By the 20th century, Studebaker began producing cars, competing against the top manufacturers in the country. In order to keep up, Studebaker hired employees to run huge factories, like the one where “Assembly 84” is located. The massive assembly campus drew immigrants into South Bend.
Automobile Production 1900s-1930s
The last surviving Studebaker brother, John Mohler, was at the helm during the transition to auto production. He led the reorganization of the company into the Studebaker Corporation in 1911 with $23 million in assets, $620 million today. His death in 1917 ended the first generation of Studebakers involved in the corporation.
Albert Russel Erskine took over as President and continued expanding the company, raising a crop of sequentially-numbered factory buildings on the campus. The now-iconic Assembly 84 building was built in 1923 and designed by Detroit-based leading industrial architect, Albert Kahn. The building was 6 stories tall with around 800,000 square feet of floor space. Kahn used his signature technique of structuring the building with reinforced concrete instead of wood.
Studebaker heavily recruited Central Europeans who were already in the midst of an economically-driven mass migration to the United States to come to South Bend and work in the factory. These new Americans brought with them their religious beliefs, cultural traditions, food, and language. As a result, South Bend became a predominantly Catholic community. It was home to numerous ethnic restaurants and celebrated holidays like the Polish celebration, Dyngus Day.
Factory jobs also appealed to African Americans and enticed them to move north as part of the Great Migration. In 1940, African Americans made up only 3.5% of South Bend’s population, but by 1960 the number had increased to 10% and continued to grow. Today, approximately 27% of South Bend’s residents are African American. Largely due to factory jobs, South Bend’s population boomed from 36,000 in 1900 to 132,000 at its peak in 1960.
The End of Studebaker, 1960s
By the 1960s, Studebaker no longer led as the competitive driving force in the automobile industry. High labor costs, quality concerns, and sales issues stressed the corporation. In 1963, Studebaker announced they would close the South Bend factory. They promised their 7,000 employees they would help them find jobs. Production would be moving to Hamilton, Canada where it completely stopped in 1966.
The Assembly 84 building now represents opportunities for the future. Portions of the building are being renovated to house new types of businesses. Studebaker may no longer be the city’s largest employer, but the legacy of its diverse employees is still present in the fabric of contemporary South Bend.