HENRY FORD – THE MAN AND HIS VISION
For someone who allegedly stated "History is Bunkum!" it is strange that Henry Ford was a man who went on to collect historic items in his very own museum. His name is synonymous with the moving assembly line since he created an efficient system of production that revolutionized the course of automobile manufacturing. This concept went even further with production lines that produce everything from plastic cutlery to motor cars.
Maybe today the millions of cars manufactured each year (and unsold) should be slowed down as this planet one day may creak under the sheer weight of them. Henry Ford's Ford Motor Company was established in 1903 and to gain financial backing to enable the company's expansion and produce more cars, he used another of his skills – as a publicist. Henry Ford was very good at public relations and getting publicity for himself and his interests. That's perhaps why the aforementioned statement was uttered (if at all) in the first place.
One of his first projects was motor racing (around the early 1900's, racing drivers were aiming for an astonishing one-minute mile!) Read that, Lewis Hamilton, which bought Ford a lot of publicity. He raced his own cars successfully and as his interest grew, he hired Barney Oldfield, the cycle racer and master showman, to race his cars. Barney Oldfield went on to break the one-minute barrier. Thus, Ford was able to advertise the excellence of his cars, showing speed and durability and therefore gaining the one thing he was after at the time: financial backers.
Among Ford's accomplishments in the car industry were advanced mass production techniques and marketing skills and he also pioneered the establishment of branch plants and foreign subsidiaries. He helped pioneer the adoption and use of soybeans in America. His interest in nature spurred him to help his naturalist friends to pass the landmark Bird Migration Act of 1918. These are just some of the variety of interesting and yet time-consuming activities in which he was engaged at one time or another. To list them all, would take pages.
His great dream was to create a museum which would, when finished, "have reproduced American life as lived" (his own words) and as he then owned the necessary funds, he set out to restore and put on display, not just one famous building, for this was an outdoor museum, but a large functioning community of homes, farms, schools, craft industries, chapel and village tavern.
Although it was many years ago, I once visited his "Greenfield Village" and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, near Detroit, Michigan. To say I was overwhelmed by the glimpse I had experienced at these outstanding museums, would be an understatement. I read a very interesting account of the history of the founding of the village and museum ("A Home for Our Heritage" by Geoffrey C.Upward) * and was further amused at how far he went to include in his museums everything he could lay His hands on or buy up and ship, literally, lock, stock and barrel, to have it re-assembled in the village he created for it.
Visitors to Dearborn and Greenfield Village can see how American people lived in the past; houses, shops, post office, fire station, doctor's office, factories and school house, including original text books, in other words Americana in situ. Each home or workshop tells a story, from Ford's own birthplace to Thomas Edison's birthplace and the inventor's entire Menio Park complex, including Edison's office and library, machine shop and laboratory.
The Wright Brother's birthplace and cycle shop (they went from cycles to aviation – building their first plane in the bicycle sales and repair shop) with every last item as it once was, if not in the original, then one from the same era, or an exact replica, is also there. Ford's aviation interests, from an initial start in 1908, developed into the Ford Tri-Motor, ferrying both passengers and freight in 1929. By the end of World War 11, his Willow Run, Michigan plant had produced more than 8,000 B-24 bombers , as well as numerous other aircraft engines and fun-mounts.
The Henry Ford Museum covering eight acres, is filled with examples of some of the early aircraft, including the famous "Byrd" airplane. On show in this vast museum are everything from locomotives, bicycles, racing cars, power shop machinery, entire kitchens from the 1800's onwards, agricultural exhibits, lighting and communications, to name merely a few. Ford also collected an awesome number of old and contemporary photographs of buildings, rail depots, streets and life in almost every form. An estimated 400,000 prints, negatives, glassplates and tintypes are in existence in the Ford archives today.
His influential and famous friends were many, among them, Harvey Firestone, the tire manufacturer, aviator Charles Lindbergh, the accused "Lone Eagle", President Herbert Hoover and, of course, his "mentor" the great Thomas Edison to which he dedicated the Museum in 1929 and named it the Edison Institute.
This long lasting bond between the older man and his "protégé" was incredible and all the more gratifying to Henry Ford who wished Edison as his boyhood hero and later became his friend when he grew up. Edison was already a world-famous inventor when they met and both appeared to be workaholics. How they found time to nurture friendships and raise families is hard to comprehend, but they did.
Henry Ford married the former Clara Bryant in 1888. The Ford mansion "Fair Lane" was built at the peak of Henry and Clara Ford's lives in 1915 and is remarkable in several ways. Built on the Rouge River, Ford had the river slightly altered so it would cascade delightfully in front of his house and he had a powerhouse designed and built to make "Fair Lane" self-sufficient in power, heat, light and even ice! The green and white indoor swimming pool had steam heated benches, a very considerate idea, so making it one of the first big spenders?
The 72 acre which remains today of the estate have been set aside for conservation by the University of Michigan-Dearborn, as part of its campus development plan and is a National Landmark. Well, it should be, with its landscaped gardens, woods, trails and pond.
Henry Ford was not without his critics. All great men have them. He made some horrible public gaffs in his time. He claimed no interest in music or art, but he never seemed to pretend to be what he was not, and in creating his museums, he fulfilled a dream, and that created a legacy, which Americans can be proud of. He may not have collected Old Masters and priceless antiques, but in his own way, his homespun Americana is priceless and a wonderful insight into a bygone age.
In these days of America-bashing, critics forget some of what America has produced, powerful entrepreneurship men who have shaped modern history, in a flexible and free atmosphere. One should admire his accomplishments and for being a man of vision with simplistic ideals.
There is a great photo gallery of the automobiles in the Henry Ford Museum courtesy of Scott Beale at the quirky website:
better still visit the museum website: