Michigan Town's Engine Shows It Could. Can It Again? In Holland, Mich., where President Obama visited the site of a new electric car battery plant, an antique Allis-Chalmers steam engine is displayed as a symbol of the city's industrial heritage. Now Holland is shaking off its rust and trying to build a future in what Michigan's governor calls the "Green Belt."
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Michigan Town's Engine Shows It Could. Can It Again?

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Michigan Town's Engine Shows It Could. Can It Again?

Michigan Town's Engine Shows It Could. Can It Again?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128573807/128600352" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

President Obama traveled to Holland, Michigan this past week to celebrate the ground breaking of a new plant that will make batteries for electric cars. While the president talked about economic engines of the future, NPR's Scott Horsley spent some time thinking about the power of the past.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama says it's more than just a factory that's taking shape in Holland. It's a down payment on a whole new industry.

BARACK OBAMA: These have been a tough few years, but we have been through tough times before. And at our best, we've risen to the challenges we face by tapping the drive and the talent and the ingenuity that has always been at the heart of America's success.

HORSLEY: Evidence of Michigan's ability to weather tough times is on display just a mile down the road from the battery plant. Parked in the middle of a well-tended flowerbed sits an antique Allis-Chalmers steam engine - just like the one that was showcased in the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. That's where some Holland businessmen saw it and bought one for their city's Bush and Lane piano factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

DICK DARBY: Way back when, after horses and everything, steam engines drove all of these plants.

HORSLEY: Steam power drove the piano plant for almost a quarter century, until the music stopped abruptly in 1929.

DARBY: People are trying to figure out how to buy groceries and not pianos when the stock market crashed. I'm sure that had something to do with it.

HORSLEY: The steam engine sat idle until 1933. Then, the New Deal put Americans, and the old Allis-Chalmers, back to work. This time, the 350- horsepower steamer was harnessed to the belts and pulleys of the Baker Furniture Company. It ran two shifts a day for another 26 years before it was finally retired in 1959.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

HORSLEY: Coal trains still rumble through Holland, connecting the city's past to its future. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm says this area that once turned lumber into furniture is now turning in a new direction.

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: Our goal is to transform Michigan from the Rust Belt to the Green Belt.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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