org/index.html")
** Photo credit courtesy of The Detroit News (http://www.detnews.com/history/kahn/kahn.htm)