Visiting Henry Ford’s Mind

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His communications with an English agent named Herbert Morton suggest the way you could go about things if you were Henry Ford. Would it be possible, he asked Morton, to put together a complete collection of steam engines from the very beginning? Yes, said Morton; steam apparatus had a long life, and enough still existed, but “the cost … would be enormous.” Ford thought that over. “Well, I’ll tell you—I’ll spend ten million dollars.” He got his engines.

We want to have something of everything,” said Ford in 1926. We shall reproduce the life of the country in its every age.” By now he was planning a village as well as a museum, and the life it would reproduce would be very much life as Henry Ford viewed it. There would be no bank in his town, and no law office, because bankers and lawyers only made trouble. There would be several jewelry stores, because he had worked in them as a boy, and there would be the Detroit Illuminating Company, because it had been as supervisor there that he met Thomas Edison in 1896.

Ford admired Edison above all people, and Greenfield Village would in large part be a tribute to him. Ford transplanted not only the Menlo Park laboratory where Edison had perfected his electric light but also the New Jersey clay on which it stood and the boardinghouse where Edison’s assistants had lived. He also admired the Wright brothers, and so he brought the cycle shop where they had conducted their tremendous experiments, and their Dayton, Ohio, home. Ford ordered that the very mortar that had bound together its stone foundation be reground and reconstituted to serve again.

Ford not only brought Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory to his museum, he brought the New Jersey clay on which it stood.

Because the changes that had overtaken America had come at such a pace, Ford was able to have the men who had wrought them on hand to advise him: Orville made sure the proper furniture went in its proper places in the Wright parlor, and Thomas Edison journeyed out on October 21, 1929, the fiftieth anniversary of his light, to dedicate what Henry Ford had built.

Ford lived another eighteen years, and his museum grew ever more full and fascinating. To it came Noah Webster’s New Haven home and the courthouse from Logan County, Illinois, where the young Abraham Lincoln practiced law, a tidewater Maryland plantation, the Ohio farm where Harvey Firestone was born, and the lunch wagon where Ford used to grab a sandwich when he had the night shift at Detroit Illuminating.

Some of the exhibits are amusing, and a few are heartbreaking. When Edsel Ford, Henry’s only son, died in 1943 after being tormented for years by his increasingly irrational father, Henry built as a monument a copy of the garage shop where father and son had once worked amicably together.

It’s all as idiosyncratic as it sounds, and yet it succeeds in fulfilling its creator’s design. Going through the museum and Greenfield Village is to walk through Henry Ford’s mind, which is a very interesting place, but along with that and with all the personal associations the collection can trigger—my Pontiac, my fellow visitor’s Fairlane—there really are gathered here the strands of the nation’s past.

Once, stopping at a house he was planning to move, where he had spent much time as a boy, Ford made a discovery. “I found some marbles, put a few in the palm of my hand, and as I applied pressure, they disintegrated. Life, change, had gone on.” It is not the least accomplishment of the man who once claimed he had invented modern times to have retrieved for us the past he did so much to annihilate.

—Richard F. Snow TO PLAN A TRIP