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Henry Ford Remembered

In every sense of the word, Henry Ford was a complex man. On one hand, he may have contributed more than any other individual besides his friend and mentor Thomas Edison to the reality of the modern world. On the other hand, he fought to suppress and control a society that would remain forever at arm's length. He could be talkative and entertaining, but could suddenly stop in mid-sentence and blurt out, "That's not what I was thinking at all," excusing himself to disappear into his laboratory, sometimes for days, until he emerged with a new engine element, new car design, factory layout, rail locomotive, or other pioneering idea.

Born on July 30, 1863, in Dearborn, he was the oldest of six children born to first-generation Irish farmers William and Mary Litogot O'Hern Ford. Not rich but far from poor, the family fared well. Ford's legendary curiosity was demonstrated at an early age. Fascinated by the vapors rising from the boiling water in the tea kettle on the kitchen stove, Henry plugged up the spout. With no outlet for the steam, the kettle exploded, shooting hot water in all directions. His practical side began as he tinkered with farm tools. He was fond of recounting the July day in 1876 when he saw his first self-propelled steam engine working a farmer's field.

Fifty years later, Ford was producing 57percent of the automobiles sold in America and around half the cars sold worldwide. As an adult, Ford allowed no one to use his first name, but he was proud to affix his last name on the affordable Model T and Model A automobiles. The slender five-foot, nine-inch, long-legged industrialist baffled even those who knew him best. When he set the industrial world on edge with his production line for the Model T and $5 for an eight-hour workday, he built nearby housing complexes where workers lived to keep his factories moving. Workers grumbled at Ford rules that came with living there. Inspectors knocked at regular intervals, inquiring into lifestyles with questions that some took as intrusive. As in other matters, it was Ford's way or no way.

In 1915, as World War I dragged on, Ford's pacifist leanings led him to lease the sailing ship Oscar II which he proclaimed the Peace Ship. On December 4, he boarded her and set sail for Norway on a self-proclaimed mission to end the war, pledging to be "home by Christmas." The effort failed, but Ford later said, "At least I tried." Years later, with the advent of World War II, his pacifism took a back seat to full-out, one-an-hour factory production of B-24 "Liberator" bombers at Willow Run.

In 1916, the Chicago Tribune attributed to Ford the incorrect information that employees who left their jobs to serve in the National Guard would lose their jobs. The following day a Tribune editorial followed up by calling Ford an "ignorant idealist." Ford sued, and the trial—staged in Mount Clemens—made headlines around the world. Well aware of Ford's lack of interest beyond the inventive, experts drilled him for hours about his general knowledge of the day. He saw little value in the drills, since he said he could pay workers to locate such information for him in five minutes. Badgered by lawyers, with journalists frantically taking notes, Ford calmly sat in the witness chair, his long legs crossed as he sharpened his pocket knife absently on the bottom of his leather shoe. When asked what this nation was before its discovery by the Europeans, he kept sharpening his knife and without a glance upward, said, "Dirt, I guess." The jury settled against the Tribune, but awarded Ford only six cents in damages.

The common people loved his folksy responses—and bought more Fords. After the trial, Ford seemed more conscious of education and history. He built schools, experimental farms, small-town factories, and hospitals. He developed an obsessive collection of historical memorabilia, and housed it in the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village at Dearborn. An avid camper, Ford took long auto trips—in Model Ts, with a Japanese chef—with Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs. An avid hiker, he would be out morning and afternoon, ending the day around a campfire telling rambling stories and tall tales.

Exasperated with the newspapers of the day, he published his own Dearborn Independent where he aired his own anti-Semitic and anti-labor views. In 1933, Ford led the fight against the fledgling United Auto Workers ("uaw") unionization efforts led by Walter Reuther. Hiring an army (some claim it numbered up to 2,000) ironically called the "Service Department," Ford took on the union organizers. In 1937, the conflict erupted in the "Battle of the Overpass," where Ford's goons viciously attacked Reuther and other "uaw" officials handing out union flyers near a Ford plant gate. Photojournalists captured the incident, and it outraged the nation. Courts ordered Ford to cease interfering with union activities, and the "uaw" contract was signed in 1941.

Ford was notorious for avoiding his office, preferring instead the noise and clatter of his assembly line. To escape the social whirl of Detroit, he built his Fair Lane estate at Dearborn. Then, prompted by his love of dancing, he organized grand balls that were the rage of society. In 1945, Ford's grandson Henry II took him to Greenfield Village, and watched his 81-year-old grandfather climb aboard his original "quadricycle" horseless carriage for a ride along the streets of the man-made colonial America. In 1947, the man who idolized Thomas Edison and his electric lightbulb, the man who did the most to create the world on wheels, died quietly by candlelight.

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