Soybean Harvesting / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board
Farmers have only a narrow window of opportunity to harvest their crops. For Michigan soybean growers, that window generally runs from the end of September through November, but is impacted yearly by weather events. By that point in the season, the plant is fully mature and has lost most of its leaves, and only the stalk and pods (with three to four beans per pod) stand in the field (R8 Growth Stage). The seeds are brown and hard at this point, and bean moisture content is 13-15%.
A Close-Up of the Modern Soybean Harvesting Process / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board
Harvesting soybeans—to cut the stalk, separate the bean from the pod, clean the bean, and store it until moved from harvester to wagon or truck—requires a multifunctional machine. Soybean growers benefitted from around a century of experimentation with specialized harvest machines when it came time for them to look for the best machine for the job. Farmers need machines that work, and different machines to harvest different crops. The Henry Ford has some of the earliest of these mechanical innovations, each suited to a specific crop—the Ambler mowing machine for hay, models of the Hussey and McCormick reapers for grains, and the Manny combined mower and reaper (one machine adaptable for both crops).
These early-19th-century innovations represented solutions to the problem of how to reduce human labor costs. Farm families often could not meet labor demand during harvest seasons. Too little labor meant lost crops, and lost crops made it difficult for farmers to feed their livestock (hay) or earn income from market crops (grain). Hiring labor was expensive, and even more expensive during peak demand at harvest time.
A century passed between the 1830s, when mechanical reapers and mowing machines first became viable, and the 1930s, when the first Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester entered Michigan soybean fields.
Man Driving an Allis-Chalmers Tractor Pulling an Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester at Michigan and Southfield Roads, Dearborn, Michigan, October 1936/ THF286727
Michigan growers raised different types of beans during the early 20th century. Some raised bush beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), green beans that they harvested by hand when the pod reached the R5 growth stage and seeds had just begun to develop. Wholesale dealers distributed this perishable commodity to grocery stores while processors turned the bush beans into canned green beans. Others raised large fields of beans on contract with the H.J. Heinz Co. After the beans were fully matured and dry, growers harvested the crop by hand, then hauled the crop to a threshing machine that separated the beans from the pods and stems. Employees at Heinz processing plants continued the handwork, sorting beans from debris. Product advertising emphasized this attention to detail that yielded a quality food product.
A different type of bean—the “soy bean” (or soybean, Glycine max)—became increasingly apparent in southeast Michigan during the 1930s. Interest in this new cash crop grew apace with Henry Ford’s investment in soybean research. Scientists at work in the chemical laboratory that Ford built in Greenfield Village confirmed that soybeans had potential as a domestic source for various industrial products. Industrial demand in the region caused growers to seek a harvester suitable to the task.
Soybean Pods Ready for Harvesting / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board
Some farmers raised seed crops to meet growing demand for the new cash crop. This specialized cultivation required careful harvesting, as described in “Soy Bean Seed Production in Michigan” (1936). Others raised crops to meet the growing demand for the new industrial raw material. The Ford Village Industries complex in Saline, Michigan, opened in 1938. A press release issued by Ford Motor Company in July 1938 indicated that 700 farmers planted 22,588 acres of soybeans processed at the Saline facility. Ford processing capacity increased as the soybean processing plant at the Rouge Plant began operations around 1942.
Ready for the Harvest: The Allis-Chambers All-Crop
Farmers needed mechanical harvesters to ensure that they delivered a prime crop to Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford thus took an interest in this technology. Allis-Chalmers released its All-Crop 60 harvester in 1935, designed to operate off a tractor big enough to pull a double-bottom plow and powered by the tractor’s power take-off. The “60” represented the width in inches of the swath cut by the harvester. Ford tested the capability of the Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester on a Ford Farms soybean crop in October 1936. By that time, Allis-Chalmers had sold 8,200 of the machines.
The engineer who took a leading role in the machine’s development was Charles J. Scranton, Jr. He began his career as a draftsman at Avery Company, a Peoria, Illinois, company noted for steam traction engines, threshers, and other farm equipment that went bankrupt in 1923. Scranton, as an assignee to a successor company, the Avery Power Machinery Co., secured several patents for improvements to threshers during the late 1920s.
Scranton joined Allis-Chalmers by working at the LaPorte, Indiana, location by 1934. Over 30 years, he secured around 40 patents, all focused on harvesting machinery. The All-Crop marked a crowning achievement because it suited the needs of farmers operating on a smaller scale and growing different cash crops, including soybeans, clover, milo, and other grains.
Ford featured the Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester in early promotional photographs of the Ford tractor with the “Ferguson System,” the Ford-Ferguson 9N, released in 1939. This marked a ringing endorsement from the industrialist who launched soybeans as a cash crop in Michigan.
A Ford-Ferguson Model 9N Tractor Pulling an Allis-Chalmers “All-Crop” Harvester, Macon, Michigan, November 1939 / THF701486
Rear view of the Allis-Chalmers “All-Crop” Harvester, pulled by a Ford-Ferguson Model 9N Tractor, Macon, Michigan, November 1939 / THF701489
More Crop in the Hopper
As soybean acreage increased across the Midwest after World War II, farm implement companies continued to innovate. The Allis-Chalmers All-Crop was well suited to smaller scale farmers growing a variety of crops, but the scale of production increased dramatically during the 1950s as farmers in the midwestern Corn Belt shifted toward monoculture, e.g., corn, a crop heavily dependent on nitrogen, and soybeans, a legume that helps retain nitrogen in the soil. Farmers saw this combination as a strategy to help reduce input costs for synthetic and nitrogen-rich fertilizers.
Illinois-based agricultural implement manufacturer Deere & Company gained an advantage in 1954 when the company introduced an attachment that farmers could install on their combine harvesters to harvest corn. They could harvest their bean crop by switching out that attachment with a four- or five-bat (or horizontal bar) reel mechanism that drew the bean crop into the cutting head. Interchangeable front-end attachments became an industry standard.
The New Holland TR70 Axial Flow Combine, 1975, with Corn Attachment, on Exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation / THF57471
The New Holland TR70 Axial Flow combine in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is installed with the corn harvester attachment. Farmers could harvest four rows of corn in one pass through the field with this head. To harvest soybeans, they installed a different attachment to the front end, a “pickup reel,” as illustrated below in a New Holland TR70 product catalog. The promotional literature urged farmers to purchase a floating “cutterbar” and a “robot header height control” to harvest most efficiently.
Sperry Rand Corporation - Sperry New Holland Division Catalog, "TR70 Twin Rotor Combine," 1977, Page 10 Detail / THF298867
Soybean acreage increased rapidly from the late 1970s into the 1980s. This sustained research in and development of combines suitable to cutting, threshing, and cleaning soybean crops (along with corn and other smaller grains).
Ford New Holland Agricultural Equipment, 1985, Detail / THF277369
For additional information:
“Charles Scranton Dies; Was Engineer,” Indianapolis Star, 27 July 1980, pg. 14, sec. 3.
Swinford, Norm. Allis-Chalmers Farm Equipment, 1914-1985. American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1994.
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records include more than 40 patents secured by Scranton during his work with Allis-Chalmers and at least three from his years with Avery Company.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This blog post was produced as part of our partnership with the Michigan Soybean Committee to deepen understanding of the important soybean crop and to provide the public with the chance to learn more about agriculture and the innovations that have helped farmers feed the world. You can learn more about the partnership, soybeans, and soybean ties to The Henry Ford in our kickoff post here.
A quick overview of tillage—that is, how farmers prepare land for growing crops—helps lay the groundwork (as it were). For thousands of years, farmers turned the topsoil over with a plow pulled by a draft animal—a single steer or team of oxen, draft horses, or mules. Henry Ford’s experiments with his “automotive plow” and subsequent introduction of the affordable Fordson tractor led to the replacement of draft animals on most farms after World War II, but the plow endured. Plowing broke up the roots of whatever vegetation was established before or between plantings. This was the first step in preparing a seed bed.
Man Using a 1939-1946 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286596
The next step involved working the plowed ground to break up clods and create a more even surface. This required use of harrows or discs of various designs, as you can see here. Hitching technology installed on the Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor starting in 1939 and adopted by tractor manufacturers helped keep this disc tracking in line with the tractor. Farmers with large acreages under tillage favored row-crop tractors like the John Deere Model “B” in the photo below, where a farmer is discing a plowed field. The narrow wheel-spacing at the front end ran between rows of crops. After plowing and discing, some farmers harrowed fields to put the finishing touches on the seedbed.
Man Using a 1947-1952 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286606
You can explore more than 40 tillage implements in The Henry Ford collection here. This is just the tip of the iceberg of mechanical innovations designed to ease the physically demanding process of field preparation. These tools helped farmers practice integrated pest management, too, because careful field preparation pulverized the organic material that insects like boll weevil in cotton or corn borer larvae lived in during the winter months. These pests could destroy crops in a pre-insecticide agricultural system.
Tillage, however, exposed topsoil to the elements. The more acreage farmers tilled, the more topsoil they lost due to erosion. In addition, severe droughts parched soil, destroying all organic matter. This exacerbated erosion as more and more topsoil blew away or washed away with heavy rains.
Planting and Cultivating
Different crops cover the ground in different ways. Farmers raising small grains drilled seed into prepared seed beds. The grain, planted at times of the year when other plant growth slowed, needed little to no cultivation. You can see grain drills and learn more about them here, including photographs of the Bickford & Huffman grain drill in use at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village.
Prior to the adoption of in-season herbicides, most crops required cultivation after planting to disturb the roots of plants that threatened to choke out the cash crop. Farmers used different cultivators depending on the crops they grew, but cultivators further disturbed the soil and could hasten moisture evaporation.
Cultivating a Field of Cotton, Around 1911 / THF624655
The photograph below shows a row-crop tractor with an under-mounted cultivator at work in a soybean field. The single-front tire running down the middle of two rows ensured that the cultivators tracked between rows, to better remove weeds in between the cash crop.
Man Using a 1935-1938 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286604
The Development of No-Till
You may have already grasped the connection between tillage and the no-till planter. Intensive cultivation of cropland contributed to topsoil erosion. The loss of the fertile topsoil reduced yields, and extreme weather worsened the loss. This led many to call for radical changes in tillage methods.
Agricultural scientists and engineers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state-based land-grant colleges addressed the challenge quickly. The University of Illinois established the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in southern Illinois in 1934 to research soil erosion and low-till options. Purdue University in Indiana began the first experiments planting row crops in uncultivated soil in 1944. Russell R. Poyner, the agricultural engineer who worked on this project, went to work at International Harvester Company in 1945. By 1947, he submitted a patent for a mulch-tiller-planter designed for erosion control and conservation of moisture. He coined the new tillage approach “stubble mulch” farming, and as assignor to International Harvester, received U.S. Patent No. 2,577,363 in 1951. International Harvester produced the two-row McCormick M-21 till planter with fertilizer application only briefly and stopped altogether in 1955 due to sluggish sales.
Another early no-till proponent, agronomist George McKibben, worked at Dixon Springs. He and Donnie Morris, the machinery engineer at Dixon Springs, tested a zero-till planter by 1966. Morris describes the challenges he solved—specifically, how to get the seed in the ground. The research team used his “sod and stubble” planter starting in 1969, but an appeal to Deere and Company (the company that makes John Deere brand items) fell on deaf ears.
Allis-Chalmers released the two-row No-Til planting system in 1966, recognized as the first commercially available (and successful) no-till planter. The planter had a fluted coulter (vertical cutting blade) that sliced crop residue and prepared the seed bed just ahead of the fertilizer tank and planter unit.
The John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter: Agricultural Superstar
Peter Cousins, then Curator of Agriculture at The Henry Ford, acquired the John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter because, as he wrote in a memo to The Henry Ford’s collections committee on August 23, 1994, he considered it one of a few “superstars” of modern agricultural technology. In that same memo, he explained that of the three companies that introduced no-till planters, only Deere and Company survived. Allis-Chalmers left the farm implement business in 1985. International Harvester also ended its agricultural lines and broke up in 1985. Thus, he believed that only Deere and Company could locate, restore, and donate a first model no-till planter.
What qualifies as a “superstar?” Peter does not go into detail, but he names one other artifact in his memo—the FMC tomato harvester (1969). These two artifacts share at least three key elements that Peter considered as he strengthened The Henry Ford’s collection of 20th-century agricultural technology. First, the implement represents exchange between adopters, engineers, and others, a process described as the social construction of technology. Second, the implement transforms agricultural production. Third, the consequences of the transformation reverberate beyond farm fields.
A Modern John Deere No-Till Planter Sowing Soybeans / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board
The collaborative research undertaken by teams of experts at agricultural experiment stations across the country satisfy the first of these three “superstar” criteria. The experiments station staff worked with farmers to determine their needs and respond to them. The planter donated by Deere and Company to The Henry Ford, for example, had been used by Arthur Kruse on his Calmar, Iowa, farm between 1979 and 1994. It included “a wheel module planter with dry fertilizer option, insecticide box, unit mounted coulters, and cast closing wheels.” That insecticide box is telling—the stubble-mulch farming system came with another set of challenges. The stubble served as a vector for pests, namely the European corn borer in corn. A no-till planter that applied insecticide as well as dry fertilizer appealed to farmers even more.
Soybean Seedlings Emerging Among the Residue of the Previous Year’s Crop / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board
No-till planter technology changed the system of agriculture. The title of a July 16, 1994, New York Times article that Peter attached to the collections committee memo says it all: “New Way of Tilling Speeds the Plow’s Demise.” Today, no-till or conservation tillage helps farmers reduce erosion and retain soil moisture. Yet, input costs remain high as they apply herbicide to deaden growth before no-till planting, and then apply fertilizer and insecticides while planting.
On the other hand, Michigan State University researchers claim that “no-till farming practices have very positive economic and environmental benefits over decades.” Farm fields can benefit from the environmental benefits of topsoil retention enriched with hygroscopic (tending to absorb moisture from the air) organic matter. They can also realize higher yields over the long run.
Farmers, Please Share Your Stories
The Henry Ford would love to hear from Michigan farmers about your reasons for adopting no-till farming practices, either wholly or selectively, and what you believe the benefits are. You can e-mail us your feedback at MichiganSoybeanFarmers@thehenryford.org.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This blog post was produced as part of our partnership with the Michigan Soybean Committee to deepen understanding of the important soybean crop and to provide the public with the chance to learn more about agriculture and the innovations that have helped farmers feed the world. You can learn more about the partnership, soybeans, and soybean ties to The Henry Ford in our kickoff post here.
"Pulpit Rock on Presque Isle," Lake Superior near Marquette, Michigan, 1898. / THF118818
The border between the United States and Canada runs through four of the five lakes that constitute the world’s largest freshwater system—the Great Lakes. Policy makers on both sides of this fluid border have agreed to protect access and use of these bodies of water and their bays, arms, and inlets for more than 100 years.
View from the Harbor, Petoskey, Michigan, circa 1906. / THF118856
In the Boundary Waters Treaty of May 5, 1909, the United States and Great Britain (speaking for its Dominion of Canada) agreed to ensure free access and shared use of the navigable waterways. This sustained lucrative transportation and trade networks that the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, helped facilitate.
The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 also stressed the shared responsibility for protecting water quality. Specifically, the United States and Great Britain “agreed that the … boundary waters … shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other” (Article IV).
Man Drinking from Flowing Well, Wequetonsing, Michigan, circa 1906. / THF119004
Increased populations, however, created problems that the partners had to solve. The treaty called for a six-person International Joint Commission (IJC) to mediate or investigate issues that arose. When cholera outbreaks increased in 1912, the IJC launched a comprehensive study of the boundary waters. Research conducted over five years confirmed that untreated water polluted with raw sewage carried bacteria that caused cholera and typhoid. Findings affirmed transnational responsibility for protecting public health and drew attention to the need for communities to ensure drinking water purity. You can read the final report from 1918 here. And this work continues, as “The Great Lakes Water Quality Centennial Study – Phase 1 Report” (2021) underscores.
Industrial pollution, especially the release of manufacturing waste into boundary waters, further increased the sense of urgency to maintain Great Lakes water quality.
View from Incline Railway, Duluth, Minnesota, circa 1908. / THF119376
Beautiful postcards, like this illustration of the bridge over the Mackinac Straits, could not compete with the evidence of growing Great Lakes degradation.
Postcard, Mackinac Straits Bridge, circa 1957 / THF144098
Growing public concern over industrial pollution found an outlet in Earth Day, April 22, 1970. That same year, the IJC released a report that stressed the “grave deterioration of water quality” in the Great Lakes, drawing on the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 as precedent for reaffirming the rights and obligations of both parties to not pollute boundary waters.
On April 15, 1972, representatives from Canada and the United States signed the Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality. The two countries pledged to restore and enhance water quality in the Great Lakes. This included general objectives to keep the boundary waters free from substances that result from human activity and that might negatively affect aquatic life or waterfowl, be toxic or harmful to humans, or create a nuisance, including concentrations that could encourage aquatic weeds or algae. The agreement also itemized specific water quality objectives and targets around controlling phosphorus and monitoring vessel design, construction, and operation, as well as vessel waste and other forms of shipping pollution. It specified procedures for handling polluted dredged spoil (the waste material produced by dredging) and discharge of pollutants into boundary waters. You can read this 1972 agreement here.
April 15, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of this transnational agreement to protect the Great Lakes ecosystem. The IJC continues to function as established in the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. You can read more about how the IJC links the ongoing transnational work to your life here.
Mission Point and Arnold Dock, Mackinac Island, Michigan, circa 1905. / THF114337
And if you find yourself in the boundary waters, recognize the long-term investment in Great Lakes environmental sustainability that helps protect those waters today.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Panoramic view of the reconstructed vegetable shed from Detroit Central Market on April 10, 2022. The entrance that originally faced south is front and center in this view. / Compiled from two photographs taken by Debra A. Reid
The vegetable shed from Detroit Central Market, opening this week in Greenfield Village, provides the perfect opportunity to be a building detective! You can practice your powers of observation as you explore this open-sided structure. In the process, you can become a more informed observer of the built environment around you.
The following highlights should whet your appetite to learn more about this “shed.” Originally, it sheltered vendors who helped feed hungry Detroiters for more than 30 years, from April 1861 to February 1894. Then it spent 110 years on the upper end of Belle Isle sheltering horses, operating as a public riding stable, and as a storage facility for the City of Detroit. The Henry Ford acquired it in 2003, saving it from demolition. Then, between 2003 and 2021, we conducted research and raised funds to reconstruct it in Greenfield Village. Now you can explore the reconstructed Detroit Central Market shed starting its new life in the heart of Greenfield Village.
Is This Building a Reconstruction?
Rudy Christian, a traditional timber-frame expert and principal of Christian & Son, Inc., describes the Detroit Central Market shed as a reconstruction. He bases this on his experiences dismantling the structure in 2003, advocating for use of original materials and prepping the timber-frame elements, and reassembling the roof system during reconstruction in Greenfield Village during 2021.
The Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) first defined “reconstruction” in 1978 as “the act or process of reproducing by new construction the exact form and detail of a vanished building, structure, or object, or a part thereof, as it appeared at a specific period of time” (Federal Register, Vol. 43, No. 236, December 7, 1978, page 57251). You can read more about the DOI’s standards for the treatment of historic buildings and landscapes here, including more about reconstruction and the other three standards: preservation (when the property retains distinctive materials and thus conveys historic significance without extensive repair or replacement), restoration (removal of features to return a property to an appearance of a particular time in the past), and rehabilitation (retention of a property’s historic character, but modifications may occur given ongoing use).
What Percentage of the Building Is Original?
The Detroit Central Market vegetable shed, while “new construction,” is authentic because of the significant percentage of original material incorporated into the reconstruction. Fifty percent of the columns (16 of 32) are original. The 16 originals are distinctive because of acanthus-leaf details on the bases, a spiral design, and capitals onto which cast S-scroll leaf ornaments are mounted.
Architectural S-scroll leaf ornament from the Detroit Central Market, 1860. / THF177806
These original cast-iron columns, however, are brittle. It is impossible to calculate their tensile strength—that is, the maximum stress that the cast iron can stand when being stretched or pulled before breaking. Modern code requires structural materials to meet tensile-strength specifications. This posed a significant challenge.
How Can We Meet Modern Building Codes with an Historic Structure?
The facilities team at The Henry Ford contracted with O’Neal Construction, Inc., of Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the reconstruction of the Detroit Central Market building. They were involved in all phases of the planning process and oversaw reconstruction from 2021 to its completion. The team considered different options to support the building, but ultimately selected an innovative solution that exceeds code requirements. In effect, the solution involved flipping the structural support upside down.
Ensuring guest safety required construction of an underground “moment frame” that anchors the structure and prevents it from acting like a huge umbrella on a windy day. The above screenshot shows the system of rebar that runs between the 48-inch-deep footers. The footers extend up to octagonal bases, or piers. These footers also accommodate modern infrastructure—specifically, electrical conduit that runs underground and up into the piers. All 32 columns are attached to the individual piers with anchor bolts, but 16 of the 32 columns are steel and specially designed extensions of the moment frame. As a whole, the moment frame ensures that the structure will remain on the ground and standing in perpetuity.
The entrance that originally faced north on April 10, 2022, now behind Hanks Silk Mill in Greenfield Village. There are original columns at both sides of the side-entrance gable, but rows of specially designed columns, integral to the moment frame, visible to both the left and right of this side-entrance. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
The 16 new columns are distinctive from the originals in several ways. They are smooth, not spiral. They have fluted gussets (brackets) at the top, instead of capitals. Finally, they are larger in diameter than the originals. These distinctions make clear which columns are original and which are not, to inform guests of the innovation required to ensure their safety.
How Does the New Footprint Compare to the Original?
What was originally the west entrance, now facing State Street in Greenfield Village, on April 10, 2022, with original columns as well as additional columns installed in two rows in front of the structure. This gives guests a better impression of the original building footprint, though an additional eight columns would be required to mimic the full original size of 11 bays and 242 feet in length. /Photograph by Debra A. Reid
The reconstructed vegetable shed is 7/11ths as long as the original. Why 7/11ths? The original structure was three bays wide by eleven bays long. A bay is the space between architectural elements. You can see the eleven bays visible on the south side of the structure in the detail below from a late-1880s photograph—five bays from the east-facing entrance to the south-facing entrance, with that entrance bay being the sixth bay, and then five bays beyond it to the west-facing entrance (less easy to see given the perspective). The Central Market building towers in the distance.
Detail of the vegetable shed from the Detroit Central Market, circa 1888. / THF200604
The reconstructed Detroit Central Market vegetable shed in Greenfield Village includes only seven of the eleven original lengthwise bays—three on each side of the side-entrance bay. Thus, the reconstruction is 7/11ths the length of the original. Jim McCabe, former collections manager and buildings curator at The Henry Ford, deserves credit for this specification, as he spent nearly two decades working on the project between 2003 and 2022.
The reconstruction is true to the width of the original, three bays total—one on each side of the central entrance, which is also a bay. You can see these bays most clearly in this July 6, 2021, photograph below, showing columns in place and the roof structure in process.
Detroit Central Market reconstruction in process on July 6, 2021, showing the three-bay width and the seven-bay length. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
How Much of the Timber-Frame Roof Is Original?
The timber-framing system is clearly visible inside the structure. Just walk in and look up! Approximately 80% of the original old-growth white pine was reused in the reconstruction. This resulted from careful detective work during the quick dismantling process.
The Henry Ford contracted with Christian & Son, Inc., to number and measure the original structural and decorative woodwork elements, photograph them, and prep the material for storage. Then we contracted with Jeff DuPilka and West Shore Services, Inc., to disassemble the structure. West Shore, Christian & Son, and staff from The Henry Ford accomplished this in 10 to 12 weeks during the summer of 2003.
Woodwork in one of four outside corners, original to the vegetable shed at Detroit Central Market and still intact after it served as the riding stable at Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan (photographed in 2003). / THF113493
Christian & Son, Inc., documented all original wooden elements, including those in the section of the building that was fire-damaged due to a car wreck (visible in the photograph below). They believed that documenting the whole required documentation of all parts, so they took as much care tagging, measuring, and dismantling this burned section as they did with the other sections. In fact, timbers from the charred section were reused in the reconstruction and are visible on the exterior of the originally east-facing entrance (the entrance now facing the Detroit Toledo & Milwaukee Roundhouse in Greenfield Village).
West Shore Services, Inc., crane in action, removing a piece of the original timber-frame roof system from the former riding stable (and originally the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed) on Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, 2003. / THF113575
What Are Some Notable Details?
The reconstruction of the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed in Greenfield Village includes ornamental woodwork throughout. The following rendering by architecture firm Quinn Evans itemizes seven distinctive brackets, each designed for a specific location in the building, and one “drop,” an accessory at all four gable entrances and used with the decorative fascia along the eaves.
Decorative wood details of the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed, prepared by Quinn Evans, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for The Henry Ford. / Courtesy of The Henry Ford’s facilities team
These decorative elements were all hand-carved during the original construction in 1860. Not all of the decorative elements survived the move to Belle Isle. The elaborate crests atop each of the four gable entrances on the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed, for example, were not included when it served as the horse shed on Belle Isle, as the illustration of it in Seventy Glimpses of Detroit indicates. Missing pieces were replicated to complete the structure’s appearance during its heyday as a public market.
Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village & Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford, starting to inventory architectural elements from the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed not used in the reconstruction, February 8, 2022. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
What Style Is the Building?
Each of the ornamental elements was part of a stylistic whole that the reconstruction faithfully conveys. If it reminds you of a Swiss chalet, you have an astute eye for style. John Schaffer, the architect, trained in Munich, Bavaria, and incorporated Schweizerstil (Swiss-chalet style) details into his plans, drafted in 1860. Thus, this structure likely introduced that aesthetic to Detroiters. His plans included gently sloping gabled roofs with wide eaves, large brackets, and decorative fretwork, all details common to Swiss-style architecture. Additional Swiss features included sawtooth siding, scroll-sawn fascia, and the elliptical design of the siding at each gable-end.
The Detroit Central Market vegetable shed has so much to teach. Learning to read the details of this addition to Greenfield Village is an important first step on the journey. Learn even more by checking out additional blog posts and artifacts related to Detroit Central Market.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Comments from Rachel Yerke, Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford, improved this post.
Soybean Processing for Fiber and Oil, Ford Exposition, New York World's Fair, 1939 / THF216213
A New Partnership
Today, on National Agriculture Day, The Henry Ford is pleased to announce a new partnership with the Michigan Soybean Committee to deepen our understanding of this important crop, from field to factory.
The Michigan Soybean Committee works on behalf of Michigan’s 12,000 soybean farmers to drive demand, fund research advancements, share the story of agriculture, and identify ways to help farmers grow soybeans sustainably for generations to come. Michigan Soybean Committee has a renewed focus on consumer outreach and working with partners to provide information to the public about soybeans and agriculture in the state of Michigan. The collections of The Henry Ford help tell the long history of soy, and especially the launch of the legume in Michigan, a project with a long history dating back to Henry Ford himself. Michigan Soybean Committee is excited to work with The Henry Ford to provide the public with the chance to learn more about agriculture and the innovations that have helped farmers feed the world.
The soybean (soya bean, Glycine max) moved from relatively obscure forage crop in 1920 to center stage on global markets in 2020. Today soybean farmers in 19 states, including Michigan, raise 96% of the more than 4 billion bushels of beans produced in the United States. Each of those soybeans contains oil, protein, and biomass, attributes that processors use to transform the soybean into valuable products.
Mrs. Hardy Checking Soybean Milk in Ford Lab, March 1944 /THF272478
Today we encounter soybeans in almost every aspect of our daily lives, but we may not recognize the legume, even when we use or consume it. Drink soymilk? Use a non-dairy creamer or whipped topping? Eat chocolate? Use soy oil for cooking? Is your candle made of soy? How about the bioplastic coating your take-out food container or disposable coffee cup? Have you ever filled your vehicle with biodiesel? These products, and many more, likely include ingredients derived from soybeans. The Michigan Soybean Committee recommends the United Soybean Board website https://soynewuses.org/ as a good resource to learn even more about all of the products made with soy.
Robert Boyer and Henry Ford in a Soybean Field, 1936 / THF98619
Black chemists contributed to this soybean research. Paul Foster focused on food research. “Paul Foster and Food Research in Henry Ford’s Laboratories, 1930-1942” introduces readers to Foster and explores some of the soy recipes that resulted from research he conducted. George Washington Carver and his assistant, Austin Curtis, Jr., chemists working at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, shared Henry Ford’s enthusiasm for chemurgy (industrial uses for raw materials). Both Carver and Curtis participated in the third Dearborn Conference on Industry in 1937, featuring lectures by chemists working with farm-grown crops and industrial products, and Curtis even worked one summer in Ford’s Greenfield Village Soybean Lab. Ford expanded soy food research in 1942 with dedication of the Carver Nutrition Laboratory on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, near Greenfield Village.
Soybean Processing for Fiber and Oil, Ford Exposition, New York World's Fair, 1939/ THF216215
What do we have in store for this partnership?
We’ll kick things off on March 23 on The Henry Ford’s Facebook page, with an interview with Laurie Isley, Michigan farmer and president of Michigan Soybean Committee. You can get a sneak peek of Isley’s work at the websites for U.S. Soy and the Michigan Agriculture Council.
John Deere Tractor and Planter Planting Soybeans / Photo courtesy United Soybean Board
Our plans for 2022 focus on exploring untold stories, adding to existing stories, and engaging the public in the process. We will explore changes in biological and mechanical technologies between 1920 and 2020, and document agricultural research at Ford farms focused on producing soybeans richer in oil content and better suited to industrial uses. We will deepen existing content on the daily operations of soybean research undertaken at the chemical laboratory constructed by Henry Ford in Greenfield Village in 1928 (still standing today), and in the George Washington Carver Nutrition Laboratory launched by Ford in 1942.
Over the growing season, we’ll explore the year-round work it takes to produce soybeans in Michigan, from planting to growing to harvesting, with the farmers who do this work. This will also involve a collaborative contemporary collecting effort to document Michigan soybean farmers today and add those stories to the permanent collections of The Henry Ford.
Case IH Combine Harvesting Soybeans / Photo courtesy Michigan Soybean Committee
The Michigan Soybean Committee will share its popular teacher resources with The Henry Ford’s learning and engagement staff. This will benefit rising fifth graders in The Henry Ford’s 2022 Growers summer camp, presented by the Michigan Soybean Committee, as they explore soya from bean to bioplastic. From June to August, students in the Growers summer camp will interact directly with Michigan Soybean Committee resources and soybeans growing in Greenfield Village for the first time since the 1940s.
Cultivating and Planting Activity at Soybean Laboratory, Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, 1937–1950 / THF236443
Both The Henry Ford and Michigan Soybean Committee are eager for this 2022 soybean-knowledge growing season, and we look forward to having you along for the journey.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to the Michigan Soybean Committee for their collaboration on this post.
Austin W. Curtis (left) assisting George Washington Carver (right) during a lecture at Starr Commonwealth for Boys School, Albion, Michigan, 1939. /THF213740
Austin Wingate Curtis, Jr. (1911–2004) assisted George Washington Carver for nearly eight years (1935–1943). Biographers often measure Curtis by his association with Carver, the renowned Black scientist who spent his career at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Mark D. Hersey described Curtis as “Carver’s best-known assistant” in his 2011 biography of Carver, titled My Work Is That of Conservation (page 181).
Curtis might be Carver’s best-known assistant, but his association with Carver accounted for only eight of Curtis’s ninety-three years. After Carver’s death, Curtis remained at Tuskegee until 1944 when the board decided not to retain him. He relocated to Detroit, Michigan, launched a business that emphasized his association with Carver, raised a family, pursued various business ventures, ran for political office, and added to The Henry Ford’s collection documenting George W. Carver. The following provides a fuller picture of Austin Curtis.
The Early Years
Austin Wingate Curtis, Jr., was born July 28, 1911, in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Support for education ran deep in his family. His maternal great-grandfather, Samuel I. Cabell (1802–1865), owned the land that the state acquired to build the West Virginia Colored Institute (which became the West Virginia Collegiate Institute in the early 20th century and is now West Virginia State University). This was one of 17 Black land-grant institutions that the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1890 partially funded by 1920.
Austin Curtis’s mother, Dora Throne Brown (1875–1960), enrolled at West Virginia Colored Institute to train as a teacher. His father, Austin Wingate Curtis, Sr. (1872–1950), graduated in 1899 from the Black land-grant college in North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University at Greensboro). He began teaching agriculture at the West Virginia Institute that same year. He and Dora Brown married in 1905. They had two children, Alice Cabell Curtis (1908–2000) and Austin Wingate Curtis, Jr.
The Henry Ford has no photographs of the Curtis family, but the Library of Congress does. These provide a rare glimpse into rural Black culture during the period when more Black families owned land than at any other time in U.S. history (approximately 25 percent of Black farmers nationwide identified as landowners in the 1920 census).
A support system operated out of the Black land-grant colleges that linked farm families to information shared by experts trained in agriculture and domestic science. Tuskegee Institute’s moveable school drew a lot of attention from the media, and might be the best-known example of the ways that experts reached farmers across the countryside, but it was one approach among many.
Training often focused on livestock, especially pigs.
Austin Curtis, Sr., agricultural expert, instructs George Cox, a 13-year-old 4-H club member and son of a “renter” or tenant farmer, in pork nutrition near the West Virginia Collegiate Institute (near Charleston). / Photograph by Lewis W. Hine, on assignment for the National Child Labor Committee, October 10, 1921, from the Library of Congress.
Austin Curtis, Sr., conveyed the latest information about swine management to young people organized through local 4-H clubs. His son, Austin Curtis, Jr., participated in these efforts, raising a sow and tending her piglets as part of his pig project. This work helped stabilize farm incomes, a critical step in farm solvency for owners and tenant farm families. Bulletins like “How to Raise Pigs With Little Money” (1915), by George Washington Carver, facilitated this type of instruction.
Austin Curtis, Jr., 10 years old, participated in the pig clubs that his father, Director of Agriculture at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, helped organize. / Photograph by Lewis W. Hine, on assignment for the National Child Labor Committee, October 10, 1921, from the Library of Congress.
Austin Curtis, Jr., grew up immersed in Black land-grant networks, but alternatives existed. Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950), who held the position of Dean at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute between 1920 and 1922, proved that working in a West Virginia coal mine could lead to higher education. Woodson became the second Black man to earn a doctoral degree at Harvard University in 1912. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915 and launched the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History) in 1916 to encourage Black and white scholars to study Black history. Woodson also launched Negro History Week (now Black History Month) in 1926 to facilitate exchange.
Curtis’s father took summer classes at Cornell University to remain current in livestock management. Ultimately, Curtis, Jr., selected Cornell University, too, and studied plant physiology there, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1932. After graduation he returned to West Virginia and worked in a greenhouse, for a landscaping business, and drove a cab, before accepting a teaching position at his father’s alma mater in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In 1935 Curtis, Jr., accepted a fellowship funded by the General Education Board to serve as George Washington Carver’s research assistant at Tuskegee Institute. He began work at Tuskegee in September 1935.
Tuskegee Institute football pennant, 1920–1950. / THF157606
As Austin Curtis, Jr., built his career as a chemist, he also pursued a personal life. While teaching at the A&T College in Greensboro, he met Belle Channing Tobias, head of biology at Bennett College for Women (now Bennett College). She was the daughter of Mary Pritchard and Channing Heggie Tobias, a minister, civil rights activist, and director of YMCA work among Black residents in New York City. The media reported on the Curtis-Tobias wedding as a society event held in St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University, New York City, on June 15, 1936.
Austin and Belle Curtis planned to honeymoon in West Virginia and then drive to Tuskegee Institute. Tragically, Belle fell ill from kidney disease during the honeymoon, and died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City on October 7, 1936, just four months after the wedding (“Death Claims Belle Tobias,” New York Amsterdam News, October 10, 1936).
Work with Carver consumed Curtis after his wife’s death. His loss coincided with the growth of chemurgy, a branch of chemistry dedicated to industrial uses of plant byproducts. Correspondence between Henry Ford and George W. Carver ensured that Carver (and Curtis) were well informed about industrialist Ford’s investment in chemurgy. This drew increased attention to their work.
Somehow Curtis found time to court Tuskegee Institute art teacher Oreta Adams (1905–1991). Her parents, King P. Adams (1870–1944) and Sarah Bibb Adams (1870–1944), lived in Lawrence, Kansas. Her father was a janitor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and a member of the Black Masons, an organization which supported leadership and service within Black neighborhoods. Curtis and Adams married at Adams’s parents’ home, 318 Locust Street in Lawrence, on August 3, 1938.
The Chicago Defender reported that the couple spent a week in Lawrence, then traveled through Illinois on their way back to Tuskegee, where they both resumed their posts. Their Illinois destination, in addition to Chicago, was the University of Illinois. This land-grant university was noted for soybean research. It had soybean experts on faculty and staff, and research in soybean genetics and in soybean uses ongoing. (“Kansas Girl Marries Aide to Dr. Carver,” Chicago Defender, August 13, 1938). Curtis also spent one summer working in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village. He stayed with his uncle, Cornelius S. Curtis, who lived in Detroit (Curtis Oral Interview, July 23, 1979, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, page 31–32).
Curtis: Carver’s Support System
Curtis provided a lot of support to Carver over the years, including driving him to public engagements.
Between the death of Belle and his marriage to Oreta, Curtis drove Carver to Dearborn, Michigan. They participated in the third Dearborn Conference on Industry held in 1937. Curtis presented information on Carver’s products, including peanut and sweet potato extracts, and on his own chemical work, including isolating pigments from wild plants and devising uses for oil extracted from magnolias (“Tuskegee Chemist in Address at Detroit,” Chicago Defender, June 5, 1937).
Curtis and Carver also toured Greenfield Village. Carver described it as “one of the greatest educational projects I have ever seen” in a thank-you letter to Henry Ford, written on Dearborn Inn letterhead. One highlight was their interaction with Francis Jehl, a research assistant to Thomas Edison and an advisor on the lab reconstruction in Greenfield Village. On the drive back to Tuskegee, they stopped to visit the Curtis family in Institute, West Virginia (“Tuskegee Chemist in Address at Detroit,” Chicago Defender, June 5, 1937).
Left to right: Austin W. Curtis, George Washington Carver, William Simonds, and Francis Jehl at Menlo Park Laboratory, Greenfield Village, 1937. / THF213745
One of the most important services Curtis provided involved promoting Carver’s work at every opportunity. Sometimes this took the form of public speaking. During the ceremony that recognized Carver’s 40 years of service to Tuskegee Institute, Curtis delivered a ten-minute overview of Carver’s life and work, broadcast on WJDX radio (“To Unveil Bust of Dr. Carver June 2,” Chicago Defender, May 22, 1937).
Curtis claimed to have started the Carver Museum (now part of the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site) at Tuskegee. Installed on the third floor of the Institute’s library building initially, it featured Carver’s paintings, needlework, extracts, and other plant byproducts (Curtis Oral Interview, page 27). Carver toured Henry Ford through the museum during Ford’s first of three visits to the Tuskegee campus in March 1938. The group inspected peanut oil, which Carver promoted as part of massage therapy for infantile paralysis (“Ford Visits Tuskegee; Talks on Science with Dr. Carver,” Chicago Defender, March 19, 1938).
The museum received more attention as the relationship between Carver and Ford grew. In March 1941, during Ford’s third trip to Tuskegee, the group dedicated a new George Washington Carver Museum. Curtis helped a Tuskegee student insert soy-based plastic composite material into concrete blocks as part of the ceremonies.
George Washington Carver, Clara Ford, and Henry Ford at dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, March 1941. / THF213788
Cultivating Carver’s legacy took Curtis and Carver on the road regularly. Trips often consisted of multiple speaking engagements with Curtis assisting. Audiences ranged from children to peers equally invested in chemurgy research. The photo at the top of this post shows one of those appearances.
Curtis urged Carver to leave a legacy. This took the form of an endowment to carry on Carver’s work. The media reported on formation of the George W. Carver Foundation during the 15th Negro History Week celebration, which occurred February 11–17, 1940 (“This Day in History,” Chicago Tribune, February 14, 1946).
A gentleman’s agreement of a sort apparently existed between Curtis and Carver. Curtis fully expected to continue Carver’s work, and he informed Henry Ford of that fact in a January 1943 letter. Tuskegee president F.D. Patterson had other ideas. The two disagreed over royalties specified in a publishing contract, and the Tuskegee board terminated Curtis in April 1944 (“Aide to Dr. Carver Eased Out at Tuskegee,” Atlanta Daily World, April 22, 1944). By that time, the book, George Washington Carver: An American Biography (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1943), was selling well, and Carver’s contract with the publisher had guaranteed Curtis a percentage of the royalties.
Curtis after Tuskegee
Curtis pivoted rapidly after his firing. He had to. His wife, Oreta, had just given birth to their first child, Kyra. He had relatives in Detroit, and his association with Henry Ford and awareness of chemurgy networks likely drew him to the city. He launched A.W. Curtis Laboratories to manufacture health care products and cooking oil derived from Carver’s research. The Curtises’ second child, daughter Synka, was born in Detroit in 1946.
Curtis Rubbing Oil, circa 1987, for fast relief of minor aches and pains of arthritis and rheumatism. Theback of the bottle describes best uses and warnings for children. The active ingredients are listed as "Peanut Oil, Methyl Salicylate.” / THF170781
Product marketing stressed Curtis’ connection to Carver. A. W. Curtis Laboratories held the grand opening of its sales office on National Carver Day, January 4, 1947 (he had died on January 5, 1943). The Detroit Tribune advertisement included a photograph of Carver and Curtis at work together in their Tuskegee laboratory and the oft-quoted phrase attributed to Carver: “through [Curtis] I see an Extension of my Work.” Curtis also arranged for Rackham Holt, author of George Washington Carver: An American Biography, to be available to sign books. To sweeten the prospects of a sales-office visit, Curtis offered three prizes for ticket holders, including one-half gallon of “our Peanut Cooking Oil” (January 4, 1947, page 8).
Austin Curtis, Jr., remained in touch with The Henry Ford, off and on, during his years in Detroit. He conducted an interview with Doug Bakken and Dave Click in 1979. Curtis visited Greenfield Village on August 17, 1982, to reminisce about the dedication ceremony that had occurred 40 years before.
Austin W. Curtis visiting the George Washington Carver Cabin in Greenfield Village, August 17, 1982. / THF287706
Curtis helped expand The Henry Ford’s collection of Carver items by offering, in 1997, a microscope and typewriter used by Carver at Tuskegee. By then, Curtis was also reducing his involvement in his business. The Reverend Bennie L. Thayer, chairman of the board for Natural Health Options, Inc. acquired A.W. Curtis Laboratories in 1999, and the next year, Dr. E. Faye Williams purchased the company and manufacturing rights. Curtis died in Culver City, California, on November 5, 2004.
Newspaper articles mentioned Curtis in coverage of Carver through the years they worked together (and beyond). Newspaper accounts of Curtis, Jr., provided leads to follow. These appeared in the Chicago Defender (Arnold De Mille, January 29, 1955) and the New York Amsterdam News (Julian Jingles, February 24, 1996, and Herb Boyd, October 9, 2014).
Ancestry.com confirmed genealogical details. Newspapers articles affirmed events (as referenced throughout the text).
Secondary sources documenting Curtis, Sr., and Jr. and West Virginia history include:
Askins, John. “Austin W. Curtis, Jr.: He Lives in Shadow of G. W. Carver,” Biography News (May/June 1975), pg. 511.
“Austin Wingate Curtis [1872-1950],” History of the American Negro. West Virginia Edition. A. B. Caldwell, editor. Vol. 7. Atlanta, Georgia: A. B. Caldwell Publishing Company, 1923.
Moon, Elaine Latzman. “Austin W. Curtis, [Jr.,] D.S.C.” in Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918–1967. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994, pp. 253-255.
Morgan, B.S., and J.F. Cork. “Beginning of West Virginia State University.” History of Education in West Virginia. Charleston: Moses W. Donnally, 1893, pp. 189-94.
Turner, Ruby M. “The Life and Times of Dr. Austin Wingate Curtis, Jr.,” Simpson College Archives, Indianola, Iowa.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele and Sophia Kloc shared comments that improved this blog.
Paul Foster storing bread in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236481
The Soybean Laboratory (now the Soybean Lab Agricultural Gallery) in Greenfield Village buzzed with activity during the 1930s and 1940s. Paul Hunter Foster worked as a waiter in that laboratory in its earliest days, but over time, his responsibilities expanded to include valet to Henry Ford and cook on Henry Ford’s private railroad car, Fair Lane. As these photographs indicate, he tested soy foods and may have fed the laboratory staff in the process.
Paul Hunter Foster was born on June 5, 1900, to a well-connected mixed-race family living in Meridian, Mississippi. His father, William Thomas Foster, sampled cotton and rated bales based on cotton quality. His mother, Alvina (“Vinie”/“Viny”) Lewis Hunter, bore seven and raised five children. Most of them pursued higher education and community service and flourished professionally. Three studied at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. One graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and another from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Two of Paul’s brothers became dentists, and another worked in race relations throughout his career.
Piecing together the details of Paul Foster’s life remains a work in progress, but primary sources confirm that he lived in Washington, D.C., after his father died in 1917. One of his brothers lived there at the time, attending Howard University. Paul worked as a messenger for the U.S. War Department during World War I (per his draft registration card). He was back in Meridian in January 1920 (per the U.S. Census). Then, on July 7, 1920, while still a student, he married Lilybel E. Scott in Detroit, and settled into life at 6081 Whitewood Avenue in Detroit.
Lilybel Scott Foster (left) with Paul Hunter Foster (right) and Georgia Singleton Ralls (center) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the dedication of the Stephen Foster Home (now the Sounds of America Gallery/Foster Memorial) in Greenfield Village, July 4, 1935. / THF272761
It remains unclear when Paul Foster joined Henry Ford’s staff, but his work in Greenfield Village and in proximity to Henry Ford’s office at Ford Motor Company’s Oakwood Boulevard headquarters translated into “other duties as assigned.” In 1935, this included escorting a special guest invited to the Stephen Foster Home dedication. A reporter from the Pittsburgh Courier explained on September 21, 1935, that Georgia Singleton Ralls had, as a child, lived in the house in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. She provided valuable information about the home interior to Henry Ford via Charles T. Newton. Ford invited her, but the Foster family ensured her personal comfort. She stayed with Paul and Lilybel and their four children during her visit. Ralls described Paul Foster as Henry Ford’s valet.
Detroit newspapers confirm that Paul and Lilybel Foster encouraged education, a love of music and theater, and civic engagement. Lilybel and the four children, Paul H. Foster, Jr., [William] Estus, Jane, and Harris, each received their share of coverage in the Michigan Chronicle social pages. This helped them forge networks with other middle-class Black Detroiters.
In addition, Paul Foster, Sr., developed relationships with other Black Detroiters working in industry. His eldest child, Paul, Jr., listed Bohn Aluminum as his employer on his World War II draft registration card, and his second son, William Estus, listed Ford Motor Company. The elder Foster also listed Ford Motor Company, Oakwood Boulevard, as his employer. The sons listed their mother as the person most likely to know their permanent addresses, but Paul, Sr., listed Frank Davis, a field agent for Detroit Light Company (Detroit Edison Company), instead of his wife. This likely reflected a commitment to class and racial bonds among well-connected Black Detroiters employed in managerial positions by white business owner-operators. Frank Dewitt Davis became the first Black employee in an office position at Detroit Edison according to his obituary (published in the Detroit Free Press, September 19, 1974).
Work in the Soybean Lab
The following provides a snapshot of the chemical laboratory that Henry Ford constructed in Greenfield Village during 1929, and the workspace that Paul Hunter Foster, Sr., occupied.
Henry Ford invested in the chemical laboratory to discover industrial uses of agricultural products. Soybeans, a crop with a long history, became the research focus by 1931. The crop offered much potential. Extracted oil could be refined for multiple uses and the bean residue could be pressed into numerous molded forms. The protein- and oil-rich soybean also addressed the need of many seeking healthier foodstuffs.
Chemical Laboratory in Greenfield Village, 1930 (today known as the Soybean Lab Agricultural Gallery). / THF222341
Foster worked in the lab that undertook food experiments during this early period of exploration and innovation. His workspace consisted of the low-roofed kitchen shown below, divided by a railing. The preparation area included ingredients, storage containers, scales and other data collection instruments, and scientific apparatuses to facilitate testing.
Preparation and testing area of the kitchen laboratory at the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236497
Staff worked together in this testing kitchen. The photograph below shows Foster at work in the foreground, and another lab technician busy in the background.
Paul Foster making soybean bread inside the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236493
The cooking area in the kitchen laboratory included a range, a sink, and counter space, as well as measuring cups, pots, pans, and other kitchen implements. It was at a slightly lower level than the preparation area.
Making soybean bread in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236485
Food testing occurred in this lab. The results appeared in the booklet “Recipes for Soybean Foods.” It described the work of the laboratory, summarized the benefits of soy-based foods, and consolidated recipes proven in this laboratory.
“Recipes for Soybean Foods,” circa 1931. / THF119280a
Cooks had to be aware that preparing soybeans required some extra effort. For example, “the soy bean generally requires a longer time for cooking than does the common bean…. With a pressure cooker, the beans can be cooked in 20 minutes at 20 pounds pressure” (page 2). Paul Foster used a pressure cooker to prepare soybeans in the kitchen workspace.
Lab technician (likely Paul Foster) with a pressure cooker in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, circa 1935./ THF236489
Soybeans had a higher protein content than navy beans or lima beans, according to “Recipes for Soybean Foods.” Thus, cooks substituted soybeans to facilitate healthy eating.
An omelette, two baked beans recipes, and two salad recipes in “Recipes for Soybean Foods,” circa 1931, page 9. / THF119283b
Soy flour also offered a higher-protein alternative to wheat flour, and a flour more supportive of diabetic diets and other diets for those intolerant to certain foods. Furthermore, soy flour properties helped bread remain fresher for longer. As “Recipes for Soybean Foods” explains, breads that incorporated 5% soy flour and 95% wheat flour produced a loaf of bread that kept longer than bread made without soy flour. Combining flours at a ratio of 20% soy and 80% wheat resulted in a bread loaf with 40% more protein than wheat flour alone (page 2). Such persuasive arguments converted some to soy.
The photographic print below shows Paul Foster preparing dough for soybean bread in the kitchen workspace.
Making soybean bread inside the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935./ THF236491
After baking, storing the bread in a wire-enclosed wood-frame container was the next step in the longer process of documenting drying rates for different types of bread loaves.
Storing bread in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236483
A closer look at Foster and his bread loaves, in the photo at the very top of this post, shows him in the process of loading the loaves into the food safe (a term used for similar wire-sided storage cabinets). The experiments in the test kitchen continued with rotation of loaves and measuring rates of dryness.
Interested in trying the recipe for the soybean bread baked in the laboratory in Greenfield Village? Check out page 4 of Recipes for Soybean Foods, or explore these and other recipes in the Ford Motor Company bulletin, published around 1939 (and two pages longer). Be mindful of inconsistencies. In both, on page 2, the directions indicate that the pressure cooker should be set at 20 pounds pressure, but page 16 in the earlier booklet, and page 18 in the 1939 version, states that soybeans should be cooked for 20 minutes at 25 pounds.
“Recipes for Soy Bean Foods,” Ford Motor Company, circa 1939. / THF223249
Foster remained visible in Soybean Laboratory research through the visit of George Washington Carver in July 1942. During this visit, Henry Ford dedicated a nutrition laboratory on Michigan Avenue, adjacent to Greenfield Village, named for Carver. It included an experimental kitchen described as “the dominion of Mr. Paul Foster” (Herald, August 14, 1942, page 12).
George Washington Carver (seated) at the dedication of Carver Nutrition Laboratory, Dearborn, Michigan, July 21, 1942. Paul Foster is standing in the foreground to the right. / THF214097
Foster apparently had full authority over the kitchen in the Carver Nutrition Laboratory: “Here this master of the culinary art will hold forth, concocting delicious morsels” (Herald, page 12). Carver credited Foster with the “weed sandwiches” sampled during the Nutrition Lab dedication (Herald, page 14). Carver appreciated such ingenuity, given his recent bulletin Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace (March 1942). Foster’s sandwich spread of “nature’s vegetables” consisted of ground dandelion, purslane, curly dock, plantain, chickweed, lamb’s quarters, bergamot, oxalis, and radish seed pods with salt, lemon juice, and mayonnaise added. Served on soybean bread, such a mixture could have a wonderful flavor and “contain the equivalent in vitamins and minerals to the average person’s monthly diet of vegetables.” So explained Edison Institute student Robert Cavanaugh, who reported on “The Development of a New Laboratory” (Herald, page 12). A photograph of Foster, preparing vegetable sandwiches, illustrated the story.
Documenting Paul Foster’s role in research in either laboratory after 1942 remains a work in progress. Consider this a first installment as we continue to learn more about the scientists who worked at the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, and at the nearby Carver Nutrition Laboratory on Michigan Avenue.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. She thanks Saige Jedele and Sophia Kloc for feedback that improved this blog.
Black sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway (1872–1967) took issue with inadequate recognition of Black achievement. He dedicated his career to creating and marketing affordable plaster busts and other commemorative sculpture, literally putting Black activists, educators, ministers, and dozens of other individuals on a pedestal. These stood in stark contrast to lawn jockeys and other statuary that emphasized caricatures and stereotypes.
Plaster Plaque of George Washington Carver (1864?–1943) Cast by Isaac Scott Hathaway, 1945./ THF152082
Hathaway remembered visiting a Midwestern museum when he was nine years old (around 1881), with his father, Robert Elijah Hathaway (1842–1923). The young Hathaway wondered why museums did not include statues of Black people. His father explained that white people modeled their own, and that if Black Americans wanted to see sculptures of Black Americans, “we will have to grow our own sculptors.”
This museum visit changed Hathaway’s life, as he recalled in a 1939 Federal Writers’ Project interview and in a 1958 article in the Negro History Bulletin. He studied art during the era of the New Negro, a movement of the 1890s to 1910s that emphasized African and Black American contributions to the arts, literature, and culture. He taught school, created sculpture, and distributed his plaster casts through the Afro Art Company, which he launched after he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1907.
Hathaway moved when opportunities to further ceramics education arose. He relocated to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, by 1915 to launch ceramics education at the Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). He moved his company, renamed the Isaac Hathaway Art Company, to Pine Bluff at the same time. In 1937, he joined the faculty at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, to introduce a ceramics curriculum there. In 1947, he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to direct ceramics instruction at Alabama State College (now Alabama State University).
Plaster Cast of George Washington Carver's Hand, 1943./ THF34092
The Henry Ford has two of Hathaway’s plaster casts. Hathaway gave them to Henry Ford in December 1945, explaining that he wanted Ford to have the small plaque (shown at the beginning of this post) and “a cast … made from the hand of the late Dr. George Washington Carver” (shown above). The plaque was one of three types of casts of Carver that Hathaway made. The others included a small bust (around one foot tall) and a heroic bust, visible in this photograph of the artist at work (courtesy of the Tuskegee University Archives).
Carver’s hands attracted a lot of attention, long and strong and well-worn after years of physical labor. Based on Hathaway’s description, it appears that he made the cast of Carver’s hand after Carver died on January 5, 1943. Hathaway instructed students in techniques he used. Photographs show him instructing students in creating molds of their hands at Alabama Polytechnic University (now Auburn University) around 1947.
Hathaway’s plaster casts remind us of the importance of acknowledging Black accomplishments. Others followed his examples.
Benjamin Akines (c1904–?), a bricklayer and brick mason living in Jackson, Mississippi, knew of Henry Ford’s interest in and respect for Carver’s work. Akines gave Ford a bust of the Black scientist in 1941, four years before Hathaway sent his two casts to Ford.
Bust of George Washington Carver, circa 1941. / THF170783
Akines sent the plaster bust and a letter directly to Henry Ford: “Enclosed you will find a token (in the form of a bust) of one of whom I am told you esteem very highly … I trust this will mean a moment of happiness to you.” Akines claimed that he “was divinely inspired to model,” though he worked as a bricklayer. The back of the bust represents the work of a bricklayer, sculpted with a cut stone foundation with a laid brick pier. This brickwork was his signature, as Akines included bricks in other creative works. On November 10, 1931, he received a patent for an ornamental clock case in the form of a brick façade and sides (Patent Des. 85,507).
Bust of George Washington Carver, circa 1941, Cast by Benjamin Akines. / THF170784
Eager to share his efforts, Akines communicated his news to the Chicago Defender, the Black newspaper in the then second-largest U.S. city, Chicago, Illinois. It reported that “Akines, a bricklayer who indulges in sculpturing as a hobby,” gave Ford a plaster cast of Carver, and that Ford’s secretary and Carver himself acknowledged his generosity (“Bricklayer-Sculpturor [sic] is Lauded for Bust of Carver,” July 12, 1941).
It is difficult to know whether others who cast busts of Carver influenced Akines’ approach. For example, German-born Steffen Thomas (1906–1990) sculpted a clay model of Carver during a 1936 visit to Tuskegee. This was the model from which he cast the sculpture recognizing Carver’s 40 years of service to Tuskegee. The gift received media coverage at the time Carver received it in 1937 and appeared prominently during the dedication of the Carver Museum in 1941, given its location on a plinth outside the museum.
George Washington Carver and Austin W. Curtis, Jr., at Tuskegee Institute with Sculpture by Steffen Thomas, circa 1938./ THF213732
These last two examples indicate more recent commemorations of Black historical figures. One represents a respectful but commercial venture, and the other an exceptional recognition.
Commemorative Bust of Rosa Parks (1913–2005), designed by Sarah’s Attic, Inc., 1995. / THF98391
A popular Michigan-based figurine manufacturer, Sarah’s Attic., Inc., released a limited-edition bust of rights activist Rosa Parks in 1995. Cast of synthetic resin and hand-painted, it was one of four “Faces of Courage” in the Black Heritage Collection. The others featured abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a Buffalo Soldier, and a Tuskegee Airman. The Rosa Parks bust was one of 9,898 made and distributed through a commercial contract, with Sarah’s Attic holding the copyright and Rosa Parks holding the license.
Commemorative Bust of Detroit Lions Tight End Charlie Sanders (1946–2015), 2007. / THF165543
This cast metal bust of the Detroit Lions’ legendary tight end Charlie Sanders exists because of his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Hall commissioned Tuck Langland, an artist and retired university educator, to cast Sanders. Langland first created a bust out of clay based on photographs and a visit with Sanders. That clay statue became the model for the cast bronze bust displayed in the Hall of Fame Gallery in Canton, Ohio, and the copy presented to Sanders (and later donated to The Henry Ford).
So many variables exist in the business of commemoration.
When Isaac Scott Hathaway created respectful sculptures of Black Americans, he challenged white exceptionalism. Who decided who received recognition? Hathaway. What criteria informed his decisions? He selected subjects he respected, but as an educator, he selected people with lessons to teach, and as a businessman, he selected subjects that would sell. Disagreements over selections can derail seemingly straightforward acknowledgment.
What form should the recognition take? Hathaway mass-produced inexpensive plaster casts. Others create one-of-a-kind sculpture or mass-produce limited-edition items. Other recognition in the form of a historical marker or a street sign can draw attention to places of significance and the people who lived there.
Recognition of Black accomplishments remains important—in fact, critical—to understanding the human experience.
“The Hathaway Family: A Journey from Slavery to Civil Rights,” a paper compiled by scholars Yvonne Giles, Reinette Jones, Henri Linton, Brian McDade, Quantia "Key" M. Fletcher, and Mark Wilson, based in materials at these institutions: Alabama State University, Montgomery, Alabama; Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama; the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum, Lexington, Kentucky; the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Little Rock, Arkansas; Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama; the University Museum and Cultural Center, University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. (n.d.).
“Isaac Scott Hathaway,” a product of the Appalachian Teaching Project, Auburn University, and the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center (2012).
"Isaac Scott Hathaway: Artist and Teacher," Negro History Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 4 (January 1958), pp. 74, 78-81.
Perry, Rhussus L. Federal Writers’ Project Interview of Isaac Hathaway. February 2, 1939. Folder 60, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers' Project papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Henry Ford’s curatorial team works on many, many tasks over the course of a year, but perhaps nothing is as important as the task of building The Henry Ford’s collections. Whether it’s a gift or a purchase, each new acquisition adds something unique. What follows is just a small sampling of recent collecting work undertaken by our curators in 2021 (and a couple in 2020), which they shared during a #THFCuratorChat session on Twitter.
In preparation for an upcoming episode of The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, Curator of Domestic Life Jeanine Head Miller made several new acquisitions related to board games. A colorful “Welcome to Gameland” catalog advertises the range of board games offered by Milton Bradley Company in 1964, and joins the 1892 Milton Bradley catalog—dedicated to educational “School Aids and Kindergarten Material”—already in our collection.
Milton Bradley Company Catalog, “Welcome to Gameland,” 1964. / THF626388
Milton Bradley Company Trade Catalog, “Bradley’s School Aids and Kindergarten Material,” 1892. / THF616712
We also acquired several more board games for the collection, including “The Game of Life”—a 1960 creation to celebrate Milton Bradley’s centennial anniversary that paid homage to their 1860 “The Checkered Game of Life” and featured an innovative, three-dimensional board with an integrated spinner. “The Game of Life,” as well as other board games in our collection, can be found in our Digital Collections.
This year, Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content, was thrilled to unearth more of the story of designer Peggy Ann Mack. Peggy Ann Mack is often noted for completing the "delineation" (or illustration) for two early 1940s Herman Miller pamphlets featuring her husband Gilbert Rohde's furniture line. After Rohde's death in 1944, Mack took over his office. One commission she received was to design interiors and radio cases for Templetone Radio. The Henry Ford recently acquired this 1945 radio that she designed.
Radio designed by Peggy Ann Mack, 1945. / Photo courtesy Rachel Yerke
Peggy Ann Mack wrote and illustrated the book Making Built-In Furniture, published in 1950, which The Henry Ford also acquired this year. The book is filled with her illustrations and evidences her deep knowledge of the furniture and design industries.
Making Built-In Furniture, 1950. / Photo courtesy Katherine White
Mack (like many early female designers) has never received her due credit. While headway has been made this year, further research and acquisitions will continue to illuminate her story and insert her name back into design history.
Katherine White also worked this year to further expand our collection of Herman Miller posters created for Herman Miller’s annual employee picnic. The first picnic poster was created by Steve Frykholm in 1970—his first assignment as the company’s internal graphic designer. Frykholm would go on to design 20 of these posters, 18 of which were acquired by The Henry Ford in 1988; this year, we finally acquired the two needed to complete the series.
Herman Miller Summer Picnic Poster, “Lollipop,” 1988. / THF626898
Herman Miller Summer Picnic Poster, “Peach Sundae,” 1989. / THF189131
After Steve Frykholm, Kathy Stanton—a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s graphic design program—took over the creation of the picnic posters, creating ten from 1990–2000. While The Henry Ford had one of these posters, this year we again completed a set by acquiring the other nine.
Along with the picnic posters, The Henry Ford also acquired a series of posters for Herman Miller’s Christmas party; these posters were created from 1976–1979 by Linda Powell, who worked under Steve Frykholm at Herman Miller for 15 years. All of these posters—for the picnics and the Christmas parties—were gifted to us by Herman Miller, and you can check them out in our Digital Collections.
Thanks to the work of Curator of Communications and Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux, in early 2021, a very exciting acquisition arrived at The Henry Ford: the Lillian F. Schwartz and Laurens R. Schwartz Collection. Lillian Schwartz is a groundbreaking and award-winning multimedia artist known for her experiments in film and video.
Lillian Schwartz was a long-term “resident advisor” at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. There, she gained access to powerful computers and opportunities for collaboration with scientists and researchers (like Leon Harmon). Schwartz’s first film, Pixillation (1970), was commissioned by Bell Labs. It weaves together the aesthetics of coded textures with organic, hand-painted animation. The soundtrack was composed by Gershon Kingsley on a Moog synthesizer.
Complementary to Lillian Schwartz’s legacy in experimental motion graphics is a large collection of two-dimensional and three-dimensional materials. Many of her drawings and prints reference the creative possibilities and expressive limitations of computer screen pixels.
“Abstract #8” by Lillian F. Schwartz, 1969 / THF188551
With this acquisition, we also received a selection of equipment used by Lillian Schwartz to create her artwork. The equipment spans from analog film editing devices into digital era devices—including one of the last home computers she used to create video and still images.
Editing equipment used by Lillian Schwartz. / Image courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
Altogether, the Schwartz collection includes over 5,000 objects documenting her expansive and inquisitive mindset: films, videos, prints, paintings, sculptures, posters, and personal papers. You can find more of Lillian Schwartz’s work by checking out recently digitized pieces here, and dig deeper into her story here.
Katherine White and Kristen Gallerneaux worked together this year to acquire several key examples of LGBTQ+ graphic design and material culture. The collection, which is currently being digitized, includes:
Illustrations by Howard Cruse, an underground comix artist…
Illustration created by Howard Cruse. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
A flier from the High Tech Gays, a nonpartisan social club founded in Silicon Valley in 1983 to support LGBTQ+ people seeking fair treatment in the workplace, as LGBTQ+ people were often denied security clearance to work in military and tech industry positions...
High Tech Gays flier. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
An AIDSGATE poster, created by the Silence = Death Collective for a 1987 protest at the White House, designed to bring attention to President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to publicly acknowledge the AIDS crisis...
“AIDSGATE” Poster, 1987. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
A number of mid-1960s newspapers—typically distributed in gay bars—that rallied the LGBTQ+ community, shared information, and united people under the cause...
“Citizens News.” / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
A group of fliers created by the Mattachine Society in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which paints a portrait of the fraught months that followed...
Flier created by the Mattachine Society. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
And a leather Muir cap of the type commonly worn by members of post–World War II biker clubs, which provided freedom and mobility for gay men when persecution and the threat of police raids were ever-present at established gay locales. Its many pins and buttons feature gay biker gang culture of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Leather cap with pins. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux
Another acquisition that further diversifies our collection is the “Nude is Not a Color” quilt, recently acquired by Curator of Domestic Life Jeanine Head Miller. This striking quilt was created in 2017 by a worldwide community of women who gathered virtually to take a stand against racial bias.
“Nude is Not a Color” Quilt, Made by Hillary Goodwin, Rachael Door, and Contributors from around the World, 2017. / THF185986
Fashion and cosmetics companies have long used the term “nude” for products made in a pale beige—reflecting lighter skin tones and marginalizing people of color. After one fashion company repeatedly dismissed a customer’s concerns, a community of quilters used their talents and voices to produce a quilt to oppose this racial bias. Through Instagram, quilters were asked to create a shirt block in whatever color fabric they felt best represented their skin tone, or that of their loved ones.
Shirt blocks on the “Nude is Not a Color” quilt. / THF185986, detail
Quilters responded from around the United States and around the world, including Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia. These quilt makers made a difference, as via social media the quilt made more people aware of the company’s bias. They in turn lent their voices, demanding change—and the brand eventually altered the name of the garment collection.
Jeanine Head Miller has also expanded our quilt collection with the addition of over 100 crib quilts and doll quilts, carefully gathered by Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy over a period of forty years. These quilts greatly strengthen several categories of our quilt collection, represent a range of quilting traditions, and reflect fabric designs and usage—all while taking up less storage space than full-sized quilts.
During 2021, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid has been developing a collection documenting the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that employed around three million young men. This year, we acquired the Northlander newsletter (a publication of Fort Brady Civilian Conservation Corps District in Michigan), a sweetheart pillow from a camp working on range land regeneration in Oregon, and a pennant from a camp working in soil conservation in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest.
We also acquired a partial Civilian Conservation Corps table service made by the Crooksville China Company in Ohio. This acquisition is another example of curatorial collaboration, this time between Debra Reid and Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable. These pieces, along with the other Civilian Conservation Corps material collected, will help tell less well-documented aspects of the Civilian Conservation Corps story.
Civilian Conservation Corps Dinner Plate, 1933–1942. / THF189100
If you’ve been to Greenfield Village lately, you’ve probably noticed a new addition going in—the reconstructed Vegetable Building from Detroit’s Central Market. While we acquired the building from the City of Detroit in 2003, in 2021, Debra Reid has been working to acquire material to document its life prior to its arrival at The Henry Ford. As part of that work, we recently added photos to our collection that show it in service as a horse stable at Belle Isle, after its relocation there in 1894.
“Seventy Glimpses of Detroit” souvenir book, circa 1900, page 20. While this book has been in our collections for nearly a century, it helps illustrate changes in the Vegetable Building structure over time. / THF139104
Riding Stable at the Eastern End of Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, October 27, 1963. / THF626103
Horse Stable on Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, July 27, 1978. / THF626107
This year, Debra Reid also secured a photo of Dorothy Nickerson, who worked with the Munsell Color Company from 1921 to 1926, and later as a Color Specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture. Research into this new acquisition—besides leading to new ideas for future collecting—brought new attention (and digitization) to a 1990 acquisition: A.H. Munsell’s second edition of A Color Notation.
Dorothy Nickerson of Boston Named United States Department of Agriculture Color Specialist, March 30, 1927. / THF626448
All of this is just a small part of the collecting that happens at The Henry Ford. Whether they expand on stories we already tell, or open the door to new possibilities, acquisitions like these play a major role in the institution’s work. We look forward to seeing what additions to our collection the future might have in store!
Those who decorated for Christian holidays made the gathering of evergreens a ritual. Families and friends ventured into the woods and cut conifers and other wintergreens to festoon churches, ballrooms, and private homes. This post focuses on the process of acquiring the iconic Christmas tree, a conifer or cone-bearing tree, evergreen because it retained its foliage throughout the winter season and prized for its shape, color, aroma, and association with gift-giving.
The native ranges of conifers affected personal preferences for Christmas trees.
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), the perch for a female and male cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), drawn by John Jay Audubon (1785–1851) in Cincinnati, Ohio, April 1811, reproduced by the New York Historical Society in 1966. / THF251903
Across the southern and eastern United States, the eastern red cedar (really, a juniper) proved a popular tree choice for those who could cut their own. The tree grew rapidly along the edges of woods, encroaching into fields and pastures. Thus, removing a few trees to deck the halls at Christmas time also served the purpose of containing the juniper and retaining arable land and pasture.
The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) appealed to landowners for many of the same reasons. A report in the Detroit Free Press (December 10, 1901) explained that in Maine, the “young firs, which are almost exclusively used for Christmas trees, are good for nothing else—in many sections being considered a nuisance, as they grow like burdocks and crowd out better trees.” Harvesting the trees for urban markets became a festive occasion as the reporter explained, with “whole families going into the woods and taking their dinners along.”
Print made from a watercolor sketch of “Alpine Fir” by Mary Vaux Walcott (1860–1940), printed by William Edmund Rudge, Inc., 1925. / THF125075
The subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), also known as the Alpine fir, grew in the high-elevation forests of the Canadian Rockies and western United States. It was much less easily accessible for families harvesting their Christmas tree, but its tall profile and stout branches appealed to Christmas tree shoppers none the less.
Bringing evergreens into private and public spaces during the darkest days of the year (the winter solstice) offered hope for the next growing season. Germanic people receive credit for adding light to the conifer. An 1836 illustration, “Christmas Eve,” showed a Christmas tree with candles aglow. The editor explained this as a well-known German tradition “that almost every family has its Christmas tree covered with a hundred lights and many beautiful gifts, and surrounded generally by a little group of happy beings” (The Stranger’s Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, edited by Hermann Bokum and published in Boston by Light & Horton in 1836, page 9).
The hand-tinted lithograph below, of a boy carrying a tree and a girl carrying a bundle of greens, printed in Hamburg, reinforced a tradition that increasing numbers of German immigrants brought with them to America during the mid-19th century.
Color Lithograph, "The Christmas Tree," printed by Gustav W. Seitz, Hamburg, 1856–1866. / THF108194
By 1867, “the pleasant Germanic custom of gathering the family round a Christmas tree ... has become thoroughly domesticated in this country.” So declared Harper’s Weekly (December 18, 1867) in a brief explanation of the reasons why families no longer hung stockings ‘neath the chimney with care, but instead hung presents from Christmas trees. A full-page illustration of “The Christmas Tree” further emphasized the point.
Christmas tree decorated with candles, popcorn strings, and toys, circa 1900./ THF290114
The bucolic imagery of bringing a Christmas tree home through snowy fields to a rural farmhouse contrasted with the risky business of tree markets.
Hallmark "Memories of Christmas" Christmas ornament, 1998./ THF186978
Families invested their labor in tree harvests. “A man cuts the trees close to the roots and a boy or a strong girl clips away with a sharp hatchet the few dead branches near the base. Women and boys tie the trees into bundles of a dozen each, binding them with strong cords, and then the harvest is piled into hayricks and taken to the nearest railroad station.” Often middlemen stepped in. As the New York World reported (reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901), “the evergreen harvests are generally bought by men who make a business in winter of supplying the holiday green markets of large cities.”
Families cutting conifers for urban markets, middlemen trying to sell them, and customers trying to buy them all relied on railroads to move the perishable cargo. This seasonal business was no holiday (to borrow colleague Matt Anderson’s turn of phrase in his blog post, “Winter Railroading was No Holiday”).
Christmas Tree Market, New York City, Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1903. Another view of this market at Barclay Street Station shows smaller trees in bundles to the left of the taller trees. These fit more closely the trees bound up by Maine families and shipped by train to the city, as described in the New York World article mentioned elsewhere in this post. / THF144363
Urban customers had little time to waste because trees arrived close to Christmas day. The Detroit Free Press reported that “Christmas trees, that is to say evergreens, are up in the market” (December 21, 1879). This arrival a few days before the holy day/holiday remained fairly consistent during the 19th century. A decade later (December 20, 1889), the Free Press reported, “Christmas trees have appeared on the market.”
What did these conifers cost? During December 1901, prices depended on tree height: “For trees five to six feet tall the buyers in Maine pay five cents, and for trees six to ten feet tall ten to fifteen cents. In the city these trees bring twenty-five cents to $1” (New York World reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901). Note that these prices are likely per foot, not per tree.
Customers looking for Christmas evergreen goods in Detroit a week later (December 18, 1901) could expect to pay eight cents per foot for an “Xmas tree” as reported by the Free Press. The market price for a 20-yard roll of “evergreen” was 85 cents to $1 and for a holly and evergreen wreath, $1 per dozen. In 2021 prices, that’s an average of $1.63 to $2.60 per foot for a six-foot tree, and $27.66 to $32.54 for a 20-yard roll of evergreen.
Whether families cut their own or paid market price for their conifer, photographs of home interiors indicate the ways they decorated.
First electrically lighted Christmas tree, home of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison Electric Light Company, December 1882. / THF69137
A magnifying glass and close inspection of the original print could confirm the tree type that Edward Hibberd Johnson, wife Margaret, and their three children (Edward H. Jr., Edna, and Lillian) enjoyed as of December 22, 1882. Subscribers to the Detroit Post and Tribune could read about this first tree lit with electric lights—80 red, white, and blue bulbs, hand wired—as reported by journalist William Augustus Croffut. The Johnson family (or their staff) also strung electric lights in the garland running from window treatments to the ceiling light fixture. Readers of Croffut’s article might even have anticipated the possibilities in Detroit, because the Western Edison Light Company had just offered an Edison incandescent light plant for use at Detroit’s Central Market. Detroit’s Committee on Gas was considering the proposal (Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1882).
Artificial illumination of the Christmas tree became standard practice quickly.
Christmas greens at Holiday Nights, December 5, 2021. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid