In 2019, the city of South Bend garnered national attention due to a presidential bid by its mayor, Pete Buttigieg. The campaign brought attention to the city including its struggles with race relations and economic inequality. These conditions in the city were heavily shaped by the area’s industrial past. This tour links past and present by exploring how the city of South Bend in the 20th century was shaped as corporations of all sizes opened, grew, brought in workers, and ultimately closed.
Wagons, plows, and similar kinds of farm equipment were early staples of South Bend industry. They were produced in massive factories on the outskirts of town. The agricultural Midwest made South Bend a prime location to manufacture farming implements and equipment as they could be sold locally or transported further west by rail. Northern Indiana’s forests attracted lumber-dependent businesses including wagon and furniture makers. The banks of the St. Joseph River housed industries reliant on hydropower, such as mills. These industries also paved the way for South Bend’s best-known product: Studebaker automobiles.
At their height, South Bend’s biggest factories employed thousands of workers making products sold all over the United States. From the 1880s to the 1920s, when the local supply of labor was exhausted, businesses imported their labor force by appealing to Poles and Hungarians seeking economic opportunity in the United States. Later factories attracted African Americans moving north as part of the Great Migration. Manufacturing jobs encouraged more than six million African Americans to move from the rural south to Northern and Midwestern manufacturing cities between 1916 to 1970. South Bend has held onto this diverse population: today, approximately 27% of the city’s residents are Black, compared to only 9.8% of Indiana residents.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the once booming businesses grappled with changing consumer tastes, increased foreign production, and mergers that forced small businesses to be absorbed by larger businesses. Through the 1980s, South Bend’s industries consolidated and slowly diminished. Their ultimate closure had a lasting economic impact on the city, which in 2017 had an income poverty rate of 22.8%. This rate is over twice the national average. The African American community was hit particularly hard, with an income poverty rate of 40.2% compared to a national rate of 23.1%.
Despite factory closures, the factory buildings and the mansions built by their wealthy owners remain. Today, warehouses are finding new life as office and residential buildings. Homes built during local industry’s peak are being preserved for public enjoyment.
This tour examines lost businesses of South Bend and the fruits of their success in order to shed light on the impact of industry on the city’s history.