Fair Lane, Henry and Clara Ford’s private railroad car. / THF80274
Fair Lane, the private Pullman railroad car built for and used by Henry and Clara Ford, turns 100 years old in 2021. It provides a fascinating window into business and pleasure travel for the wealthy in the early 20th century.
By 1920, the Fords found it increasingly difficult to travel with any degree of privacy. Henry, in particular, was widely recognized by the public. He’d been generating major headlines for a decade, whether for his victory against the Selden Patent, his achievements with mass production and worker compensation via the Five Dollar Day, or his misguided attempt to end World War I with the Peace Ship. The Fords could travel privately for shorter distances by automobile, and their yacht, Sialia, provided seclusion when traveling by water. But anytime they entered a railroad station, the couple was sure to be pestered by the public and hounded by reporters. Their solution was to commission a private railroad car for longer overland trips.
Private railroad cars are nearly as old as the railroad itself. America’s first common-carrier railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, opened in 1830. Little more than ten years later, President John Tyler traveled by private railcar over the Camden & Amboy Railroad to dedicate Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument in 1843. Not surprisingly, railroad executives and officials were also early users of private railroad cars. Cornelius Vanderbilt, president of the New York Central Railroad, used a private car when traveling over his line, both for business and for pleasure. For a busy railroad manager, the private railcar served as a mobile workspace where business could be conducted at distant points on the railroad line, far from company headquarters.
Pullman cars on the First Transcontinental Railroad, circa 1870. / THF291330
Following the Civil War, the Pullman Palace Car Company earned a reputation for its opulent public passenger cars with comfortable sleeping accommodations. Company founder George Pullman designed a private railcar to similar high standards. Pullman named the car P.P.C.—his company’s initials—and used it when traveling with his family. Pullman enjoyed lending the car to other dignitaries, by which he could simultaneously impress VIP passengers and advertise his company. Eventually, Pullman began renting the car out to patrons who could afford the daily rate of $85 (more than $2,000 today).
Clara and Henry Ford ordered their private railroad car from the Pullman Company on February 18, 1920. They hoped to have it delivered by that September, for a planned trip to inspect properties Henry had recently purchased in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But delays pushed the car’s actual delivery date back by about nine months. Some of those delays were due to changes to the car’s interior. Clara designed the interior spaces, working with Sidney Houghton of London, who had earlier provided the same service for the Fords’ yacht.
The finished railroad car was delivered on June 23, 1921. The Fords named it Fair Lane—the same name they’d given to their estate in Dearborn, Michigan. (Fair Lane was the area in County Cork, Ireland, where Mr. Ford’s grandfather was born.) The final bill for the railcar came to $159,000 (about $2.3 million today). The Fords paid 25 percent of that cost upon placing their order, a further 25 percent during construction, and the final 50 percent on delivery.
Surely the finished Fair Lane was worth the wait and expense. The car included accommodations for six passengers and sleeping quarters for two additional staff members. When traveling, Fair Lane typically was staffed by a porter to attend to the passengers’ needs and a cook to prepare meals.
Fair Lane’s lounge offered the best views of passing scenery. / THF186264
At the rear of the car, a comfortable lounge provided a spot to read, relax, or simply watch the passing scenery through the large windows.An open porch-like platform at the very rear of the car was particularly enjoyable at moderate train speeds. Typically, Fair Lane was coupled to the end of a train, meaning that the view from the platform would not be obstructed.
Bedrooms in Fair Lane were cozy but comfortable. / THF186273
From the lounge, a narrow hallway ran most of the car’s length. Four bedrooms were located along the corridor. These rooms were cozy but comfortable. Each room had a bed, but berths could be unfolded from above to provide additional sleeping space if needed. Dressers and small desks rounded out the furnishings. Likewise, the bathrooms in Fair Lane were small but serviceable. Each one had hot and cold running water and a toilet. The master bath also included a shower.
Fair Lane’s passengers dined in this area. An on-board cook prepared meals to order. / THF186285
The dining area, near the front of the car, featured an extension table that comfortably seated six adults at one time. The chandelier, which hung directly above the table, was secured with guys that kept it from swaying as the car rolled down the railroad track. Built-in cabinets housed the car’s glassware and china. Clara Ford stocked Fair Lane with 144 various glasses, 169 pieces of silverware, and 230 crockery items. Wood posts and rails kept things from sliding around or falling out of the cabinets.
The car’s kitchen was small but sufficient for elaborate meals. / THF186289
Logically, the kitchen was located just in front of the dining room. Finished in stainless steel, the kitchen included an oven, a stovetop, a sink, and numerous additional cabinets. Food and supplies were loaded through the door at the car’s front end, so as not to disturb the riders farther back in the car. Staff quarters were located in the front of the car too. Compared with the other bedrooms, the staff room was sparse and utilitarian.
Using Fair Lane was not like driving a limousine or flying a private airplane. The railcar’s travels had to be coordinated with the various host railroads that operated America’s 250,000-mile rail network. Usually, Fair Lane was coupled to a regularly scheduled passenger train. The fee for pulling the private car was equivalent to 25 standard passenger tickets. One standard ticket on a train from Detroit to New York City in the early 1920s cost around $30, meaning the Fair Lane fee worked out to about $750 (around $10,000 today). If Fair Lane required a special movement—that is, if it was moved with a dedicated locomotive and not as a part of a regular train—then the fee jumped to the equivalent of 125 standard tickets.
The fee structure was different when Fair Lane moved over the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad. Henry Ford personally owned DT&I from 1920 to 1929. It was considered official railroad business when Mr. Ford used his private car on DT&I, so he did not need to pay a fare for himself. But he did pay fares for Fair Lane passengers who weren’t directly employed by DT&I.
Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara Ford, and Mina and Thomas Edison pose on the car’s rear platform about 1923. / THF97966
The Fords made more than 400 trips with Fair Lane in the two decades that they owned the car. Annual excursions took Henry and Clara Ford to their winter homes in Fort Myers, Florida, or Richmond Hill, Georgia. Likewise, Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara’s son and daughter-in-law, occasionally used Fair Lane to visit their own vacation home in Seal Harbor, Maine. The Fords hosted several special guests on the car too. Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge both spent time on the car, as did entertainer and humorist Will Rogers. Not surprisingly, Thomas and Mina Edison—among Henry and Clara Ford’s closest friends—also traveled aboard Fair Lane.
Clara Ford enjoyed trips to New York City, where she could visit friends or patronize specialty boutiques and department stores. Fair Lane could be coupled to direct Detroit–New York trains like New York Central’s Wolverine or Detroiter. Both trains arrived at the famous Grand Central Terminal in the heart of Manhattan. In 1922, an overnight run from the Motor City to the Big Apple on the Wolverine took 16 hours.
Both Henry Ford and Edsel Ford used Fair Lane when traveling on Ford Motor Company business. Chicago, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., were all frequent destinations on these trips. Of course, they’d travel to distant Ford Motor Company properties too, including those previously mentioned holdings in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, where most of Fair Lane’s journeys began and ended. / THF137923
Most of the car’s trips started and ended at Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, ten miles east of Dearborn. The large station had facilities to clean and stock Fair Lane, and crews to switch the car onto regular passenger trains. Michigan Central was a New York Central subsidiary, and New York Central trains provided direct service from Detroit to Chicago, New York, Boston, and many places in between. For longer trips, New York Central coordinated with additional railroad lines to transfer Fair Lane to other trains at connecting points, making the trip as seamless as possible for the Fords.
When Fair Lane wasn’t traveling out on a railroad, the car was stored in a shed built for it near Henry Ford’s flour mill on Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn. The shed was just west of Dearborn’s present John D. Dingell Transit Center, where Amtrak trains stop today.
The Fords considered updating or replacing Fair Lane at different times. As early as March 1923, Ernest Liebold, Henry Ford’s personal secretary, wrote to the Pullman Company to inquire about building a larger car surpassing Fair Lane’s 82-foot length. Whatever Pullman’s reply, Ford did not place a new order. Twelve years later, Edsel Ford wrote to Pullman to ask about adding air conditioning to Fair Lane. The company responded with an estimate of $12,000 for the upgrade. Apparently, the cost was high enough for the Fords to once again consider building an entirely new, larger private railcar. The Pullman Company prepared a set of drawings for review but, once again, no order was placed.
Fair Lane in November 1942, at the end of its time with the Fords. / THF148020
By the early 1940s, Fair Lane was aging and in need of either significant repairs or outright replacement. Henry and Clara Ford were aging too, and weren’t traveling quite as much as they had in earlier years. On top of this, the United States joined World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Wartime brought with it restrictions on materials, manufacturing, and travel—each on its own enough to sidetrack further work on Fair Lane. Somewhat reluctantly, Henry and Clara Ford sold their private railroad car in November 1942.
The St. Louis Southwestern Railway purchased Fair Lane from the Fords for $25,000. The company used the car for railroad business, carrying executives on its lines concentrated in Arkansas and Texas. In 1972, St. Louis Southwestern donated Fair Lane to the Cherokee National Historical Society. The organization used the car as an office space for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Richard and Linda Kughn purchased Fair Lane in 1982. They moved it to Tucson, Arizona, and began a four-year project to restore the car to its original Ford-era appearance. At the same time, they updated Fair Lane with modern mechanical, electrical, and climate-control systems. The Kughns enjoyed the refurbished railcar for several years before gifting it to The Henry Ford in 1996. Today Fair Lane is back in Dearborn—a testament to the golden age of railroad travel, as experienced by those with gilded budgets.
Interior of Henry Ford’s Private Railroad Car, “Fair Lane,” June 22, 1921 / THF148015
Beginning in 1921, Henry and Clara Ford used their own railroad car, the Fair Lane, to travel in privacy. Clara Ford designed the interior in consultation with Sidney Houghton, an interior designer based in London. The interior guaranteed a comfortable trip for the Fords, their family, and others who accompanied them on more than 400 trips between 1921 and 1942.
The view out the railcar windows often featured the landscape between Dearborn, Michigan, and Richmond Hill, Georgia, located near Savannah. The Fords purchased more than 85,000 acres in the area, starting in 1925, remaking it into their southern retreat.
On at least three occasions, Henry Ford might have looked out that Fair Lane window, observing changes in the landscape between Richmond Hill and a siding (or short track near the main railroad tracks, where engines and cars can be parked when not in use) near Tuskegee, Alabama. Henry Ford took the railcar to the Tuskegee Institute in 1938, 1941, and 1942, and Clara accompanied Henry at least twice.
Henry Ford and George Washington Carver, Tuskegee, Alabama, March 1938 / THF213839
Henry first met with George Washington Carver and Austin W. Curtis at Tuskegee on March 11, 1938. A small entourage accompanied him, including Ford’s personal secretary, Frank Campsall, and Wilbur M. Donaldson, a recent graduate of Ford’s school in Greenfield Village and student of engineering at Ford Motor Company.
George Washington Carver and Henry Ford on the Tuskegee Institute Campus, 1938. / THF213773
Photographs show these men viewing exhibits in the Carver Museum, installed at the time on the third floor of the library building on the Tuskegee campus (though it would soon move).
Austin Curtis, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wilbur Donaldson, and Frank Campsall Inspect Peanut Oil, Tuskegee Institute, March 1938 / THF 213794
Frank Campsall, Austin Curtis, Henry Ford, and George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, March 1938 / THF214101
Clara accompanied Henry on her first trip to Tuskegee Institute, in the comfort of the Fair Lane, in March 1941. Tuskegee president F.D. Patterson met them at the railway siding in Chehaw, Alabama, and drove them to Tuskegee. While Henry visited with Carver, Clara received a tour of the girls’ industrial building and the home economics department.
During this visit, the Fords helped dedicate the George W. Carver Museum, which had moved to a new space on campus. The relocated museum and the Carver laboratory both occupied the rehabilitated Laundry Building, next to Dorothy Hall, where Carver lived. A bust of Carver—sculpted by Steffen Thomas, installed on a pink marble slab, and dedicated in June 1937—stood outside this building.
The dedication included a ceremony that featured Clara and Henry Ford inscribing their names into a block of concrete seeded with plastic car parts. The Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s most influential Black newspapers, reported on the visit in its March 22, 1941, issue. That story itemized the car parts, all made from soybeans and soy fiber, that were incorporated—including a glove compartment door, distributor cap, gearshift knob, and horn button. These items symbolized an interest shared between Carver and Ford: seeking new uses for agricultural commodities.
Clara Ford, face obscured by her hat, inscribes her name in a block of concrete during the dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, March 1941, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Others in the photograph, left to right: George Washington Carver; Carrie J. Gleed, director of the Home Economics Department; Catherine Elizabeth Moton Patterson, daughter of Robert R. Moton (the second Tuskegee president) and wife of Frederick Douglass Patterson (the third Tuskegee president); Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson; Austin W. Curtis, Jr.; an unidentified Tuskegee student who assisted with the ceremony; and Henry Ford. / THF213788
Henry Ford inscribing his name in a block of cement during the dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, Tuskegee Institute, March 1941 / THF213790
After the dedication, the Fords ate lunch in the dining room at Dorothy Hall, the building where Carver had his apartment, and toured the veterans’ hospital. They then returned to the Fair Lane railcar and headed for the main rail line in Atlanta for the rest of their journey north.
President Patterson directed a thank you letter to Henry Ford, dated March 14, 1941. In this letter, he commended Clara Ford for her “graciousness” and “her genuine interest in arts and crafts for women, particularly the weaving, [which] was a source of great encouragement to the members of that department.”
The last visit the Fords made to Tuskegee occurred in March 1942. The Fair Lane switched off at Chehaw, where Austin W. Curtis, Jr., met the Fords and drove them to Tuskegee via the grounds of the U.S. Veterans’ Hospital. Catherine Patterson and Clara Ford toured the Home Economics building and the work rooms where faculty taught women’s industries. Clara rode in the elevator that Henry had funded and had installed in Dorothy Hall in 1941, at a cost of $1,542.73, to ease Carver’s climb up the stairs to his apartment.
The Fords dined on a special luncheon menu featuring sandwiches with wild vegetable filling, prepared from one of Carver’s recipes. They topped the meal off with a layer cake made from powdered sweet potato, pecans, and peanuts that Carver prepared.
Tuskegee shared the Fords’ itinerary with Black newspapers, and the April 20, 1942, issue of Atlanta Daily World carried the news, “Carver Serves Ford New Food Products.” They concluded, in the tradition of social columns at the time, by describing what Henry and Clara Ford wore during the visit. “Mrs. Ford wore a black dress, black hat and gloves and a red cape with self-embroidery. Mr. Ford wore as usual an inconspicuously tailored business suit.”
Dr. Patterson wrote to Henry Ford on March 23, 1942, extending his regrets for not being at Tuskegee to greet the Fords. Patterson also reiterated thanks for “Mrs. Ford’s interest in Tuskegee Institute”—“The people in the School of Home Economics are always delighted and greatly encouraged with the interest she takes in the weaving and self-help project in the department.”
The Fords sold the Fair Lane in 1942. After many more miles on the rails with new owners over the next few decades, the Fair Lane came home to The Henry Ford. Extensive restoration returned its appearance to that envisioned by Clara Ford and implemented to ensure comfort for Henry and Clara and their traveling companions. Now the view from those windows features other artifacts on the floor of the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, in place of the varied landscapes, including those around the Tuskegee Institute, traveled by the Fords.
A view of the interior of Henry and Clara Ford’s private railroad car, the “Fair Lane,” constructed by the Pullman Company in 1921, restored by The Henry Ford to that era of elegance, and displayed in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF186264
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Clara Ford reminiscing over her first cookbook, the Buckeye Cookbook, at the Women’s City Club, 1949
“I don’t think Mrs. Ford had any outstanding hobby outside her gardening, except possibly recipes” – Rosa Buhler, maid at Fair Lane.
Clara certainly seemed to enjoy her recipes, from Sweet Potato Pudding to Corned Tongue, Clara collected hundreds of recipes. Some were in the form of cookbooks, some typed up, others cut out of magazines or newspapers, but the majority of them were handwritten, either by Clara or the many friends she gathered recipes from.
By the time the Fords moved to Fair Lane, Clara probably wasn’t cooking much from the Buckeye Cookbook her mother gave her when she married as the household staff now included a cook, but Clara never stopped searching out new recipes to try. According to Buhler, “Mrs. Ford would come down every day to talk over the day’s menu. She always saved recipes from cookbooks or the newspaper.” Clara was also very particular about her food, which led to a high turnover in cooks, so when there wasn’t a cook the other servants had to prepare the meals. John Williams, the Fair Lane houseman (and occasional cook) remarked that “Mrs. Ford had a lot of good cookbooks. Sometimes when I was in the kitchen, she would come out and say, ‘John, I found a good recipe. Sometime we’ll try it.’” Everywhere she went, Clara would pay close attention to the food and would frequently ask hostesses for their recipes. Buhler remembered when the Fords would visit Georgia, “every once in a while they’d spring something new on her in the way of Southern cooking. That intrigued her, and she’d ask about it. She’d probably get the recipe from the lady who served it, and she’d want her cook to try it.” There’s plenty of correspondence between Clara and her friends and acquaintances swapping recipes and menu ideas. Clara responded to one such letter from Charlotte Copeland which included a recipe for “Tongue en Casserole” saying, “thank you so much. I do love recipes from friends that have tried them,” and reciprocated with a recipe of her own. In her collection are recipes from Mrs. Ernest Liebold (wife of Henry Ford’s secretary), Mrs. Gaston Plantiff (wife of another Ford associate), and there’s even a recipe for “Mr. Burroughs’ Brigand Stake” (possibly from the famous Vagabond naturalist himself).
While Henry preferred very plain foods, Clara liked richer fare; cream sauces, butter, and lots of spices. She also preferred the traditional English cuisine and style of cooking of her mother’s family. Not a few of the servants questioned the wisdom of the English methods, and as noted above many cooks came and went at Fair Lane. Buhler said that, “Mrs. Ford stuck to the old-fashioned ways, for instance, plum pudding for Christmas. We always had to have it cooked in a cloth and though it always turned out to be a failure, the very next Christmas we had to do the very same thing over.” Not all the traditional recipes resulted in less than satisfactory results however, John Williams spoke of one particular recipe he became expert at, “Mrs. Ford had a favorite recipe that she taught me how to make. It was her mother’s recipe. The crust was made with sour cream, salt and soda, and the apples were sliced and put in a pie plate. This crust was spread over the top very thinly which made it very light….After it was baked, you would turn it on a platter that it was to be served on, and then you would add your sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg after it was cooked. It made a very delicious pie. Any time any cook was hired, I would have to show them that recipe,” though he did say “In my way of thinking, you could make a two-crust pie much quicker than you could make this.”
Clara appears to have had a sweet tooth, the majority of the recipes fall into the dessert category. A variety of cakes, cookies, puddings, and pies appear in her collection with flavors from chocolate and butterscotch to blackberry. Many of the entrees and sides were vegetarian, reflecting on Henry’s preferences for lighter fare and Clara’s love of gardening, there were even recipes for alcoholic beverages (something Henry hardly ever consumed). In all there are recipes ranging from Green Mango Pie and Blueberry Dumplings, to Suet Pudding and Frizzled Oysters. If you’re looking to “Coddle an Egg” or find a recipe “For Crusty Top to Soufflé” Clara Ford has a recipe in her collection for you. The only ingredient that seems to be notable for its lack of representation in the collection is the soybean, only one recipe “25% Soybean Bread” features Henry’s favorite legume. John Thompson, butler at Fair Lane noted “Mr. Ford tried to convince Mrs. Ford she should have an interest in soybean products, but she never did. She never thought much of them...Mr. Ford used to eat soybean soup every day during the period he was interested in those experiments…Mrs. Ford didn’t go for this soup.” Though they could both agree on wheat germ, one of their favorite cookies being Model T’s, and according to Ford employee A.G. Wolfe, “You haven’t had anything until you have had a Model T cookie!”
Buying fresh produce direct from local farmers is a key to our efforts today to “eat local.” Nearly 90 years ago, Clara Ford was advocating the same thing, to improve on diets that were undermined by too much processed food and--more importantly to her--to improve the situations of rural farm women.
As a public researcher who has spent many hours using the archival holdings of the Benson Ford Research Center, I am always amazed by what I find among the papers and photographs of Henry, Clara and Edsel Ford. Perhaps I am a history geek, but many a time my research has led me to very memorable and enjoyable experiences, as was recently the case.
A good deal of my work takes me to Accession 1, the Fair Lane papers, comprised of the documents, photographs and ephemera found throughout Fair Lane, the Fords' home, after Clara passed away in 1950. Among the 74 cubic ft. of the Fair Lane papers, you will find documents related to the Fords' various activities beyond Ford Motor Company.
These are the records of the Fords' everyday lives—from drawings made by their young son, Edsel, to the sympathy cards they received upon his early death. The boxes include receipts of purchases they made, correspondence from famous friends, like the Edisons, and itineraries from trips abroad. The accession also includes dozens of compelling letters sent to Clara Ford from people asking her for money, and from others asking her to speak to her husband on their behalf to buy a family heirloom for his museum or employ a family member during the Depression. Thank goodness the Fords saved so much, for it gives us an insight into the forgotten details of their experiences, times they shared, decisions they had to make, and the heartaches and challenges they faced.
During a recent research project, I came across a letter from Helen Keller to Clara Ford, dated March 29, 1949, written two years after Henry's death. In the letter, Helen Keller (1880-1968) thanks Clara for her donation to the American Foundation for Overseas Blind. The Fords, Henry and Clara, as well as Edsel, had begun in the 1920s to donate to causes led by Helen Keller. Ford Motor Company's job training and placement for blind workers was one of the catalysts that began their association.
But the 1949 letter is so much more than an organizational thank you. As I read the three-page typed letter, it made me pause, as I imagined this extraordinary woman, penning this beautifully composed letter to Clara, sharing personal moments she experienced traveling the world and providing a personal window into her life.
Although this letter was not the primary focus of my research, it lured me on to new directions, causing me to ask more questions about the relationship of Helen Keller and the Fords, and the work of Helen Keller. It was a long time ago, back in elementary school, that I had read Helen Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life, but I recalled how remarkable a life she had led. Visiting a few websites allowed me to put the time the letter was written into a better context and learn more about the American Foundation for Overseas Blind, the organization referenced in the letter.
The new search engine available internally at the BFRC allowed the archivist to provide me with a list of all known items related to Helen Keller in other boxes. This is a wonderful new tool for researchers that is just getting launched. With so many records, this will assist researchers with finding material that before relied on a lot of work, skill and sometimes luck, to find related documents throughout the collection.
We located several letters that spanned the decades, sent to Henry, Clara and Edsel. Helen Keller traveled all over the world, speaking and raising money for various organizations that supported research and assistance for blind citizens. I learned that Edsel Ford was one of the lead organizers for one such visit to Detroit in 1930.
I recalled that during an earlier research project I had seen a photograph of Helen Keller on the porch of the Menlo Park Laboratory in Greenfield Village. Reviewing the search results, we located a few photos of Helen Keller with her secretary and companion, Polly Thompson, along with Edsel Ford and Francis Jehl, Thomas Edison's assistant. If you look at Helen Keller's hand, you can see it placed in Polly Thompson's.
During this research period, I happened to mention the Helen Keller letter to a friend, Sandy North, who is the former Director of the Redford Union Oral Program for the Hearing Impaired. Sandy has long been a great admirer of Helen Keller, even posting quotes of Keller in her classroom for many years. Sandy has been a member of The Henry Ford for many years, but had never visited the Benson Ford Research Center. I invited her to join me to see the Keller letter and photographs.
As Sandy later wrote to me:
Because of my vocation, I have always admired Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind. She learned language through feeling the fingers of her interpreter. She communicated to others through her oral speech…and spoke and wrote in several languages. She was a champion of the poor and women's rights at a time when women did not have the right to vote. She is my role model.
I had read Helen's speeches, but I had never read any of her personal correspondence. Here I was holding it! Her vocabulary far exceeded mine and her beautiful descriptive language brought tears to my eyes. Although the letters were typed, her signature was hand-printed by Helen! Best of all, I had copies made of the letters and could bring them home with me!
To think that all of this extensive collection of the Benson Ford Research Center is available to people of our community and people everywhere doing research!
It was a memorable experience for both of us and this blog post has been the result of this very interesting research project.
Along the way, I discovered another path of inquiry as I was researching the American Foundation for Overseas Blind. This organization is now named Helen Keller International. It was founded in 1915 by Helen Keller and George Kessler, a wealthy New York merchant, and is among the oldest non-profits dedicated to preventing blindness and reducing malnutrition. During the World Trade Center terrorist attack, their New York headquarters were destroyed; gratefully no employees were injured, but their collection of Helen Keller papers was lost. This circumstance makes this document even more valuable, not only to The Henry Ford’s collection, but also to Helen Keller International and to scholars studying Helen Keller's life and legacy.
So I hope that with more and more relevant archival materials being digitized and made freely available online, and with the sharing of expertise among these and other organizations as well, the association of the Fords with Helen Keller and their support for her causes can continue to be preserved and made better known.
Susan McCabe is the former curator of Henry Ford Estate, Dearborn. Shevholds an MA in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY at Oneonta. She has researched extensively and lectured on the life of Clara and Henry Ford.
Editor's note: Another organization with which Helen Keller was associated is the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). The AFB holds of the main body of Helen Keller papers, called the Helen Keller Archives, which includes personal papers that she bequeathed to them as well as professional papers from her tenure with AFB.
As they’ve demonstrated before, being a curator often involves some sleuthing – see how a simple search uncovered the puzzling life of a 20th-century portrait painter for our curator of decorative arts.
Recently, while searching through our painting collection for portraits of Henry and Clara Ford, I came across two created in 1926 by an artist named Carl Bennett Linder. Displayed at Henry and Clara Ford’s Fair Lane home, these portraits came to Henry Ford Museum in 1951, following Clara’s death.
A search of our collections database revealed that we actually own nine canvases by Mr. Linder – all portraits of the Ford family. Curious, I searched the Ford family papers, where I found letters and receipts spanning from 1924 to 1936 for an even larger group of paintings of the extended Ford family: Henry and Clara’s son, Edsel, and his wife, Eleanor; the Ford grandchildren; and even a portrait of Mrs. William Clay, Eleanor Ford’s mother. Mr. Linder was apparently a favorite artist of Henry and Clara, as he produced several portraits of them over the years.