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Could this be Henry Ford beneath the beard? At least in spirit, if not in person, Ford enjoyed assuming the role of Santa over the years. ID.74111

December 2007

Henry Ford Plays Santa Claus

In 2000, Time magazine named Henry Ford the "Man of the Century." Throughout his lifetime, Ford was a captain of industry, a prominent businessman, a giant who shaped his world and ours.  But in December, for much of his life and beyond, he became Santa Claus in spirit, if not in physical form.



MORE:  Henry Ford Plays Santa Claus

Students from the Greenfield Village Schools file into the little workshop to meet Santa and choose their Christmas gift in 1941.  ID.P.188.29904.

While there is no absolute proof that Henry Ford actually donned the iconic red suit and white beard, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he did.  Edward L. Bryant, a nephew of Ford's wife Clara, remembered times when Uncle Henry played the role:

Each year from 1895 through 1938 Henry Ford played Santa Claus to children, including his son, his nieces and nephews, and his grandchildren.  He was Santa Claus to his neighbors and to the children who attended his Greenfield Village schools.  He was Santa at 56 Bagley Avenue, and at the Bryant Homestead on Monnier Road.  He and Aunt Clara had a Christmas party at their little flat on Hendrie Street in 1907. The best parties I remember were at 66 Edison Avenue in Detroit. These were between 1908 and 1912.

With the success of the Model T in the 1910s, Henry and Clara Ford began construction on a new home, Fair Lane, in Dearborn.  On this estate, Ford had a small cottage built not far from the main house that he called "Santa's Workshop."  It was at this whimsical cabin that many local children who attended Ford's Greenfield Village Schools recalled seeing Santa, his sleigh filled with presents, and reindeer at the ready to carry toys across the land.  Here, they were allowed to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas—and actually take home a toy of their choice.  Henry and Clara used the little Santa's Workshop to share the simple joy of Christmas that they had experienced growing up.

The visit to Henry Ford's North Pole began with a bus ride to the back gate of the Ford estate on Ford Road which helped to disguise the actual destination. The children were loaded aboard horse-drawn bobsleds (weather permitting) or onto a large wagon which traveled down a lantern-lit lane that wound deep into the woods. There, in the midst of the wilderness, stood a child-sized log cabin with a toy-filled sleigh and its reindeer awaiting their Christmas journey. Other reindeer grazed in an adjoining shed.  The darkness and excitement of seeing Santa Claus probably disguised the fact that the deer in front of the sleigh were stuffed and the deer in the shed looked a lot like cows with antlers attached.

But this was a night about Santa and presents. The children were welcomed into the cabin and allowed to choose any toy they wished.  After receiving their gift, they were escorted into a second room where they could partake in a bowl of Clara's homemade Snow Flake Soup (really oyster stew).  Then everyone was bundled into the waiting bobsled or wagon for the ride back through the wilderness that surrounded the "North Pole."

Different men wore the Santa suit, but Henry generally preferred dwarfs, possibly because they seemed a more approachable size for younger children as well as a better fit for the small workshop.

Even after Henry's death in 1947, Clara carried on the tradition of "Santa's Workshop" until she passed away three years later.  The Greenfield Village Schools continued the annual event for the students, but moved it from Fair Lane to the Pottery Shop, the Cooper's Shop and other locations in Greenfield Village. The original Santa's Workshop at Fair Lane was dismantled in the late 1950s.

Read Betty Hutchinson's description of a trip with her class to Santa's Workshop in 1936.

-- Terry Hoover, Archivist


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