Rochester Explodes with History as Part of the “Arsenal of Democracy”

The “Arsenal of Democracy” in Rochester: How McAleer Manufacturing Helped Win a World War

Men and women work in a factory

A view of McAleer’s factory floor during World War II (From the Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm)

During the recent months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen Michigan manufacturers—including several in the Rochester area—pivot from their usual course of business to manufacture ventilators, PPE, and other high-priority items in response to our nation’s health emergency. This is not the first time our Rochester businesses have made such a transition in the national interest; during World War II, they likewise stepped up to the plate to fill critical military contracts.

If one knows where to look, Rochester’s landscape can still reveal some relics from its days as a part of World War II’s “Arsenal of Democracy.” Some of the most interesting are connected to McAleer Manufacturing Company, which moved its factory from Detroit to Rochester in June 1941. McAleer took over the vacant Western Knitting Mills building at Fourth and Water streets with plans to use it to produce its signature polishes, waxes, and other products for the automotive market. However, less than six months after the company’s move to Rochester was announced, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II. As one of Detroit’s “Arsenal of Democracy” industries, McAleer changed its focus from automotive accessories to the production of airplane components, photoflash flares and bombs, and explosive powders.

A man and a woman look at tubes hanging from the roof at eye level

Defense contract production at McAleer Manufacturing during World War II (From the Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm)

McAleer Manufacturing opened an employment office in Rochester in March 1942, offering jobs in defense production for 300 people. The factory operated around the clock, and the entire McAleer compound was designated a defense area by Michigan’s governor, an act that permitted the plant protection staff to arrest any trespasser found on company property.

Among the company’s new products for the war effort were photoflash flares and bombs. A McAleer employee newsletter of April 2, 1943, claimed that the company was producing more AN-M26 parachute flares and AN-M46 photoflash bombs than any other plant in the nation. These flares and bombs produced light for night photography, precision bombing, or observation. The flares were designed to provide extended illumination to facilitate bombing; after detonation, a parachute slowed the flare’s descent so that it would provide about three minutes of light on a target at 800,000 candlepower. In contrast, the AN-M46 photoflash bomb generated a brilliant flash that peaked at approximately 500 million candlepower and allowed photo-reconnaissance planes to operate from higher and safer altitudes.

Two tube-like metal bombs with fins and a description plate

A pair of AN-M26 photoflash flares of the type manufactured in Rochester by McAleer Manufacturing, is on display at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, OH

According to one newspaper account of the time, McAleer successfully completed a contract for 50,000 AN-M46 photoflash bombs between December 1942 and March 1944. At one point, production reached 565 units per day, and all were assembled, packed, and shipped from Rochester.

In addition to the photoflash bombs and flares, McAleer produced elevator and rudder assemblies for the AT-19 “Reliant” navigation trainer, and control assemblies for the Stinson L-5 “Sentinel,” an airplane affectionately nicknamed the “Flying Jeep.” Other production included gun turret seats, helicopter gas tanks, and sub-assemblies for Jeeps. In summarizing McAleer’s war production in a 1944 article, the Rochester Era boasted that: “From a moderate program of minor importance at the beginning, McAleer soon went into an expanded program … until at last everything that moved out of Detroit on wheels had something from McAleer upon it.”

In September 1942, newspapers announced that McAleer had begun construction of an adjunct facility, an aluminum powder plant compound on South Street that was projected to comprise twenty-five buildings in all. The South Street facility would allow McAleer to produce the aluminum powder that was required by the military to mix explosives for various types of munitions, chiefly those used by the U.S. Navy. Besides the main powder plant and its auxiliary buildings, there were at least five concrete bunkers located east of the plant. In addition to mixing explosive powder, the South Street compound was used for testing the photoflash bombs and flares. Local children hunted for—and prized—the spent parachutes from the flare tests.

Congress instituted the Defense Plant Corporation (DPC) in 1940 to build, expand, and equip private-sector industrial facilities to manufacture necessary war matériel. In February 1944, the DPC took over McAleer’s South Street plant and made additions and improvements to increase production. Records reveal that the plant had originally been designed to produce 1,360,000 pounds of explosive powder per month, but after expansion, the facility was generating 3,600,000 pounds per month.

Newspaper ad for Men Wanted

This World War II-era employment ad for McAleer ran in Rochester newspapers.

The output at the powder plant was not without human cost. In December 1942, just after operations began, an explosion in one of the South Street compound’s small cement and frame buildings killed two women employees and seriously injured a third. The women were blown out of the building when powder in a mixing machine they were using exploded, and they were severely burned when their clothing caught fire. Virginia Ann MacLeod, 22, of Rochester, and Ella Jane Brinker Thorne, 31, of Pontiac, died from their injuries. Audrey M. Shoemaker Fisher, 30, also of Pontiac, was the only one of the three to survive the accident.

Almost a year to the day from those fatalities, there was another fatal explosion at McAleer’s South Street compound. The 2:12 a.m. blast was so strong that it woke sleeping citizens for miles around and caused phones to ring in inquiry from as far away as Utica. A single employee, George Howard Smith, was killed when the powder he was mixing exploded and destroyed the building in which he was working. According to one newspaper account, Smith had been a member of the plant protection force before transferring to the job of explosives mixer. In a cruel twist of fate, the day of the explosion was his first and only day on the new job.

McAleer’s defense contract to produce explosive powders ended when the war did. In April 1946, McAleer’s South Street powder plant was offered for sale or lease by the War Assets Administration, which was tasked with returning unneeded defense plants to civilian production. Edward L. Hawes, of Detroit, made a successful bid of $20,000 for the plant where he intended to produce angle iron and other specialty metal products. A mishap immediately befell the new owner, however; as Hawes and his stepfather were using a torch to cut a pipe while renovating the main building, they touched off an explosion from powder that was remaining in the pipe. They were not injured, and there was little damage to the building, but Hawes was never able to launch his business successfully at the Rochester site. The land contract for the property was assigned in 1948 to Clarence A. McMillan, who then moved his Crucible Brass Foundry from Detroit to the former McAleer powder plant.

Two story brick building with 1940s cars parked along the roads

The McAleer plant at Fourth and Water as it looked in the 1940s (From the Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm)

Crucible Brass was located in the old powder plant building until approximately 1967. Beaver Stair Company was housed in the facility for a few years after Crucible Brass, and then Boyle Engineering purchased the property. In 2020, a portion of the main powder plant building and a couple of its associated outbuildings still stand on private property between South Street and the Clinton River. Ruins of some of the concrete bunkers still stand on city-owned land to the east of the former powder plant, but access to the property is restricted so the site is not available to the public.

Brochure with three photos of the plant site

This brochure offered McAleer’s South Street powder plant for sale after the war ended (National Archives and Records Administration).

Meanwhile, McAleer’s plant at Fourth and Water streets returned to civilian production. The company changed its name to Higbie Manufacturing in 1950 and later became known as ITT-Higbie. The company closed its Rochester facility in 1994. The building at Fourth and Water streets was rehabbed and is now the home of the Rochester Mills Beer Company, along with a number of professional office suites. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

The author would like to thank Samantha Lawrence, archivist at the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, for her assistance in locating images for this article.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Another fascinating article, Deborah. Thank you.

  2. James F. Ahearn says:

    I didn’t move to Rochester until the end of 1963, so I wasn’t aware of the village’s involvement in the war effort.
    I appreciate this article very much.

  3. Tom Rowe says:

    Great article Deb !!
    Thank you for your diligent resourcefulness in giving us a glimpse of the past.
    Tom

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