Henry Ford: An Interpretation. Did He Make the World A Better Place, Or Not?
Just like yesterday night, April 7th, it was raining in Detroit on the night of April 7,1947. There was extensive flooding on the Rouge River and 83 year old Henry Ford had spent part of the day at he beloved Greenfield Village, making sure that it was not damaged. The next day he was planning on touring Ford facilities in southeastern Michigan to see how the flood had affected his factories. After returning to Fair Lane, the estate that Henry and Clara built on the Rouge, the two had dinner by candlelight, as the flood had also knocked out the estate’s powerhouse. That must have been a disappointment to Henry, as his primary interest seems to have been power. Before his automotive ventures, Ford was chief operating engineer of the Edison Illuminating Co. of Detroit.
At dinner, Henry and Clara discussed the 100 mile trip he was planning for the next day. As was his custom, he retired to his bedroom at 9 p.m. A little bit after 11, Henry called Clara to his bedside. He complained of a bad headache and said that his throat was dry. He was having a stroke, though Clara did not know that. She gave him a glass of water. Clara then sent her maid, Rosa Buhler, to wake Robert Rankin, the Fords’ chauffeur who had an apartment above the estate’s garage, to tell him to fetch a doctor. The phone lines were out from the flood and Rankin had to drive over to the Ford Engineering Laboratories, about a half mile from Fair Line find a working phone. Rankin called Dr. John Mateer of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
Clara Ford also sent for two other people to come to Henry’s deathbead. Her grandson, Henry Ford II, and Evangeline Dahlinger. Henry the second lived at his parents’ estate on Lake Ste Claire, north of Grosse Pointe. It’s probably not coincidental that Edsel and Eleanor built their home about as far away from Fair Lane as they could and still be somewhere in the Detroit area. Henry alternately doted on Edsel and, afraid that he’d be the effete and soft son of a rich man, Ford would embarrass his son in front of others, supposedly to toughen him up.
Henry was a bit more consistent with the way he treated Evangeline Dahlinger. Unlike Edsel and Eleanor, Evangeline, lived close by to Henry in a stately home just up the Rouge from Fair Lane, a home that Henry built for her and her husband Ray, Ford’s former driver. She first met Henry, 30 years her senior, when she got a job in 1909 as a 16 year old stenographer in Ford’s Highland Park factory. After the Dahlinger’s marriage, Ray was given the job of traveling the world scouting out locations for Ford factories. That made it convenient for Henry’s nocturnal cruises up the Rouge in the quiet little electric boat he had made for Clara. A private staircase led from the Dahlinger’s boat well to Mrs. Dahlinger’s separate bedroom.
It’s said that the only time Clara ever stood up to Henry, an indomitable man if there ever was one, was after the death of their only son Edsel in 1943. Years earlier, after buying out his partners and investors following the huge success of the Model T, Henry distributed Ford stuck thusly: 49% for himself, 48% for Edsel, and the remaining 3% for Clara. After Edsel died in 1943 and Henry reasserted operational control of Ford Motor Company, Clara and Eleanor threatened Henry that they would sell the 51% of Ford that they owned if he would not abdicate and let his grandson and namesake run the company. Though she stood up for her grandson, Clara was more tolerant of her husband’s behavior when it came to Evangeline Dahlinger, Henry’s longtime mistress and likely mother of a second Ford son. By his death, Clara obviously had made her peace with the role Evangeline played in Henry’s life.
After waking the chauffeur, the maid returned to Henry’s bedroom where she heard Clara say, “Henry, speak to me.” He seemed to have stopped breathing and Mrs. Ford asked Buhler, “What do you think of it?” Rosa replied, “I think Mr. Ford will be leaving us.” By the time Dr. Mateer got to Fair Lane, the man who put the world on wheels was dead.
Unlike the Egyptian style tomb, complete with sphinxes were the Dodge brothers’ widows interred them, Clara buried Henry in a simple grave in the still well-kept private cemetery that had been used by her adoptive family, the Aherns (also spelled O’Hern) since before William Ford, Henry’s father, immigrated from Ireland. It’s on the south side of Joy Road (named after another automotive pioneer, Henry Joy, who made Packard a great marque), just west of Greenfield Road. The oldest date on a stone there that I could find was 1821. Before her death Clara left an endowment for an Episcopal church to be built next to the small cemetery. It’s called St. Martha’s and it’s still consecrated, and maintained, though it looks inactive and I haven’t been able to determine if it ever functioned with a congregation. Clara looks to have been the last person buried there. Most people assume the wrought iron above and around Clara and Henry’s final resting places is not for decoration but rather to prevent vandalism. The truth, though, is that only a relative handful of people who drive by have any clue who’s buried there.
When I visited Ford’s grave site yesterday, at least one other person remembered the date. Someone had left some kind of makeshift memorial at the foot of Henry’s grave consisting of two cups each of two different liquids, and four small pieces of what looked like bread. I’m not sure of the significance but I didn’t want to disturb it. I’m not sure if any Ford family members came to pay their respects, or if any have been there in years. Eleanor and her children are said to have blamed Henry at least in part for Edsel’s death.
As if to put an exclamation point on the location she and Edsel chose for their home, though it was a certainty that Henry would rest with his ancestors, Eleanor decided to bury Edsel at Woodlawn Cemetery on Woodward, near the grave of his good friend Hudson chief Roy Chapin. None of Henry’s five grandchildren are buried with him.
Henry, who had some backwards notions regarding ethnicity and religion, might show some surprise at his current neighbors. Across the street from the cemetery there’s an Obama branded gas station whose owners have named it after the first black president of the United State. From Henry’s grave site you can also see the green dome and minaret of the mosque next door to the church. On the other hand, if Henry’s spinning, it’s more likely because one great grandkid married a Jew and another married a black man.
Edsel, chief thug Harry Bennett and production whiz Peter Martin were about the only people who worked closely with Ford and didn’t eventually come to a parting of the ways with the man. Perhaps Henry’s most significant talent was surrounding himself with some people who were not just exceptionally talented but that could also work with a megalomaniac and get him to see things their way. One of my favorite books about Henry Ford was written by Samuel Marquis, an Episcopal clergyman who was the Ford family pastor. Ford eventually put his pastor on his payroll, heading Ford’s Sociology Department, but that didn’t prevent Marquis from seeing the truth about his parishioner and boss. Eventually, after Ford felt that Marquis spoke out of turn concerning Ford business he fired him. Bitter from his dismissal, Marquis published a book, Henry Ford: An Interpretation. It’s a nuanced but almost unvarnished look at the man. That’s undoubtedly why the Ford company and family actively suppressed it for decades. I say almost unvarnished because Marquis is uncharacteristically reticent when it came to Ford’s Jew-hatred. Still, it was the only critical book about Ford written by a close associate of his that was published during Ford’s lifetime.
Henry Ford undoubtedly changed the world. Pastor Marquis had his own interpretation of the man’s life. What’s yours? Did Henry Ford make the world a better place, or would we all have been better off if he’d stayed at Edison instead of tinkering around with his Quadricycle?
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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Great history lesson, Ronnie - thanks!
Say what you want about Henry but the model T Ford was "the machine that changed the world"