I recently visited Ford’s massive Rouge complex in Dearborn, MI, to see the first aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck drive off the assembly line. It was the third time that I had a chance to go inside the gates of the legendary factory complex that’s almost 100 years old.

The Rouge was Henry Ford’s vision of integrated production and lean manufacturing. During its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, the sprawling complex was the largest industrial facility in the world. It was the only place on earth where you could see the entire automaking process in one day.

There were huge ore docks, steel furnaces, coke ovens, rolling mills, glass furnaces and plate-glass rollers. In addition to several chassis assembly lines, the self-sufficient complex included a tire-making plant, a stamping plant, an engine casting plant, a transmission plant, a radiator plant, and a tool and die plant. At one time, the unique facility even included a paper mill and a plant that turned soybeans into plastic auto parts.

I first ventured inside the Rouge when I was a kid growing up near Chicago. Our family took a tour of the Ford factories while we were in the area visiting the Henry Ford Museum.

It was the first time that I stepped foot inside a manufacturing plant and it made a lasting impression on me. As an eight-year-old boy, I was fascinated by all the noise and the constant whir of activity.

I also visited the Rouge in 2004, when it was “born again” following a $2 billion investment by Ford. The new Dearborn Truck Plant boasted the auto industry’s most flexible assembly line and the world’s largest living roof. It was proclaimed to be “a vision of sustainable manufacturing for the future.”

The Rouge has changed over the years, but the industrial city is still going strong. And, it’s still an impressive sight to behold. In addition to the Dearborn Truck Plant (home of the F-150), the 600-acre facility includes a stamping plant, an engine assembly plant, and a tool and die plant.

During my recent visit, I had a chance to venture deep into the bowels of the Rouge and see some things that I first glimpsed as a boy. For instance, the stamping shop that mass-produces aluminum body parts for the new F-150 dates back to 1942. It’s located near the steel mill, which was spun off by Ford in the 1980s (today, the facility is run by AK Steel Corp.). The ore docks and cranes that once welcomed a fleet of Ford-owned ships are nearby.

Ford is still proud of the unique heritage of the Rouge, which dates back to 1918. In fact, before the first new-generation F-150 rolled off the assembly line, the flashy kickoff ceremony included some vintage black-and-white footage of the plant in its heyday.

Click here to see a cool movie showing what the Rouge looked like back in the 1940s.

Click here to see a 1960s-era film about the Rouge.