- Historic Sites
The Square Dancing Master
Henry Ford bought a $75,000 Stradivarius, learned to play “Turkey in the Straw,” and tried to teach all those Model T riders how to do-si-do like Grandpa
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
For four decades Henry Ford was one of America’s most original crusaders. At one time or another he was protecting birds, chartering a peace ship, proclaiming that every criminal was “an inveterate cigarette smoker,” exposing a scheming but fictitious character called the “international Jew,” declaring that he would stop making cars “if booze ever comes back,” or insisting that only a diet of soybeans, carrots, or wheat could insure good health.
But of all the auto king’s crusades, few were more exciting and none created more merriment than his attempts in the 1920’s to convince a jazz-mad generation that it was more fun to dance the Virginia reel than the Charleston and to listen to country fiddlers than to saxophonists.
Ford and his wife had organized old-fashioned dance parties even before World War i. But their interest in this form of recreation strengthened after the industrialist’s purchase, in 1923, of historic Wayside Inn, in South Sudbury, Massachusetts. There the Fords organized square dances as part of the regular entertainment program. Gratified by their reception, the manufacturer announced in 1925 that he would lead a crusade to bring oldfashioned dances back into public favor.
Organizing an “orchestra” consisting of a violinist, a cymbalist, a dulcimer player, and a sousaphone player, the motor magnate enrolled friends and Ford executives and their wives into classes taught by his Wayside Inn dancing master, Benjamin B. Lovett. Ford’s announcement and activities were, of course, gleefully publicized. In an article entitled “Just a Reel at Twilight When Your Flask Is Low,” the Cincinnati Times-Star reported that “it looks like it will be a big summer for grandma.”
To publicize his hobby, Ford invited two hundred Ohio and Michigan dancing instructors to his home town, Dearborn, Michigan, to learn the Virginia reel, schottische, varsovienne (Ford’s favorite), gavotte, ripple, minuet, and other almostforgotten steps popular in the auto pioneer’s youth. He also arranged for his orchestra to play old-fashioned dance music over a nationwide radio network during the public showings of his new cars in January, 1926, and January, 1927. Hundreds of dealers set up loud-speakers in their show rooms and invited townspeople to dance to the music. In some communities nearly 25 per cent of the local populace attended the parties.
In addition, the industrialist made arrangements for Lovett to teach dancing to Dearborn’s schoolchildren. After the instruction had begun, two hundred parents petitioned the school board to stop the dances, claiming that they were immoral. Amid nationwide clamor, a jury of five hundred parents saw twentyfive student-couples demonstrate the steps, and voted to have them continued.
Old-fashioned dancing quickly became the rage throughout the country. Newspapers carried detailed instructions covering an entire page. Thirty-four institutions of higher learning, including Radcliffe College, Stephens College, Temple University, and the universities of Michigan, North Carolina, and Georgia, added early American dancing to their curricula; and Ford sent Lovett on a junket to supervise the teaching of the new discipline.
In the fall of 1926 the American National Association of Masters of Dancing, in convention in New York, announced that “the Charleston is dying, the Black Bottom can never be king, and during the past year there has been a great revival in oldtime dancing.” Henry Ford was credited with the renewed interest in the old steps.
Ford similarly could lay claim to reviving and repopularizing another entertainment of earlier, less sophisticated days—country fiddling. The industrialist himself liked to fiddle, and in his private laboratory would often play “Turkey in the Straw” and others of his favorite tunes on a Stradivarius violin valued at $75,000. To his chagrin, however, he never learned to play well, and he found it quite impossible to dance a jig as he performed. Thus he was delighted when he discovered eighty-year-old Jep Bisbee, who combined both of these talents, at a dance in Traverse City, Michigan, in 1923.
Ford gave Bisbee a sedan and a miniature gold violin set with diamonds, and sent him to East Orange, New Jersey, in his private railroad car so that Thomas A. Edison could film his performance for posterity. For two years Bisbee, who raised his fee from three dollars a night to thirty-five dollars on the strength of Ford’s endorsement, was the nation’s best-known country fiddler. He was crowned King of Old-time Fiddlers after he had outplayed fifteen other hoary backwoodsmen to win the Henry Ford Gold Cup at a wellpublicized Detroit contest.
Jep, however, was quickly relegated to the wings when Ford’s next “discovery,” a Norway, Maine, snowshoe maker, fiddled onto the national stage. Mellie Dunham, in fact, probably obtained more publicity in the months of December, 1925, and January, 1926, than Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, and Mischa Elman received in any ten-year period of their careers. Even the highly publicized Ford stood on the edge of Dunham’s spotlight.