Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rare Footage of the Flint Sit-Down Strike and Flood

Reader JWilly writes: "Sometime after the introduction of 8mm movie cameras in 1932, my grandfather bought one, along with a projector, screen and the other equipment needed for that early technology. 8mm film didn't have an audio track then, but that didn't matter because he could narrate as he projected. Certainly he was no cinematographer--he didn't tell picture-stories or plan his shoots, he just pointed the camera at whatever was of interest, or directed his assistant of the moment to do so. Nowdays we'd say his shots were too short and his pans too fast, but that was the home movie style of the doubt influenced by the significant cost of film and developing.

"Much of the film he shot was kept by my parents, and we've finally gotten most of it converted to video."

"This brief film about the 1947 Flint River flood, in mostly-faded color, shows parts of the downtown area near the river. This was after the peak of the flood had passed. My grandfather's store then was at the corner of Beach Street and First Street, about two blocks from the river. The surface water didn't get quite that far, but the store's basement and the bottom of the freight elevator shaft were flooded several feet deep. At first it wasn't clear how high the flood might go, and probably shooting film of the flood had lower priority than getting as much as possible of the inventory and store fixtures to upper floors, then working to salvage what had gotten wet. Once the water clearly had stopped rising, then there was time to go sightseeing." 

"My dad had just turned 15 when the 1936-37 Sit-Down Strike began. I think he was the cameraman as my grandfather drove, for some of this short collection showing National Guard troops outside Fisher Body #1 on South Saginaw, and bivouacked alongside (I think) the IMA near downtown. Having strikers and police engaged in pitched battles that sent people on both sides to hospitals, and police cars burned and wrecked, and troops in town with fixed bayonets was quite shocking to the ordinary citizenry, for whom Organized Labor, Socialism and Communism all were new, strange and — according to many leaders — dangerous."


  1. I remember that flood, and the flooding of Halls Flats. I was too young, (4) to understand how far reaching those floods would be.
    My father was a factory worker during that period and how hard it must have been all of those who were involved, no matter which side they were on.
    Thanks for posting these.

  2. GREAT footage showing the National Guard camping in and around the Flint High School "Old Main" building- the last use of that structure, which was razed later that year. Thanks for those PRICELESS views!

  3. Very nice. The National guard were bivouacked at the old Flint High School where the parking ramp for the old Montgomery Wards was later built. You can do a search in the Google Life magazines and find some excellent pictures of the encampment. If you want the photos from the Flint Journal book on the 47 flood Gordy let me know. I just purchased it. Again; very nice post".

  4. Thank you for sharing. I've always been fascinated with the history of our city, and I think we have some of the most interesting and strong people. I know there is blight, arsons, and homocides, but there are also the art undergound, peace mob group, local small business owners, and genuinely nice people, people that care about people in this city and the potential it holds.

  5. What a great piece of filmed history. The flood actually affecting your Grandfather's livelihood adds a personal value too. I remember my Dad taking us for tour over the Court steet bridge and how scary the flats were when looking down at the water level and seeing people in boats down there. My father inlaw owned a business during that time on Water st. Needless to say, it was quite sometime before they were up and running again. The Upsidedown Bridge was never the same

  6. The Labor Movement in Flint was not so much Ideological as it was Grass Roots Economic. Kind of like a Tea Party for the workers.

    As the years went on after World War II, the workers were very Anti Communist. They fought Communism during the Cold War. They were the first people to yell "hippie" at you if your hair got a little long.

    I don't think there were any 1930s type Communists at the local level. Those were mainly in New York and Chicago.

    1. You might have found a few of those other types at the Tech Center in 70s. My landlord in Warren at that time had retired as a highly-skilled tradesman from the Tech Center and he agreed that the early union efforts brought basic necessary reforms for the workers. But his theory was that the later high wages of his fellow tradesmen allowed them to think that they deserved all of the profits, above even the shareholders, and thus anti-capitalist. They were some of the last to agree to settle at each renegotiation as I recall.

    2. the union was a very important part of helping the factory workers receive a fair working wage and work in fair working conditions,, and i supported that,, then the unions started bring in huge amounts of money ,, that was when the corruption began,, i remember hoffa ,,i remember walter ruether the killings the power trips, the whole teamsters unions became corrupt so what happens next ,, the unions threaten to shut down the auto industry if they don't bow to there demands,, but they do it to 1 auto company at a time it may be ford ,,it may be g.m ,it maybe chrysler ,, the company could not survive against the other 2 if they were shut down so they accepted the unions terms,, then the union went to the next auto company and said you have to do this or better or we will shut you down,, you see the pattern until the auto industry could no longer compete on the global stage,, so they left to build their cars in a more competitive market.. so to put this in perspective in the late 1900 early 2000 after unions negotiated a new contract with whatever business in the assembly they announced the good news their wages were going up

      dollars an hour and the workers cheered and laughed and high five ,,, the bad news the company can not afford it and are moving over seas

  7. Thanks for sharing these priceless films about our history - please post more!

  8. > I don't think there were any 1930s type Communists at the local level. Those were mainly in New York and Chicago.

    I didn't mean to suggest that my grandfather had that focus. Newspapers of the time, though, were quick to mention whenever a union somewhere else was thought by someone to be socialist/communist-influenced, and that concerned many middle class Americans of the time. On the other hand, I'd guess that he thought the union movement had a valid point about then-common industrial working conditions.

    But organized labor actions to seize control of factories, mutually violent engagements between strikers and the cops, and armed troops around town, were very unlike the America that he and most of the citizenry had grown up with.

    Some kinds of change...particularly those involving social violence and armed troops...aren't good. I'm sure that was his view.

  9. My dad was part of the sit-down strikes and talked about later often. He was employed by Buick, so these films would not have shown him. But I looked anyway. Great visual history.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at