Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Edsel Ford, the Treadway Company and the Founding of the Dearborn Inn

February 28, 2014

Edsel Ford and Henry Ford II at the National Air Tour, Ford Airport, Dearborn, 1928. Sponsored in part by Ford, the National Air Tour brought pilots and visitors to Dearborn in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The need to house guests and participants was one of the factors that led to the construction of the Dearborn Inn. (Object ID P.O.8527)
This is the second of three blog posts on objects related to the Dearborn Inn in the collections of The Henry Ford. The first concerned a remarkable scrapbook documenting the original furnishings of the Inn, which opened in 1931.

In the first piece, I discussed the unique nature of the Dearborn Inn, intended as an airport hotel and as a “front door” for visitors to our campus, Ford Motor Company and the Dearborn community. What I did not address was who conceived of the Inn and oversaw the project to its fruition. That individual was Edsel Ford. While it is generally acknowledged that Edsel Ford was a pivotal figure in the management of the Ford enterprise, individual achievements are rarely accorded to him. In the case of the Dearborn Inn, it is generally considered to be the conception of Henry Ford. While researching the scrapbook, I ran across reminiscences in our archives of Ernest Gustav Liebold (1884-1956), who served as Henry Ford’s executive secretary and financial manager. Mr. Liebold oversaw nearly all of Henry Ford’s business outside of Ford Motor Company. Mr. Liebold categorically states that the idea for the Dearborn Inn came from Mr. Edsel Ford. He continues to briefly discuss the construction of the Inn, specifically the interaction of architect Albert Kahn’s office with the Ford organization. Finally, Mr. Liebold states the following:

“Mr. Edsel Ford brought in Treadway to operate the Dearborn Inn. He also had Treadway at his Inn up in Maine. (Edsel Ford owned a large summer home near Seal Harbor, Maine.) Edsel bought it shortly after Mr. (Henry) Ford bought the Wayside Inn (in Sudbury, Massachusetts). He had that as an inn of his own, and Treadway operated it. Treadway was brought here at the same time and given a contract, I think for five years.”

This statement led me to investigate the Treadway Inn and its history. According to The Motel in America (1996) Treadway Inns were America’s earliest motel chain. They were founded accidentally by Mr. L.G. Treadway. In 1912 he took over operations at the Williams Inn at Williamstown, Massachusetts. (This inn continues today.) It was an old coaching inn, dating back to the early 19th century. Under Treadway’s management, the establishment was attractive, comfortable, and provided good meals. Treadway’s innovation came in 1920 when he and the owners of inns in nearby towns, specifically the Ashfield House of Ashfield, Massachusetts, and the Dorset Inn of Dorset, Vermont, combined resources. Guests were recommended to the associated inns, and employee exchanges took place. The three inns found economies of scale by combining advertising and purchasing; the resulting increase in business and decrease in costs brought increased profits – the affiliation grew into a chain, with many other New England inns added over time.

Treadway LogoEach inn maintained its own character, but they all shared comfort, good food and efficiency. They did not attempt to duplicate the hotels of big cities, but rather extend to all travelers old-fashioned rural New England hospitality. Once established, the chain made its headquarters, ironically, in New York City and always included the trademark, “The Real New England Inns” with a distinctive logo of a colonial innkeeper pointing with a cane in the left hand, lantern held high in his right.

While traveling from Michigan to his summer home in Maine, Edsel Ford likely encountered the Treadway chain. After experiencing “The Real New England Inns” it must have been a foregone conclusion for Edsel Ford to invite Treadway to manage the Dearborn Inn. According to articles in Ford News, Ford Motor Company’s in-house magazine, announcing the Inn’s opening in the summer of 1931, a number of the Inn’s staff was recruited from Treadway Inns throughout New England.

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Reproduction 18th and 19th century furniture filled the public and guest rooms of the Dearborn Inn (Object ID 59.13.7).
The Dearborn Inn differed from typical Treadway Inns in a major way – it was a totally new construction. In keeping with their corporate identity, the Treadway staff sought to recreate interiors reminiscent of a New England inn, filling the public and guest rooms with reproduction 18th and 19th century furniture.

The Treadway firm managed the Dearborn Inn until 1939, when the contract with Ford was not renewed. A subsidiary of Ford known as Seaboard properties operated the Inn until 1983, when the Marriott Corporation took over.

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This 1966 brochure for the Treadway Publick House, at the Old Sturbridge Village living history museum, documents a typical Treadway Inn property. It was described as “A 1771 Coaching Tavern,” and visitors had the option of staying in the Inn, Treadway House (a “Colonial Farmhouse”) or the adjacent, modern Treadway Motor Inn. (Object ID 90.281.40).
Following World War II, Treadway changed with the times and oriented itself to the automobile traveler. While maintaining “The Real New England Inns” trademark and logo, they added motor inns across the northeast and north-central United States. In 1971, the firm turned to franchising, reaching a peak of 55 inns by the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, like many aging motel chains, including competitor Howard Johnson’s, the firm sold many properties, eventually liquidating the entire chain. Today, only one hotel, in Oswego, New York, operates under the Treadway name. Many of the original coaching inns, like the Williams Inn in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the Publick House in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, continue to operate as independent inns.

For more insights on the Dearborn Inn and lots of great images, take a look at Jennifer Czerwick Ganem’s Images of America: Dearborn Inn (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011).

Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

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