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.
Anne Parsons (at right), then-President of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, with Patricia Mooradian, President and CEO of The Henry Ford, at Salute to America in 2017.
We are saddened by the passing of Anne Parsons, President Emeritus of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). Parsons was the longest-serving executive leader in the DSO's modern era, and she was a tremendous friend to The Henry Ford. We’ve had the great honor and privilege of working with Anne and her teams for more than 25 years with our Salute to America concerts in Greenfield Village.
Please join us in thoughts and prayers for Parsons' family, her friends, and the entire DSO community.
"You know me, Barney Oldfield" was the classic catchphrase of one of America's earliest celebrity sports figures. Indeed, during the nascent period of the automobile, most every American knew Berna “Bernie” Eli Oldfield (1878–1946). He became the best-known race car driver at a time when the motor buggy was catching the imagination and passion of a rapidly changing society. Oldfield cut a populist swath across turn-of-the century American society and, in the process, helped define an emerging cult of celebrity.
One of the consistent themes of Oldfield's early years was a restlessness and desire for bigger, brighter, and better things in life. As a teenager, Oldfield worked odd jobs in Toledo, Ohio, earning money to buy his own bicycle to ride in local and regional road and endurance races. An attempt at professional boxing ended after Oldfield contracted typhoid fever. He returned to racing bicycles for company-sponsored teams and sold parts in the off-season. Throughout the 1890s, Oldfield was part of a team of riders that barnstormed across the Midwest, racing in the new "wood bowl" tracks that were sprouting up across the region. Oldfield quickly realized the need to appeal to audiences beyond the track. He branded himself the "Bicycle Racing Champion of Ohio" and promoted a "keen formula for winning," wearing a bottle of bourbon around his neck during races but telling reporters the liquid inside was vinegar.
Shift to Auto Racing
Tom Cooper and Barney Oldfield Seated in Race Cars, circa 1902 / THF207346
Americans were fascinated with quirky and expensive motor buggies. These boxy, carriage-like vehicles appealed to Americans’ desire for new, loud, audacious, and fast entertainment. During the winter of 1899, Oldfield reconnected with an old bicycle racing companion, Tom Cooper, who had just returned from England with a motorized two-wheeler (an early motorcycle). Cooper was going to demonstrate the vehicle at a race in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, near Detroit, in October 1901. He asked Oldfield, who began riding motorcycles himself around this time, to come along. Cooper and Oldfield were a preliminary exhibition before the main event: a race between local "chauffeur" Henry Ford and the most well-known and successful automobile manufacturer of the day, Alexander Winton.
After the Grosse Pointe event, Oldfield and Cooper pursued gold mining in Colorado. When that ended in failure, Cooper headed to Detroit to focus on automobiles. Oldfield took the motorized cycle on a circuit of Western bicycle tracks, setting records along the way before returning to Detroit in the fall of 1902 at Cooper’s request. Cooper had purchased Henry Ford’s “999” race car and wanted Oldfield to drive it. "The Race" between the “999” and Alexander Winton's "Bullet" captured the imaginations of not only Detroit's automotive elite, but the general population as well. When Oldfield piloted the “999” to victory over Winton's sputtering “Bullet,” the news spread like wildfire across Detroit, the Midwest, and eventually the nation.
Beyond the immediate thrill of the race itself, Barney Oldfield, the "everyman" bicycle racer from the heartland, appealed to a wide segment of American society rushing to embrace the motor car. As the Detroit News-Tribune reported after the race, "The auto replaced the horse on the track and in the carriage shed. Society sanctioned yesterday's races. And not only society, but the general public, turned out until more than five thousand persons had passed the gatekeepers.” Barney Oldfield became the face of racing for the "general public" and helped to democratize not only racing entertainment, but also automobiles in general, as vehicles moved out of the carriage house and into backyard sheds.
Barney Oldfield Driving the Ford "999" Race Car, circa 1903 / THF140144
Over the next 15 years, Barney Oldfield established multiple world speed records and gained notoriety wherever he went. He added an iconic unlit cigar to his racing persona and perfected the roguish image of a daredevil everyman. After a brief stint driving for Winton, Oldfield took the wheel of a Peerless racer, the "Green Dragon," and established himself as America's premier driver.
Barney Oldfield Behind the Wheel of the Peerless "Green Dragon" Racecar, circa 1905 / THF228859
By 1904, Oldfield held world records in the 1-, 9-, 10-, 25-, and 50-mile speed categories. In 1907, Oldfield tried his hand at stage acting when he signed on to appear in a new musical, The Vanderbilt Cup. Over a 10-week run and a brief road tour, Oldfield “raced” his old friend Tom Cooper in stationary cars as backdrops whirled behind them and stagehands blew dirt into the front rows of the theater. The following year, Oldfield entered the open road race circuit and quickly added to his legend by sparking a feud with one of the emerging stars of the day, Ralph De Palma. In March 1910, Oldfield added the title "Speed King of the World" to his resume, driving the "Blitzen Benz" to an astonishing 131.7 miles per hour on Daytona Beach in Florida.
Barney Oldfield Driving the "Blitzen Benz" Car on a Racetrack, 1910 / THF228871
Oldfield flouted the conventions of his time, both on and off the track. He was notorious for his post-race celebrations, womanizing, and bar fights. Oldfield’s rebellious streak kept him under the scrutiny of the American Automobile Association (AAA) and, in 1910, he became the first true "outlaw" driver when he was suspended for an unsanctioned spectacle race against the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Undaunted, Oldfield and his manager set up dates at county and state fairs across the country, holding three-heat matches against a traveling stable of paid drivers. Oldfield padded his reputation by adding an element of drama to these events—he would lose the first match, barely win the second, and, after theatrically tweaking and cajoling his engine, win the third match. During this time, Oldfield also became a product spokesman (perhaps most notably for Firestone tires) and began racing a fellow showman, aerial barnstormer Lincoln Beachey, in matches pitting “the Dare Devil of the Earth vs. the Demon of the Skies for the Championship of the Universe!”
Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey Racing, Columbus, Ohio, 1914 / THF228829
Towards the end of his driving career, Oldfield made a final splash in the racing world with the Harry Miller-built "Golden Submarine," establishing dirt-track records from one to one hundred miles. Throughout the 1917 season, Oldfield drove the Golden Sub in a series of matches on dirt and wood tracks against his old rival Ralph De Palma, eventually winning four out of the seven races. Oldfield retired from competition racing in 1918 after winning two matches in Independence, Missouri. In typical Oldfield fashion, he ran the last race under AAA suspension for participating in an earlier unsanctioned event.
Barney Oldfield Driving "Golden Submarine" Race Car at Sheepshead Bay Board Track, Brooklyn, New York, 1917 / THF141856
Oldfield continued to keep himself at the fore of America's sports entertainment culture. In addition to ceremonial "referee" jobs at various races, he rubbed elbows with American movie, stage, and music stars and continued his rambunctious lifestyle. Between 1913 and 1945, Oldfield appeared in six movies (usually as himself) and also tried his hand as a road tester for Hudson Motor Company, salesman, bartender, club owner, and spokesman. Finally, in an attempt to raise funds to build another land-speed racer with Harry Miller, Oldfield staged a unique publicity and fundraising event. In 1933, outside Dallas, Texas, he drove an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor to a record 64.1 miles per hour.
Barney Oldfield Advertising Postcard for Plymouth Automobiles, circa 1935 / THF228879
Fittingly, Barney Oldfield's last public appearance was at the May 1946 Golden Jubilee of the Automobile Industry held in Detroit. Oldfield was fêted for his foundational role in what had become one of the largest industries in the nation. He shared the main speaker's table with automotive icons including Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, and Frank Duryea, and he accepted a “trophy of progress” for his role in automotive history. Barney Oldfield passed away in October 1946, having lived—in the words of one passionate fan—“such a life as men should know.”
One of the most respected names in the fire apparatus manufacturing business is Seagrave. The company was founded in Detroit in 1881 by Frederic S. Seagrave, who got his start making ladders for northern Michigan fruit orchards and soon was making fire ladders and hand-drawn ladder trucks. By 1886 he was producing hook-and-ladder trucks.
The firm moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 1891 as Seagrave and Company. By 1902, it was building the highly successful Seagrave Spring Hoist Aerial Ladder and by 1907, the company was offering motor-driven fire apparatus powered by air-cooled engines of its own design.
The Seagrave fire truck in The Henry Ford’s collection (pictured at the top of this post) was purchased by the city of Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, in 1924. The truck is powered by a 6-cylinder, water-cooled Seagrave engine rated at 150 horsepower. Its dual ignition system duplicated key engine components, to ensure that the truck kept pumping water at 750 gallons per minute. In 1938, it was returned to the factory in Columbus for a complete overhaul and updating, including new fenders, wheels, and lights. The engine then faithfully served the Grosse Pointe Shores community for another 25 years. The gold-leaf decorations and the paintings on the hood side panels testify to the pride firefighters took in their truck.
Seagrave was acquired by FWD in 1963 and still operates as FWD Seagrave out of Clintonville, Wisconsin.
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.
Even as trucks and highways spread in the first half of the 20th century, industrial America largely still ran on rails. Manufacturers relied on railroads to bring in raw materials and ship out finished goods. The largest factories had extensive railyards filled with cars that needed to be shuttled around. Raw materials used by those factories were supplied by extractive enterprises like mines, quarries, and logging operations that operated internal railroads of their own. Clearly, there was a market for reliable, easy-to-operate locomotives that could be used on these private industrial railroads.
The J.D. Fate Company got into that market in 1914, building diesel and gasoline locomotives under the “Plymouth” brand (named for the company’s hometown of Plymouth, Ohio). Five years later, the firm combined with Root Brothers Company to form the Fate-Root-Heath Company. The newly-merged business manufactured brick and tile-making machinery, hardware and grinders, farm tractors, and—of course—light industrial locomotives.
What made Plymouth locomotives so simple and reliable? Our 1927 example is a gasoline-powered, mechanically driven machine. Its powertrain has more in common with the family car than with a steam locomotive. Steam locomotives burn coal in order to heat water and produce steam. That steam is fed into cylinders, where it pushes pistons that move rods that, in turn, move the driving wheels. Steam locomotives require specialized knowledge and skill to operate.
“Plymouth Gasoline Locomotives”—both the brand and the fuel are clear in this photo. / THF15919
Our Plymouth locomotive is powered by an inline six-cylinder gasoline engine. While it’s larger than what you’d find in a typical car (the Plymouth engine’s displacement is around 1,000 cubic inches), it operates under the same principle. Gasoline is fed into the cylinder and ignited by a spark. The resulting explosion pushes a piston that turns a crankshaft that, via a transmission, turns the driving wheels. And, like an automobile, the Plymouth’s transmission includes a clutch and a four-speed gearbox. If you can drive a car, then you can quickly learn to operate a Plymouth locomotive.
No two industrial railroads were the same, so Plymouth manufactured locomotives in multiple configurations. Track gauge—the width between the rails—was the most important consideration for a Plymouth customer. Standard gauge on American mainline railroads is 4 feet, 8 ½ inches—or 56 ½ total inches. But many industrial operations used less expensive narrow-gauge track. Plymouth built to suit anything from standard gauge down to 18 inches. Furthermore, Plymouth’s spring suspensions and short wheelbases were well suited to rough track with sharp curves.
Over the years, Plymouth also offered different engines and drivetrains. While our locomotive burned gasoline, other Plymouth engines used diesel fuel. (Note that these diesel Plymouths were still mechanically driven. They should not be confused with diesel-electric locomotives, which drive their wheels with electric motors.) In the mid-1940s, Plymouth introduced smooth-running torque converter fluid couplings as an improvement over its earlier mechanical clutches.
Industrial railroads may have been Plymouth’s main customers, but they weren’t the only ones. The company also sold locomotives to temporary railways—those built and used for construction projects like dams, bridges, and highways. Plymouth locomotives were practical, flexible machines that served an important niche market.
Our 1927 Plymouth locomotive earlier in its life, moving coal cars around Detroit’s Mistersky Power Plant, circa 1930. / THF113043
Our Plymouth locomotive was ordered by the Detroit Public Lighting Department—predecessor of today’s DTE Energy—in 1927 at a price of $6,800. It was delivered to the Mistersky Power Plant, a coal-fueled generating station located four miles southwest of downtown Detroit. The 14-ton locomotive spent the next four decades shuttling coal-filled hopper cars around the plant. The Plymouth was retired around 1970 and spent its last years at the plant sitting unused. It came to The Henry Ford in 1980. Today it’s used to move locomotives and cars around the roundhouse and yard in Greenfield Village—just the sort of job a Plymouth was designed to do.
As for the Fate-Root-Heath Company, it was acquired by Banner Industries in the 1960s and renamed Plymouth Locomotive Works. In 1997, Ohio Locomotive Crane bought the firm and, two years later, relocated it to Bucyrus, Ohio, not far from Plymouth. The company no longer builds new locomotives, but spare parts are made under license by other manufacturers. As for the work once done by Plymouth locomotives, while many shippers transitioned to trucks and highways, there are still industries that rely on rail transportation. Many of them now use motorized railcar movers—rubber-tired tractors with auxiliary flanged wheels and railroad couplers. These modern movers offer all the advantages of a Plymouth, but with greater flexibility.
There’s an interesting coda to our Plymouth’s story. Throughout its life at the Mistersky Plant, the locomotive was operated by engineer Charles Vaughn. Born and raised in Indiana, Vaughn moved to Detroit to work on the construction of the Mistersky facility. When that was done, he stayed on to operate the locomotive. Vaughn had no prior experience in railroading but, with an easy-to-run Plymouth, that wasn’t as issue. Mr. Vaughn remained at Mistersky for 45 years before retiring in 1972. In recognition of his long service, Vaughn’s co-workers presented him with the Plymouth’s bell and whistle as parting gifts. (The locomotive’s retirement came before Vaughn’s, so those safety appliances were no longer needed.)
The Plymouth’s original bell, once a retirement gift and now reunited with the locomotive. / THF188367
Charles Vaughn passed away in 1982, but his family held on to the bell and whistle. In 2013, Mr. Vaughn’s family decided to reunite the items with the locomotive. They gifted the bell and whistle to The Henry Ford, and we put them right back onto the Plymouth. We’d like to think Mr. Vaughn would’ve appreciated that thoughtful gesture by his descendants—and the fact that Greenfield Village visitors can still see (and hear) the little locomotive with which he spent so much of his career.
In my last three blog posts, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and became part of the Fords’ inner circle. We know this through correspondence, designs, and records held in the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford. The single document that details the relationship best is a brochure—more a portfolio of projects—published by Houghton in the early 1930s to promote his design firm.
From Houghton’s reference images in the brochure, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. This post centers on Houghton’s later work for the Fords, and my evaluation of why the relationship ended.
According to Ford historian Ford Bryan in his book, Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, the Dearborn Country Club was created for executives at the Ford Motor Company. By the middle of the 1920s, Ford’s operations were centered in Dearborn, with nearly all the company’s upper echelon working from the Ford Engineering Laboratory or the nearby Ford Rouge Plant. According to Ford Bryan, the idea came from Henry and Clara Ford to provide Dearborn with the same amenities as elite suburbs such as the Grosse Pointes or the northern suburbs. They also wanted their associates and friends to have the best that money could buy. The project was an incentive for Ford executives to remain in Dearborn, but proved to be unprofitable for the company. Further, when Henry Ford tried to impose his wishes against smoking and drinking, the membership essentially ignored him. Because of this, the Fords rarely visited the Club.
Architect Albert Kahn, who famously designed the Rouge Plant, was hired to design the clubhouse, seen above. The building was finished in the fall of 1925 and was designed in the “Old English” or Tudor style, popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Formal Dance at the Dearborn Country Club, 1931. / THF99871
Dearborn Country Club Chef at Banquet Table, 1931. / THF99875
Light's Golden Jubilee Ushers at the Dearborn Country Club, October 21, 1929. / THF294674
We know through documents that Sidney Houghton worked on the interiors. What we have in the way of documentation is a furnishings plan, but little else. Period photos, such as those above, show the elaborate beamed ceiling in the ballroom designed by Albert Kahn, and the elegant lighting and window treatments, likely provided by Houghton.
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127760
Nurses in front of Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1926. / THF117484
One of Henry Ford’s great humanitarian efforts was in founding Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. It was created in 1915 and in 1917 was turned over to the federal government during World War I for military use. By the middle of the 1920s, the hospital was considered the major medical center in Detroit. In 1925, Clara Ford organized the Henry Ford Hospital School of Nursing, and she funded the building housing it, the Clara Ford Nurses Home, on the hospital campus.
Living Room inside Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1925. / THF127777
Only one photograph of the original interior survives, showing the living room on the first floor. This is absolutely the work of Sidney Houghton, done in what he would call the Elizabethan or Tudor style. The walls are covered with heavy, inlaid panels and the furniture is heavily proportioned, with carved turnings. The wood of choice during this period was oak, which Houghton described as the “Age of Oak.” The upholstered furniture is likewise heavy and large in scale.
Houghton Brochure, Furniture from the "Age of Oak." / THF121217a
The End of the Relationship
By 1925, Houghton’s commissions were at or nearing completion. After this date, there is an abrupt end to the correspondence between Houghton and the Fords. The only subsequent communications are a telegram from 1938, congratulating the Fords on their 50th wedding anniversary, and a letter dating to 1941, thanking Henry Ford II for his work on supplying aid for Britain during the second World War. While we have no documentation on how the relationship ended, we do have documentation of one artifact that may shed light on this period. In 1925, Houghton gave the Fords a sterling silver model galleon or ship. Perhaps this is a reference to Houghton’s love of sailing. It appears on the cover of the Houghton brochure at the top of this post.
Was this a peace offering from Houghton to the Fords? Or was it a token of generosity from Houghton, a great navigator, to the Fords? We will never know, but it is interesting to contemplate the implications of this extraordinary gift.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey through an unknown aspect of the Fords’ life. Researching and writing about Sidney Houghton has been a pleasure.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Waajeed has worn many hats in his musical career. Besides the stylish Borsalino he usually sports, he’s been the DJ for rap group Slum Village, half of R&B duo Platinum Pied Pipers, an acclaimed producer of hip-hop and house music, and proprietor of his own label, Dirt Tech Reck. But it’s his latest venture that feels closest to his heart: educator.
The 45-year-old Detroit native is now the director of the Underground Music Academy (UMA), a school set to launch in 2022 that will guide students through every step of tackling the music industry obstacle course. “You can learn how to make the music, put it out, publish it, own your company, and reap the benefits,” he said of his vision for UMA. “A one-stop shop.”
Photo by Bill Bowen
While Waajeed initially broke into music via hip-hop, UMA will, at least at first, focus on electronic dance music. Detroit is internationally renowned for techno, a form of electronic dance music first created in the Motor City in the mid-1980s by a group of young African American producers and DJs. But as the music exploded globally, particularly in Europe, techno became associated with a predominantly white audience. While Detroit’s pioneers were busy abroad introducing the music to foreign markets, the number of new, young Black practitioners at home kept dwindling.
UMA’s initial spark hit Waajeed a few years ago, when he was spending endless hours on planes and in airports, jetting to DJ gigs around the world. “On almost every flight I jumped on, I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me, and it didn’t feel right,” he said. “All of this energy that’s being put into building Europe’s connection to our music and our past and our history, and it’s like, this needs to be happening in our own backyard. It was an awakening.”
Waajeed performing at Brunch Electronik Lisboa in Portugal. / Photo courtesy Brunch in the Park
Waajeed spoke to Mike Banks, a founder of the fiercely independent techno collective Underground Resistance, about how best to communicate to younger Black listeners that this music, primarily associated with Germans and Brits for the last 30 years, is actually an African American art form. The genesis of UMA flowed from their discussions. Waajeed described Underground Resistance’s credo of self-determination and mentorship as “a moral and business code that’s been the landmark cornerstone for our community.”
Another huge inspiration came from older musicians like Amp Fiddler, a keyboardist for Parliament-Funkadelic whose home in Detroit’s Conant Gardens neighborhood was close to Waajeed’s high school, Pershing. Whenever Waajeed and his friends (like future hip-hop producer J Dilla) skipped class, they’d end up in Fiddler’s basement, where he taught the teens how to use instruments and recording gear. “It started with people like Amp,” Waajeed said, “taking these disobedient kids in the neighborhood and giving us a shot in his basement, to trust us to come down there and use what felt like million-dollar equipment at the time, teaching us how to use those drum machines and keyboards. Amp put us in the position to be great at music.”
After years in the making, Waajeed is hoping to welcome students to the physical space for his Underground Music Academy in 2022. It will be located on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard, near the internationally known Motown Museum. / Photo by Bill Bowen
Waajeed hopes UMA will institutionalize that same “each one teach one” tradition, not only with respect to music-making but also business and social acumen. “I heard stories about people who worked with Motown that would teach you what forks to use so you could sit down for a formal dinner, and that’s what I’m more interested in,” he said. “As much as being a beat maker is important, it’s just as important to be a person who is adamant about your business: knowing how to handle yourself the first time you go on tour, or how to set up publishing companies and bank accounts for those companies. That’s what we’re trying to do, to make that instruction more available so you have no excuses to fail.”
Until the physical space is ready to host students—scheduled for 2022, though the COVID-19 pandemic may alter that plan—UMA is concentrating on video tutorials that can be watched online, as well as fundraising, curriculum planning, and brainstorming about how best to reach the academy’s future pupils.
Waajeed sits on the steps of the future Underground Music Academy in Detroit. / Photo by Bill Bowen
“The result of this is something that will happen in another generation from us. We just need to plant the seed so that this thing will grow and be something of substance five or ten years from now,” Waajeed said. “I would be happy with a new generation of techno producers, but I would be happier with a new generation of producers creating something that has never been done before.”
The Detroit News Magazine, "Noguchi: He Sculpts the Landscape," April 15, 1979. / THF147950
Isamu Noguchi sculpted the landscape, just as stated in the title of this 1979 Detroit News article. Born in 1904 in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother and Japanese father, Noguchi spent his childhood in Japan and his adolescence in rural Indiana. He attended the Interlaken School in LaPorte, Indiana, under the mentorship of the school’s founder, Dr. Edward Rumely. The school emphasized both craft and industry—a tension Noguchi would work within all his life, sometimes moving towards handicrafts, and other times toward mass production and new technologies.
In his own words, Noguchi was “foremost a sculptor.” The material, size, and function might change, but the result was always sculpture. In Noguchi’s early years working as an artist, he designed product packaging and sculpted busts on commission to help to pay his living expenses. Later, he designed furniture and lighting, like the Noguchi Table for Herman Miller and the electrified sculptures known as his Akari lamps. He ventured more fully into mass production and industrialization with the striking design of the molded Bakelite Radio Nurse—the first baby monitor.
Noguchi was always interested in environmental and space-planning projects—it’s just that the environments and spaces evolved from rooms to stage sets to entire landscapes. He had aspired to complete a large-scale environmental project for a civic space for many years. In 1933, Noguchi submitted his first of such proposals: a design for “Play Mountain,” a pyramidal play landscape intended for the heart of Manhattan’s Central Park. That project—and many other proposed landscape projects—did not come to fruition.
But late in his career, Noguchi embarked on one of his largest environmental projects—a 10+ acre site in downtown Detroit. In Noguchi’s hands, the landscape became a large-scale sculpture in the form of a public plaza.
Detroit Free Press Article, "Park, Fountain to Rise at River," March 16, 1976. / THF147953
Detroit’s Philip A. Hart Plaza
Detroit had long been interested in a civic park in the center of the city and by the late 1890s, the Detroit River waterfront had been identified as a prime location for such a park. Numerous designs were submitted—and even agreed upon—in the 80+ years between these early discussions and the completion of Hart Plaza (notably iterations designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen of Cranbrook fame). Buildings were razed and space was made along the riverfront. Civic-minded buildings, meant to surround the park, were constructed, but the park itself languished. As politics and priorities shifted, so did the fate of the park. In the early 1970s, the park’s completion again became a priority, mostly due to a bequest of two million dollars by Anna Thomson Dodge for the completion of a fountain dedicated to the Dodge family. A committee was created to select an artist to complete the fountain, and the committee chose Isamu Noguchi’s proposal in 1971. Noguchi ended up with the commission to design not only the fountain, but the entire plaza.
Today, Noguchi’s design for the park still plays with the interaction between positive and negative space. Although the use of concrete is liberal, the plaza exudes a feeling of softness and flexibility alongside its strength. Noguchi designed Hart Plaza as a sculpture, a place where people could interact bodily with art. Below, we’ll explore a few of the key elements of the plaza.
The Detroit News Magazine, "Noguchi, He Sculpts the Landscape," April 15, 1979. / THF626513, detail
Horace E. Dodge & Son Memorial Fountain
At Hart Plaza’s center, both figurately and literally, resides Noguchi’s now-acclaimed fountain. A modern futuristic abstraction of a fountain, it looks nothing like the traditional fountains found in most public parks and plazas the world over. In his presentation to the selection committee, Noguchi explained: “The great fountain, projected to be the most significant of modern times, will rise from the plateau of primal space. It will be an engine for water, plainly associating its spectacle to its source of energy, an engine so deeply a part of Detroit. It will recall and commemorate the dream that has produced the automobile, the airplane, and now the rocket, a machine become a poem.”
The “cloud creating, computer-operated” Dodge Fountain comprises a stainless-steel torus, or donut shape, hoisted 30 feet into the air that features 80 continually changing jet and light shows. A 120-foot-wide basin with a 7-foot-high granite pool creates the base of the fountain. Noguchi’s long-time collaborator, architect Shoji Sadao, was instrumental in ensuring the fountain’s successful completion and operation.
The Pylon, a 120-foot-tall tower, stands to greet the public at the city-side entrance to the park. Constructed of aluminum plating on stainless steel, the tower gently twists upwards, spiraling into the sky, as 120 lights illuminate the tower from its base. Noguchi explained that it symbolized “the spiral of life; the double helix upon which all life is based.” This was a fitting welcome for a park which Noguchi said would be “a people’s park, not a monument.”
Imprints and Extrusions
Detroit’s leaders commissioned the park with numerous purposes in mind, but one of them took precedence in discussions—events and festivals, especially cultural and music festivals. Festivals need seating, and a stage. Noguchi provided multiple spaces for such purposes. A large amphitheater, a recessed oval pushed into the ground as if imprinted into the land, could transform into an ice-skating rink in the winter. A pyramidal form that extrudes from the northeast section of the plaza provided more seating. Ingeniously, the pyramid also hides some of the mechanical equipment in a functional, graceful solution. In a change-order request by Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, Noguchi expanded the area underneath the plaza to incorporate space for offices, kiosks, a restaurant, and more. Noguchi’s concrete landscape on the river seems to push and pull at the earth, creating a finely balanced public space for Detroiters to enjoy.
Detroit Free Press Article, "Park, Fountain to Rise at River," March 16, 1976. / THF147954
When Hart Plaza was dedicated on April 20, 1979, it completed a nearly century-old desire by Detroit’s leaders to have a civic plaza on the Detroit River. It also marked complete one of Noguchi’s most expansive projects and a decades-long desire to transform such a landscape. Detroit’s Hart Plaza serves as one of Noguchi’s crown jewels, showcasing his ability to sculpt on all levels—from small busts to the land at large.