Greenfield Village, Michigan: Henry Ford’s Historic Legacy

Last month, Linda and I spent eight days vacationing in Michigan. We went there with two goals in mind: first, to see October’s fall colors minus busloads of New England tourists; second, to visit Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Greenfield Village can best be described as the personal passion and indulgence of one man, and that would be Henry Ford, one of history’s greatest industrialists and one of its richest men.

We stayed at Ford’s Dearborn Inn, a short walk from Greenfield Village and “The Henry Ford,” a vast and incredible museum – the indoor manifestation of Henry Ford’s personal desire to preserve the past and a reflection of his young world and the ideals he held dear. Henry Ford and his favorite motorcar, the ubiquitous Model T Ford, were driving forces behind the great mobilization of America at the turn of the twentieth century. Ford quickly became one of the country’s richest and most famous men. With both the means and a personal vision, Ford spent millions to create a living legacy to both the technology of his day and the way of life which invention and industrialization were busily changing… forever.

Greenfield Village is a concentrated restoration/recreation of many of America’s finest times and places. Thomas Edison’s famous research laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, is faithfully recreated and, indeed, literally reassembled in the Village. The first viable electric light bulb was perfected in 1879…in this building!

Also present is the original bicycle shop brought from Dayton, Ohio, in which Orville and Wilbur Wright conceived and developed the first powered airplane. Their first successful heavier-than-air flight in 1903 ushered in the era of aviation.

A significant part of the Wright Brothers’ research into the controllability and sustainability of flight took place behind the storefront of the Wright Cycle Shop. Much of the activity and the equipment is beautifully displayed, here.

I was long skeptical, early-on, about the concept of Greenfield Village, visualizing it perhaps as a sort of historical Disneyland creation. Once there, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Henry Ford was maniacally dedicated to authenticity and to preserving as much of the original buildings and artifacts as humanly possible. The original buildings restored/recreated here were literally disassembled by teams of Ford workers on their original, distant sites, packed and crated, and shipped at great expense to Dearborn on the way to their final resting places at Greenfield Village. Greenfield represents Henry Ford’s fervent devotion to authentically preserving a way of life which, perhaps sorrowfully, he realized would be unalterably changed by the industrialization and modernization for which he, as much as anyone, was responsible.

Mr. Ford, it seems, realized early the undeniable fact that tangible property and historical sites, no matter how important, were doomed to succumb to “progress” unless privately owned, funded, and maintained. As Linda and I strolled from attraction to attraction and learned from the docents inside, I came to realize the wisdom in Ford’s contention. Yes, it would be wonderful if Edison’s famous research laboratory still sat beautifully preserved on its original site in Menlo Park, New Jersey; the same can be said of the Wright Cycle Shop in Dayton, Ohio. The odds against that being the case were always practically zero in a society which is ruled by money and which too often looks forward and, almost never, backward to absorb the lessons and wisdom inherent in historical perspective. To his great credit and our good fortune, Henry Ford understood and acted by leaving us the next best thing.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford: Kindred Spirits

The influence of Thomas Edison is seen throughout Greenfield Village. Like Edison, Henry Ford had little formal education. Ford also realized two facts at an
early age: one, that he could never be happy following his parents as farmers; two,
that he had both an interest in and an aptitude for things mechanical. In fact, as a young man, he went to work in Thomas Edison’s light bulb factory, becoming foreman in less than a year. Soon, Ford’s growing ambition to work on things strictly mechanical led him to begin pondering the possibility of building an automobile. Others had similar ideas, but no one else envisioned the automobile as anything other than a toy for the wealthy, let alone as a necessity for the average man. It was Ford’s vision and ingenuity which led him, quite literally, to “invent” both the notion and the process of mass production. His embodiment of that vision came with the Model T which was introduced in 1908. In a market where others sold their fancy automobiles for close to $2000, Ford was selling his down-to-earth, practical and reliable Model T for $650 – and you could get it in any color as long as it was black! Of course, the economics of the production line dictated a single color only at such a price, but Ford carried his analysis of production line realities far beyond the obvious. As one of the early practitioners of production line time-and-motion studies, Henry Ford had determined that black paint dried much more quickly than did other colors – a fact supported by scientific knowledge that explains the fact that black absorbs heat much more readily than lighter colors. One might counter that the difference would prove minimal, but one would be wrong given that multiple paint coats were applied. In fact, a light color such yellow or white would consume twelve times the total drying time in the Ford process than would black! I found that fact to be extremely interesting.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both placed a premium on ingenuity, common sense, empirical testing, and hard work as the primary ingredients of success. They also displayed an inherent distrust of venturing too far into scientific research and theoretical speculation. This alienation from advanced learning and engineering was to cause them both problems along the way, especially Edison who utterly failed in his massive bid to supply direct current electricity to the many minions who had bought his light bulbs before the turn of the nineteenth century. My next blog post will deal with that dramatic and extremely important story.

The marker adds: “Henry Ford greatly admired Thomas Edison.” It goes on to say that Edison sat for the sculpture during the last months of his life.

Another Edison site in Greenfield Village that re-kindled my interest as a retired electrical engineer was the reconstructed Edison “electric power station” which contains one of the original six DC (direct current) dynamos (electrical generators) used by Edison to power and illuminate several square blocks around Pearl Street in downtown New York in 1882. This Edison enterprise was the first “electric power station” in America. Despite its potential importance and the great hoopla surrounding its success in lighting a small section of downtown New York for several years, the enterprise along with Edison’s plans to corner the imminent American electrical market was doomed to spectacular failure.

As already mentioned, my next blog post will explore Thomas Edison’s losing battle in the electrical current wars waged between direct and alternating current to supply the nation’s immense power grid-to-be.

And I promise that no technical expertise will be necessary for you, the reader!

Henry Ford: A Complex Character Whose Automobiles Changed America

Henry Ford was both the quintessential entrepreneur/industrialist and one very complex individual. No other person comes to mind whose influence produced the effect that Ford and his Ford Motor Company have had on the way we Americans live our lives today. Imagine: Barely a century has passed since the time when people and their goods were still transported by horse and wagon, yet today, our lives and our landscape are dominated by the presence of the automobile.


Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, although he was an early player in its American introduction. Nor did he invent the concept of mass production, yet he espoused and perfected it on a scale beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. His rise to fame and fortune was fueled by personal traits eerily reminiscent of those of the equally famous and successful “brothers of flight,” the Wright Brothers – Wilbur and Orville from nearby Dayton, Ohio.

13499743301[1]Henry Ford’s place in history hinges on his early and unique vision for the motorcar in America. Unlike virtually all of his dozens of early competitors, he and he alone saw the motorcar not as an expensive rich man’s convenience and toy, but as an affordable product for the middle-class that would quickly revolutionize life in America …and that belief was the engine that powered his ambition. He visualized and sought to sell a well-built, reliable automobile that the average American could afford to buy and own. He believed in this vision with all his heart, and he was also convinced that he was the man who could and would make it happen. Henry Ford proved himself right, yet again.

Ford possessed a no-nonsense, common-sense attitude toward life, living, and things technical. Like the Wright brothers in the aviation field, Ford believed in hands-on (his) development backed by intelligent testing and product refinement. Ford maintained that “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” Despite the failure of his first two car companies, he persisted in his beliefs and successfully started the Ford Motor Company in June of 1903 with a capital investment of $28,000. For Henry Ford, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.”

Ford had been able to start his first company in 1899, the Detroit Automobile Company, in part with money saved from his early stint as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company in the early 1890’s. Later in life, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone (of tire fame) became fast friends, a trio often prone to retreat to the “woods” for a few days of outdoor camping. It is interesting to ponder this who’s-who of industrial power and wealth off in the woods on a “camping” trip!

Henry Ford married Clara Ala Bryant in 1888; their early support came from Henry’s farming and work in a sawmill. In 1893, they had their only child, Edsel Ford, namesake for one of Ford Motor Company’s later and greatest failures, the Edsel automobile, and a somewhat tragic figure with great promise who was continually subjected to the vagaries of his father’s substantial ego. Many have claimed that the difficulties of living in Henry’s shadow contributed to Edsel’s early death at age 49.

Henry was born on a Michigan farm in 1863, but he always despised the nature of farming. He grew up loving things mechanical, all the while exhibiting a fine curiosity and the ability to quickly decipher machinery, from wristwatches to steam engines. Young Henry’s schooling was spotty at best, and he never progressed beyond the eighth grade.

Henry Ford succeeded for many reasons, but his mechanical/engineering intuition, his attention to detail, and the single-minded pursuit of his unique vision for the automobile were the prime factors behind his spectacular success. By 1903, he and his Ford Motor Company were in hot pursuit of his ideal automobile and the mass-production techniques required to meet quality/price goals for the car. Ford became a master of time-and-motion studies while configuring factory mass production in anticipation of his “ideal automobile.”

In 1908, the Ford Motor Company introduced the famous Model T Ford, the most iconic automobile ever to roll off American assembly lines. Whereas his early competitors were selling luxury cars to well-heeled clients for $2,000, Ford priced the Model T at a stunningly low $825 – and it was a great car, with huge long-term sales. Thanks to mass-production, in 1924, when production peaked at 1,922,048 Model T’s, the car’s price sank to an incredibly low $265! Oh, and you could have it in any color you want…so long as it’s black! Ford and his engineers had determined that, in addition to the savings inherent in offering only one color, black paint dried faster than the others, making it ideal for mass-production and high factory throughput. The advent of the Model T and its success signaled the arrival of the Ford Motor Company as a long-term player in the market while verifying to Henry Ford that his dream had become a reality. He had his ideal automobile; nothing in America would ever be the same.


Workforce Problems in the Ford Factory

The advent of the Model T and the factories which produced it so rapidly and in such high volumes soon produced workforce problems for Ford in the form of rapid employee turnover. The working conditions were difficult, and the work was monotonous, yet it hummed along at “double-time” as dictated by mass production. A Ford worker did not truly build an automobile; he instead sat at a station beside a long assembly line and added yet another part to growing subassemblies traveling down the line of workers – the same operation hour after hour, day after day, etc. Boredom and close, noisy, working conditions literally fried some men’s brains within a few weeks of joining the company. High turnover and constant retraining of replacements was anathema to the operation of a mass-production facility, so Henry Ford came up with a solution which blew the socks off his investors and competitors.


Ford increased line worker’s salaries from just under $2.50 per day to $5 and initiated a profit-sharing plan, as well! Ford’s investors went berserk over the proposal, but Ford was absolutely correct: The morning after the news was released, Ford’s facilities were besieged by armies of potential employees who, for the “fantastic” money on the table were determined to just “deal” with the hardships of the job. This was, indeed, an interesting solution from the head of a company who much later was to have serious quarrels with employee unions!

When his investors told Ford he was crazy to throw so much money at employees, the boss countered that it would prove to be a good bargain for the company in addition to halting employee turnover. He went on to emphasize that, with more money in their pockets, his employees would now have the means to buy a car – his car – and the company would recoup the money in spades! I know of no better example of Ford’s outside-the-box thinking than this specific episode which initially so flustered his less-clever investors.

Alf and his  '37 Ford - 1937

   My father in 1937 with his hard-earned, brand new ’37 Ford V-8

There is so much to the Henry Ford story that it can only be presented in the form of a sizeable book or documentary. Ford was a man driven by principles, yet his actions often reflected stark contradictions. Here was a man dedicated to the simple life, one who early-on espoused what we today call “green” mandates for living, yet he industrialized our lives to an extent never matched in modern history.

Despite his revulsion of “paternalism” on the part of government in people’s lives, his early corporate profit-sharing program was partially administered by Ford’s “Social Department” which frowned on rewarding employees whose personal lives did not mesh with the founder’s guidelines on drinking, gambling, and “deadbeat” dads at home. A Ford quote summarizes his views on government intervention into our private lives: “Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him, better take a closer look at the American Indian.”

Ford’s “Social Department” at the company was ill-advised in light of his views on paternalism…and short-lived. Ford also had strong anti-Semitic views which provoked much controversy during his lifetime.

81IePfwEcpL._SL1500_[1]For a more comprehensive, yet absorbing story of the man and his industry, I heartily recommend the PBS American Experience DVD documentary, Henry Ford – it is extremely well done and interesting. As usual, I have no connection with this product other than the fact I just ordered a copy on Amazon, having  recently watched it on public broadcasting.