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The Square Dancing Master

July 2024
5min read

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

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.

The seventy-two-year-old Dunham came to Ford’s attention when he won a statewide fiddling contest in Lewiston, Maine, in the fall of 1925. The manufacturer immediately invited Dunham to play at one of his Dearborn dancing parties. Dunham, busily making snowshoes, ignored the letter for several days, thinking it was another order for his handiwork. He was much in demand, having made the snowshoes that Peary’s men had worn on their trip to the North Pole in 1909. After opening the missive, Mellie replied that he could not get away for a while because he had to split kindling and patch the barn roof in addition to his regular work at the cobbler’s bench.


The Norway Advertiser learned of the invitation and published the exchange of letters; the following day “every press association, every newspaper in the country thereupon shouted the news that Ford had a new favorite.” Governor Ralph O. Brewster of Maine dispatched a representative to Norway, and Mellie was prevailed upon to accept Ford’s invitation.

Dunham left Norway amid the biggest celebration in the town’s history. Stores and schools were closed and the citizenry paraded behind Mellie, a brass band, and a police escort to the railroad station, where the Governor and his staff conducted farewell festivities. During the train trip through Maine, New Hampshire, Quebec, and Ontario, the fiddler was hailed at every whistle stop, and the press contingent accompanying him kept the news wires humming.

On December 11, 1925, Dunham played “Pop! Goes The Weasel,” “Weevily Wheat,” “Speed the Plough,” “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Old Zip Coon,” and other melodies at Ford’s dancing party. The event, attended by a large number of reporters and photographers from Detroit, New York, and Boston, probably was the best-publicized dance in the nation’s history. While in Dearborn, Dunham, using Ford’s Stradivarius, gave “the most extraordinary recital in the history of music in America.”

The fiddler then entrained for New York, where, after remarking, “I came to make some money and I make no bones about it, since me and Ma have had honor enough,” he signed a $5oo-a-week contract with the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. Dunham fiddled throughout the United States and Canada for seventeen months, at times receiving as much as $1,500 a week for his services.

In the meantime, dozens of fiddlers throughout the country, including John J. Wilder, President Coolidge’s eighty-year-old uncle, came forward to claim they “didn’t figure Mellie Dunham was so much of a fiddler,” and to challenge him (and Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman, Bisbee, et al .) to a playdown. Many of the challengers, including Coolidge’s uncle, went into vaudeville, as the nation was swept by a fiddling craze. Contests were held in hundreds of communities throughout the country, and Ford offered a loving cup to many of the winners.

Sheet music and songbooks featuring old-time tunes became best sellers in music shops, and stores handling violins and old-fashioned guitars reported a boom in sales. Horseshoe pitching, wood chopping, marble shooting, and other contests that smacked of the “good old days” sprang up on every side. Ford, as he contemplated what he and his fiddlers had wrought, had every reason to be pleased.

After the spring of 1926, however, the fiddling and the old-fashioneddancing crazes lost their popularity. Ford, however, was not deterred and continued to hold terpsichorean parties in Dearborn until the early 1940’s.

Ruth St. Denis, the great interpreter of Oriental dance forms, was invited to one of Ford’s square dances, the flivver king thinking that it would be a treat for her. She attended, but, unable to bring herself to participate in the “remarkable performance,” could only sit and sigh, “How awful! How awful!” As for prancing Henry, his form and grace, it was reported, were never better than on that particular night.

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