Just watched a very interesting documentary on Henry Ford tonight. What a visionary he was. But while he achieved tremendous success far beyond what most people could ever even dream of, it seems that he still wasn't happy. The program talked about how absolutely driven he was his entire life, to the point that he alienated many people who worked with him or for him. He expected others to meet his high standards, and had no mercy when they did not.
The saddest thing about his life would have to be his relationship with his son Edsel, his only child. Of course Henry's high expectations were thrust upon his son, and there was absolutely no room for Edsel to be his own person. In every way that he tried, he was always thwarted by his powerful father. The story was told about one time when they were building the new plant, Edsel had the idea of having a separate building built for offices, and went ahead and okayed the excavation for the foundation. Then his father found out and said "No, we will not do that." The son asked what about the huge hole they have already dug, and Henry said "Leave it." So every day Edsel had to walk past that enormous hole in the ground and be reminded of his failed attempt to defy his father. So did everyone else who worked for Henry. Wow.
When the Ford Motor Company was the last holdout in the American auto industry against unionizing, even amidst violent uprisings and protests which were equally violently squashed, Edsel tried to reason with his father that negotiation with the unions would be unavoidable. Henry still refused to give in. Ever the controlling leader, he saw workers who wanted to unionize as lazy leeches who wanted to capitalize on his own hard work, just as he had seen investors when other company leaders had wanted to go public with company stock years earlier. When Ford workers were seen talking to anyone thought to be associated with the union, they were beaten and then fired. Finally Edsel, on his own, without his father's knowledge, negotiated a contract with the Auto Worker's Union, then presented it to Henry, who held out for days, then finally agreed to sign it. Not too long after that incident, Edsel became ill. He had suffered with bleeding ulcers for years, and who would not have, living life knowing whatever you did it would never being good enough? It had now progressed to stomach cancer, which he kept from Henry as long as he could, but as he was dying, his wife told her father-in-law. Somehow deep down the elder Ford must have known that blame for his son's early death at age 49 was at mostly his. The narrator remarked how Ford never recovered from losing his son. When he asked his closest confidante, the man he considered to be the son he had always wanted, if he had treated Edsel cruelly, the man said, "I would not say cruelly, but I would say unfairly. I would have been angry had you treated me like that." To which Henry replied, "that's what I wanted, for him to get angry."
The other fascinating thing about Henry Ford was his other great legacy Greenfield Village, a historic museum in Michigan that he founded and built in 1929, and which is today the largest indoor-outdoor American history museum. As a historian, I had known about this historic site for years, but I never really knew the story behind it. Henry Ford grew up a farmer. As a matter of fact his father had expected him to take over the family farm, but he had refused to do so, first going to work as an engineer for Edison, then after meeting Thomas Edison and receiving encouragement from him to continue with his designs, making the first automobile for the masses, and as they say, the rest was history.
Yet, it seems he had regrets. Even after his auto company became hugely successful he lived out in the country and worked his land himself. He held only disdain for the massively growing, sprawling city that his own ambitions had created. The thousands of teeming masses needed to fuel the factory existed due to his own actions, yet he hated being around them, and retreated daily to his own private peaceful oasis to wish for a simpler time. It seems likely then that he created Greenfield, actually a "fake" historic town, by hauling in historic buildings from other places in a sad attempt to recreate that simpler time, and try out the path he had chosen not to take as a young man. The famous Wright Brothers bicycle shop, Thomas Edison's lab, and Daniel Webster's house were three of the historic structures that he brought in to create his town. He even had an old one-room schoolhouse restored and placed on the property, and selected children to actually be schooled there. Reproductions of antiques were placed in the buildings, including the recreation of a set of his own mother's china which was placed inside the home in which he was born, assuring his own place among the other notable historical figures celebrated there. Yet as much as he wanted to be remembered for his far-reaching vision, it was as if he had, through the actions of his life, also put into motion a process he wished that he could stop, but because he could not, he tried to recreate what existed before. He said himself of his museum, "I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used.... When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition..." How sad.