Henry Ford- American Hero or Villian?


The age-old question- Ford or Chevy? It has broken relationships and started wars in families. Facebook pages have been set up for supporters. There have been many people who have stayed up all night waiting for the latest and greatest vehicles to be released. As American icons go, it is a way of life, a tribute to the hardworking citizens of this country, on par with Christmas and apple pie.

Besides the fact there are about a billion car lots with his name all over the world, what do you really know about Henry Ford?

Here are some facts-

  • He was promoted to Chief Engineer of Detroit’s Thomas Edison Illumination Company at the age of 20 in 1893. In six years, Edison convinced him to pursue his dreams of building a gasoline-powered automobile.
  • As a result of a personal recommendation from his friend President Woodrow Wilson, Ford sought a seat in the United States Senate. Despite Ford’s loss, he didn’t spend a dime on his campaign, making this an impressive feat.

  • Ford is the co-inventor of Kingsford charcoal briquettes. The brother-in-law of Ford, E.G. Kingsford, suggested beginning a charcoal plant when Ford complained that oak wood scraps piled up on his production lines of the Model-T. As a tribute to his brother-in-law, Ford named the product Kingsford Charcoal, which continues to be the leading producer of charcoal briquettes today.

  • Indiana Jones is flying a Ford Tri-Motor airplane produced by the Ford Airplane Company between 1928 and 1933 in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. 
  • At 15, he built his first steam-powered locomotive

Now let’s look a little deeper than the History.com facts about Henry Ford.

The automobile was not invented by Henry Ford. It is now generally accepted that Karl Benz of Germany was the recipient of that honor in 1885/1886. However, Leonardo Da Vinci was actually working on designs and models related to transportation vehicles in the 15th century. Ford deserves credit, however, for making cars affordable for the average American. According to Ford’s interview with the Detroit Times in 1928, he attributed his inspiration to a ‘Master Mind’:

Somewhere is a Master Mind sending brain wave messages to us. There is a Great Spirit. I never did anything by my own volition. I was pushed by invisible forces within and without me.

Henry Ford

There is some truth to the belief that Henry Ford invented mass-production methods, but it is not entirely accurate. An American inventor and automobile maker, Ransom Eli Olds, is credited with this honor for creating the three horsepower, curved-dash Oldsmobile. It was the first vehicle to be commercially successful using the assembly system, which laid the foundation for modern mass production. Ford was able to produce one Model-T in 24 seconds, however, by leveraging these techniques. 

It takes me more than 24 seconds for the water to boil, and he’s making a car?

So, let’s start by addressing the white elephant in the room since, honestly, this is why you are still here! What makes Ford such a villain in the eyes of so many people? What could the legendary American do to have people spitting at the mere mention of his name?

Lost cities #10: Fordlandia- the failure of Henry Ford’s utopian city in the Amazon |Cities| The Guardian

Fordlandia welcomes you. Take a moment to visualize two and a half million acres of virgin rainforest in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. We are surrounded by untouched natural beauty, 1000-year-old trees, the song of colorful birds, and the hissing of dangerous animals. A paradise!

It won’t last long!

The land was purchased for $125,000 by Ford and transformed the moment the check cleared.t. Ford wanted to create a modern utopia, modeled after small towns in America 

Why? Were there no small towns in America at the time?

It was said that Ford believed himself to be a ‘prophet of proper living’. Now, when I say he built a town, I really mean Ford built a town! On-site homes were provided for the workers’ families, there were 8-hour shifts for the workers, a school, a golf course, a hospital, a cemetery, and a swimming pool.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

It depends on who you ask. Besides the strict rules, there was a meatless diet modeled after Ford’s vegetarian eating, alcohol was prohibited (as was prostitution), members of the community were forced to attend poetry readings and English-only signing sessions, and only square dancing was allowed. The utopia was briefly interrupted when the dining hall switched from wait service to self-service. Locals were furious! Now they are not only eating gruel but also serving themselves. What inhumanity! Fordlandia was devastated during a riot over the food situation, but it was soon quieted and only a simmer of rage remained.

Despite being a tipping point, this is not the reason Fordlandia failed. It was because Rubber trees are native to Brazil and Ford thought they could be grown like apple tree fields. Instead of hiring an expert, he decided to replant, regrow, and reproduce the tree that has never been seen in America before. 

It didn’t work out for him. 

Despite Ford’s millions of dollars invested, and even at one point moving the whole operation upstream, this project failed to succeed. It was the creation of synthetic rubber that dealt the final blow. 

How did Ford respond? 

After selling the whole thing for $250,000, he just left. Because Ford didn’t clean up his mess, the buildings remain. Almost all of them have caved in and become rusted. A hotel in the area will let you tour the ruins if you are brave. However, I find it offensive that you have a multimillion-dollar franchise and aren’t able to clean up after yourself?

From Domus archive: Fordlandia, the utopia built by Henry Ford in Brazil today in ruins. Portfolio by Dan Dubowitz

One thing that really made me doubt the self-proclaimed humanitarian was his anti-Semitism. 

Henry Ford acquired The Dearborn Independent in 1918, his hometown newspaper. A year and a half later, he published a series of articles alleging an enormous Jewish conspiracy was spreading across the country. A total of 91 issues were published in the series. Approximately half a million copies of “The International Jew” were distributed to Ford’s dealership and reader networks. Despite the rhetoric’s commonality in both content and scope, Henry Ford legitimized philosophies that might not otherwise have had authority.

The circulation of anti-Semitic scurrilous material was not uncommon in small-town newspapers. However, what makes The Dearborn Independent stand out is that it was also distributed through Ford Motor dealerships. It was not uncommon for dealerships to actually place copies of the newspaper in the car, so that as you drove off with your Model T, there it was on the seat next to you.

By being printed by Ford, the Dearborn Independent got much greater currency than if it had been just a small-town newspaper in some equivalent-sized town elsewhere because other newspapers picked up on what he said. Since this was THE Henry Ford newspaper, anything he wrote was considered law at the time.

Because of his popularity and personal ideals, Hitler and the Nazi regime admired him. Volkswagen put the same assembly line theory into production and applied it to affordable vehicles. Because Hitler was irked that Americans claimed that Nazism could never occur in this country, he took pride in highlighting Ford’s reporting. 

On his 75th birthday, Ford received the ‘Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle’ at a ceremony in Dearborn, Michigan. It was Hitler himself who created this honor in 1937, rewarding Ford as the first American recipient. The honor was the highest possible for a foreigner and showed Hitler’s appreciation and respect for Ford. A presentation was made by Fritz Heller, the German consular representative in Detroit, and Karl Kapp, the German consul in Cleveland.

Dear fellow readers and history lovers, we do not want to erase Ford’s accomplishments and what he contributed to the country. However, I believe he was a man of double standards who pushed his own personal ideals regardless of the consequences to other people. What are your thoughts? Villain or American Hero. Inventor or racist? Role Model or a product of his time? As with all my blurs on American History, I invite you to do your own research and make your own opinion. Everyone has skeletons in the closet, it is really up to us to decide how many of them get aired out. 

I invite you to read the following article entitled ‘Remembering Ford’ where some of his employees share stories of what it was like to work for Ford:

And remember…. Be Great at what you are Good at!

For further research or reading I have included a link to some books that you might enjoy…. Click here!

What are your thoughts?

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