- Historic Sites
—a complex man
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
He always remained a countryman in his plain way of living, for despite Keith Sward’s statements, it was plain. When his fortune first grew, he said plaintively that the chief difference in his way of life was that “Mrs. Ford no longer does the cooking”—and he preferred her cookery. He refused a butler, for he wanted no man behind his chair at dinner “while I am taking the potatoes’ jackets off.” His puritanic condemnation of smoking, drinking and marital irregularities conformed to the principles described in Thorstein Veblen’s essay The Country Town . He rejected the eminent Delancey Nicoll as attorney in the Sapiro case because, when the New York lawyer came to Dearborn, Ford saw him chain-smoking cigarettes. “I’m for Mr. Coolidge if he will enforce the Prohibition laws,” he said in 1923. He was a countryman also in his devotion to work as a virtue in itself. His cure for nearly all ills was more work.
True to the frontiersman’s instinct, he consistently preferred trial and error to precise planning. Contemptuous of elaborate record-keeping, he once shocked Perry by making a bonfire of forms used to keep track of spare parts. Hostile to meticulous organization, he ran even the huge Highland Park plant without formal titles or administrative grades. He long derided careful cost accounting. In this, thinks one surviving executive, H. L. Moekle, he was right. Success in the automotive industry at first depended not on computation of costs to the third decimal point in Rockefeller’s fashion, but on courageous innovations in design and engineering and on the acceptability of models and prices to the public. Ford stayed in the field of bold experiment—cost accounting might have hampered him. He of course stuck to Model T too long; but meanwhile he was experimenting with tractors, a tri-motored airplane, a weekly journal, a railroad, and a dozen other matters.
He had also the frontiersman’s intense hatred of monopoly and special privilege. To be sure, he long enjoyed a practical monopoly of the low-priced car, but he could say that he achieved it without favor and without warring on any competitor. His dislike of patents, his earnest counsel to George Holley to take out no patent on his carburetor, his course in throwing open to public view and general use Ford machines and methods, his determined battle against George Selden, all harmonized with the frontier attitude. He extended the principle beyond automotive patents. His early broadcasting station WWI carried on research, worked out (so associates say) the first directional airplane controls, and gained a patent—which he shared with all. Once his purchaser, Fred Diehl, was offered spark plugs free for River Rouge production if the supplier were allowed to sell all replacements to dealers. “Mr. Ford himself turned that down,” reports a lieutenant. “He said he didn’t want anything from anybody for nothing.” A true countryman’s speech; for a scheme that would have meant monopoly supply was abhorrent to Henry Ford.
Much more might be said on the pleasanter inheritances from the rural environment—on his rather appealing inarticulateness which kept him from making public speeches (the longest ever recorded was 28 words); on his dislike of class lines, which was one of several reasons for his aversion from Grosse Pointe society; on the rugged comradeship with fellow workers which he showed in his early career, but unhappily lost; on his warm love of nature, and the feeling for wild life which made him build shelters for rabbits, grow corn for crows, and keep warm water available all winter in the hope of retaining migratory songbirds in the North. One of the most important parts of his countryman’s heritage was his stubborn originality of thought—when he did think. Neither from books nor men did he take ideas secondhand; he hammered them out for himself, usually on walks in field and wood. Often they were immature. But sometimes, between intuition and lonely thinking, he seized a concept which startled men with its novel glint of truth.
Meanwhile, what penalties his early environment, and his invincible ignorance in many areas, laid upon him! Like other untutored men, he had a deep suspicion of the uncomprehended, a strong inclination to prejudice, and a susceptibility to bad counsel. Some thought his antagonism to Wall Street traceable to a memory of Populist speeches, others to his anxieties in the depression of 1921; but surely three-fourths of it was simple distrust of what he did not understand. It is significant that his suspiciousness, hardly visible in his first years of success, grew marked when he came under fire. “Ford has the idea that he is persecuted,” a writer in the Forum accurately stated in 1919. He thought that some journals had begun to “hound” him when he announced the $5 day, and others when he battled for peace and the League.