GREENSBORO— I heard about it, and I saw the sign out front a few days ago. So, I had to ask.
It was true.
Ford Body Co. is closing.
You've probably seen the company beside the loping curve at the beginning of Battleground Avenue and not even given it a second thought. It's the warehouse with the words "Ford Body Co." in big red letters that sits catty-cornered to the new construction on Battleground just beyond Buffalo Creek.
That business is important in the storied history of Greensboro's blue-collar world. Ford Body started in 1917, and three generations of the Ford family have run it. In the process, Ford Body helped build Greensboro.
It built truck bodies for plumbers, bakers, grocers and furniture makers.
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It built truck bodies for companies that sold soda, cleaned sheets, made sausage, peddled milk and created buildings out of iron and steel.
It built truck bodies to tote books, haul groceries, carry horses and move families.
And it built one of the first two school buses ever bought by Guilford County, and the first bookmobile ever used by the county.
Something to think about. And something to remember.
By August, Ford Body is expected to close, and a restaurant will go up on that property that spans nearly 2 acres.
Like so many businesses, large and small, Ford Body had been hurt by our unforgiving economy. Lynn Ford, the third-generation owner, has had to lay off employees and wrestle with ways to deal with dropping revenue.
But that's not the reason why Ford Body is ending. The company is getting business again after six tough years, But Lynn is 77 and his son, his only child, runs a successful brewery in Charlotte and has built his own life beyond the loping curve of Battleground.
So, when a Realtor called about selling the property six months ago, Lynn thought about it. Then, he said yes.
"If I was in my 60s, and someone would've wanted to buy the property, I know I wouldn't be ready," he tells me the other day from his warehouse. "But at my age, I knew I'd be retiring in a year or two anyway, and when I knew I could get the property sold, I knew it would be a good time.
"Now, I'm not getting out because of the economy. I survived the economy. But I'm ready to retire."
That will happen to all of us. But Lynn's story is different.
He had wrestled with the idea of retirement for years, and when business dropped and layoffs came, he kept asking himself, "What's next?" But he stuck it out because of his family's history. He also kept at it because of his employees.
They know that.
Once, he used his own money to keep the business afloat. And another time, he had his employees painting the steel beams of the company's six bays a bright stoplight yellow to keep them working.
He wanted to keep them in a paycheck. He knew they had family, too.
When times were good, he treated them to golfing, deep-sea fishing trips, Christmas parties and a bonus.
So, employees worked at Ford Body for decades. One employee stayed there for 60 years. They got benefits and good pay. But also, they stayed because of the Ford family. Particularly Lynn Ford.
Right now, only four employees remain at Ford Body. And they have assured Lynn they'll stay there until the end.
"It's real sad," says Robert Bowles, the company's service manager. "But on the other hand, when all is said and done and we're sweeping the floors, I'm going to shake Mr. Ford's hand and say, 'It's been a pleasure.' And I'd do that again and again. It's just loy-
alty, something that's not around anymore."
Bowles was a long-distance truck driver when he started work at Ford Body. He has been there for 18 years. He had tired of the road, and he wanted to stay close to home. He found a professional home at Ford Body.
David Currie found that, too. He came 20 years ago, and today, he works as the company's paint manager. But these days, he and Bowles work shoulder to shoulder on the jobs coming in that take a few days, not a few weeks.
And like Bowles, he's going to stick with it until the very last day.
"Lynn has helped me all these years," says Currie, a married father of two. "He's built our house. So, why not help him and see it until the end? I've seen the stress in Mr. Ford's eyes, and now, he's relieved. I'm glad of that. He deserves to go play golf."
He will. And he'll spend more time at his house at North Carolina's coast. But like Currie and Bowles, he's sad.
"I've been here for so long," he says. "You get used to everything here."
Bonnie Powell, his bookkeeper since 1989, gets that.
"You know, one thing that makes me sad is that I've been shredding payroll records, and I've seen all these people employed here over the years," she says. "Dozens of people. Now, we're down to three or four."
Lynn he has a framed contract with the Oettinger Buggy Co. on his wood-paneled wall. His grandfather, the company's founder, received it in 1906. The contract promised Elbert Ray Ford $2 a day for 10 hours of work selling buggies.
When the Oettinger family quit making buggies and started a lumber business, Elbert Ray Ford saw a new venture: building tops and curtains for those newfangled cars and building and altering bodies for trucks and business wagons.
Lynn respects that history because he's seen it firsthand.
Lynn used to leave from his grandparents' house on Paul Street, go past their huge vegetable garden, and walk two minutes to Ford Body to sweep the sawdust off the floors. He was 10, and he made 50 cents a week.
He worked there through his teenage summers, and after he graduated from Greensboro Senior High, Class of '55, he knew one day he'd return and continue his family's truck-body legacy.
That happened. In the early 1960s, his father drove all the way to New Mexico to convince his son to come home after his three-year stint in the Army and eventually take over the family business.
Lynn did in March of 1962. He started building van bodies. He later took over the company from his dad and his Uncle Chunk. As Norma, his wife of 54 years likes to say, "This company is in his blood."
It is. It always will be.
He can remember when Grecade Street was a dirt road called Battleground, and Ford Body occupied the property where Graybar Electric now sits. And he can remember when the company moved a half-block in 1967 and started business in the very spot where it is today.
He can flip through old photographs and tell stories, and he can look at an old catalog of things Ford Body once built — garbage trucks for the city of Greensboro or buggies for Vick Chemical Co. — and laugh when he hears it's collectible and museum-worthy because of its age.
Or he can walk through his huge warehouse, past the stacks of boxes and other equipment he's selling and come to the anvil in the back.
It's anchored to a stump, and it came from Ford Body's first shop, just up the street on Grecade.
So, everywhere he walks, everywhere he looks, Lynn has a memory.
"Oh, gosh, I remember when I was a kid, I'd come down here, everything was made out of wood," he says, standing by the anvil.
"And I'd sweep up the sawdust, and my grandfather paid me 50 cents a week. That was a lot of money, man."
Lots of memories, too.
Contact Jeri Rowe at (336) 313-1314 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit News-Record.com, click on "Blogs" and "Jeri's GSO" to find the headline "The Legacy of Ford Body Co." and read an article from The Greensboro Record that was published in February 1940.