Packard Proving Grounds Celebrates 90 Years of History

by ELENA DURNBAUGH

Green, stately elm trees line the grand entrance boulevard at the Packard Proving Grounds. The trees are only 20 years old, but these “Elms of Honor” are an important part of the site’s history.

On June 14 from 6-9 p.m., the Packard Proving Grounds in Shelby Township will celebrate its 90th anniversary with a birthday gala. The evening will feature a strolling dinner, drinks, cake and a look back at the past nine decades.

“We’re looking forward to celebrating the milestone of 90 years,” Mary Anne Demo, event coordinator for the Proving Grounds, said.

The elm trees are one of the milestone markers in that history. The Packard Proving Grounds site was constructed between 1926 and 1928 as a place for the Packard Motor Car Company to test its luxury vehicles. Prior to that, Packard had tested cars on the streets of Detroit alongside other automakers, but general manager Henry Bourne Joy wanted a testing facility away from the prying eyes of competitors.

After Packard merged with Studebaker in 1954, the Proving Grounds were closed and sold. Ford eventually bought the property, but in 1998, the company was ready to sell the land for development. That meant the historic site would likely be lost. To prevent this, the community joined forces to save the Packard Proving Grounds.

Members of car clubs, the Shelby Township Historical Committee and elected officials came together and established the Packard Foundation to preserve a portion of the grounds as a historic site. Around the same time the site’s fate was being decided, Dutch Elm disease was sweeping through Michigan trees.

The majestic elms that canopied the manicured parkways of the Packard Proving Grounds got sick. Almost 200 trees had to be removed. “When all those trees were cut down, it was a really sad time,” Demo said. “It looked naked without those beautiful trees.”

Despite the uncertainty of the site’s future, the Foundation decided to replace the elms. They found a disease resistant variety, but the new tree’s heartiness meant that each would cost $1000. Once again, people in the community united, volunteering to adopt and plant the trees.

“It was really neat how those people were willing to donate the money and plant the trees for generations to come,” Demo said. The trees were named the Elms of Honor, and each tree was given a plaque recognizing the person who donated it.

In 2002, the Packard Foundation took ownership of 14 acres of the original site, and in 2007, The Packard Proving Grounds was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The elms have grown tall in the last two decades. Soon, they’ll recreate the leafy canopy that crowned the boulevard in its heyday.

The Packard Proving Grounds site was originally 560 acres and was home to a 2.5-mile speed track and rough-road area designed to put Packard cars through the paces. Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed the site’s Tudor-revival style lodge and repair garage. The project cost over $1 million to complete, and its lavish elegance expressed the Packard brand.

Today, the historical site is home to part of the test track, the repair garage, lodge and grand entrance gates. The timing tower, relocated Lindbergh Hangar, elevated water storage tank and the Chrysler Defense building are also on site.

Ray Hollingsworth gives tours of the Packard Proving Grounds, sharing facts with visitors and pointing out details that the casual observer might miss. “Ray is an amazing person for doing tours,” Demo said. “He’s so enthusiastic!”

Hollingsworth knows the site’s history well. For example, he tells about how the test track was hailed as “The World’s Fastest Speedway” in 1928, after driver Leon Duray broke a speed record at the dedication ceremony, clocking in at 148.7 mph. Visitors can see Duray’s car, temporarily on loan from the Indy Speedway, in the Chevy Defense Building.

Hollingsworth and his wife Ro are volunteers at the Packard Proving Grounds. The couple is another example of how the community has been involved in making the site special. “Everyone here is a volunteer,” Ray Hollingsworth said. “We do it because we love it.”

The Hollingsworths are especially dedicated. They live in one of the neighborhoods just behind the property, and they’re always ready to go over and check the property if the alarm goes off at 3 a.m. This year, they were awarded the Tolonene Award, which is given to recognize those who have dedicated the most time and effort toward the restoration and daily operations of the Packard Proving Grounds.

“To see what it’s like now, compared to even five years ago is really something,” said Ro Hollingsworth.

The restorations have allowed the Proving Grounds to host more events. The site is home to the Shelby Township Farmers’ Market and a venue for car shows and weddings. On June 17, the Proving Grounds will host a Father’s Day BBQ, and next month, it’s hosting the Shelby Township Independence Day Fireworks and Freedom Festival.

“We look for things we can do to reach out and get the community involved,” Demo said. “Even if you didn’t know a thing about Packard, it’s really cool to look at these historical buildings.”

The goal is for the site to become self-sustaining. Although auto museums tend to struggle, Demo thinks the Packard Proving Grounds has an important part of automotive history to share. “With technology, we may be the last generation of people to think you have to sit behind the wheel of a car to drive,” Demo said.

The Packard 90th Anniversary is part of the Macomb Bicentennial events and will celebrate the golden age of automotive history in Detroit and the community that made the historic site possible. To buy a ticket to the event, schedule a tour or learn more about the Packard Proving Grounds, visit packardprovinggrounds.org.