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Henry Ford and Small Town America

August 26, 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve written much. I have been going down to the farm and done some work on my most recent armchairs and a couple benches. But since I don’t have much new to add on the woodworking front, I thought I’d share my reaction to a documentary I recently saw on PBS. I suppose it is only tangentially related to Blog because I sometimes write about the idea of living in simpler times and it is MY reaction to the show.
As you may already know, although my family is from New England, I grew up (went to elementary, junior, high school, and college) in Michigan. As kids we were presented with certain heroes. Some were the same heroes kids of that era were presented with anywhere – the founding fathers, astronauts, and various men of invention and industry. At that age, I could think of few things cooler than getting a patent for an idea that would change the world. There were men like Thomas Edison, or the Wright Brothers, and of course Henry Ford. Henry Ford was OUR hero. He had made Michigan king of the world. Outside of the Bo Schembechler (look him up if you are neither a Michigander nor a Buckeye) there really was no one higher in the pantheon of Michigan heroes. One thing I learned about Henry Ford is true and I must give him his due on one account. He realized that if he paid his workers a decent wage, they would have enough money to buy things, like one of his cars. So early on, he treated his workers pretty well. But that, of course, changed.
Henry Ford’s image took its first hit in my eyes in college. There I took a twentieth century American history course and learned about Ford’s less than heroic side – his anti-Semitism, union busting, social engineering/fascism, Nazi sympathizing, etc. And that tarnished (to say the least) image has been mine ever since. But recently I watched a PBS American Experience devoted to Henry Ford and remarkably was able to muster a bit more bile for the man. I want to start by saying American Experience is just great, GREAT television. I have never watched a show that I did not find enlightening and entertaining. I never plan on watching it. I’ll just be channel surfing, run across old film of men building Hoover Dam, or Mt Rushmore, or people struggling against the Hurricane of 1938, or whatever, and I’m hooked. As for Henry Ford, firstly, there was his treatment of his son Edsel Ford. Henry was a teetotaler and thought everyone else ought to be. Henry liked rural life and the out of doors and had a camera crew follow him around documenting his rugged outdoorsy-ness for the newsreels. Henry prided himself on being the boss. He made the decisions and thought it a sign of weakness to consult, collaborate, or cooperate. Edsel was everything his father wasn’t. He was kind. He was a natty dresser and a socialite. He drank. He understood that people might want to buy a car in a color other than black, and a style other than the model T. He was also willing to listen to others in order to get things done. He would collaborate with other managers. He even tried to get his father to listen to the workers and allow unionization. All of this behavior earned Edsel his father’s complete and utter disdain. Eventually, Edsel died of stomach cancer. He never told his father how sick he was and Henry attributed his illness to a weak character and too much partying. As sad as that was, there was something that bothered me at least as much.
Henry Ford grew up in rural America. He idealized rural America. As his automobile factories grew and grew, they destroyed more and more of the rural landscape he had grown up in. This culminated in the unimaginably large River Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI. (That plant alone is worthy of a documentary or two and I encourage you to look into it, as I wont spend the time here.) Henry looked around and said to himself, “I miss the little town I grew up in.” So he built Greenfield Village – a 120-acre rural recreation of his childhood home. It included the house he actually grew up in, many other homes, a one-room schoolhouse with real students and a teacher, a farm, farmhouses, and small workshops (including the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop and Thomas Edison’s laboratory – it took me years to figure out that Menlo Park was in NJ and that the shop had been moved to MI).
Now, you may ask yourself, “What’s wrong with that? The public was allowed in. It was educational. Why shouldn’t the guy be allowed to build his own personal village?” Well, I’ll tell you what bothers me so much about it. Because, Henry Ford, perhaps more than any other man was responsible for the death of the small town and small town life. His factories and their appetite for raw materials raped the land. With the advent of cars, towns no longer required all the little shops and stores that allowed people to make a small town livelihood. Cars led to roads, led to more cars, led to highways, led to the end of mass transit and rail roads. Suburbs and exurbs, and all manner of urban sprawl were made possible by the automobile. I freely admit that if he hadn’t done it, someone else or others would have done it, but he did it. And when he looked around and saw what was happening, he didn’t work to stop what was happening or even to say, “Oh look what’s happening. Look what I have done. That’s bad. If I miss my little hometown, other people are probably missing theirs too. It’s a shame but I guess that’s the tradeoff that comes with progress.” No, he just makes millions and millions of dollars destroying the countryside for everyone. And when he finds he misses it he builds himself his own little town and pretends the enormous change he wreaked upon this country never happened.
If only he had spent as much of his time and energy (not to mention considerable wealth) on preserving actual small town life and culture as he did creating his own personal simulacrum thereof.

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