"You know me, Barney Oldfield" was the classic catchphrase of one of America's earliest celebrity sports figures. Indeed, during the nascent period of the automobile, most every American knew Berna “Bernie” Eli Oldfield (1878–1946). He became the best-known race car driver at a time when the motor buggy was catching the imagination and passion of a rapidly changing society. Oldfield cut a populist swath across turn-of-the century American society and, in the process, helped define an emerging cult of celebrity.
One of the consistent themes of Oldfield's early years was a restlessness and desire for bigger, brighter, and better things in life. As a teenager, Oldfield worked odd jobs in Toledo, Ohio, earning money to buy his own bicycle to ride in local and regional road and endurance races. An attempt at professional boxing ended after Oldfield contracted typhoid fever. He returned to racing bicycles for company-sponsored teams and sold parts in the off-season. Throughout the 1890s, Oldfield was part of a team of riders that barnstormed across the Midwest, racing in the new "wood bowl" tracks that were sprouting up across the region. Oldfield quickly realized the need to appeal to audiences beyond the track. He branded himself the "Bicycle Racing Champion of Ohio" and promoted a "keen formula for winning," wearing a bottle of bourbon around his neck during races but telling reporters the liquid inside was vinegar.
Shift to Auto Racing
Tom Cooper and Barney Oldfield Seated in Race Cars, circa 1902 / THF207346
Americans were fascinated with quirky and expensive motor buggies. These boxy, carriage-like vehicles appealed to Americans’ desire for new, loud, audacious, and fast entertainment. During the winter of 1899, Oldfield reconnected with an old bicycle racing companion, Tom Cooper, who had just returned from England with a motorized two-wheeler (an early motorcycle). Cooper was going to demonstrate the vehicle at a race in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, near Detroit, in October 1901. He asked Oldfield, who began riding motorcycles himself around this time, to come along. Cooper and Oldfield were a preliminary exhibition before the main event: a race between local "chauffeur" Henry Ford and the most well-known and successful automobile manufacturer of the day, Alexander Winton.
After the Grosse Pointe event, Oldfield and Cooper pursued gold mining in Colorado. When that ended in failure, Cooper headed to Detroit to focus on automobiles. Oldfield took the motorized cycle on a circuit of Western bicycle tracks, setting records along the way before returning to Detroit in the fall of 1902 at Cooper’s request. Cooper had purchased Henry Ford’s “999” race car and wanted Oldfield to drive it. "The Race" between the “999” and Alexander Winton's "Bullet" captured the imaginations of not only Detroit's automotive elite, but the general population as well. When Oldfield piloted the “999” to victory over Winton's sputtering “Bullet,” the news spread like wildfire across Detroit, the Midwest, and eventually the nation.
Beyond the immediate thrill of the race itself, Barney Oldfield, the "everyman" bicycle racer from the heartland, appealed to a wide segment of American society rushing to embrace the motor car. As the Detroit News-Tribune reported after the race, "The auto replaced the horse on the track and in the carriage shed. Society sanctioned yesterday's races. And not only society, but the general public, turned out until more than five thousand persons had passed the gatekeepers.” Barney Oldfield became the face of racing for the "general public" and helped to democratize not only racing entertainment, but also automobiles in general, as vehicles moved out of the carriage house and into backyard sheds.
Barney Oldfield Driving the Ford "999" Race Car, circa 1903 / THF140144
Over the next 15 years, Barney Oldfield established multiple world speed records and gained notoriety wherever he went. He added an iconic unlit cigar to his racing persona and perfected the roguish image of a daredevil everyman. After a brief stint driving for Winton, Oldfield took the wheel of a Peerless racer, the "Green Dragon," and established himself as America's premier driver.
Barney Oldfield Behind the Wheel of the Peerless "Green Dragon" Racecar, circa 1905 / THF228859
By 1904, Oldfield held world records in the 1-, 9-, 10-, 25-, and 50-mile speed categories. In 1907, Oldfield tried his hand at stage acting when he signed on to appear in a new musical, The Vanderbilt Cup. Over a 10-week run and a brief road tour, Oldfield “raced” his old friend Tom Cooper in stationary cars as backdrops whirled behind them and stagehands blew dirt into the front rows of the theater. The following year, Oldfield entered the open road race circuit and quickly added to his legend by sparking a feud with one of the emerging stars of the day, Ralph De Palma. In March 1910, Oldfield added the title "Speed King of the World" to his resume, driving the "Blitzen Benz" to an astonishing 131.7 miles per hour on Daytona Beach in Florida.
Barney Oldfield Driving the "Blitzen Benz" Car on a Racetrack, 1910 / THF228871
Oldfield flouted the conventions of his time, both on and off the track. He was notorious for his post-race celebrations, womanizing, and bar fights. Oldfield’s rebellious streak kept him under the scrutiny of the American Automobile Association (AAA) and, in 1910, he became the first true "outlaw" driver when he was suspended for an unsanctioned spectacle race against the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Undaunted, Oldfield and his manager set up dates at county and state fairs across the country, holding three-heat matches against a traveling stable of paid drivers. Oldfield padded his reputation by adding an element of drama to these events—he would lose the first match, barely win the second, and, after theatrically tweaking and cajoling his engine, win the third match. During this time, Oldfield also became a product spokesman (perhaps most notably for Firestone tires) and began racing a fellow showman, aerial barnstormer Lincoln Beachey, in matches pitting “the Dare Devil of the Earth vs. the Demon of the Skies for the Championship of the Universe!”
Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey Racing, Columbus, Ohio, 1914 / THF228829
Towards the end of his driving career, Oldfield made a final splash in the racing world with the Harry Miller-built "Golden Submarine," establishing dirt-track records from one to one hundred miles. Throughout the 1917 season, Oldfield drove the Golden Sub in a series of matches on dirt and wood tracks against his old rival Ralph De Palma, eventually winning four out of the seven races. Oldfield retired from competition racing in 1918 after winning two matches in Independence, Missouri. In typical Oldfield fashion, he ran the last race under AAA suspension for participating in an earlier unsanctioned event.
Barney Oldfield Driving "Golden Submarine" Race Car at Sheepshead Bay Board Track, Brooklyn, New York, 1917 / THF141856
Oldfield continued to keep himself at the fore of America's sports entertainment culture. In addition to ceremonial "referee" jobs at various races, he rubbed elbows with American movie, stage, and music stars and continued his rambunctious lifestyle. Between 1913 and 1945, Oldfield appeared in six movies (usually as himself) and also tried his hand as a road tester for Hudson Motor Company, salesman, bartender, club owner, and spokesman. Finally, in an attempt to raise funds to build another land-speed racer with Harry Miller, Oldfield staged a unique publicity and fundraising event. In 1933, outside Dallas, Texas, he drove an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor to a record 64.1 miles per hour.
Barney Oldfield Advertising Postcard for Plymouth Automobiles, circa 1935 / THF228879
Fittingly, Barney Oldfield's last public appearance was at the May 1946 Golden Jubilee of the Automobile Industry held in Detroit. Oldfield was fêted for his foundational role in what had become one of the largest industries in the nation. He shared the main speaker's table with automotive icons including Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, and Frank Duryea, and he accepted a “trophy of progress” for his role in automotive history. Barney Oldfield passed away in October 1946, having lived—in the words of one passionate fan—“such a life as men should know.”
Woman with Machine Spinning Soybean Fiber into Soylon Thread, March 1943 / THF272609
One of The Henry Ford’s main collecting areas is agriculture and the environment. Last fall, Processing Archivist Hilary Severyn shared highlights from our archives around women in agricultural work and research as part of our History Outside the Box program on Instagram. If you missed it, you can check out her selections, which range from women working on soybean research to the Women’s Land Army to Rachel Carson’s fight against pesticides, in the video below.
Photograph of Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr., 1860s. / THF237208
How do we uncover the stories of the people who lived and worked in the buildings that come to Greenfield Village? Usually, there are no books written about them, unless they were famous—like Abraham Lincoln or the Wright Brothers. To piece together the stories of these people, we have to look at archival documents, images, and artifacts—which offer a firsthand account or a direct reference to the people and their stories. These primary sources—like census records, business records, and personal reminiscences—each provide clues. But they can be hard to interpret and difficult to piece together. Moreover, they are sometimes inaccurate and can even contradict each other. We must constantly assess the value and accuracy of each source and compare it with others.
First page from great-grandson Howard Washburn’s write-up on Dr. Howard, May 25, 1962. / THF627447
The first place we look when we explore the stories of Greenfield Village buildings and the people related to them is our own Edison Institute (or EI) archives. Beginning at the time that each building is first acquired and brought to Greenfield Village, the majority of the records collected by the museum for that building are kept in the archival accession EI.186—or what we familiarly call the “Building Boxes.” We were lucky that in the case of Dr. Howard’s Office, we found in this accession two folders entitled “Family History.”
These folders contain numerous typed reports, the result of years of tedious research undertaken by Dr. Howard’s great-grandson, Howard Washburn. Washburn’s study of Dr. Howard began in 1935, from which time he developed a steadily expanding notebook on the subject. In January 1946, he and his mother purchased and came to live on the family farm, “Windfall,” where the office was located. Washburn’s interest in his great-grandfather’s life and medical practice deepened in the 1950s and 1960s, involving both sifting through the materials that were still in the office and collecting numerous reminiscences about Dr. Howard from his by-then elderly family members, friends, and neighbors.
Dedication of Dr. Howard’s Office in Greenfield Village, with Howard family descendants, October 1963. / THF20847
Washburn found some wonderful primary sources of his own in his search, like the extensive entry about Dr. Howard’s life that was handwritten in the Howard family Bible by his son, Camer. But most of Washburn’s material came from those previously mentioned personal reminiscences. We know that people’s long-term memories can be sketchy, especially when decades have gone by (Dr. Howard passed away in 1883). So, we planned to compare these reminiscences with other types of sources (see section below on genealogical records).
Photograph of office interior, taken at the building’s original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, before removal to Greenfield Village, March 1956. / THF237188
The Building Boxes in our archives also house numerous photographs that document each Greenfield Village building, especially photographs relating to each building on its original site just before its removal to Greenfield Village. Howard Washburn’s reports informed us that when Dr. Howard passed away in 1883, his wife Cynthia padlocked his office with most of its contents intact. Sure enough, photographs of the building’s interior that were taken when Henry Ford’s assistants came to look at the building in the 1950s reveal a huge array of original furniture, bottles, casks, business records, and medical books. These came with the building to Greenfield Village. They not only helped us later recreate the building’s interior as close as possible to the original, but also furthered our knowledge about many aspects of Dr. Howard’s medical practice.
A homeopathic medical publication from July 1868, found amongst the contents of Dr. Howard’s Office when it was brought to Greenfield Village. / THF627467
Dr. Howard’s business records and medical books (all paper items that were later removed from the building because of their fragility) were put together with other family documents to make up another accession in our archives—the Howard Family Papers. These materials particularly reveal Dr. Howard’s increasing interest in adapting a range of different approaches to treating patients.
Letter from Isaac Haines to Dr. Howard, April 18, 1877, inquiring about how to get to the doctor’s office from Fort Wayne, Indiana. / THF627457
Some particularly interesting letters from patients in the Howard Family Papers contain descriptions of ailments that people asked Dr. Howard to diagnose for them. Another of these letters, from 1877, even came from a man in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who requested directions to his office (about 75 miles away!) so he could make a personal visit.
Two pages from Dr. Howard’s 1849–1853 account book. / THF627454
The Howard Family Papers also contain Dr. Howard’s account books, dating all the way from 1849 to 1881. These primarily record his visits to or from patients and the amount that he charged them. Unfortunately, most of the patients’ names are difficult to read. However, the 1878 account book does contain several neatly handwritten pages of patients, listed in alphabetical order, at the front—many of which are indeed legible. Some of these even mention the patients’ hometowns, including Tekonsha, Michigan (where his office was located), as well as nearby Burlington (about five miles away) and Union City (about nine miles away). We hope to delve more deeply into the backgrounds of some of these patients through genealogical records, to get an idea of their ages, occupations, and backgrounds.
Invoice from Farrand, Williams & Co., from February 15, 1881, for Dr. Howard’s purchase of medical equipment, supplies, and ingredients. / THF620458
The Howard Family Papers also contain several invoices sent to Dr. Howard from a chemical supply company in Detroit, Michigan, dated 1881. These provide valuable clues to the types of medicinal ingredients that Dr. Howard purchased to create his pills and concoctions—and help to break down the stereotype that everything he used was botanical (i.e., natural materials like plants and herbs) and homegrown or locally obtained. The invoices contain not only dried herbs and plants but also such non-botanical ingredients as quinine and alum that relate to more conventional Western medical practice.
Dr. Howard’s “recipe” for cough syrup, from his 1864 handwritten receipt book. / THF620470
One of the most valuable items in this collection—originally donated with the building—is Dr. Howard’s own handwritten book of receipts (or recipes) for remedies from 1864. Like the account books, the pages are difficult to decipher without some concentrated effort. But it is possible to get an idea of the types of illnesses he was trying to treat and the combination of purchased and locally available ingredients he combined in creating his remedies.
The four children of Dr. Howard and his second wife, Cynthia, about 1870. Front, left to right: Mattie, Camer, and Letitia; rear: Manchie. / THF109605
As mentioned before, it is important to verify the stories gleaned from personal reminiscences. So, for Dr. Howard’s background and family history, we also consulted census and other genealogical records (many, thankfully, online on websites like ancestry.com). Here we could verify the dates of the Howard family’s move to Michigan, as well as the names, birth and death dates, and places of origin of his parents, siblings, and two wives (Letitia, his first wife, passed away in 1857; he married his second wife, Cynthia, a year later), and children with each wife), as well as other interesting information, like the fact that his father, Alonson B. Howard, Sr., served in the War of 1812.
Photograph of Dr. Howard’s father, Alonson B. Howard, Sr., about 1860. / THF237220
We also learned through census records that Dr. Howard listed his occupation in three different ways over the years—as a farmer in 1850 and 1860, as a physician in 1870, and as both a physician and surgeon in 1880.
Local History Records
Dr. Howard’s office on its original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, situated along the road at the front of “Windfall,” the family farm, March 1956. / THF237150
It is important for us to remember that, although a building and its story might reside in Greenfield Village today, it originally came from another place. This larger context is crucially important to creating an accurate picture in our interpretation of that building and the people related to it. Dr. Howard’s office was originally located just outside the village of Tekonsha, Calhoun County, in south central Michigan. The Howard family settled there in the 1840s, when Alonson, Jr. was 17 years old, during a period of great migration into Michigan by white settlers. A majority of settlers, including the Howard family, came from upstate New York.
Road sign near original site of Dr. Howard’s office, August 1959. / THF237152
To find out more about Tekonsha in the 1840s, we consulted the voluminous History of Calhoun County from 1877. We know that the numerous county histories that were published across the country around the time of America’s centennial in 1876 are among the best sources for recounting minute details of the early settlement of various communities. Indeed, the Calhoun County history provided several valuable bits of information. But, of course, in the end, it is essentially the story of white settlers. About Native Americans, who had recently occupied the area and some of whom still lived there during Dr. Howard’s time, this county history ranged from sketchy to dismissive to outright racist.
We found in our research that self-emancipated orator Sojourner Truth was perhaps Calhoun County’s best-known African American resident at the time. She lived in Harmonia (Bedford Charter Township, now part of Battle Creek) from 1857 until her death in 1883. Residents in Tekonsha, located about 25 miles down the road, would have undoubtedly heard of or read about her. / THF121160
African Americans were similarly dismissed from the historical record in this county history, except as “runaways” on the Underground Railroad who were “saved” by white “conductors.” To create a more accurate picture of these marginalized groups, we pursued additional research in scholarly books and trustworthy websites. Potawatomi tribal history was particularly important for us to understand because according to Howard Washburn, Dr. Howard had a friendly relationship with members of this group and even named two of his children after “Indian” friends of his (see “Dr. Howard: A Country Doctor in Southwest Michigan” for more detail on this history).
Five descendants of Dr. Howard standing in front of his office in Greenfield Village in June 2013. From left to right: Corey Washburn (North Dakota); Sue Gillies (Australia); Dawn Gunther (California); Fiona Lynton (Australia); and Angela Karaca (Australia). / Photograph by Donna Braden.
Oral histories involve the systematic collecting and recording of personal reminiscences through live interviews. They can convey a level of detail not available in other sources, and can be informative, vivid, and colorful—often with a touch of humor and a wellspring of emotion.
In 2013, we were treated to a visit from five descendants of Dr. Howard, on a pilgrimage from their homes in North Dakota, California, and even Australia, to visit the sites related to their ancestor. During a lively oral history session with us, they filled in gaps in our knowledge about the family tree of Dr. Howard’s descendants, as well as regaling us with stories they had researched and collected themselves (see “A Visit from Dr. Howard’s Descendants”).
The Building and Its Contents
Dr. Howard’s office as it looks in Greenfield Village today. / THF1696
Since we know that Dr. Howard was the first and only individual to use this space as a doctor’s office, the actual building additionally becomes a unique primary source of its own for providing clues. The building spaces reveal that he divided what had originally been a schoolhouse into several partitioned rooms: a public waiting room, a private office, a working laboratory (where he mixed his own concoctions), and a pill-rolling room (where he hand-rolled his own pills).
Dr. Howard’s desk, in one of several photographs taken of the building’s interior on its original site before removal to Greenfield Village. The desk is on display in the refurbished building in Greenfield Village today. / THF237200
The original furnishings that were donated with the building—e.g., the cast-iron stove, a wooden storage trunk, Dr. Howard’s desk, chairs, and a daybed—provide further concrete evidence of his use of the building and its specific spaces. Finally, the wooden casks for holding extracts and the approximately 250 bottles and jars that came with the building—most with their original labels and some with their contents intact—greatly helped to supplement our knowledge about the ingredients that Dr. Howard used and the concoctions he created to treat patients (see “Dr. Howard’s ‘Medicine Cabinet’” for more on this).
We have described some of the sources we look at when researching the people related to our Greenfield Village buildings, and, specifically, some of our most helpful finds in piecing together the story of country doctor Alonson B. Howard, Jr. There are always more clues to be unearthed. The research on each Village building is never-ending, and we look forward to deepening and enriching the stories of Dr. Howard and other people who once inhabited buildings now in Greenfield Village.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She would like to thank Associate Curator Ryan Jelso for his assistance in doing the genealogical research on the Howard family.
Women at Lunch Counter, Willow Run Bomber Plant, 1943 / THF114414
Lunch is a part of most people’s workday, but how much do you know about what lunch was like at Ford Motor Company in the first half of the 20th century? Reference Archivist Kathy Makas tackled this topic earlier this month as part of our monthly History Outside the Box series on Instagram. If you missed the Insta story, you can check out the replay below to find out more about the decline of the lunch bucket, the rise of the “sanitary box lunch,” employee cafeterias, and much more, all illustrated with photographs and documents from our archives.
Edsel Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Ford Touring the Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, October 1923 / THF134659
Every month, staff from our library and archives select some interesting items from our collections to showcase on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account. In our every-first-Friday History Outside the Box offering, our collections experts share photographs, documents, and other artifacts around a given theme. Last summer, Reference Archivist Kathy Makas showcased some celebrity sightings from our archives—actors, actresses, and other luminaries visiting Ford Motor Company’s factories, World’s Fairs, and The Henry Ford’s own campus; showcasing their cars; and more. If you missed the Insta story, you can check out the presentation below.
Looking out the window at snowy Michigan probably had any Ford Motor Company engineer, researcher, or scientist thinking that developing and researching space systems, air cushioned vehicles, and computer components in sunny Newport Beach, California, was the way to go.
Aeronutronic Systems, Inc. was formed as a subsidiary of Ford in 1956 under the leadership of G.J. Lynch. The group was originally organized to develop and manufacture products for military purposes in the fields of Complete Weapons Systems, Aeronautics, Electronics, Computers, and Nucleonics and Physics. By 1959, the group was a made a division of Ford and had expanded into research and development beyond military purposes.
The division was headquartered in Newport Beach, California. Brochures for the division flaunted its cutting-edge research facilities, testing laboratories, research library, and proximity to deep-sea fishing, sailing, skiing, and the fact that the temperature rarely dropped below 44 or rose above 75.
The groups within the division worked on a variety of projects. The Space Systems group completed projects including the Blue Scout vehicle, which tested equipment in space; a lunar capsule, designed to land on the moon with scientific testing equipment to gather data on the lunar environment; and a design for a space station.
Group of women who worked on the Blue Scout project. / THF627401
Artist's rendering of lunar capsule built by Ford Motor Company Aeronutronic Division, 1960. / THF141214
In Weapons Systems, they worked on several missile projects, including the Shillelagh Guided Missile for the Army Missile Command, and ARTOC (Army Tactical Operations Central), which was a mobile command post for the Army Signal Corp.
The Electronics and Computers division worked on BIAX computer components, as well as MIND (Magnetic Integration Neuron Duplication), an electronic neuron that duplicated the function of live nerve cells, among other things.
Research projects included surface tension tests; developing thin films solid state components; manufacturing the FLIDEN Flight Data Entry Unit, which was used as part of the FAA air traffic control system; and developing an air cushioned vehicle.
FLIDEN unit, demonstrated by Ellen Arthur. / THF627397
The employees at the Aeronutronic division had fun too, with an employee newsletter to keep them up to date on company happenings as well as their many recreation leagues, which included bowling, basketball, and baseball among other sports, as well as chess and bridge clubs.
Fred Ju, team captain, bowling in the Men’s Bowling League. / THF627399
Aeronutronic continued to change with the times. In 1962, it became a division of the Ford subsidiary Philco, and in 1976 became Ford Aerospace and Communication Corporation, before being sold by Ford in 1990.
"The Road Ahead, the Exciting Story of the Nation's 50 Billion Dollar Road Program," 1956 / THF103981
Last June marked the 65th anniversary of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which initiated a program to plan and fund an interstate system. In recognition of this milestone, Reference Archivist Lauren Brady selected some items from our collections that show how the highway system changed the American way of life. She shared these artifacts as part of our monthly History Outside the Box series on Instagram, which showcases items from our archives.
If you missed her presentation or would like to see it again, you can check it out below.
Ford Novelty Band Playing at Ford Baseball Team Game, 1941 / THF271722
Every month, we feature some items from our archives in our History Outside the Box program. You can check the new story out on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account on the first Friday of the month, but we’re reposting some of the stories here on our blog as well. In May 2021, Reference Archivist Kathy Makas shared photographs, articles, and other documents ranging from the 1910s through the 1950s that detail how employees at Ford Motor Company spent their leisure time. Learn more about Ford’s musical groups, sports teams, gardeners, and social/service clubs in the video below.
Drawing, "Child Volcano Play Sculpture," 1958-1960 / THF140518
Designer Robert Propst was best known for leading Herman Miller’s development of the Action Office cubicle system. In the mid-1950s, though, he created a number of toy designs, including the Fun Sticks game, a Fun Duck scooter, and the Fun Swing—a piece of playground equipment safety experts might cringe to see in action today.
In 1958, Propst drew up designs for playground sculptures cast in fine cement—no sharp corners in sight—covered in red, yellow, and blue plasticized paint. Park plans show the curiously labeled “Child Volcano” nestled between slides and biomorphic hide-and-seek structures. Inside the volcano’s hollow core, ladder rungs allowed children to climb out the top and tumble down its sides like flowing magma.
Drawing, "Park Playground," October 30, 1958. The Child Volcano is the yellow structure in the lower right. / THF623880
Playgrounds seem to contrast with the controlled systems Propst is celebrated for. However, this approach—proposing a spectrum across structured activity and free exploration—not only encouraged creative thinking paramount to learning and growth but informed his vision for flexibility and problem-solving in the office.
(For clarity’s sake, it is important to note that the Fair Lane estate is a historic house museum, independent of The Henry Ford. The house is currently undergoing a major restoration. You can learn more about the Fair Lane estate here.)
The single document that best details the relationship between Sidney Houghton and the Fords is a brochure, more a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm. From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. Unfortunately for us, images of Fair Lane were not included in the 1930s Houghton brochure, likely because of the private nature of the commission.
However, The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center holds exterior and interior photographs of the house, taken at a variety of dates. Additionally, our archives holds a select group of Houghton’s designs for Fair Lane’s furniture. These are the only surviving drawings of Houghton’s Ford-related furniture. One of my greatest joys in researching this blog was locating the completed pieces of furniture in historic photographs.
The Story of Fair Lane
The story of Fair Lane began in 1909, when Henry Ford bought large tracts of land in Dearborn Township, the place of his birth. At that time, Henry, his wife, Clara, and their son, Edsel, were living comfortably in the fashionable Boston-Edison neighborhood of Detroit, not far from the Highland Park plant where the famous Model T automobiles were manufactured. Henry was considering options for building a larger home, where he and his family could have more space and greater privacy. They were also considering building in Grosse Pointe, a community where many of Detroit’s leaders of industry were constructing homes. They even bought a parcel of land there that eventually became the site of Edsel and his wife Eleanor’s home in the 1920s.
In the summer of 1909, Ford visited the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park, Illinois, studio. The result was a commission for a large estate along the Rouge River in Dearborn. Scholars believe that Henry Ford heard about Wright from one of his chief engineers and neighbor, C. Harold Wills, who previously contracted Wright to build a home for his family in Detroit. By November of 1909, Wright had closed his studio and turned his practice over to the Chicago architectural firm of Von Holst and Fyfe, with his best draftsperson, Marion Mahony, overseeing all of Wright’s remaining projects. Wright felt that his architectural practice was at a “critical impasse” and went to Europe to work on a summary portfolio of his career, published in 1910. He was accompanied by Mrs. Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. This scandalous situation seems not to have affected the Fords, as Marion Mahony continued work on Fair Lane.
Presentation Drawing of Fair Lane, 1914 / THF157872
The project continued slowly through the next few years, until circumstances in the Fords’ lives made securing a new home a priority. In January 1914, Henry Ford announced his famous “five dollar day” wage for factory workers. His home on Edison Avenue near the plant was besieged by job seekers and the Fords lost any semblance of privacy. They soon realized that that the new Dearborn house was a priority. In February 1914, Clara Ford, who had taken the leadership role on the new house, called a meeting of Von Holst, Mahony and related designers. A number of elegant presentations of the home were shown to Clara Ford, including the design above. Many of these are now in public collections and give us a sense of the proposed estate. Two can be accessed here and here.
Instead of continuing to work with Marion Mahoney, Clara Ford chose Pittsburgh architect William Van Tine to complete the house. Van Tine was known in New York and the East, and it is generally thought that Clara Ford was seeking to emulate the tastes of women of her social status. Another key factor was the direction of American taste: the Prairie style promoted by Frank Lloyd Wright and Marion Mahony was rapidly losing currency and Americans increasingly favored revival styles, including Colonial and Medieval Revivals.
When I look at images of Van Tine’s house, completed in early 1916, I am struck by the odd composition, such as the sloping horizontal rooflines, especially to the left of the front entrance. These seem derived from Marion Mahony’s designs. There are vertical, castle-like forms, such as the one just to the right of the entrance, which are not at peace with the rest of the house. The result is a hodge-podge of disharmonious elements that barely coexist with each other.
Planting Plan for Fair Lane Grounds Number 5, November 1915 / THF155894
The planting plan above gives us a sense of Van Tine’s arrangement of the house. To the far left is Henry Ford’s power house, which is connected to the house through a tunnel under the rose garden. The tunnel ends near the indoor swimming pool intended for son Edsel’s use.
Entry Hall from the Living Room around 1925 / THF126547
The main rooms of the house are indicated in an area labeled as “residence” on the plan. The first-floor entrance consists of a grand hall and wide staircase. To the right of the hall is a small library. The hall leads into what the Fords described as their living room, the heart of the house. At the rear of the photograph above, please note the player organ installed in late 1915.
The entrance to the music room is to the right of the player organ in the living room. It is by far the largest and grandest room in the house. The photograph above shows it in its final incarnation, shortly after Clara Ford’s death.
The dining room leads off the living room and is another grand room, although it lacks the scale of the music room. As you can see, all the large public rooms at Fair Lane are rather dark and heavily decorated.
Sun Porch, Identified as the Loggia on the Ground Plan, about 1925 / THF137033
The sun porch is unlike any other public room in Fair Lane. It was filled with light and was said to have been one of the Fords’ favorite rooms. Also, unlike the rest of the house, it was filled with wicker furniture.
As you can see, Fair Lane was a very dark and heavily decorated home. We know that the Fords—Clara in particular—were unhappy with the interior. For example, sometime in the 1920s or the 1930s, Clara Ford went so far as to paint the walnut paneling in the music room. This north facing room must have appeared very dark, especially on a cloudy winter day.
Sidney Houghton’s Work at Fair Lane
Records in the Benson Ford Research Center indicate that Sidney Houghton began consulting on furnishings for Fair Lane in 1919. The records and correspondence continue through 1925, with proposals and payments through the entire period. The only “before” and “after” photographs that we have are of the living room.
By 1940, the furnishings of 1919 have been completely removed. The clutter of the 1919 furnishings have been replaced with groups of furniture oriented around the fireplace. The whole arrangement appears coherent and logical. The furniture styles of the 1940 living room are a mixture of historic English and American. Is this the work of Sidney Houghton? While we know that Houghton was working extensively at Fair Lane, we have no surviving renderings for furniture in this room.
Like the living room, the master bedroom contains a mixture of furnishings in historic English and American styles. For example, the mantelpiece is described as a “Wedgewood,” as the colored decoration derives from Wedgewood’s English Jasperware, first made in the 18th century. There are also pieces that are American in origin, such as the William and Mary–style table in front of the fireplace, and the Federal-style slant front desk in the corner, to the right of the window.
This room also contains two twin beds, likely designed by Sidney Houghton. They are made of veneered walnut with inlaid medallions done in a Chinoiserie style, a western interpretation of oriental design.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bed, 1921-1923 / THF626014
The headboard and footboard, as well as the crest rail and legs, of this bed are identical to those on the twin beds in the 1951 photograph. Houghton may have presented this design to Clara Ford, and she chose to have twin beds without a canopy produced instead.
The opposite wall in the master bedroom shows us again a combination of English and American historic furniture. They include an American Queen Anne oval table in the left corner. To the right of it is a Queen Anne style dressing table, partly obscured by an upholstered armchair. What is of interest is the dressing table and mirror at the center of the back wall. These are Houghton’s designs.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bedroom Dressing Table and Looking Glass, 1921-1923 / THF626012
We can see that the dressing table matches the bed—the inlaid medallions are also done in a Chinoiserie style—so this appears be part of a bedroom suite. Indeed, there is another design that does not appear in the room.
Design by Sidney Houghton Design for Fair Lane, Bedroom Cabinet or Chest, 1921-1923 / THF626016
This piece likely was presented to Clara Ford and rejected, or, if produced, removed before the photograph was taken in 1951.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Chest of Drawers and Case, possibly for Bedroom, 1921-1923 / THF626010
This chest of drawers appears to relate to the bedroom suite, as it is similar in scale, although it lacks the inlaid medallions.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Ladies Writing Table, 1921-1923 / THF626008
This elegant ladies desk may have been intended for the Fords’ bedroom. Like the chest, it may have been rejected or removed later.
The Benson Ford Research Center holds more of Houghton’s furniture designs for Fair Lane, although none appear in the historic photographs.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Center Table or Partners Desk, 1921-1923 / THF626002
This heavy, masculine-looking piece was likely not part of the bedroom suite. If fabricated, it would have been a large, clunky piece of furniture.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table, 1921-1923 / THF625998
This piece, done in the Louis XV or 18th-century Rococo style is a departure from anything visible at Fair Lane. Clara Ford likely rejected it.
There are also Houghton sketches and working drawings in the archive.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Slant Front Desk and Chair, 1921-1923 / THF625994
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table or Stool, 1921-1923 / THF626000
These designs were likely drawn on-site and presented as ideas for Clara’s approval.
As these drawings suggest, Sidney Houghton was extremely talented. He could work in a variety of styles and produced high-quality furniture. He transformed Fair Lane during the early 1920s from an eclectic mix to a more simplified combination of 18th-century English and American styles. This post represents the beginning of inquiry into the role of Houghton at Fair Lane, which should be continued over time. My next blog post will examine Sidney Houghton’s later work for the Fords and the end of their relationship.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.