Jeff Pollock has spent more than a decade working in museums so he is used to “weird and creepy” old stuff such as jewelry made out of human hair, he said.
It’s partly why he refuses to believe in ghosts.
But a couple of years ago, something happened in the early morning hours at the Ford Piquette Avenue plant — where he is the event manager — that he can’t explain.
He was alone on the third floor turning off all the lights after a wedding reception. The rest of his team was downstairs. Suddenly, he startled at the sound of a loud slam. One of the huge, steel fire doors, held open by a rope, had somehow come loose and then crashed shut — all by itself.
“I honestly thought it was one of my guys slamming the door,” Pollock said. “We didn’t have a security system then where I could look back on video camera. So I asked if any of my guys were playing a trick on me. They swore no.”
He checked the knot on the rope used to hold the door open. It was intact. He did not see any other malfunctions to explain how the heavy door, weighing about 500 pounds, had shut on its own.
“If I wasn’t such a skeptical person, I could put together a paranormal explanation, but I think that maybe the weight of the door threw it off kilter and it slammed.” But, he admits, “It was a very intriguing experience.”
That mysterious incident is just one of some pretty bizarre tales that museum staff and guests have recounted over the last 20 years since the old factory converted to a museum and event venue.
So this summer, a Detroit history tour company decided to focus on the baffling occurrences there, seeing an opportunity for ghoulish tourism to draw in some ghost-hungry customers at the scariest time of the year.
For $70 on Halloween night you can potentially have the crap scared out of you, or be bored senseless depending on what they don’t find, by joining one of two 90-minute tours along with Detroit Paranormal Expeditions — real professional ghost hunters! — through the dim, creeky, old factory in search of ghostly guests. While these aren’t the first creepy tours offered at the plant, the organizers say it’s the first time a team of ghost hunters will lead the way.
A beer and a good ghost story
The paranormal investigation is the brainchild of the Detroit History Tours company. Normally, this outfit offers packed bus expeditions around the city. One of the especially popular ones has been the haunted tours at Halloween. But the coronavirus pandemic brought those to a halt. So the staff had to come up with a new idea, said Bailey Sisoy-Moore, executive director for Detroit History Tours.
“We started talking in June. … What would be something interesting, fun and exciting, in a large enough space where we can have social distancing?” Sisoy-Moore said. “We knew that this is the year to talk about factories and ghosts and what lingers long after the machines are turned off.”
The Piquette plant had been on Sisoy-Moore’s radar for a while. She and some of the museum’s team of history buffs were regular beer buddies. Often, after a few beverages, tales would tumble out.
“We’d hear stories of, ‘Yeah we had some weird things happen last night,’ ” Sisoy-Moore said.
“Ghost stories are so hard because we can’t prove them, but to say they don’t matter is a mistake. They give the building soul,” Sisoy-Moore said. “They give us that moment to remember the people who made that building important.”
The Detroit History Tours team put together some haunted history tours at the plant for the last two weekends of the month. On Halloween evening, there are two tours that cost $70 a person. The first starts at 5:30 p.m. and tickets were still available; the second is sold out.
Pollock said most evenings at the Piquette plant are normally booked for weddings or corporate events. But because the pandemic forced those events to be canceled or postponed, it creates an opening for the ghost hunt to happen.
“I think a haunted history buff is a little different demographic and we’re getting people in who maybe never heard of the plant before,” Pollock said.
The building is more than a century old. It has housed Ford and Studebaker automobile assembly, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company and the Cadillac Overall Company. So, just maybe, there is potential for restless souls to be lurking in dark corners.
Ford built the building in 1904 as its first purpose-built factory, after renting manufacturing space on Mack Avenue. It was at the Piquette Avenue Plant that Ford created and first produced the famous Model T in 1908. That’s the car credited with putting America on wheels. It is also where Henry Ford conducted his early experiments using a moving assembly line.
“A place as historic as the Piquette plant had a lot of people who were in and out of it over the years,” said Jeff Adkins, cofounder of Detroit Paranormal Expeditions. “That’s a lot of energy, and over time that energy can stay embedded in the building. So when you hear a place is haunted and you hear of a spirit going up and down the hallway, it might not necessarily be a ghost, but rather energy that is embedded there.”
A ghostly ‘Magneto Girl’
The most consistent story Sisoy-Moore said she heard came from female Piquette plant museum staff members.
Many of the women reported feeling like they were not alone, like someone was watching them, even though they were the only ones in the plant.
“It wasn’t a scary or leery feeling. It was just like they were not alone even though there was no one else working,” Sisoy-Moore said. “They all said, ‘I’d feel like someone was there and I’d turn around expecting to see someone and no one was there.’ But they said it never felt like it was malevolent.”
The connection to female staff could lie in the plant’s unusual history with women.
In late 1905, Henry Ford and one of his engineers, Edward “Spider” Huff, started hiring women to help make the magneto flywheels used to help power the cars.
“It’s very delicate work to make them and Henry and Spider felt women could do it, they had smaller hands,” said Sisoy-Moore. “So they hired the ‘Magneto Girls’ who had to work in a separate area of the factory away from the men. They were all together in a room. They had a lot of pride in what they were doing and felt a sisterhood.”
That room, on the second floor of the factory, is where the female museum employees reported most often having that feeling of someone watching them.
“We all said, ‘It’s gotta be a Magneto Girl,’ ” said Sisoy-Moore of a ghostly guest. “It is to the Ford Motor Co.’s credit though, the Magneto Girls were paid the same as the men. That was a prestigious job — to be able to earn their own living in 1906, when very few women were earning a living then.”
Henry’s haunted office
When Studebaker bought the plant in 1911, the company tore apart Henry Ford’s office, also on the second floor across the hall from where the Magneto Girls worked.
But the Piquette Museum team re-created his original office several years ago, Sisoy-Moore said. They put in a chaise lounge because Ford was known for working long hours and taking naps. Also, an avid bird watcher, he kept a telescope in his office, so the staff added a telescope to the display too.
But that telescope would soon be the subject of an unsolved mystery. Museum staff would leave the telescope pointing down at night, only to return the next morning and find it pointed in a different direction, often toward the window, Sisoy-Moore said.
“There is no one there overnight and I did grill the staff and I said, ‘Who’s moving the telescope?’ They said, ‘It’s not us,’ ” Sisoy-Moore said. “That thing is heavy. We looked at the breeze of the heat vent, but that’s not strong forced air by any means. Three people reported it happening in the seven years since the office was rebuilt.”
But that’s not all. Henry Ford’s desk was typically in disarray, Sisoy-Moore said. He had piles of paperwork and was so disorganized that, in later years, his wife once found a check for $75,000 in his coat pocket when doing his laundry, Sisoy-Moore said.
“His staff would go into his office and tidy it up,” Sisoy-Moore said. “When the museum rebuilt the office, an education director staged the office the messy way that Henry would have had it. But she said when she came back days later, everything was neatly stacked.”
The museum had not been open during those days and no staff had been inside it, Sisoy-Moore said.
The secret room
In 1906, Henry Ford built what he called his experimental room, which his employees called the secret room, because he allowed only his most trusted staff inside.
Initially the room was meant to design the next generation of the hot-selling Model N car. But, ultimately, that room was where Ford and his engineers came up with the Model R, S and the famous Model T that changed the world, Sisoy-Moore said. The first 12,000 Model Ts were built at that factory.
In the room, Ford kept a rocking chair where he’d sit and ponder ideas, stare at the chalkboard and otherwise think. The museum staff re-created the room as it would have looked, including a rocking chair in the middle of it. The display is visible, but closed off where it is hard for even staff to access it. Yet, the rocking chair reportedly has been seen rocking on its own.
“A couple of people, including wedding guests, say they have seen something out of the corner of their eye moving. When they turn to look at it, the chair is rocking without anyone in it,” said Sisoy-Moore. “The most realistic explanation someone has given was that maybe it was a mouse that caused the rocking.”
Spider the ghost
But if you don’t buy that, Sisoy-Moore said it could be the ghost of any one of the half-dozen people Ford allowed in the secret room, including Ford’s engineer Spider Huff. Huff was a hard-drinking rabble-rouser who would go on benders and disappear for days.
Huff was a bit crazy, too. He would hang off of the side of a car when Henry Ford would race, acting as a counterbalance, she said. Finally, he once got drunk and crashed a boat into the main dock at the Detroit Yacht Club, Sisoy-Moore said.
“If I had to guess who’s haunting the factory, he’d be my No. 1 guess,” Sisoy-Moore said. “He was such a crazy guy in real life and he’d get a kick out of the fact that the factory is now a museum. So playing tricks on people would be something he’d love to do.”
Plus, she said, “these guys might have made it, but Henry Ford was forgetting to cash checks and Spider was still getting drunk at the Yacht Club and crashing boats. These guys were working-class poor who made it rich. So if they were going to haunt anything, it wouldn’t be their mansion, it’d be the factory they worked in.”
But it wasn’t just the adults who had some of their best times at the factory, little Edsel Ford did, too. In fact, at age 10, Ford gave his son a Model N car for his birthday.
The boy grew up at the Piquette factory. He learned to ride his bike in that plant and often brought his friends there to play, Sisoy-Moore said.
“Everyone would tune-up his bike for him and give him a horn for his scooter. He’d eat lunch with the workers,” Sisoy-Moore said. “Edsel said later in his life that everything valuable he learned, he learned at the Piquette factory.”
But that sweet tale might underlie a florist’s horror. A few years ago, as the story goes, the florist was setting up for a wedding at the plant when she started to hear the “ching-ching” of an old fashioned bell that was used on bicycles. As she continued with her task, she suddenly felt the distinct rush of air and something swoosh past her. But when she looked around, there was no one there.
Three other workers nearby said they too heard the “ching-ching” of a bell, but none of them saw anyone else there who could be ringing it, Sisoy-Moore said.
The florist ran downstairs to the museum’s office and, “the staff had to calm her down,” Sisoy-Moore said. “Over the years, many people have heard that ching-ching of the old fashioned bell and others hear whistling, but they are never able to find anyone in the building who is doing it.”
Ghosts like whiskey
Professional ghost-hunter Adkins said he is open-minded that the factory could have ghosts, but he remains skeptical too about what his team may find in there this Allhallows Eve.
“You’ve always got to be skeptical,” said Adkins, who’s been ghost hunting for nearly nine years. “Not everything that seems paranormal is paranormal. We’ve debunked a lot of stuff. Sometimes orbs are just dust balls that reflect light. But do I believe in a spiritual world and the presence of ghosts in a spiritual world? Absolutely.”
For the investigation, he said they use a “spirit box,” which is essentially a radio modified to scan radio frequencies superfast.
He has the spirit box on while he asks questions out loud and, he said, “sometimes we’ll get responses through the spirit box. Sometimes the voices that come through might be three or four words in the same voice. We do believe that could be spiritual communication. In some places, we’ve heard very clear profanity coming through, which would not be something you’d hear on a radio station, so we believe that could be spiritual communication.”
Adkins said the question that tends to get the most responses through the spirit box is, “Do you want a drink? Or what’s your drink of choice?”
“I don’t know why that one tends to get answered so much,” Adkins said. “Once I asked, ‘What is your favorite drink?’ I got a clear response, ‘Whiskey.’ “