- Historic Sites
What happened when the richest man in America decided to collect one of everything
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
The whole curious enterprise puzzled Americans in the 1920’s. Here was mighty Henry Ford, the man who said history was “more or less bunk,” collecting on a titanic scale every jot and tittle of the American past that he and his emissaries could lay hands on—four-poster beds, banjo clocks, cigar-store Indians, old boots, gas lamps, rusty old threshers, and wooden flails. Here was the near legendary “Motor King,” who once told the press that he wanted only to “live in the Now,” conducting visitors to his family homestead in Dearborn and showing them, with a soft gleam in his eyes, how he had restored it to the way it had looked in 1876 when he was a thirteen-year-old schoolboy. Here was the “father of mass production” collecting old stagecoach stops, rude machine shops, antique bicycles, and Conestoga wagons. “It is,” said The New York Times , “as if Stalin went in for collecting old ledgers and stock-tickers.”
From his impregnable industrial fortress at Dearborn the Motor King, entranced by his mission, kept on collecting. A Ford engineer in England gathered up for his boss huge abandoned steam pumps dating back to the eighteenth century. A New England antiquary brought him old gristmills and broken-down lathes. Thirty-five thousand Ford dealers, under instructions from the “Dictator of Dearborn,” scoured the countryside, unpaid, in search of Staffordshire china, antiquated stoves, and ante-bellum mousetraps. Old buildings, too, fell into the net and duly got shipped off to Dearborn: a Michigan log cabin, an 1850’s firehouse, an old general store, an Illinois courthouse frequented by the young Lincoln.
The old tools and machinery became the core of a stupendous museum; the old buildings, reassembled, became a stunning 260-acre historic American town—“Greenfield Village,” Ford called it. On October 21, 1929, when the entire world celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Edison’s invention of the incandescent light, the eighty-two-year-old inventor sat down in his old Menlo Park laboratory and re-enacted the epoch-making moment when he had at long last tried the filament that worked. The Menlo Park laboratory, however, was no longer in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was in Ford’s brand-new old American village in Dearborn, looking exactly as it had looked, every last chemical jar in place, on October 21, 1879. The chair which the aged inventor had sat on during the ceremony Henry Ford ordered nailed to the floor; he considered the re-enactment a historic event in itself. It marked the opening of his combination village and museum, known collectively then and now as the Edison Institute.
“You know,” the Motor King confided to an aide at the time, “it will take people fifty years to appreciate this place.” The half-century mark has come and gone, but Ford’s reconstruction of the American past in Dearborn is still more than a little puzzling. Irony and paradox are everywhere. In 1929 Ford had called his re-creation “The Early American Village,” but it is surely like no American village that ever was or could have been. Turn down a muddy, unpaved street past the serene New England-style village green and the time-machine illusion is perfect. The past is present, captivating and ineffably moving, especially so on an icy winter morning when Greenfield Village is almost deserted and an old hay wagon drawn by a farm horse rattles by on some ghostly mission.
Turn down the main residential street, however, and what does one make of an early American village whose residents—judging by the houses they once lived in—include William McGuffey, Luther Burbank, Noah Webster, a Georgia slave driver named Mattox, and Henry Ford’s favorite schoolteacher? This is a record of something, but it is hard to say of what—beyond the certain fact that it meant much to the Motor King.
In Greenfield Village the American past and Henry Ford seem to have gotten wonderfully intermixed. The old-time jewelry store, beautifully preserved and stocked, once employed young Ford to clean and repair its customers’ clocks. The typical 1880’s machine shop—every lathe driven by a single overhead shaft—supplied a steam generator for Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Company, Station “A,” where Ford worked for years as chief engineer; a replica of the station stands proudly in the village. Ford is nearly everywhere. The prosperous white painted farmhouse is the Ford family farm. The rude back-yard shop nearby is the place where Ford in 1896 built his first horseless carriage, the “quadricycle.” The late-nineteenth-century hamburger stand in the village had Ford as a customer when he worked late at the Detroit Edison plant. There are eerie moments walking through Greenfield Village (which is named after Mrs. Ford’s hometown in Michigan) when the visitor feels he has strolled not into the American past but into an autobiography, and that the village itself is a vast, three-dimensional reconstruction of one man’s mind. In the village Ford’s own life even defines what constitutes the past. The oldest industrial building in Greenfield Village is a replica of the first factory of the Ford Motor Company, founded in 1903. So, for Henry Ford, that was the year which divided the American past from the American future, and of course, Ford was largely correct.
That is the ever-present paradox of Ford’s historic village. It represents the American world which Ford’s revolutionary achievements destroyed. Adjacent to the village the immense museum deepens the paradox still further. Inside a one-story building fourteen acres in extent—its façade features a replica of Independence Hall—stands one of the world’s finest memorials to the Industrial Revolution. Here an astounding array of tools, engines, machines, and devices record the progressive mechanization of agriculture, the evolution of lighting, of communications, of transportation, and most important of all, the great record of modern man’s efforts to harness mechanical and electrical power. Henry Ford’s museum, in short, is a monument to all the great technical achievements that put finish to the life represented in Ford’s re-created American village. There is no resolving that contradiction and no reason to try. It is nothing less than the grand contradiction of modern American life, the San Andreas Fault in the American soul—the schism between our faith in technological progress and our profoundly gnawing suspicion that the old rural republic was a finer, braver, and freer place than the industrial America that now sustains us. If that contradiction runs through Henry Ford’s titanic reconstruction of the American past, it is because no American ever experienced the contradiction more intensely than Henry Ford himself.
Back in 1916 the great contradiction was not yet apparent to most Americans and least of all to Henry Ford. That was the year when Ford famously remarked to a Chicago Tribune reporter that the past, as such, meant nothing to him. “History is more or less bunk,” he had said. “It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” Ford’s view was eminently understandable and widely shared in America. To Ford in 1916 the great contributions of contemporary engineers and inventors were ushering in nothing less than a new industrial millennium. Ford claimed that his great friend and hero Thomas Edison “has done more toward abolishing poverty than have all the reformers and statesmen since the beginning of the world.” He could have said as much for himself. His own assembly-line revolution had turned the automobile, play-thing of the rich and the sporting, into the great emancipator of the American farmer. It had so increased the productivity of his workers that on January 1, 1914, Ford had lifted the hearts of toiling humanity everywhere by announcing that henceforth the lowliest employee at the Ford Motor Company would receive a five dollars a day minimum wage, almost twice as much as ostensibly well-paid American factory hands were getting and beyond the dreams of workers elsewhere in the industrial world. Who cared about the dead hand of the past? Few Americans did in 1916. In those days even the most hostile foes of the status quo called themselves “progressives’—the term was an honorific—and looked to the glowing future untroubled by backward glances.
Nonetheless, on May 25 the Chicago Tribune , bitterly opposed to Ford’s antiwar activities, duly published his remarks and added editorially that the man was an “ignorant idealist” and an “anarchist” to boot. Ford stuck to his opinions. “I don’t know anything about history,” he told another reporter, “and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. … I don’t want to live in the past. I want to live in the Now.” He also brought a $1,000,000 libel suit against the Tribune and thereby, as the saying goes, hangs a tale.
Had the case come to trial in 1916 it is possible that Greenfield Village might never have seen the light of day. Truth being a defense against libel, the Tribune ’s lawyers were prepared to prove that Ford in fact was an ignorant man in the common meaning of the term. Putting him on the witness stand they could show—and they did show—that the Motor King was so ignorant of American history that he could not even identify Benedict Arnold. Indeed he could not answer any number of absurdly simple history quiz questions. What of it? Ford was no shrinking violet; he loved the limelight, no ham actor loved it more. And he gloried in upsetting conventional opinion. All the Tribune lawyers could prove was that a man proudly ignorant of textbook history knew nothing of textbook history.
The trial, however, did not take place in 1916. It was held in July, 1919, at the end of a war which proved to be the most wrenching experience Americans had undergone since rebels had fired on Fort Sumter. Ford came away from the trial (after being awarded six cents in damages) rudely shaken and deeply humiliated. “The grilling,” a Ford biographer noted, “had burned into his soul. …” It was not the exposure of his ignorance of books that had shamed the Motor King, a man supremely self-confident in every circumstance of his life. Quite simply he no longer despised the past, no longer thought it all worthless “tradition.” There was a past that mattered, of this Ford was now sure, but he could not say what it was. Therein lay the humiliation.
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.
If all this seemed wildly contradictory, Ford himself was a jumble of contradictions. In 1921, the very year he was tenderly restoring the family farm, there issued from Dearborn one of his typically cranky pronouncements: “The Cow Must Go!” The world, explained the Motor King to his countrymen, would do well to get rid of the filthy beast and learn to drink synthetic, sanitary factory-made milk. In 1924, the year he restored a country inn at the cost of more than half a million dollars, Ford also built the first all-metal trimotored airplane and plunged for a time into the new world of commercial aviation. That was the year, too, when Ford, wildly oscillating between the past and the future, launched his personal crusade to persuade Americans to take up the reel and the quadrille, Ford’s personal rejoinder to the jazz age in general and the black bottom and Charleston in particular.
“If only Mr. Ford was properly assembled,” lamented Dean Samuel Marquis, an Episcopal divine who knew the Motor King well. “There rages in him an endless conflict between ideals, emotions and impulses as unlike as day and night—a conflict that makes one feel that two personalities are striving within him for mastery.” The Edison Institute would be proof of that.
In the meantime Ford had become a collector of Americana. While restoring the homestead he had acquired a modest surplus of relics that did not fit the farm. Nevertheless they were old and familiar, and Ford could not bear to part with them. He piled them up in a corner of his office. So matters stood until 1922 when a Ford Motor Company tractor operation was moved to a new location, leaving vacant a three-acre building. The space seems to have inspired in Ford an intense determination to fill it. The result, quickly apparent, was the most rapid, the most all-embracing, the most original feat of collecting the world has ever seen. Ford’s resources as a collector were obviously extraordinary. His unparalleled wealth was accountable to no one. He owned the Ford Motor Company lock, stock, and barrel. His manpower resources were even more extraordinary. Every Ford employee was his to command; thousands of grateful Ford dealers could be treated as mere errand boys. Moreover, he had millions of admiring fans in the country—the “Ford Craze” the press called it in 1923—who looked on the Motor King as a benefactor. They too were ready to pitch in.
Even that was not all. In 1922 Ford had the field to himself, and the field, as defined by Ford, was so immense and so unorthodox that some people thought the Motor King had taken leave of his senses. What he wanted to collect was everything. His instructions to his collecting army were simple, clear, and comprehensive. “Get everything you can find! He wanted, as he later put it, “a complete series of every article ever used or made in America from the days of the first settlers down to the present time.”
Price was no object. Ford refused to haggle. Whatever anyone asked, he paid, since, in truth, he valued the humble relics of the American past far higher than anyone else did at the time. Once one of his aides approached a collector of old carriages with an offer to buy. The man dropped dead on the spot. When an assistant told him he was overpaying for something, Ford snapped back: “What difference does it make what it costs if it is what we want.”
Backed by Ford’s wealth, his zest, and his driving will, the Ford army marched and countermarched across the American landscape. The mighty net they threw over the country had a mesh of extraordinary fineness. Today visitors to the awesome museum can see—if they look sharply—poignant proof of that in its single smallest exhibit. It is a little collection showing the evolution of the clothespin, the oldest so big it suggests that American wives once hung out wet clothing with the wearers inside. With astounding swiftness, the army collected enough artifacts to outfit an old-time toy store, drugstore, barbershop, baker’s, milliner’s, cooper’s, pewterer’s, locksmith’s, and a dozen more, not to mention the complete period furnishings of the 107 buildings, spanning three hundred years, which now compose Greenfield Village.
When news got out that the Motor King was buying up priceless heirlooms, meaning things nobody had ever seen fit to put a price to, letters began pouring into Dearborn with offers to sell the old family spinning wheel, a Navaho rug, a quilt, a McCormack-Deering binder rusting in the yard. By and large Ford bought what was offered. As a result the man who wanted one of everything wound up with some five hundred spinning wheels. What the Ford army missed the man himself acquired from dealers. For 1922 the Ford Archives—an important part of the Edison Institute—shows requests for such items as “old Shaker bonnets,” “old nut pickers,” and “Scotch rolling pins for the making of scones.”
To keep a bridle on his growing passion for the past, Ford reserved one day a week for his personal collecting. Often he would motor around rural Michigan, eyes peeled for rusting farm machines. Spying one, an aide recalled, “he’d be out of the car and up to the farm door to dicker for that damned scrap.” Getting word that some household had something worth having, Ford would knock on the door, introduce himself as “Mr. Robinson,” and politely inform some flabbergasted housewife that he wanted to buy, say, her family china. With an aide at his side he would visit curio shops, spot an item he liked, whisper a few words to his companion, and quietly leave the premises. Then the aide would ask the storekeeper as casually as possible how much he wanted for the entire store. “It was quite amusing sometimes,” a Ford lieutenant recalled, “to see their consternation and regret when they found out who bought the goods.” Told to pack up their entire stock and ship it to Dearborn, they knew at once that the world’s richest man had passed through their lives, just once and no more.
By 1925, when the novelist Hamlin Garland paid it a visit, the sometime tractor plant was already bulging. To Garland it seemed at first “only an immense warehouse of discarded machinery and old furniture … the storehouse of the outworn.” Picking his way through the jumble, however, he found himself moved, as Ford himself was moved, by “the homely character of the objects. … Here was the long-legged stove under which, as a boy of five, I had laid to learn my letters. … I took into my hand the tin lantern which I had so often held while my father milked the cows.” Here, adjacent to the future-minded Ford Experimental Laboratory, lay “all the time-worn, work-worn humble tools and furnishings of the average American home” of rural days now passing.
At the onset homely and domestic artifacts were Ford’s chief preoccupation, the evidence, as he himself put it, of “American life as lived.” Gradually, however, another and quite different objective began taking shape alongside the first. Ford began systematically collecting at great cost an enormous array of machinery designed to exhibit the progressive mechanization of the human economy from its steam-power beginnings in the eighteenth-century England of Newcomen and Watts—that mighty Industrial Revolution which, of course, had turned Ford’s “saner and sweeter” life into a spiritual relic. If two Ford personalities were “striving for mastery,” neither would ever achieve it. As much as Ford loved the “magic of his youth” he continued to love with equal fervor the inexorable march of mechanical progress. However, Ford would view the contradiction from a vantage point foreclosed to the rest of us. In a sense the entire Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was part of Ford’s personal past and possessed in its own way the magic of his youth. If that magic adhered to “time-worn, work-worn, humble” things, it adhered equally to the thousand and one inventions and improvements—some famed, most unsung—which had contributed like so many tributary streams to the mighty river of assembly-line mass production, what historians now call the “Second Industrial Revolution.” In a word, to Fordismus.
By 1926, moreover, even the Industrial Revolution—the first one, that is—was taking on the sweetness of days gone by. That year a shocking turn of events was threatening to shatter Ford’s harmonious industrial empire: the beloved Model T, essentially unchanged since 1908, had begun to lose its popular appeal. The news stunned Dearborn. That such a thing could never happen had been the premise of Ford’s great achievement. It was because he—and he alone—had decided to design the perfect, pared-down cheap automobile and keep on producing it forever that he had been able to introduce the assembly line. That premise itself depended on a still larger assumption: that Americans would want a Model T forever. Ford could see no reason why they would not. The Model T embodied all the virtues Americans had so long admired. It was tough, durable, dependable, and simple—republican simplicity embodied in a vehicle. It was so down-to-earth, so stubbornly utilitarian that its very ugliness seemed a mark of its puritan mettle. Now a pretty little upstart called the Chevrolet was drawing Ford’s customers away in droves. Model T jokes were no longer affectionate: “Why is the Model T like a bathtub? Because nobody wants to be seen in one.” Urbanity, modishness, and jazz-age sophistication, all of which Ford profoundly loathed, were corrupting republican simplicity, and the corruption was now showing in the sales charts. Sometime in 1926 the Motor King was forced to make one of the most painful decisions of his career. As of May, 1927, the Model T would go out of production. The pride of Ford’s life was going away and with it his strongest link to an increasingly distasteful “Now.”
It is no accident, surely, that the Model T’s imminent doom coincided with the birth of the idea of Greenfield Village. That he eventually would build a museum for his enormous collection was an idea Ford had had in mind for some time. He even had toyed with the idea for re-creating some sort of old New England village on history-rich property he owned in Sudbury, Massachusetts. In 1926, however, he decided otherwise. Sudbury was too far away for what the Motor King now needed. The “saner and sweeter” life it was supposed to re-create he now wanted close by. A large vacant field lay adjacent to the experimental laboratory, not far from the new Ford Airport. No history attached to the place whatever. There, nonetheless, Ford decided to erect a completely imaginary, Ford-crafted American village. By early 1927, Edward Cutler, a company draftsman—Ford avoided experts like the plague—was laying out the ground plan using the colonial New England village as the prototype.
Now Ford’s army found itself with a new collecting assignment. This one, however, was subtle and exacting. Ford agents were to keep an eye out for old buildings—homes, mills, shops, depots—which, when suitably deployed on Ford’s property, would show not only, in Ford’s words, “how our forefathers lived” but also “the force and courage they had. ” There were obvious Ford prohibitions to observe. There was to be no bank, no lawyer’s office, no rich man’s palace. It was not they who had made America great; Ford was strongly inclined to think they had been working in the opposite direction. There were personal predilections to heed. Despite Ford’s philistine pose in public, he had a keen eye for Greek-revival architecture; its clean, white classical lines, he believed, best expressed the republican spirit of America. The style would abound in the village. Knowing Mr. Ford’s biography would help considerably too. His engineering career had begun with a boyhood passion for clocks and watches. Three jewelry stores eventually would wind up in the village. In Ford’s early manhood when he was trying to avoid farming—an occupation he detested—he had eked out a rural living sawing his trees into lumber. Two old-time “up-and-down” sawmills would also find their way to Dearborn.
Around the time the last Model T rolled off the great assembly line, Ford brought his first building to the village—a seventy-five-year-old general store, the true social center of every old American hamlet. The owner was happy to exchange it for the spanking new brick emporium which Ford agreed to erect in its place. A later acquisition was a mournfully decrepit stagecoach inn—the Motor King was particularly partial to horse-and-buggy relics—which had been standing in Clinton, Michigan, since 1831, the first stop on the rough frontier road from Detroit to Chicago. After gently displacing the dotty old lady who lived in one room of the inn, Ford’s crew dismantled the sagging ruin, shipped it to Dearborn, and restored it to its original, sparkling white, neoclassical self. Outfitting the taproom, parlor, kitchen, and bedrooms with appropriate period furnishings was, of course, no trouble whatever to the man who collected everything. It stood next to the store on the embryonic village green.
The Motor King intended his museum cum village to be a mighty memorial to Thomas Edison, the only man living whom Ford himself held in awe. Within the greater memorial Ford decided in March, 1928, to erect a more specific one to the Wizard of Menlo Park, a place Edison had abandoned back in 1887. At immense cost in time, labor, money, and meticulous research, Ford restored from bare, pillaged ruins in New Jersey the entire Menlo Park compound, including the laboratory, the glass house, the machine shop, the white picket fence, and even the boardinghouse just across the street where Edison’s hard-driven aides took time out to sleep. When Ford proudly showed Edison his handiwork—a masterpiece of restoration—the octogenarian inventor remarked: “Why Henry’s even got the damn New Jersey clay here.” He had, too—carloads of the red stuff, along with the stump of an old hickory tree that had once grown near the laboratory. In 1929 Ford also acquired for his nascent village the Smiths Creek Depot of the Grand Trunk railway because young Edison had worked in it as a telegrapher after being tossed out there by a railway conductor for starting a fire in the baggage car. Even the official dedication of the Edison Institute was timed as a tribute to Edison. The institute’s first public act was to host the nationally broadcast celebration of the electric light’s fiftieth birthday. At the glittering banquet in Ford’s half-built museum the grand old man broke down and cried.
Ford’s collection had grown with astonishing speed, but the village was destined to grow slowly. Each year the Motor King would add two or three buildings, rarely more. With tender affection he gathered up shops and homes that paid homage to the men he admired—to unsung blacksmiths, machinists, and frontier farmers; to Luther Burbank and Charles Steinmetz, to McGuffey and the Wright brothers, and also to George Matthew Adams, Ford’s favorite newspaper columnist. Ford was never quite willing to separate his own past and America’s past, although he kept his own family homestead apart from the village almost until his death. Whatever Greenf ield Village would mean to his countrymen, for Ford himself it was his own vanished youth restored, his own private time machine.
As the years sped by, the Motor King spent less and less time at his factory and more and more time in his village. He stocked its one-room schoolhouses with children and visited them each morning to hear them recite from their McGuffey readers. At the Clinton Inn he ate the meals prepared by the girls in their cooking classes. At Magill’s jewelry store he could be found at a workbench repairing watches just as he done as an ill-paid apprentice who had to work nights at Magill’s to eke out a living. At what he took to be Stephen Foster’s birthplace—it wasn’t—Ford often spent his evenings picking out beloved Foster tunes on the organ or tinkering with the Swiss music box that played “Swanee. ” On Sundays he and his wife Clara would often attend the little chapel that stands at one end of the Greenf ield Village common. At dusk, when the visitors had left and the illusion of the past was at its strongest, he and Clara would amble together down the silent, unpaved streets of the sweetly re-created world where motor cars and mass production were kept safely at bay.
Late in his life a housemaid overheard Henry Ford ask a minister: “Do you think God wanted me to make cars?” The maid never heard the clergyman’s reply, but there is little doubt what answer would have pleased the Motor King by then. The answer, of course, is yes and no.