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Jacob Smith was the first Euro-American to venture into the Flint area, establishing a trading post in 1811. After the peaceful signing of the 1819 Saginaw treaty that transferred Chippewa lands to the U.S. government, he built a permanent cabin on the north bank of the Flint River near a crossing that the Native Americans had traversed for centuries. Around this key crossing Flint began to grow. By 1830 the first tavern, sawmill, gristmill, and several houses were built. When the Saginaw Turnpike between Detroit and Saginaw opened in 1833, crossing the Flint River at the Grand Traverse, early settlers from New York State, New England, and Oakland County began to arrive in greater numbers. During the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, a blacksmith shop, a brick school, a post office, hotels, churches, additional grist and saw mills, a woolen mill, and a potash soap factory were established and built. A stage line ran to Pontiac; even a circus was hosted in 1846.

By 1860 Flint, which had been named the county seat in 1838 and established as a city in 1855, was well into its short-lived lumbering era, which lasted only from 1850 to the early 1880s. Lumbering seemed merely a prelude to the more important business of horse-drawn vehicle production. Although the first carriage works was established in Flint around 1850, vehicle production became big business only when the William A. Paterson Company, James Whiting's Flint Wagon Works, William C. Durant and J. Dallas Dort's Flint Road Cart Company, and other firms came onto the scene.

Flint was proclaimed “The Vehicle City” by 1905, when more than 150,000 horse-drawn vehicles were made annually by the Durant-Dort Carriage Company alone ( GS7). With skilled workers, physical plant, suppliers of raw materials, distributors for finished products, and plenty of investment capital available, Flint made a natural transition to motor vehicle production in the early twentieth century. This transition also caused Flint's population to explode from 13,000 in 1900 to 157,000 in 1930 and changed its physical appearance from that of a small nineteenth-century town to that of a prosperous twentieth-century industrial center. Two, or perhaps three, model automobiles had already been assembled in Flint before A. B. C. Hardy began production of the Flint Roadster at his Flint Automobile Company facility in 1902.

The city's most famous car, however, was the Buick. Although David Dunbar Buick had developed his car in Detroit in 1903, James Whiting, of Flint Wagon Works, bought the Buick Motor Car Company and moved it to Flint. By early July 1904 a new model was finished, and on August 13 of that year the first production vehicle was completed. The company suffered financial troubles until William “Billy” C. Durant assumed control, made the Buick one of the nation's best-selling cars, and used it as the foundation for the establishment of the General Motors Company in 1908.

The Chevrolet car also achieved its first real production success in Flint. Buick race driver Louis Chevrolet developed and started production of his Chevrolet Classic Six in Detroit. In 1911, however, William C. Durant became Chevrolet's principal financial backer and moved the Chevrolet operation to Flint. Production started in 1912 and was such a success that Durant used the company to regain the control he had lost over General Motors during expansion difficulties.

Eventually, more than twenty different kinds of motorized vehicles were made in Flint, not including the military vehicles used during World Wars I and II. Many other industries manufactured products related to the automobile, and these firms clustered around the auto factories. Thus, in addition to Durant, Dort, Buick, and Chevrolet, Flint's auto-based history soon included such men as William C. Orwell, Charles Stewart Mott, Albert Champion, Walter P. Chrysler, Harry H. Bassett, Enos A. DeWaters, and many more. While Flint has declined since the 1970s with GM's steady loss of market share, it is a community that once battled Detroit for supremacy in the automobile industry. Its attractive areas of workers' housing, fine neighborhoods of managers' homes, high-style downtown buildings, public and cultural facilities, and once active auto manufacturing complexes speak of how close it came to winning the battle. In 2010 Flint continues to loose population. To save money the city has laid off employees, closed schools, and acquired some nine hundred houses through tax foreclosure. Genesee County treasurer Dale Kildee proposed to shrink the size of the city, demolishing houses and neighborhoods and thereby condensing the population into viable areas and reducing the need for services. The mayor has spoken of shutting down entire quadrants of the city. Flint has educational and cultural institutions, shopping centers, and recreational activities with which to reposition itself.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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