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Soybeans: Henry Ford’s Miracle Crop

November 17, 2014 Archive Insight

This model was used to demonstrate the soybean extraction process at several world’s fairs in the 1930s. (THF 153893)

Soybeans: A New Hope for Farmers

In the 1920s, following his success with the Model T, Henry Ford increasingly turned his attention to transforming farming—the life he sought to escape as a boy.  He focused on finding new products and new markets for agriculture. (The charcoal briquette was an early result of this effort, made from surplus wood scrap.)

In 1928, Ford started the Chemical Lab (the building in Greenfield Village now known as the Soybean Lab), and asked Robert Boyer, a student at the Ford Trade School to run it.  Ford told Boyer to select good students from the Trade School to staff the Lab. Ford then set them to experimenting with all manner of agricultural produce, from cantaloupes to rutabagas.

Suddenly, in December 1931, Ford found his “magic bean.”  How it happened is a bit of a mystery.  Robert Smith, one of the Chemical Lab scientists recalled it this way:

Finally, after a year or so, the way I heard it, Mr. Ford came into the laboratory one night all by himself and found a book that we had there on the soybean and apparently decided that was the thing to work on.  The next day he came into the greenhouse and told me to clean everything out.  He said, I’ll be back in a few hours and I want everything out of here. Which was a kind of a hard thing for us to do.  We had been working on these tests for months and it seemed almost sacrilegious to destroy them at that point.  But he was the boss so that is what we did.  We cleaned the place out, dumped all our tests.  When Mr. Ford came back a few hours later, everything was cleaned up.  He said, From now on I don’t want you to talk or think about working on anything but soybeans. That’s the thing of the future.

At the time, soybeans were only a minor crop in the United States, but they had a long history in Asia with over sixty different varieties.  Ford divided the soybean research effort.  He asked his childhood friend and chemist, Edsel Ruddiman, to work on food applications for soybeans, primarily soymilk.  Ford assigned Boyer and his team in the Chemical Lab to find industrial applications for soybeans.

To make soybeans useful to industry, the oil needs to be separated from the bean.  The problem was that pressure alone did not remove all of the oil, so beans quickly became rancid. The Chemical Lab staff developed a continuous percolator or extractor that used a series of inclined screws to move chopped soybeans through a light gasoline solvent.  The solvent removed the oil, and left the solids.  The solvent was evaporated from the oil mix, leaving the pure soybean oil, and then the solvent was condensed back into a liquid ready for re-use.  The oil was used for paints, while the solids were used in a variety of plastics applications. To Ford, the beauty of the process was its simplicity—it didn’t have to be carried out in a factory setting.

It was Ford’s next big idea.

Soybeans at the World’s Fair

Henry Ford was a man who was attracted to big ideas—ideas that could change the world.  From the Model T, to the moving assembly line, to the $5-day, his ideas touched nearly every corner of society.  One of Ford’ favorite places to show off big ideas was at world’s fairs and expositions.  These showplaces of innovation had captivated him since he saw a gasoline engine at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  From the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition on, Ford Motor Company was a major presence at world’s fairs.

This 1934 booklet, with Ford’s barn on the cover, described the soybean extraction process—and the many products that could be made with the resulting oil and protein. (THF 222009)

To show the world how soybeans could work for agriculture and industry, Henry Ford had the William Ford Barn (now in Greenfield Village) dismantled and moved from its location on the Dearborn farm where Ford grew up, and had it re-erected in the Ford Exhibition at the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.  He filled it with soybean extraction equipment and called it the “Ford Industrialized Barn.”  Ford also had this working soybean extractor model made, which was demonstrated by the Chemical Lab staff.  The barn stood in stark contrast to the modernist architecture of the Exposition. This contrast was one Ford’s points—it wasn’t anything special, just an old barn filled with equipment that was readily available at low cost. The extractor in this barn could convert a ton of soybeans into 400 pounds of oil and 1600 pounds of protein meal.

In Ford’s mind, the industrialized barn concept did several things.  It allowed the farmer to add value to his produce by converting it to oil and meal, and was something that could be done during the slow, unproductive winter months.  Ford believed that this could help jump-start the depressed economy of the 1930s.  It would put more money into the hands of farmers, which would in turn give them more purchasing power, creating more demand for manufactured products, which in turn would create demand for industrial farm products. Ford likened its effects to the $5 day at his auto plants which gave industrial laborers enough money to buy the products they were making.

The soybean extractor on display at the Texas Centennial Exposition. The text behind it trumpets Ford’s vision: “The farm and the shop each needs what the other produces. With one foot on the land and one foot in industry, America is safe.” (THF 99772)

Among the souvenir items for the Texas Centennial were a set of salt and pepper shakers made from soybean-based gearshift knobs. (THF 153820)

Ford continued to spread his soybean message at other expositions— sending the model soybean extractor to the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas and the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.

From Exotic Crop to Commodity: Soybeans Become Mainstream

Ford’s promotion of soybeans wasn’t limited to fairs and expositions. He built a large soybean plant at his huge Rouge Factory complex in Dearborn and built other soybean processing plants in rural Milan and Saline, Michigan.  He planted over 6000 acres of soybeans on the Ford Farms, and encouraged other farmers to plant soybeans as well.

Ford’s efforts had few major results before his death in 1947, but today soybeans are one of the biggest crops produced by American farmers.  Scientists are continuing to find new uses for it.

Henry Ford’s vigorous promotion of soybeans during the 1930s played a major role in its prominence today.  However, if he could look back from the present, surely Ford’s biggest disappointment would be that his idea of farmers being processors of industrial products never really materialized.

Jim McCabe is former Acting Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

Dearborn, Michigan, Illinois, 20th century, 1930s, world's fairs, soybeans, research, manufacturing, Henry Ford, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Ford Motor Company, by Jim McCabe, agriculture

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