- Historic Sites
What happened when the richest man in America decided to collect one of everything
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
The confident progressive of 1916 was not on the witness stand in 1919, and Ford was not alone in changing. The progressive America of the prewar years had changed as well. America had emerged from the war the richest and most powerful country on earth. American mass production was now the envy and admiration of the world—“Fordismus” the Germans called it. Yet Americans were prepared to elevate to the Presidency an Ohio political hack largely because he promised to lead them “back to normalcy.” In 1919 America was looking backward wistfully and so was Henry Ford.
Shortly after the trial an event almost comical in its aptness pushed Ford down his own private road “back to normalcy.” Due to increasing auto traffic—half of it Model T Fords—the local authorities decided to widen a Dearborn road and demolish the old Ford family farm which stood alongside it. The Ford-created present—Fordismus- was threatening a piece of Ford’s personal past. It was an irony he was to live with for the rest of his long life. To save the old farm, Ford had it moved two hundred feet to one side, but that was not all. With the history-is-bunk trial still on his mind, perhaps, Ford decided to restore the homestead. He wanted it to look exactly as it had when his mother died forty-three years before. At that very moment in a cork-lined room in Paris a sickly novelist was desperately striving with words to recapture “lost time.” In Dearborn, Michigan, the owner of the greatest industrial empire the world had ever seen was determined in his own way to do exactly the same. Meticulous fidelity to the past, that was the key, both for Ford and for Proust.
There was a certain sleigh bell Ford’s father had used. For months the Motor King went in search of one that reproduced exactly the sound he remembered from childhood. Like Proust’s scent of madelaine, only that recollected ring could unlock sweet memories of bygone years. In the old homestead worn red carpet had covered the staircase. Ford ordered an aide to search every antique shop from Detroit to Cincinnati until he found precisely the same make of carpet worn to the same shade of drab red. A Starlight Stove Model 25 had once heated the front parlor. In search of a Starlight, Ford and his son Edsel drove around the countryside digging up abandoned stoves. To determine the exact pattern of the old vanished family china, Ford had his workers excavate the dcoryard to a depth of six feet, as if the Ford homestead were an archaeological site. They recovered, as Ford expected, broken shards of the old china and with them the forgotten pattern, which Ford promptly had reproduced. The workers also recovered an old pair of skates. “I remember his great delight,” an aide recalled. “I don’t think he could have been given anything in the world that would have pleased him quite as much as those old, rusty skates.”
There is no doubt what passion was gripping the Motor King. He wanted not only to preserve a memento of his past; he wanted to make that past so palpably real that he could enter it at will. The illusion was sweet. The restored homestead, its beds freshly made each morning, drew Ford like a magnet. In his re-created boyhood bedroom he would repair watches as he used to do as a machine-addled boy whom neighbors described as having “wheels in his head.” He would take out the old threshing machine and set it to work. He could cook meals on his mother’s capacious old stove, Farmer’s Friend No. 9. In the family barn he and his cronies did the old dances. “They’d have parties over there,” an aide recalled, “and they’d get all dressed up. The men and women were in the old costumes, and they’d dance”—the reel, the gavotte, the quadrille—dances Ford had loved as a youth and now had come to love again.
Ford, needless to say, was not the first middle-aged man to be captivated by the “magic of his youth,” but Ford just happened to be the richest man in the world—the world’s first billionaire, the press reported. A mile and a half from the old homestead stood a one-room red-brick schoolhouse, which Ford has attended as a child. He bought the place, restored it, and turned it into an experimental school. To see modern children studying in the very room where he himself had puzzled over his McGuff ey readers brought profound delight to Ford. Sixteen miles from Detroit stood a moldering old stagecoach stopover known as the Botsford Inn. As a young man Ford had gone there to attend the dances. He bought it for $100,000 and spent $336,000 more to restore it.
What on earth was the Motor King up to? “I’m trying in a small way,” Ford explained to a New York Times reporter, “to help America take a step, even if it is a little one, toward the saner and sweeter idea of life that prevailed in prewar days.” He might just as well have said pre-Ford days, for the stagecoach stopover and the automobile were inherently at odds.