History is particular. Not everything can be remembered. Sometimes what’s forgotten isn’t really important. More often, what you remember is always skewed. This theory applies to recalling people and places prominent in our lives. Here in Cleveland, we have a structure that has a vast history and a lost past for anyone under the age of 50.
What do you know about the International Exposition Center, better known as the I-X Center? Do you immediately think of the ferris wheel and teens fighting to the death in felt hats, or do you think about home improvement or garden shows happening across the nearly one million square feet of floor space?
The real history buff Ohioans are aware of the role the I-X Center played in the Second World War. The giant convention center is where they built the wings of the exact model of plane that dropped the first nuclear weapons. What started as a General Motors plant became a piece of our economy during war times. There have been efforts made to save the history of this place. We have museums to preserve some of the story and a couple photos. Still, it never feels like we have the big picture. The best way to get knowledge of the past is to get a firsthand account. Enter Mary Jane Grospitch Semen.
In 1951, Mary began her career in the Cadillac Plant fresh out of high school. The plant was a bustling city within a city. There were dickhead bosses and work parties – a normal job. For Mary, this was just a good job for a Northeast Ohio girl to fall into. She went from $35 a week at the bank to $500 a month working for the government in wartime. She understood the importance of what they were doing. Mary, at 19, was working a grown woman’s job. From 1951 to 1959, the massive building was in a third evolution.
Mary worked as a secretary for the gun mounting department. She was the main point of contact for all correspondence in her department. During Mary’s time there, they built the M41 “Walker” Bulldog, a massive, manual transmission, reconnaissance killing machine. Little did she know she was helping build a machine that her future husband fought beside in Korea. Mary came to know this building inside and out – she even knew about what time would turn into the secrets of the plant, such as rumors of tunnels under the I-X Center.
“There are no tunnels in the I-X Center,” Mary screams. “They were underground roads! Three roads the length, three roads the width.”
Tanks don’t fit in a tunnel. As Mary describes it, the tank plant was a sprawling classic assembly line on the surface. In the basement was all the paperwork and staff needed to operate a weapons factory during war. Mary recalls the vibrations that would rattle the plate glass windows as the tanks would roll along those roads outside her underground offices.
Mary was more than an office girl. She would hang with the guys, cash checks, and anything else that was needed. She had an interest in knowing exactly what was going on above her head. “I really wanted to drive one of those tanks,” she admits.
Mary is what you’d get if Rosie The Riveter ended up in the steno pool. If she just could have stolen the keys to one of those beasts, behind the plant was a test track that is now Hopkins Airport.
Mary had the foresight to keep literature and maps from inside the plant during her time there. In speaking with Mary, the most amazing thing was the feeling of community she says was all throughout the Plant.
“It was a great job,” she says. “We would have department parties, we would gossip in the ladies locker room. We all worked so closely together that it was like a family.”
The ‘50s were dark times. Racist rhetoric and inappropriate office interactions were not uncommon. However, Mary was fortunate not to experience such acts.
“In my years there not once was someone inappropriate to me or anything like that,” she says. “It was like we [the office girls] were their sisters. We were very young.”
As for racism, Mary remembers Hellen, a black woman they worked with who was in charge of the locker room area as a shoulder to cry on for all the office girls. Hellen and all the girls came to Mary’s wedding. When you have tanks to build, race and harassing women fall to the wayside.
The community inside the tank plant was an incubator for tolerance… most of the time. They never let Mary drive a Walker Bulldog. They said it might “damage her innards.” Talk to your elders and see if they have a lost Ohio story. The stories tied to the I-X Center are different for everyone.
Us younger Ohians have a duty to seek out the disappearing past of these places and people. As the older folks with first hand knowledge of a forgotten Ohio age, they forget and eventually pass on. Find some history on your own, talk to your grandma – unless you want the only stories about the I-X center to involve teen warfare and poorly assembled carnival rides.
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James Earl Brassfield or simply JEB is a writer, podcast host, humorist, actor and “Black Hunter Thompson” type madman of no ill repute. Language has yet to evolve fully to describe his unique view of Northeast Ohio and the world. JEB produces work across all media with his original and clearly stated voice. @Jearlbrass