Looking back at the Ford Motor Company plant in Milpitas

It was 1955 when the Ford Motor Company plant first opened in Milpitas. This move set the stage for a total transformation in town, bringing forth a new era of housing and retail development to replace the once-prominent hay fields, swamplands, and walnut trees that made up Milpitas. 

The Ford plant closed down on May 20, 1983. This week marks the 35th anniversary of its closing.

To honor the company that played a role in accelerating Milpitas’ early growth, we’re sharing some photos that have never been seen before, mostly of Ford’s very last day of operations. We also had the opportunity to interview two former Ford employees.

One of them is named Archie LaBine, who will be turning 90 this coming July.

When he got out of the service in 1953, LaBine starting working for Ford Motor Company, which was located in Richmond, California, at the time. He was willing to learn anything, and very quickly started up on the assembly line, putting in springs, shocks, and break lights. 

 

Archie LaBine

 

When the plant announced it was closing up shop in Richmond, and moving to Milpitas, LaBine came out to have a look at the tiny town that would be his new home. “To tell you the truth, the first time I saw it, I liked it here,” said LaBine. “We came down and looked at the area where they were going to build all the houses, and I just knew. I knew this was the place we’d always be.” 

Ford’s move to Milpitas propelled a new tract of houses to be built in the Sunnyhills neighborhood, where LaBine still continues to reside, after all these years. Seventy-three houses were built on that tract, and LaBine’s was one of the very first. 

“Every single house in that tract had a Ford worker in it,” said LaBine. “If we ever needed to have a meeting or something, we’d just walk over to somebody’s house. There were no buildings or areas to meet in at that time. After the Sunnyhills neighborhood was built, Milford Village was the second one. That was put in by the old Ayer High School.”

Ben Gross, who was part of the leadership of the United Auto Workers Local 560, was instrumental in ensuring that all Ford workers were treated fairly and well taken care of when they moved from Richmond to Milpitas. Gross, too, had started working at Richmond’s Ford plant after serving in the army. He soon became the first African-American ever to be elected to the union’s bargaining committee. It was because of Ford that Gross ventured out to Milpitas, where he eventually served as a councilmember, and even mayor for two terms.

 

A shot of Ben Gross’ car, parked at Ford, in 1962. 

 

Patrick Sabin, who lived in Oakland, got hired by Ford on June 7, 1962. At first, he tried commuting from Oakland to Milpitas each day, but he soon grew exhausted. After a couple of years, he decided to move to Milpitas with his family, onto a street called Selwyn Drive.  

Sabin worked on the Ford line as a painter of passenger cars, and would relieve all painters whenever they needed a break. After six months, they moved him to work on commercial trucks.   

“If you followed one truck through the whole line, that truck would be out of there in an hour,” said Sabin. “We probably made about 150 trucks a day; maybe more, maybe less. When I started, we were painting 18 trucks an hour. And right before it closed down, we were painting about 35 an hour.” 

 

Patrick Sabin, at Ford, in the early eighties. 

 

When he left the navy in 1961, Sabin had his sights set on a job at the Oakland Tribune. However, since he wasn’t a high school graduate, he couldn’t get hired. They told him to focus on getting his GED, and then to come back. But while in the process of procuring his GED, he got a call from the unemployment office; they told Sabin they had something for him at Ford. The rest is history. 

When the plant shut down in 1983, Sabin still had nine years left on his 30-year job contract. So he moved to the other Ford plant in Kansas for a few years; and his wife came along with him. He finished up his Ford career with another few years at the Richmond parts depot, eventually retiring in 1992, at the age of 52.    

In 1994, the Great Mall opened where the plant once stood. At 1.4 million square feet of retail space, the mall is Northern California’s second largest.  

“So many people say that if it wasn’t for Ford Motor Company, this place would’ve never been what it is,” said Sabin. “Ford was the cause of all this growth in Milpitas.”

For more photos of Ford’s final days in Milpitas, keep scrolling. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Ford photos courtesy of the Sabin family. 

 

 

 

 

 

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