Auto companies often justify their participation in auto racing by quoting the slogan, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” When Henry Ford raced in “Sweepstakes,” it was a case of win on Sunday to start another company on Monday. On October 10, 2021, we commemorate the 120th anniversary of the race that changed Ford’s life—and ultimately changed the course of American automotive history.
In the summer of 1901, things were not going well for Henry. His first car company, the Detroit Automobile Company, had failed, and his financial backers had doubts about his talents as an engineer and as a businessman. Building a successful race car would reestablish his credibility.
Ford didn’t work alone. His principal designer was Oliver Barthel. Ed “Spider” Huff worked on the electrical system, Ed Verlinden and George Wettrick did the lathe work, and Charlie Mitchell shaped metal at the blacksmith forge. The car they produced was advanced for its day. The induction system was a rudimentary form of mechanical fuel injection, patented by Ford, while the spark plugs may have been the first anywhere to use porcelain insulators. Ford had the insulators made by a Detroit dentist.
The engine had only two cylinders, but they were huge: bore and stroke were seven inches each. That works out to a displacement of 538 cubic inches; horsepower was estimated at 26. Ford and Barthel claimed the car reached 72 miles per hour during its road tests. That doesn’t sound impressive today, but in 1901, the official world speed record for automobiles was 65.79 miles per hour.
Ford entered the car in a race that took place on October 10, 1901, at a horse racing track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The race was known as a sweepstakes, so “Sweepstakes” was the name that Ford and Barthel gave their car. Henry’s opponent in the race was Alexander Winton, who was already a successful auto manufacturer and the country’s best-known race driver. No one gave the inexperienced, unknown Ford a chance.
When the race began, Ford fell behind immediately, trailing by as much as 300 yards. But Henry improved his driving technique quickly, gradually cutting into Winton’s lead. Then Winton’s car developed mechanical trouble, and Ford swept past him on the main straightaway, as the crowd roared its approval.
Henry Ford behind the wheel of his first race car, the 1901 "Sweepstakes" racer, on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, with Ed "Spider" Huff kneeling on the running board. / THF116246
Henry’s wife, Clara, described the scene in a letter to her brother: “The people went wild. One man threw his hat up and when it came down he stamped on it. Another man had to hit his wife on the head to keep her from going off the handle. She stood up in her seat ... screamed ‘I’d bet $50 on Ford if I had it.’”
Henry Ford’s victory had the desired effect. New investors backed Ford in his next venture, the Henry Ford Company. Yet he was not home free. He disagreed with his financiers, left the company in 1902, and finally formed his lasting enterprise, Ford Motor Company, in 1903.
Ford sold “Sweepstakes” in May of 1902, but eventually bought it back in the 1930s. He had a new body built to replace the original, which had been damaged in a fire, and he displayed the historic vehicle in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Unfortunately, Ford did not keep good records of his restoration, and over time, museum staff came to believe that the car was not an original, but a replica. It was not until the approach of the 1901 race’s 100th anniversary that the car was closely examined and its originality verified. Using “Sweepstakes” as a pattern, Ford Motor Company built two running replicas to commemorate the centennial of its racing program in 2001.
Ford gifted one of the replicas to us in 2008. That car is a regular feature at our annual Old Car Festival in September. Occasionally, it comes out for other special activities. We recently celebrated the 120th anniversary of the 1901 race by taking the replica to the inaugural American Speed Festival at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan. The car put on a great show, and it even won another victory when it was awarded the M1 Concourse Prize as a festival favorite.
The “Sweepstakes” replica caught the attention of Speed Sport TV pit reporter Hannah Lopa at the 2021 American Speed Festival. / Photo courtesy Matt Anderson
Bob Casey is Former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from our former online series “Pic of the Month,” with additional content by Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Sidney Houghton is one of the most interesting and yet-to-be-documented figures in the group surrounding Henry and Clara Ford. Many in the Fords’ entourage are colorful and well-researched, including Harry Bennett, Henry’s security chief, known as the notorious head of the Ford Motor Company “Service” Department; Henry’s business manager, Ernest Liebold, who handled all financial transactions; and even their son, Edsel Ford, whose life and important cultural contributions are thoroughly documented. The great Ford historian Ford R. Bryan tells the story of these figures in his book, Henry’s Lieutenants (1993). Bryan frequently mentions Sidney Houghton, most notably in his book Friends, Family, and Forays (2002).
Perhaps Houghton remains undocumented because he was British, and in the decades before Internet resources became widely available, American researchers like Bryan had limited access to British sources. Today, we are fortunate to not only have the profound resources of the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford at our disposal, but also digital access to repositories around the world. As Curator of Decorative Arts, I have spent considerable time trying to fully grasp the enigmatic Mr. Houghton—his biography, his business, and, most importantly, his relationship with Henry and Clara Ford. This blog is the first in a series that will delve into this mostly hidden story.
Now, you may ask, why should we care about the Fords’ interior designer? Seeing and understanding the interior environments that the Fords created to live and work provides us with great insight into their characters, creating a well-rounded picture of their lives. We can understand their motivations and desires and see how these changed over time. We can peel back the larger-than-life personas of the Fords that come with such public lives and see them as individuals.
What Do We Know About Sidney Houghton’s Early Life?
Researching Houghton was not easy. The first place I looked was Ancestry.com, but Houghton is a very common name in Britain. After a lot of digging and working with colleagues at The Henry Ford, I located Sidney Charles Houghton, who was born in 1872 and died in 1950. He was the son of cabinetmaker Charles Houghton, which likely led to his interest in furniture-making and interior design.
One of the questions still in my mind is: Where was Houghton educated? To date, I have not been able to find out which art school he attended—these records do not appear to be available online. What I do know is that he married in 1895, and had a family consisting of two sons by 1898. By 1910, according to the British census, his business, Houghton Studio, was established in London.
Houghton in World War I
From Ford R. Bryan’s publications and resources in the Benson Ford Research Center, I knew that Houghton was in the British Navy during World War I. I searched the British National Archives and found his fascinating military service record. Houghton, I discovered, was an experienced yachtsman, and was commissioned as a commander. He helped to create patrol boats, called P-boats, that swiftly located enemy submarines. In 1917, he was sent to the United States to work with Reginald Fessenden (1866–1932), a Canadian-American inventor who worked in early radio. Together, they developed an early sonar system to locate enemy ships, submarines, and mines. For his contributions to the war effort, Houghton was awarded the Order of the British Empire, or O.B.E., in 1919.
Through the reminiscences of Ernest Liebold, held in the Benson Ford Research Center, I discovered that Houghton was brought into the Ford Motor Company’s war effort to create what Liebold called the Eagle boats. These were similar to the British P-boats. Unlike the relatively simple P-boats, though, the Eagle boats would be like a “young battleship,” according to Liebold. He went on to state that the boats would “have the eye of an eagle and would flit over the seas.”
Eagle Boat #1 on Launching Trestle at the Ford Rouge Plant, July 11, 1918. / THF270275
Eagle Boat #60 Lowered to Water, August 1919. / THF270277
Houghton came along, and he said, “We ought to have a listening device put on those ships to detect submarines.” That is where [Thomas] Edison came in to develop this listening device, and I think Houghton is the man who contacted him. I remember him coming out with a long rod and stuff, and it was so darned secret that nobody knew a thing about it.
They had a special room provided for it in the Eagle boats. It was to be this listening chamber in which the apparatus was placed. They could detect a submarine by the beat of its propellers. A magnetic signal could determine just exactly in what direction it was, [sic] and approximately, from the intensity of the sound of the beating of the propeller, they could tell just what distance and in what direction it was.
They would radio that information to the nearest battleship in a cordon of battleships, or destroyers or whatever they had. They would be able to attack the submarine, you see. That was the object of it.
As an integral member of the Eagle boat team, it is highly likely that Houghton travelled to Dearborn and met Henry Ford. We know from later correspondence that Henry and Clara developed an abiding personal friendship with Houghton which continued through the 1920s. They commissioned a series of projects, beginning with the Fords’ yacht, the Sialia—but I am getting ahead of myself. At this point, I would like to discuss Houghton’s work in interior design, specifically his role as an interior architect.
Sidney Houghton’s Studio
Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121214
Back Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121230
This brochure or trade catalogue gives us great insight into the Houghton Studio. We date it to the late 1920s, when the projects Houghton worked on for the Fords were complete. From the text, we can see just what the firm’s capabilities were. The back cover reads: “Designs and estimates for decoration and furnishing of every kind / from the simplest to the most exotic / always in good style / always at exceptional values.” What this tells us is that Houghton Studio was a rarity in the interior design world.
Houghton was an interior architect, meaning that he designed both interiors and furnishings—the woodwork, wall treatments, lighting, furniture, textiles, and accessories—to create a unified interior environment. In new construction, an interior architect would collaborate with the architect to create an interior in harmony with the architecture. This contrasts with our present-day conception of an interior designer as a person who simply selects existing furnishings that harmonize to create a unified interior aesthetic. Obviously, Houghton Studio’s clients were wealthy and able to afford the best.
Chateau Laurier National Hotel, Ottawa Canada. / THF121219a
Like most of his contemporaries, Houghton worked in a variety of styles, as demonstrated in the images above—from period revivals as seen in the Chateau Laurier National Hotel, in Ottawa, Canada, to his renderings for “Modern” furniture, done in what we would describe as the Art Deco style, which was synonymous with high-end 1920s taste.
List of Commissions in the Houghton Catalogue. / THF121229b
One of the most interesting pages in the catalogue notes several commissions to design interiors for yachts, which was a specialty of the Houghton Studio. The most important of these was a commission for the Sialia, Henry Ford’s yacht. The Fords purchased the yacht just before World War I, and it was requisitioned for use by the U.S. Navy in 1917. The ship was returned to Henry Ford in 1920. At this point, Sidney Houghton was asked to redesign the interiors.
Henry Ford’s Sialia
Henry Ford’s Yacht, Sialia, Docked at Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, 1927. /THF140396
According to Ford R. Bryan, the cost of the interiors was approximately $150,000. As seen here, the interiors are comfortable, but relatively simple. During the 1920s, the Fords occasionally used the Sialia, but Henry and Clara Ford preferred other means of travel, usually by large Ford corporate ore carriers, when they traveled to their summer home in Michigan’s upper peninsula. According to the ship’s captain, Perry Stakes, Henry Ford never really liked the Sialia, and he sold it in July of 1927.
Parlor on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92100
Bedroom on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92098
Following the Sialia commission, the Fords found a kindred spirit in Houghton. The archives contain ample correspondence from the early 1920s, with the Fords asking Houghton to return to Dearborn. Houghton subsequently received a commission to design the interior of the Fords’ Fair Lane railroad car in 1920. Between 1920 and 1926, Houghton was deluged with projects from the Fords, including the redesign of the Fair Lane Estate interiors, design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the new Ford Engineering Laboratory, interiors for the Dearborn Country Club, as well as interiors for the Henry Ford Hospital addition.
In the next post in this series, we will look closer at several of these projects and present surviving renderings from the Fair Lane remodeling, as well as furniture from the Engineering Laboratory offices.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Greenfield Village may just look like a lot of buildings to some, but each building tells stories of people. When I wrote The Henry Ford Official Guidebook, it really hit me how unique and one-of-a-kind Greenfield Village is. I wanted to share several stories I found particularly interesting about Greenfield Village.
Researching Building Stories
Whenever we research a Village building, we usually start with archival material—looking at sources like census records, account books, store invoices (like the one below, related to Dr. Howard’s Office), and old photographs—to give us authentic accounts about our subjects’ lives. Here are some examples.
At Daggett Farmhouse, Samuel Daggett’s account book showed that he not only built houses but also dug stones for the community schoolhouse; made shingles for local people’s houses; made chairs, spinning wheels, coffins, and sleds; and even pulled teeth! If you are interested in learning more about how our research influenced the interpretation at Daggett, along with four other Village buildings, check out this blog post.
Daggett Farmhouse, photographed by Michelle Andonian. / THF54173
For Dr. Howard’s Office, we looked at old photographs, family reminiscences, the doctor’s daily record of patients and what he prescribed for them, his handwritten receipt (recipe) book of remedies, and invoices of supplies and dried herbs he purchased. You can read more about the history of Dr. Alonson Howard and his office in this blog post.
For J.R. Jones General Store, we used a range of primary sources, from local census records to photographs of the building on its original site (like the one below) to account books documenting purchases of store stock from similar general stores. You can read more about the history of J.R. Jones General Store in this blog post.
Photo of J.R. Jones General Store on its original site. / THF255033
Urbanization and Industrialization Seen through Greenfield Village Buildings
Many Greenfield Village buildings were acquired because of Henry Ford’s interests. But some give us the opportunity to look at larger trends in American life, especially related to urbanization and industrialization.
Engelbert Grimm sold clocks and watches to Detroit-area customers, including Henry Ford, in the 1880s. But Grimm Jewelry Store also demonstrates that in an increasingly urban and industrial nation, people were expected to know the time and be on time—all the time.
Grimm Jewelry Store in Greenfield Village. / THF1947
Related to this, notice the public clock in the Detroit Publishing Company photograph below of West 23rd Street, New York City, about 1908. (Clue: Look down the street, above the horse-drawn carriage, and you’ll see a large street clock on a stand.) You can read more about the emergence of “clock time” in this blog post.
Smiths Creek Depot is here because of its connection with Thomas Edison. But this building also shows us that railroad depots at the time were more than simply the place to catch a train—they were also bustling places where townspeople connected with the outside world. Below you can see a photo of Smiths Creek in Greenfield Village, as well asthe hustle and bustle of railroad depots in a wonderful image of the Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne, Wyoming, from about 1910.
Smiths Creek Depot in Greenfield Village. / THF1873
Henry Ford brought Sarah Jordan Boarding House to Greenfield Village because it was home to many of Thomas Edison’s workers. It was also one of three residences wired for Edison’s new electrical lighting system in December 1879—and it is the only one still in existence. In the bigger picture, the mushrooming of boarding houses at this time was particularly due to a shortage of affordable housing in the growing urban-industrial centers, which were experiencing a tremendous influx of new wage laborers.
Sarah Jordan Boarding House in Greenfield Village. / THF2007
Sarah Jordan Boarding House on its original site in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1879. / THF117242
Luther Burbank and Henry Ford
Other buildings in Greenfield Village have strong ties to Henry’s personal relationships. Henry Ford met horticulturalist Luther Burbank in connection with the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That year, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a few other companions traveled there to attend Edison Day. Luther Burbank welcomed them to the area.
Panama-Pacific International Exposition Souvenir Medal. / THF154006
Afterward, the group followed Burbank up on an invitation to visit him at his experimental garden in Santa Rosa, California. Edison and Ford had a grand time there. Burbank later wrote, “The ladies said we acted like three schoolboys, but we didn’t care.”
Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank, and Henry Ford at Burbank's home in Santa Rosa, California. / THF126337
After that visit, the original group, plus tire magnate Harvey Firestone, drove by automobile to the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. During that trip, Edison proposed a camping trip for Ford, Firestone, and himself. The Vagabonds camping trips, taking place over the next nine years, were born!
Henry Ford was so inspired by Luther Burbank’s character, accomplishments, and “learning by doing” approach that he brought to Greenfield Village a modified version of the Luther Burbank Birthplace and a restored version of the Luther Burbank Garden Office from Santa Rosa.
Luther Burbank Garden Office in Greenfield Village. / THF1887
Greenfield Village Buildings and World’s Fair Connections
In a striking Albert Kahn–designed building, Ford Motor Company boasted the largest and most expensive corporate pavilion of the same Chicago fair. It drew some 75% of visitors to the fair that year. After the fair, the central part of this building was transported from Chicago to Dearborn, where it became the Ford Rotunda. It was used as a hospitality center until it burned in a devastating fire in 1962.
Ford at the Fair Brochure, showing the building section that would eventually become the Ford Rotunda. / THF210966
Ford Rotunda in Dearborn after a 1953 renovation. / THF142018
A presenter at the Texas Centennial Exposition demonstrates how the soybean oil extraction process works with a model of a soybean oil extractor that now resides in the Soybean Lab in Greenfield Village. / THF222337
Boys from Henry Ford's Edison Institute Schools operate miniature machine replicas in a scale model of the Menlo Park Machine Shop during the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. / THF250326
Village Buildings That Influenced Famous Men
Several people whose stories are represented in Greenfield Village were influenced by the places in which they grew up and worked, like the Wright Brothers, shown below on the porch of their Dayton, Ohio, home, now the Wright Home in the Village, around 1910.
In addition to practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln traveled to courthouses like the Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village to try court cases for local folk. The experiences he gained in these prepared him for his future role as U.S. president (read more about this in this “What If” story).
Enterprising young Tom Edison took a job as a newsboy on a local railway, where one of the stops was Smiths Creek Station. This and other experiences on that railway contributed to the man Thomas Edison would become—curious, entrepreneurial, interested in new technologies, and collaborative.
Young Thomas Edison as a newsboy and candy butcher. / THF116798
Henry Ford, the eldest of six children, was born and raised in the farmhouse pictured below, now known as Ford Home in Greenfield Village. Henry hated the drudgery of farm work. He spent his entire life trying to ease farmers’ burdens and make their lives easier.
Henry J. Heinz (the namesake of Heinz House in Greenfield Village) wasn’t just an inventor or an entrepreneur or a marketing genius: he was all of these things. Throughout the course of his career, he truly changed the way we eat and the way we think about what we eat.
Beginning with horseradish, Heinz expanded his business to include many relishes and pickles—stressing their purity and high quality at a time when other processed foods did not share these characteristics. The sample display case below highlights the phrase “pure food products.”
Heinz had an eye for promotion and advertising unequaled among his competitors. This included signs, billboards, special exhibits, and, as shown below, the specially constructed Heinz Ocean Pier, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which opened in 1898.
Advertising process photograph showing Heinz Ocean Pier. / THF117096
The pickle pin, for instance, was a wildly successful advertising promotion. Heinz first offered a free pickle-shaped watch fob at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. At some point, a pin replaced the watch fob, and the rest is history!
By the time of H.J. Heinz’s death in 1919, his company had grown into one of the largest food processing businesses in the nation. His company was known for its innovative food processing, packaging, advertising, and enlightened business practices. You can learn more about Heinz House and its journey to Greenfield Village here.
Even More Fun Facts about Greenfield Village Buildings
Most of the time, we focus on big themes that tell American history in relatable ways. When we choose a theme to focus on, we inevitably leave out interesting little-known facts. For example, Cohen Millinery was a dry goods store, a candy store, a Kroger grocery, and a restaurant during its lifetime!
Surprisingly, for most of its life prior to its incorporation into Greenfield Village, Logan County Courthouse was a private residence. Many different families had lived there, including Mr. and Mrs. Elijah Watkins, the last caretakers before Henry Ford acquired the building. They are depicted below, along with an interior shot of one of their rooms when Henry Ford’s agents went to look at the building.
Interior of Logan County Courthouse at its original site. / THF238596
In the 1820s, eastern Ohio farmers realized huge profits from the fine-grade wool of purebred Merino sheep. But by the 1880s, competition had made raising Merino sheep unprofitable. Benjamin Firestone, the previous owner of Firestone Farmhouse and father of Harvey Firestone, however, stuck with the tried and true. Today, you can visit our wrinkly friends grazing one of several pastures in the Village.
Merino sheep at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village in 2014. / THF119103
We have several different breeds of animals at the Village, but some of our most memorable were built, not bred. The Herschell-Spillman Carousel is a favorite amongst visitors. Many people think that all carousel animals were hand-carved. But the Herschell-Spillman Company, the makers of our carousel, created quantities of affordable carousel animals through a shop production system, using machinery to rough out parts. You can read more on the history of our carousel in this blog post.
And there you have it! Remember, odd and anachronistic as it might seem at times—the juxtaposed time periods, the buildings from so many different places, the specific people highlighted—there’s only one Greenfield Village!
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Henry Ford's Private Railroad Car "Fair Lane," 1921 / THF186260
Just as many of today’s captains of industry and business leaders consider an executive jet to be a crucial part of their tool kit, so in the period prior to widespread air travel was the railroad business car considered an essential amenity. There are two basic categories of business cars, each with their equivalents in the modern world of business jets: the private car (at its most grandiose taking the form of “a palace on wheels”), owned by a wealthy individual or large corporation, and the chartered car, a well-appointed business car available for hire by companies or individuals as needed.
Business cars were attached at the rear of regularly scheduled passenger trains, according to arrangements made ahead of time with railroad companies. While the reliance on existing timetables and the inevitable complexities associated with being switched from one train to another en route might seem cumbersome and time-consuming to us, the opportunity to conduct business on the go, with food to order and a place to sleep, all in fully-staffed, well-appointed surroundings, made sense from a business standpoint: Work was accomplished, decisions were made, and the individuals concerned arrived in a better state than if they had been prey to the pitfalls of the ordinary traveler.
The interior of the Fair Lane, restored by The Henry Ford to as closely as possible resemble its appearance during Henry Ford’s ownership, is restrained, given Ford’s wealth. / THF186280
This car, Henry Ford’s Fair Lane, was one of the largest passenger railcars built when it was completed by Pullman in 1921. It is a private car, and as such reflects the taste of its owner, one of the wealthiest men on Earth. Paradoxically, Ford’s restrained taste and sense of occasion (think of the scale and finish of his house, given his wealth) resulted in a car that had more in common with the lower-key chartered cars—vehicles that incorporated the sumptuousness of the boardroom rather than the chairman’s own particular taste.
Even more paradoxically, traffic records reveal that the most extensive use to which Fair Lane was put was luxury transportation for Clara Ford and her close friends on shopping trips to New York City.
Explore many more images of the exterior and interior of the Fair Lane, including new 360-degree views of its compartments, in our Digital Collections.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
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.
In 1913, Ford Motor Company combined the standardization of interchangeable parts with the subdivision of labor and the fluid movement of work to workers to create the world’s most influential assembly line. We are unusually fortunate that two keen observers of industry, Horace Lucien Arnold and Fay Leone Faurote, were there to document it.
Arnold, a correspondent for The Engineering Magazine, grasped the significance in Ford’s work and began a series of articles on the company’s Highland Park factory. After Arnold’s untimely death, Faurote completed and compiled the articles in the 1915 study Ford Methods and the Ford Shops. The book’s detailed descriptions, numerous photographs and careful diagrams give us a vivid window into Highland Park at a seminal moment in manufacturing history.
Looking back now, the most remarkable aspect of Ford Methods and the Ford Shops is the liberal level of access Ford gave to its authors. It is difficult to imagine Google or Apple opening their doors to today’s press and giving unfettered access to employees, workspaces, and sensitive production figures. The company’s cooperation speaks volumes about Henry Ford’s confidence in Highland Park. He knew that his methods were far ahead of his competitors, and there was little fear of them catching up too quickly.
Workers place magnets on Model T flywheels, 1913. Fittingly, successful experiments with a moving magneto assembly line “sparked” Ford’s adoption of assembly line techniques throughout Highland Park. / THF96001
The assembly line came to Ford Motor Company in stages. Around April 1, 1913, flywheel magnetos were placed on moving lines. Instead of one worker completing one flywheel in some 20 minutes, a group of workers stood along a waist-high platform. Each worker assembled some small piece of the flywheel and then slid it along to the next person. One whole flywheel came off the line every 13 minutes. With further tweaking, the assembly line produced a finished flywheel magneto in just five minutes.
Flow charts and maps in the book illustrated the logical, sequential arrangement of machine tools at Highland Park. / THF600582
It was a genuine “eureka” moment. Ford soon adapted the assembly line to engines, and then transmissions, and, in August 1913, to complete chassis. The crude “slide” method was replaced with chain-driven delivery systems that not only reduced handling but also regulated work speed. By early 1914, the various separate production lines had fused into three continuous lines able to churn out a finished Model T every 93 minutes—an extraordinary improvement over 12½ hours per car under the old stationary assembly methods.
Workers lower an engine into a Model T chassis, 1913. Note that the line is not yet chain-driven. Ford constantly improved the assembly line in search of time and cost savings. / THF91696
The incredible time and cost savings realized through the assembly line allowed Henry Ford to lower the Model T’s price, which increased demand for the car, which then prompted Ford to seek even greater manufacturing efficiencies. This feedback loop ultimately produced some 15 million Model Ts selling for as little as $260 each.
The peak annual Model T production of 1.8 million in 1923 was still years away when Arnold and Faurote made their study. They did not capture Ford’s assembly line in a fully realized form. In fact, the line never was finished. It existed in a state of flux, under constant review for any potential improvements. Adjusting the height of a work platform might save a few seconds here, while moving a drill press might shave some more seconds there. Several such small changes could yield large productivity gains.
Ford Methods and the Ford Shops captures a manufacturer that has just discovered the formula for previously unimagined production levels. The assembly line is groundbreaking, and Ford knows it. The company’s openness with its methods, and Arnold’s and Faurote’s efforts to document and publicize them, helped make the Model T assembly line the industrial milestone that we still celebrate more than a century later.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from a 2013 post in our Pic of the Month series.
Henry Ford’s first official Ford Motor Company portrait, 1904. / THF97952
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. But more than any other single individual, he was responsible for transforming the automobile from an invention of unknown utility into an innovation that profoundly shaped the 20th century and continues to affect the 21st.
Innovators change things. They take new ideas—sometimes their own, sometimes other people’s—and develop and promote those ideas until they become an accepted part of daily life. Innovation requires self-confidence, a taste for taking risks, leadership ability, and a vision of what the future should be. Henry Ford had all these characteristics, but it took him many years to develop all of them fully.
Portrait of the Innovator as a Young Man
Ford’s beginnings were perfectly ordinary. He was born on his father’s farm in what is now Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30, 1863. At this time, most Americans were born on farms, and most looked forward to being farmers themselves. Early on, Ford demonstrated some of the characteristics that would make him successful. In his family, he became infamous for taking apart his siblings’ toys as well as his own. He organized other boys to build rudimentary waterwheels and steam engines. He learned about full-size steam engines by becoming acquainted with the engines’ operators and pestering them with questions. He taught himself to fix watches and used the watches themselves as textbooks to learn the basics of machine design. Thus, at an early age, Ford demonstrated curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, the capacity for leadership, and a preference for learning by trial and error. These characteristics would become the foundation of his whole career.
Artist Irving Bacon depicted Henry Ford in his first workshop, along with friends, in this 1938 painting. / THF152920
Ford could simply have followed in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. But young Henry was fascinated by machines and was willing to take risks to pursue that fascination. In 1879, he left the farm to become an apprentice at a machine shop in Detroit. Over the next few years, he held jobs at several places, sometimes moving when he thought he could learn more somewhere else. He returned home in 1882 but did little farming. Instead, he operated and serviced portable steam engines used by farmers, occasionally worked in factories in Detroit, and cut and sold timber from 40 acres of his father’s land.
By now, Ford was demonstrating another characteristic—a preference for working on his own rather than for somebody else. In 1888, Ford married Clara Bryant, and in 1891 they moved to Detroit. Ford had taken a job as night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company—another risk on his part, because he did not know a great deal about electricity at this point. He took the job in part as an opportunity to learn.
Henry Ford (third from left, in white coat) with other employees at Edison Illuminating Company Plant, November 1895. / THF244633
Early Automotive Experiments: Failure and Then Success
Henry was a skilled student, and by 1896 had risen to chief engineer of the Illuminating Company. But he had other interests. He became one of the scores of other people working in barns and small shops trying to make horseless carriages. Ford read about these other efforts in magazines, copying some of the ideas and adding some of his own, and convinced a small group of friends and colleagues to help him. This resulted in his first primitive automobile, the Quadricycle, completed in 1896. A second, more sophisticated car followed in 1898.
Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle Runabout, the first car he built. / THF90760
Ford now demonstrated one of his most important characteristics—the ability to articulate a vision and convince other people to sign on and help him achieve that vision. He convinced a group of businessmen to back him in the biggest risk of his life—starting a company to make horseless carriages. But Ford knew nothing about running a business, and learning by doing often involves failure. The new company failed, as did a second.
To revive his fortunes, Ford took bigger risks, building and even driving a pair of racing cars. The success of these cars attracted additional financial backers, and on June 16, 1903, just before his 40th birthday, Henry incorporated his third automobile venture, the Ford Motor Company.
The early history of Ford Motor Company illustrates another of Henry Ford’s most valuable traits—his ability to identify and attract outstanding talent. He hired a core of young, highly competent people who would stay with him for years and make Ford Motor Company into one of the world’s great industrial enterprises.
Print of Norman Rockwell's painting, "Henry Ford in First Model A on Detroit Street." / THF288551
The new company’s first car was called the Model A, and a variety of improved models followed. In 1906, Ford’s 4-cylinder, $600 Model N became the best-selling car in the country. But by this time, Ford had a vision of an even better, cheaper “motorcar for the great multitude.” Working with a small group of employees, he came up with the Model T, introduced on October 1, 1908.
The Automobile: A Solution in Search of a Problem
As hard as it is for us to believe, in 1908 there was still much debate about exactly what automobiles were good for. We may see them as a necessary part of daily life, but the situation in 1908 was very different. Americans had arranged their world to accommodate the limits of the transportation devices available to them. People in cities got where they wanted to go by using electric street cars, horse-drawn cabs, bicycles, and shoe leather because all the places they wanted to go were located within reach of those transportation modes.
This Boston street scene, circa 1908, shows pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages on the road—but no cars. / THF203438
Most of the commercial traffic in cities still moved in horse-drawn vehicles. Rural Americans simply accepted the limited travel radius of horse- or mule-drawn vehicles. For long distances, Americans used our extensive, well-developed railroad network. People did not need automobiles to conduct their daily activities. Rather, the people who bought cars used them as a new means of recreation. They drove them on joyrides into the countryside. The recreational aspect of these early cars was so important that people of the time divided motor vehicles into two large categories: commercial vehicles, like trucks and taxicabs, and pleasure vehicles, like private automobiles. The term “passenger cars” was still years away. The automobile was an amazing invention, but it was essentially an expensive toy, a plaything for the rich. It was not yet a true innovation.
Henry Ford had a wider vision for the automobile. He summed it up in a statement that appeared in 1913 in the company magazine, Ford Times:
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
This 1924 Ford ad, part of a series, echoes the vision expressed 11 years earlier by Henry Ford: “Back of all of the activities of the Ford Motor Company is this Universal idea—a wholehearted belief that riding on the people’s highway should be in easy reach of all the people.” / THF95501
It was this vision that moved Henry Ford from inventor and businessman to innovator. To achieve his vision, Ford drew on all the qualities he had been developing since childhood: curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, leadership, a preference for learning by trial and error, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to identify and attract talented people.
One Innovation Leads to Another
Ford himself guided a design team that created a car that pushed technical boundaries. The Model T’s one-piece engine block and removable cylinder head were unusual in 1908 but would eventually become standard on all cars. The Ford’s flexible suspension system was specifically designed to handle the dreadful roads that were then typical in the United States. The designers utilized vanadium alloy steel that was stronger for its weight than standard carbon steel. The Model T was lighter than its competitors, allowing its 20-horsepower engine to give it performance equal to that of more expensive cars.
1908 advertisement for the 1909 Ford Model T. In advertisements, Ford Motor Company emphasized key technological features and the low prices of their Model Ts. Ford's usage of vanadium steel enabled the company to make a lighter, sturdier, and more reliable vehicle than other early competitors. / THF122987
The new Ford car proved to be so popular that Henry could easily sell all he could make, but he wanted to be able to make all he could sell. So Ford and his engineers began a relentless drive both to raise the rate at which Model Ts could be produced and to lower the cost of production.
In 1910, the company moved into a huge new factory in Highland Park, a city just north of Detroit. Borrowing ideas from watchmakers, clockmakers, gunmakers, sewing machine makers, and meat processors, Ford Motor Company had, by 1913, developed a moving assembly line for automobiles. But Ford did not limit himself to technical improvements.
When his workforce objected to the relentless, repetitive work that the line entailed, Ford responded with perhaps his boldest idea ever—he doubled wages to $5 per day. With that one move, he stabilized his workforce and gave it the ability to buy the very cars it made. He hired a brilliant accountant named Norval Hawkins as his sales manager. Hawkins created a sales organization and advertising campaign that fueled potential customers’ appetites for Fords. Model T sales rose steadily while the selling price dropped. By 1921, half the cars in America were Model Ts, and a new one could be had for as little as $415.
Norval Hawkins headed the sales department at Ford Motor Company for 12 years, introducing innovative advertising techniques and increasing Ford’s annual sales from 14,877 vehicles in 1907 to 946,155 in 1919. / THF145969
Through these efforts, Ford turned the automobile from an invention bought by the rich into a true innovation available to a wide audience. By the 1920s, largely as a result of the Model T’s success, the term “pleasure car” was fading away, replaced by “passenger car.”
The assembly line techniques pioneered at Highland Park spread throughout the auto industry and into other manufacturing industries as well. The high-wage, low-skill jobs pioneered at Highland Park also spread throughout the manufacturing sector. Advertising themes pioneered by Ford Motor Company are still being used today. Ford’s curiosity, leadership, mechanical ability, willingness to take risks, ability to attract talented people, and vision produced innovations in transportation, manufacturing, labor relations, and advertising.
What We Have Here Is a Failure to Innovate
Henry Ford was slow to admit that customers no longer wanted the Model T. However, in 1927, he finally acknowledged that shift, and Henry Ford and his son, Edsel Ford, drove this last Model T—number 15,000,000—off the assembly line at Highland Park. / THF135450
Henry Ford’s great success did not necessarily bring with it great wisdom. In fact, his very success may have blinded him as he looked to the future. The Model T was so successful that he saw no need to significantly change or improve it. He did authorize many detail changes that resulted in lower cost or improved reliability, but there was never any fundamental change to the design he had laid down in 1907.
He was slow to adopt innovations that came from other carmakers, like electric starters, hydraulic brakes, windshield wipers, and more luxurious interiors. He seemed not to realize that the consumer appetites he had encouraged and fulfilled would continue to grow. He seemed not to want to acknowledge that once he started his company down the road of innovation, it would have to keep innovating or else fall behind companies that did innovate. He ignored the growing popularity of slightly more expensive but more stylish and comfortable cars, like the Chevrolet, and would not listen to Ford executives who believed it was time for a new model.
But Model T sales were beginning to slip by 1923, and by the late 1920s, even Henry Ford could no longer ignore the declining sales figures. In 1927, he reluctantly shut down the Model T assembly lines and began the design of an all-new car. It appeared in December 1927 and was such a departure from the old Ford that the company went back to the beginning of the alphabet for a name—it was called the Model A.
Edsel and Henry Ford introduce the new Model A at the Ford Industrial Exposition in New York in January 1928. Edsel had worked to convince his father to replace the outmoded Model T with something new. / THF91597
One area where Ford did keep innovating was in actual car production. In 1917, he began construction of a vast new plant on the banks of the Rouge River southwest of Detroit. This plant would give Ford Motor Company complete control over nearly all aspects of the production process. Raw materials from Ford mines would arrive on Ford boats, and would be converted into iron and steel, which were transformed into engines, transmissions, frames, and bodies. Glass and tires would be made onsite as well, and all of this would be assembled into completed cars. Assembly of the new Model A was transferred to the Rouge. Eventually the plant would employ 100,000 people and generate many innovations in auto manufacturing.
But improvements in manufacturing were not enough to make up for the fact that Henry Ford was no longer a leader in automotive design. The Model A was competitive for only four years before needing to be replaced by a newer model. In 1932, at age 69, Ford introduced his last great automotive innovation, the lightweight, inexpensive V-8 engine. It represented a real technological and marketing breakthrough, but in other areas Fords continued to lag behind their competitors.
The V-8 engine was Henry Ford’s last great automotive innovation. This is the first V-8 engine produced, which is on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF101039
By 1936, the company that once sold half of the cars made in America had fallen to third place behind both General Motors and the upstart Chrysler Corporation. By the time Henry Ford died in 1947, his great company was in serious trouble, and a new generation of innovators, led by his grandson Henry Ford II, would work long and hard to restore it to its former glory. Henry’s story is a textbook example of the power of innovation—and the power of its absence.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Henry Ford and Innovation: From the Curators.”
“Whenever Henry Ford visited England, he always liked to spend a few days in the Cotswold Country, of which he was very fond … during these sojourns I had many happy times driving Mr. Ford around the lovely scenes which abound in this part of Britain.”
—Herbert Morton, Strange Commissions for Henry Ford
A winding road through a Cotswold village, October 1930. / THF148434, detail
The Cotswolds Catch Henry Ford’s Eye
Henry Ford loved the Cotswolds, a rural region in southwest England—nearly 800 square miles of rolling hills, pastures, and small villages.
During the Middle Ages, a vibrant wool trade brought the Cotswolds great prosperity—at its heart was a breed of sheep known as Cotswold Lions. For centuries, the Cotswold region was well-known throughout Europe for the quality of its wool. Raising sheep, trading in wool, and woolen cloth fueled England’s economic growth from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Cotswold’s prosperity and its rich belt of limestone that provided ready building material resulted in a distinctive style of architecture: limestonehomes, churches, shops, and farm buildings of simplicity and grace.
During Henry Ford’s trips to the Cotswolds in the 1920s, he became intrigued with the area’s natural beauty and charming architecture—all those lovely stone buildings that “blossomed” among the verdant green countryside and clustered together in Cotswold’s picturesque villages. By early 1929, Ford had decided he wanted to acquire and move a Cotswold home to Greenfield Village.
A letter dated February 4, 1929, from Ford secretary Frank Campsall described that Ford was looking for “an old style that has not had too many changes made to it that could be restored to its true type.” Herbert Morton, Ford’s English agent, was assigned the task of locating and purchasing a modest building “possessing as many pretty local features as might be found.” Morton began to roam the countryside looking for just such a house. It wasn’t easy. Cotswold villages were far apart, so his search covered an extensive area. Owners of desirable properties were often unwilling to sell. Those buildings that were for sale might have only one nice feature—for example, a lovely doorway, but no attractive window elements.
Cotswold Cottage (buildings shown at left) nestled among the rolling hills in Chedworth, 1929–1930. / THF236012
Herbert Morton was driving through the tiny village of Lower Chedworth when he saw it. Constructed of native limestone, the cottage had “a nice doorway, mullions to the windows, and age mellowed drip-stones.” Morton knew he had found the house he had been looking for. It was late in the day, and not wanting to knock on the door and ask if the home was for sale, Morton returned to the town of Cheltenham, where he was staying.
The next morning Morton strolled along a street in Cheltenham, pondering how to approach the home’s owner. He stopped to look into a real estate agent’s window—and saw a photograph of the house, which was being offered for sale! Later that day, Morton arrived in Chedworth, and was greeted by the owner, Margaret Cannon Smith, and her father. The cottage, constructed out of native limestone in the early 1600s, had begun life as a single cottage, with the second cottage added a bit later.
Interior of Cotswold Cottage, 1929-1930. / THF236052
The home was just as quaint inside—large open fireplaces with the mantels supported on oak beams. Heavy oak beams graced the ceilings and the roof. Spiral stone staircases led to the second floor. Morton bought the house and the two acres on which it stood under his own name from Margaret Smith in April 1929 for approximately $5000. Ford’s name was kept quiet. Had the seller been aware that the actual purchaser was Henry Ford, the asking price might have been higher.
Cotswold Cottage (probably built about 1619) as it looked when Herbert Morton spotted it, 1929–1930. / THF236020
“Perfecting” the Cotswold Look
Over the next several months, Herbert Morton and Frank Campsall, Ford’s personal secretary, traded correspondence concerning repairs and (with the best of intentions on Ford’s part) some “improvements” Ford wanted done to the building: the addition of architectural features that best exemplified the Cotswold style. Morton sent sketches, provided by builder and contractor W. Cox-Howman from nearby Stow-on-the-Wold, showing typical Cotswold architectural features not already represented in the cottage from which to choose. Ford selected the sketch which offered the largest number of typical Cotswold features.
Ford’s added features on the left cottage included a porch (a copy of one in the Cotswold village of Rissington), a dormer window, a bay window, and a beehive oven.
Cotswold Cottage, 1929–1930, showing modifications requested by Henry Ford: the beehive oven, porch, and dormer window. / THF235980
Bay window added to the left cottage by Henry Ford (shown 1929–1930). Iron casement windows were added throughout. / THF236054
The cottage on the right got a doorway “makeover” and some dove-holes. These holes are commonly found in the walls of barns, but not in houses. It would have been rather unappealing to have bird droppings so near the house!
Ford’s modifications to the right cottage—a new doorway (top) and dove-holes (bottom) on the upper wall. / THF236004, THF235988
Cotswold Cottage, now sporting Henry Ford’s desired alterations. / THF235984
Ford wanted the modifications completed before the building was disassembled—perhaps so that he could establish the final “look” of the cottage, as well as be certain that there were sufficient building materials. The appearance of the house now reflected both the early 1600s and the 1920s—each of these time periods became part of the cottage’s history. Ford’s additions, though not original to the house, added visual appeal.
The modifications were completed by early October 1929. The land the cottage stood on was transferred to the Ford Motor Company and later sold.
By January 1930, the dismantling of the modified cottage was in process. To carry out the disassembly, Morton again hired local contractor W. Cox-Howman.
Building components being crated for shipment to the United States. / THF148475
Doors, windows, staircases, and other architectural features were removed and packed in 211 crates.
Cotswold building stones ready for shipment in burlap sacks. / THF148477
The building stones were placed in 506 burlap sacks.
Cotswold barn and stable on original site, 1929–1930. / THF235974
The adjacent barn and stable, as well as the fence, were also dismantled and shipped along with the cottage.
Hauled by a Great Western Railway tank engine, 67 train cars transported the materials from the Cotswolds to London to be shipped overseas. /THF132778
The disassembled cottage, fence, and stable—nearly 500 tons worth—were ready for shipment in late March 1930. The materials were loaded into 67 Great Western Railway cars and transported to Brentford, west London, where they were carefully transferred to the London docks. From there, the Cotswold stones crossed the Atlantic on the SS London Citizen.
As one might suspect, it wasn’t a simple or inexpensive move. The sacks used to pack many of the stones were in rough condition when they arrived in New Jersey—at 600 to 1200 pounds per package, the stones were too heavy for the sacks. So, the stones were placed into smaller sacks that were better able to withstand the last leg of their journey by train from New Jersey to Dearborn. Not all of the crates were numbered; some that were had since lost their markings. One package went missing and was never accounted for—a situation complicated, perhaps, by the stones having been repackaged into smaller sacks.
Despite the problems, all the stones arrived in Dearborn in decent shape—Ford’s project manager/architect, Edward Cutler, commented that there was no breakage. Too, Herbert Morton had anticipated that some roof tiles and timbers might need to be replaced, so he had sent some extra materials along—materials taken from old cottages in the Cotswolds that were being torn down.
In April 1930, the disassembled Cotswold Cottage and its associated structures arrived at Greenfield Village. English contractor Cox-Howman sent two men, mason C.T. Troughton and carpenter William H. Ratcliffe, to Dearborn to help re-erect the house. Workers from Ford Motor Company’s Rouge Plant also came to assist. Reassembling the Cotswold buildings began in early July, with most of the work completed by late September. Henry Ford was frequently on site as Cotswold Cottage took its place stone-by-stone in Greenfield Village.
Before the English craftsmen returned home, Clara Ford arranged a special lunch at the cottage, with food prepared in the cottage’s beehive oven. The men also enjoyed a sight-seeing trip to Niagara Falls before they left for England in late November.
By the end of July 1930, the cottage walls were nearly completed. / THF148485
On August 20, 1930, the buildings were ready for their shingles to be put in place. The stone shingles were put up with copper nails, a more modern method than the wooden pegs originally used. / THF148497
Cotswold barn, stable, and dovecote, photographed by Michele Andonian. / THF53508
Free-standing dovecotes, designed to house pigeons or doves which provided a source of fertilizer, eggs, and meat, were not associated with buildings such as Cotswold Cottage. They were found at the homes of the elite. Still, for good measure, Ford added a dovecote to the grouping about 1935. Cutler made several plans and Ford chose a design modeled on a dovecote in Chesham, England.
Henry and Clara Ford Return to the Cotswolds
The Lygon Arms in Broadway, where the Fords stayed when visiting the Cotswolds. / THF148435, detail
As reconstruction of Cotswold Cottage in Greenfield Village was wrapping up in the fall of 1930, Henry and Clara Ford set off for a trip to England. While visiting the Cotswolds, the Fords stayed at their usual hotel, the Lygon Arms in Broadway, one of the most frequently visited of all Cotswold villages.
Henry (center) and Clara Ford (second from left) visit the original site of Cotswold Cottage, October 1930. / THF148446, detail
While in the Cotswolds, Henry Ford unsurprisingly asked Morton to take him and Clara to the site where the cottage had been.
Cotswold village of Stow-on-the-Wold, 1930. / THF148440, detail
At Stow-on-the-Wold, the Fords called on the families of the English mason and carpenter sent to Dearborn to help reassemble the Cotswold buildings.
Village of Snowshill in the Cotswolds. / THF148437, detail
During this visit to the Cotswolds, the Fords also stopped by the village of Snowshill, not far from Broadway, where the Fords were staying. Here, Henry Ford examined a 1600s forge and its contents—a place where generations of blacksmiths had produced wrought iron farm equipment and household objects, as well as iron repair work, for people in the community.
The forge on its original site at Snowshill, 1930. / THF146942
A few weeks later, Ford purchased the dilapidated building. He would have it dismantled, and then shipped to Dearborn in February 1931. The reconstructed Cotswold Forge would take its place near the Cotswold Cottage in Greenfield Village.
To see more photos taken during Henry and Clara Ford’s 1930 tour of the Cotswolds, check out this photograph album in our Digital Collections.
Cotswold Cottage Complete in Greenfield Village—Including Wooly “Residents”
Completed the previous fall, Cotswold Cottage is dusted with snow in this January 1931 photograph. Cotswold sheep gather in the barnyard, watched over by Rover, Cotswold’s faithful sheepdog. (Learn Rover's story here.) / THF623050
A Cotswold sheep (and feline friend) in the barnyard, 1932. / THF134679
Beyond the building itself, Henry Ford brought over Cotswold sheep to inhabit the Cotswold barnyard. Sheep of this breed are known as Cotswold Lions because of their long, shaggy coats and faintly golden hue.
Cotswold Cottage stood ready to welcome—and charm—visitors when Greenfield Village opened to the public in June 1933. / THF129639
By the Way: Who Once Lived in Cotswold Cottage?
Cotswold Cottage, as it looked in the early 1900s. From Old Cottages Farm-Houses, and Other Stone Buildings in the Cotswold District, 1905, by W. Galsworthy Davie and E. Guy Dawber. / THF284946
Before Henry Ford acquired Cotswold Cottage for Greenfield Village, the house had been lived in for over 300 years, from the early 1600s into the late 1920s. Many of the rapid changes created by the Industrial Revolution bypassed the Cotswold region and in the 1920s, many area residents still lived in similar stone cottages. In previous centuries, many of the region’s inhabitants had farmed, raised sheep, worked in the wool or clothing trades, cut limestone in the local quarries, or worked as masons constructing the region’s distinctive stone buildings. Later, silk- and glove-making industries came to the Cotswolds, though agriculture remained important. By the early 1900s, tourism became a growing part of the region’s economy.
A complete history of those who once occupied Greenfield Village’s Cotswold Cottage is not known, but we’ve identified some of the owners since the mid-1700s. The first residents who can be documented are Robert Sley and his wife Mary Robbins Sley in 1748. Sley was a yeoman, a farmer who owned the land he worked. From 1790 at least until 1872, Cotswold was owned by several generations of Robbins descendants named Smith, who were masons or limeburners (people who burned limestone in a kiln to obtain lime for mixing with sand to make mortar).
As the Cotswold region gradually evolved over time, so too did the nature of some of its residents. From 1920 to 1923, Austin Lane Poole and his young family owned the Cotswold Cottage. Medieval historian, fellow, and tutor at St. John’s College at Oxford University (about 35 miles away), Poole was a scholar who also enjoyed hands-on work improving the succession of Cotswold houses that he owned. Austin Poole had gathered documents relating to the Sley/Robbins/Smith families spanning 1748 through 1872. It was these deeds and wills that revealed the names of some of Cotswold Cottage’s former owners. In 1937, after learning that the cottage had been moved to Greenfield Village, Poole gave these documents to Henry Ford.
In 1926, Margaret Cannon Smith purchased the house, selling it in 1929 to Herbert Morton, on Henry Ford’s behalf.
“Olde English” Captures the American Imagination
At the time that Henry Ford brought Cotswold Cottage to Greenfield Village, many Americans were drawn to historic English architectural design—what became known as Tudor Revival. The style is based on a variety of late Middle Ages and early Renaissance English architecture. Tudor Revival, with its range of details reminiscent of thatched-roof cottages, Cotswold-style homes, and grand half-timbered manor houses, became the inspiration for many middle-class and upper-class homes of the 1920s and 1930.
These picturesque houses filled suburban neighborhoods and graced the estates of the wealthy. Houses with half-timbering and elaborate detail were often the most obvious examples of these English revival houses, but unassuming cottage-style homes also took their place in American towns and cities. Mansion or cottage, imposing or whimsical, the Tudor Revival house was often made of brick or stone veneer, was usually asymmetrical, and had a steep, multi-gabled roof. Other characteristics included entries in front-facing gables, arched doorways, large stone or brick chimneys (often at the front of the house), and small-paned casement windows.
Edsel Ford’s home at Gaukler Pointe, about 1930. / THF112530
Henry Ford’s son Edsel and his wife Eleanor built their impressive but unpretentious home, Gaukler Pointe, in the Cotswold Revival style in the late 1920s.
Postcard, Postum Cereal Company office building in Battle Creek, Michigan, about 1915. / THF148469
Tudor Revival design found its way into non-residential buildings as well. The Postum Cereal Company (now Post Cereals) of Battle Creek, Michigan, chose to build an office building in this centuries-old English style.
Plan for “An Attractive English Cottage” from the American Face Brick Association plan book, 1921. / THF148542
Cotswold Cottage in Greenfield Village, photographed by Michelle Andonian. / THF53489
Henry Ford was not alone in his attraction to the distinctive architecture of the Cotswold region and the English cottage he transported to America. Cotswold Cottage remains a favorite with many visitors to Greenfield Village, providing a unique and memorable experience.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
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.
“The fact that Webster dwelt and worked on his dictionary there gives this structure singular historic interest…. That all this must disappear shortly before the crowbars of the wreckers is a matter of genuine regret…”
—J. Frederick Kelly, New Haven resident and architect, quoted in New Haven Register, July 20, 1936
Article from the New Haven Register, New Haven, Connecticut, July 20, 1936. / THF624813
In the mid-1930s, Yale University, owner of the Noah Webster Home on Temple Street in New Haven, Connecticut, decided this former home of one of its notable alumni needed to be torn down. It was the Depression, and Yale’s financial situation required some retrenchment. Tearing down the Webster house, along with eleven other Yale-owned homes, would cut the university’s tax bill and save the expense of maintenance, while providing space for new construction better suited to the university’s needs.
The house came very near to being demolished.
In this comfortable home, completed in 1823 at Temple and Grove streets, Noah Webster had enjoyed an active family life, written many of his publications, and completed his ultimate life’s work—America’s first dictionary. Noah and Rebecca Webster had moved to New Haven in their later years to be near family and friends, as well as the library at nearby Yale College. While living in this house, Webster published his famous American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.
Silhouette of Noah and Rebecca Webster by Samuel Metford, 1842. / THF119764
What happened to the house after the deaths of Noah in 1843 and Rebecca in 1847? For the next seven decades, the Temple Street house was filled with new generations of Webster descendants and their relations.
The Trowbridge Era
After Noah Webster’s death in 1843, the house became part of Webster’s estate. In his will, his wife Rebecca received the lifetime use of the Temple Street house. In March 1849, executors of the Webster estate, William Ellsworth (a son-in-law) and Henry White, deeded the property to Henry Trowbridge, Jr., a merchant who sold goods imported from the Far East and a director of the New Haven Bank. (Trowbridge took out a mortgage on the house in 1850, probably to compensate the estate for the value of the house.) Trowbridge had married Webster granddaughter Mary Southgate in 1838. Mary had been raised by Noah and Rebecca Webster and had grown up in the Temple Street house. Henry and Mary Trowbridge had six children: five daughters as well as a son who died young. Mary Southgate Trowbridge passed away in May 1860 of tuberculosis at the age of 41.
In 1861, Henry Trowbridge married again, to Sarah Coles Hull. Their son Courtlandt, born in 1870, was the only surviving child of the marriage.
About 1870, prosperous Henry Trowbridge decided to remodel the house, adding a wealth of “updates” in the then-fashionable Victorian style. These included five bay windows, as well as marble fireplace mantles, plaster ceiling medallions, exterior and interior doors, and elaborately carved walnut woodwork on the first floor. Trowbridge also lengthened the first-floor windows and built a brick addition on the back.
Noah Webster Home showing Victorian-era changes, including the bay windows and addition at the rear of the home. Top photo taken about 1927; bottom photo, in 1936. / THF236369, THF236375
Over the years, the house was filled with the rhythms of everyday life and the comings and goings of family. Nine Trowbridge children grew up there—six of them were born in the house and three of them died there. Daughters married and moved out. One Trowbridge daughter made two long-distance visits home during the years she and her merchant husband lived in Hong Kong. Another returned home for a time as a widow with a young child. In the 1910s, during the final years of Trowbridge ownership, the widowed Sarah lived in the house with her son Courtlandt, his wife Cornelia, and their three children.
Webster Home—perhaps a bit overgrown—about 1912. / THF236373
In 1918, the year following his mother’s death, 68-year-old Courtlandt Trowbridge sold the Temple Street house in which he had lived since birth “for the consideration of one dollar,” deeding the property to the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, located a block from the Webster house on Grove Street. Courtlandt, a Sheffield graduate, then moved to Washington, a rural village in northwest Connecticut, along with his wife, Sarah, and youngest son, Robert.
Sheffield Scientific School offered courses in science and engineering. Following World War I, its curriculum gradually became completely integrated with Yale University’s—undergraduate courses were taught at Sheffield from 1919 to 1945, coexisting with Yale’s science programs. (Sheffield would cease to function as a separate entity in 1956.) The Sheffield Scientific School used the Webster house as a men’s dormitory for freshmen for almost 20 years.
Postcard, Vanderbilt-Sheffield dormitories on Chapel Street in New Haven, about 1909. / THF624833
The Webster house wasn’t Sheffield’s only dormitory, though. The impressive Vanderbilt-Sheffield dorms, dating from the early 1900s, served most of Sheffield’s students. The Noah Webster Home provided some additional space for freshmen to live.
A view of Temple street about 1927, during the time Yale University used the Webster house (shown at far right) as a dormitory. / THF236367
In 1936, Yale decided that retaining the “non-revenue-bearing” house was not financially viable for the university. It was no longer needed as a dorm because of the construction of Yale’s Dwight College, opened in September 1935. Removing the Webster home would also provide space for growth for the university. (The site would become part of Yale’s Silliman College.)
A Timely Rescue
In early July 1936, Yale University was granted permission to demolish the house. (The louvered, elliptical window was to go to the Yale Art School.) The house was sold to Charles Merberg and Sons, a wrecking company. But there were attempts to save the home. Soon after Yale University was granted a permit on July 3 to tear down the house, the local newspaper, the New Haven Register, began a campaign to save it. New Haven resident Arnold Dana, a retired journalist, offered to contribute to a fund to preserve the house, but no additional offers of funds came. For several weeks, articles appeared in newspapers in New York and other large cities on the subject.
Initial interest in preserving the building by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA, now Historic New England) waned because of the Victorian-era changes. William Sumner Appleton, the society’s founder and a chief force behind the preservation of many historic buildings in New England, thought the building might make an interesting museum if a private individual would take on the project. Appleton said that SPNEA had no funds to do so.
J. Frederick Kelly, a New Haven resident, architect, and author of books on early Connecticut architecture, noted the building’s historical significance and commented on its architecture: “…the fine proportion and delicate scale of the Temple Street façade mark it as one of unusual distinction. The design of the gable … contains a very handsome elliptical louvre … an outstanding feature that has no counterpart in the East so far as I am aware.”
Telegram to Edsel Ford concerning the imminent demolition of the Noah Webster Home in New Haven, Connecticut. / THF624805
On July 29, R.T. Haines Halsey sent a telegram to Edsel Ford. Halsey let Edsel know that the Webster house was “in the hands of wreckers” and that it would fit in well with “your father’s scheme” for Greenfield Village. Immediate action was needed to save the house.
1924 postcard, American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, built to display American decorative arts from the 1600s to the early 1800s. / THF148348
Halsey, a retired New York City stockbroker, was a collector of decorative arts who was instrumental in the opening of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City in 1924. In the 1930s, Halsey had become a research assistant in the Stirling Library at Yale University. Halsey may have chosen to contact Henry through Edsel because of Edsel’s interest in art and involvement with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
On July 27, Ralph J. Sennott, manager of the Wayside Inn in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, a historic inn restored by Henry Ford, sent Ford a letter. (Perhaps it reached Ford about the time that Halsey’s telegram did.) Sennott also made Ford aware that the Webster home was in the hands of the wrecking company and that the building needed to be removed by September 1. The wrecker was willing to sell the house, but demolition work was to begin August 3. Henry Ford paid a $100 deposit on the house on August 2 to prevent demolition going forward. Ford was given until September 15 to make his final decision on acquiring the building.
Henry Ford arrived in New Haven on September 10 to see the Webster home in person. According to Lewis Merberg of the wrecking company, Ford appreciated the building for its historical significance more than for its “antiquity.” Noah Webster likely would have appealed to Ford as the author of the popular “Blue-Backed Speller,” used by many early American schools. Ford completed the purchase, paying about $1000 for the home.
Letter from Harold Davis of the Historic American Buildings Survey to Henry Ford, September 14, 1936. / THF624811
Noting Ford’s interest in the building, Harold Davis, the Connecticut district officer of the Historic America Building Survey, made Ford aware that the organization—whose purpose it was to measure and record historic buildings—had documented the Webster house in 1934. Ford acquired copies of these drawings, which were available at the Library of Congress.
The Noah Webster Home Moves to Dearborn
When Edward Cutler, the man responsible for moving and reassembling buildings in Greenfield Village for Henry Ford, arrived in New Haven in mid-September, wreckers had already removed windows and other parts of the house. The interior was not in the best state of repair—likely a little worse for wear after almost 20 years serving as home to college freshmen. Additional documentation of the house was needed before a wrecking crew disassembled the building under Edward Cutler’s direction. Cutler took more measurements. More photos of the home’s exterior and interior would assist with its reassembly in Greenfield Village.
Edward J. Cutler made detailed drawings of the house before it was dismantled. / THF132776
Image of the back of the Webster home taken in 1936 by a local New Haven photographer, perhaps at the request of Henry Ford or one of his representatives. / THF236377
Interior of house, view from the dining room looking towards the bay window in the sitting room. / THF236381
Edsel’s son Henry Ford II, then a Yale freshman, posed in front of the Noah Webster Home during its dismantling in October 1936. / THF624803
With this move, the Noah Webster Home would shed some of its Victorian-era “modernizing.” Cutler removed the four second-floor bay windows added during the Trowbridge renovation. He did retain some Trowbridge updates—exterior and interior doors, interior architectural details, and the first-floor bay window.
In October 1936, the Webster house was dismantled and packed up in about two weeks, according to Ed Cutler. Then it was shipped to Dearborn.
Webster Home reassembled in Greenfield Village, September 1938. / THF132717
Reassembly in Greenfield Village took about a year. In June 1937, workmen broke ground for the foundation of the home. By the end of December, most of the exterior work had been completed. Progress on the interior continued through the winter months. By July 1938, finishing touches were being added to the house.
Edison Institute High School girls prepare a meal in the Webster kitchen, 1942. THF118924
Until 1946, high school girls from the Edison Institute Schools used the Noah Webster Home as a live-in home economics laboratory—a modern kitchen was provided in the brick addition built on the back of the home. Henry Ford had opened the school on the campus of his museum and village in 1929.
The Noah Webster Home finally opened to the public for the first time in 1962, telling the story of Webster and America’s first dictionary. Yet the Webster house was furnished to showcase fine furnishings in period room-like settings, rather than reflecting a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before.
Noah Webster Home Today
Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village. / THF1882
In 1989, after much research on the house and the Webster family, museum staff made the decision to return the entire home to its original appearance during the Websters’ lifetime. The remaining Victorian additions were removed, including the first-floor bay window, interior woodwork, and interior doorways added during the Trowbridge era.
Noah Webster Home sitting room after 1989 reinstallation. / THF186509
Webster family correspondence and other documents painted a picture of a household that included not only family activities, but more public ones as well. Based on this research, curators created a new furnishings plan for the reinstallation. Now visitors could imagine the Websters living there.
Pay the Websters a Visit
Whew—close call. In 1936, the Noah Webster Home was saved in the nick of time.
Now that you know “the rest of the story,” stop by the Webster Home in Greenfield Village. Enjoy this immersive look into the past and its power to inspire us today. Hear the story of the Websters’ lives in this home during the 1830s, learn about Noah’s work on America’s first dictionary and other publications, and experience the furnished rooms that give the impression that the Websters still live there today.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.