Randy Mason (right) waves from inside the door of the Ingersoll-Rand Diesel-Electric Locomotive No. 90, January 1985. / THF271030, detail
The Henry Ford is saddened by the passing of Randy Mason on Saturday, March 19, 2022. Randy was Curator of Transportation at our institution for 20 years. He left a lasting mark on our mobility collections, and on our annual Old Car Festival and Motor Muster shows.
Randy was operating an automobile rustproofing franchise in Inkster, Michigan, when he crossed paths with Leslie Henry, then The Henry Ford’s Curator of Transportation. Les was so impressed with Randy’s knowledge of automotive history, and his passion for the subject, that he convinced Randy to leave the franchise and put the full range of his talents to work at the museum.
Randy succeeded Les Henry as Curator of Transportation in 1971. He oversaw the automotive, railroad, and aviation collections at a transformative time for The Henry Ford. Tightly-packed rows of cars and machines, long a fixture at automotive and industrial museums, were falling out of favor with visitors, who wanted more in the way of explanation and context. Randy helped create uniform labels and signs, and more thoughtful displays, throughout The Henry Ford’s transportation exhibits.
Undoubtedly, the most dramatic change during Randy’s tenure came in 1987 with the opening of The Automobile in American Life. The 50,000-square foot exhibition was a landmark in interpreting automotive history. Rather than focusing on the car as a technology, the exhibit explored the many changes that the car brought to everyday life in the United States. Automobiles were shown alongside related objects, like highway travel guides, fast food restaurant signs, and even a real tourist cabin and a re-created Holiday Inn room, that provided greater context for guests. The Automobile in American Life was replaced by Driving America in 2012, but its core concept—treating the car not only as a technological force but as a social force—endures in the new exhibit.
Even after he left The Henry Ford, Randy remained active in the automotive world, both as a historian and as an enthusiast. He was involved with the Henry Ford Heritage Association and he worked on the successful effort to preserve the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit. We will miss Randy, but we take heart knowing that his efforts, his knowledge, and his passion survive—in the artifacts he preserved, in the articles he wrote, and in the many new enthusiasts he inspired through his work.
Even as trucks and highways spread in the first half of the 20th century, industrial America largely still ran on rails. Manufacturers relied on railroads to bring in raw materials and ship out finished goods. The largest factories had extensive railyards filled with cars that needed to be shuttled around. Raw materials used by those factories were supplied by extractive enterprises like mines, quarries, and logging operations that operated internal railroads of their own. Clearly, there was a market for reliable, easy-to-operate locomotives that could be used on these private industrial railroads.
The J.D. Fate Company got into that market in 1914, building diesel and gasoline locomotives under the “Plymouth” brand (named for the company’s hometown of Plymouth, Ohio). Five years later, the firm combined with Root Brothers Company to form the Fate-Root-Heath Company. The newly-merged business manufactured brick and tile-making machinery, hardware and grinders, farm tractors, and—of course—light industrial locomotives.
What made Plymouth locomotives so simple and reliable? Our 1927 example is a gasoline-powered, mechanically driven machine. Its powertrain has more in common with the family car than with a steam locomotive. Steam locomotives burn coal in order to heat water and produce steam. That steam is fed into cylinders, where it pushes pistons that move rods that, in turn, move the driving wheels. Steam locomotives require specialized knowledge and skill to operate.
“Plymouth Gasoline Locomotives”—both the brand and the fuel are clear in this photo. / THF15919
Our Plymouth locomotive is powered by an inline six-cylinder gasoline engine. While it’s larger than what you’d find in a typical car (the Plymouth engine’s displacement is around 1,000 cubic inches), it operates under the same principle. Gasoline is fed into the cylinder and ignited by a spark. The resulting explosion pushes a piston that turns a crankshaft that, via a transmission, turns the driving wheels. And, like an automobile, the Plymouth’s transmission includes a clutch and a four-speed gearbox. If you can drive a car, then you can quickly learn to operate a Plymouth locomotive.
No two industrial railroads were the same, so Plymouth manufactured locomotives in multiple configurations. Track gauge—the width between the rails—was the most important consideration for a Plymouth customer. Standard gauge on American mainline railroads is 4 feet, 8 ½ inches—or 56 ½ total inches. But many industrial operations used less expensive narrow-gauge track. Plymouth built to suit anything from standard gauge down to 18 inches. Furthermore, Plymouth’s spring suspensions and short wheelbases were well suited to rough track with sharp curves.
Over the years, Plymouth also offered different engines and drivetrains. While our locomotive burned gasoline, other Plymouth engines used diesel fuel. (Note that these diesel Plymouths were still mechanically driven. They should not be confused with diesel-electric locomotives, which drive their wheels with electric motors.) In the mid-1940s, Plymouth introduced smooth-running torque converter fluid couplings as an improvement over its earlier mechanical clutches.
Industrial railroads may have been Plymouth’s main customers, but they weren’t the only ones. The company also sold locomotives to temporary railways—those built and used for construction projects like dams, bridges, and highways. Plymouth locomotives were practical, flexible machines that served an important niche market.
Our 1927 Plymouth locomotive earlier in its life, moving coal cars around Detroit’s Mistersky Power Plant, circa 1930. / THF113043
Our Plymouth locomotive was ordered by the Detroit Public Lighting Department—predecessor of today’s DTE Energy—in 1927 at a price of $6,800. It was delivered to the Mistersky Power Plant, a coal-fueled generating station located four miles southwest of downtown Detroit. The 14-ton locomotive spent the next four decades shuttling coal-filled hopper cars around the plant. The Plymouth was retired around 1970 and spent its last years at the plant sitting unused. It came to The Henry Ford in 1980. Today it’s used to move locomotives and cars around the roundhouse and yard in Greenfield Village—just the sort of job a Plymouth was designed to do.
As for the Fate-Root-Heath Company, it was acquired by Banner Industries in the 1960s and renamed Plymouth Locomotive Works. In 1997, Ohio Locomotive Crane bought the firm and, two years later, relocated it to Bucyrus, Ohio, not far from Plymouth. The company no longer builds new locomotives, but spare parts are made under license by other manufacturers. As for the work once done by Plymouth locomotives, while many shippers transitioned to trucks and highways, there are still industries that rely on rail transportation. Many of them now use motorized railcar movers—rubber-tired tractors with auxiliary flanged wheels and railroad couplers. These modern movers offer all the advantages of a Plymouth, but with greater flexibility.
There’s an interesting coda to our Plymouth’s story. Throughout its life at the Mistersky Plant, the locomotive was operated by engineer Charles Vaughn. Born and raised in Indiana, Vaughn moved to Detroit to work on the construction of the Mistersky facility. When that was done, he stayed on to operate the locomotive. Vaughn had no prior experience in railroading but, with an easy-to-run Plymouth, that wasn’t as issue. Mr. Vaughn remained at Mistersky for 45 years before retiring in 1972. In recognition of his long service, Vaughn’s co-workers presented him with the Plymouth’s bell and whistle as parting gifts. (The locomotive’s retirement came before Vaughn’s, so those safety appliances were no longer needed.)
The Plymouth’s original bell, once a retirement gift and now reunited with the locomotive. / THF188367
Charles Vaughn passed away in 1982, but his family held on to the bell and whistle. In 2013, Mr. Vaughn’s family decided to reunite the items with the locomotive. They gifted the bell and whistle to The Henry Ford, and we put them right back onto the Plymouth. We’d like to think Mr. Vaughn would’ve appreciated that thoughtful gesture by his descendants—and the fact that Greenfield Village visitors can still see (and hear) the little locomotive with which he spent so much of his career.
In the face of a challenge, a walk is one of the best ways to jump-start imagination and pave a creative path forward. Take that walk in nature, or, better yet, spend a few days in nature without technology, and research shows our problem-solving abilities soar by as much as 50%.
Inventors and problem solvers need a constant supply of potent inspiration. Books and journal articles, as well as brainstorms with mentors, colleagues, and friends, help. However, in many instances our greatest teacher lives right outside our doors. There, we can find knowledge, wisdom, experience, and a solid track record of success. Nature has the answers we need to solve every problem—if only we know where to look and how to ask the right questions.
Illustration by James Round
What Is Biomimicry?
Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. Whether we’re working on a challenge related to product development, process generation, policy creation, or organizational design, one of the smartest questions we can ask is: “What would nature do?” Asking this question, and then studying nature to find the answers, is a way to discover new sustainable solutions that solve our design challenges without negatively impacting the planet.
Undoubtedly, biomimicry is best learned by doing. It’s a field that requires us to open our eyes, ears, and hearts as we roll up our sleeves to dig deep (sometimes literally into the dirt) to understand, interpret, and then utilize nature’s design principles to solve the challenges we face in our lives.
“Biomimicry applies strategies from the natural world to solve human design challenges,” said Alexandra Ralevski, Ph.D., director of AskNature at the Biomimicry Institute based in Missoula, Montana. “This is a field that has the power to radically transform any industry.”
Being a Bridge: Janine Benyus and the Biomimicry Institute
With varied fields of expertise, including scientific knowledge, business planning, design thinking, and operations, to name just a few, practitioners of biomimicry serve as the bridge between professional groups like scientists, business managers, policymakers, engineers, and designers, who are often siloed from one another.
If all the world is an orchestra of voices, those who study biomimicry are the conductors making room for each of them, ensuring that they rise, shine, and harmonize together for the benefit of all.
It’s impossible to utter a single word about the theory and practice of biomimicry without paying homage to Janine Benyus, a biologist, author, innovation consultant, and self-proclaimed “nature nerd.” Benyus’ groundbreaking book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, has made its way onto bookshelves and into the hearts, hands, and minds of problem solvers.
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus. / Photo courtesy of Biomimicry Institute
“We’re awake now,” she said. “And the question is, how do we stay awake to the living world? How do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?”
To explore this question and bring passionate and multitalented collaborators into community with one another, Benyus co-founded the nonprofit that would become the Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana.
Over a decade later, the organization continues to provide education, support, and innovation inspiration for anyone and everyone who wants to bring the study and application of nature’s design genius into their work and into their lives.
One of the best ways to illustrate biomimicry’s power is to look at some examples.
Whales and Wind
A trio composed of a marine biologist, a mechanical engineer, and an entrepreneur created the most efficient fans and turbines in the world through inspiration found in humpback whales. On the surface, this may seem like an odd connection. How could humpback whales possibly teach a highly skilled group to build a turbine? It turns out that these whales were experts at the exact function these humans wanted to achieve.
The bumps on a humpback whale’s flipper are nature’s answer to what makes a wind turbine extra efficient. / Illustration by James Round
Humpback whales are among the world’s most agile animals. Though they can reach 16 meters (52 feet) in length and 40 tons in weight, they can lift a large portion of their bodies up out of the ocean and into the air in an acrobatic feat that leaves whale watchers breathless. A single jump or leap (called a breach) requires humpback whales to expend only 0.075% of their daily energy intake. Not only is the breach a stunning display of athleticism, it’s also a remarkably efficient action.
Marine biologist Frank Fish suspected the bumps (called tubercles) on the leading edges of the whale’s flippers held the secret to bending the ocean waters to their will. Working with Fish to study this mystery was engineer Phillip Watts. “I had been working in biomechanics and understood the importance of biomimicry, drawing engineering ideas from evolution,” shared Watts.
Together, Fish and Watts found that humpback whales achieved a rare point of design greatness: The tubercles on their flippers could increase lift while simultaneously reducing drag—a genius combination that gives these magnificent creatures such remarkable agility.
Along with a third collaborator, entrepreneur Stephen Dewar, Fish and Watts decided to model their turbine design on the humpback’s flippers. Not surprisingly, their newly fabricated turbines not only produced supreme performance like the whale’s but were highly efficient. Soon after, the trio’s newly formed corporation, WhalePower, became a leading manufacturer of energy-efficient rotating devices for various applications.
“Because nature had done so much work on this [for us],” said Dewar, “we were able to understand what was possible.”
For the Birds
Transportation aficionados know that Japan’s Shinkansen, known as the bullet train, is one of the world’s finest examples of efficient and elegant design. What many people don’t know is that the Shinkansen has a bird to thank for its performance. Known for its silent diving abilities, the kingfisher can break the water while barely making a sound or a splash to claim its favorite meal—minnows and stickleback fish.
The sleek shape of a certain bird’s beak is nature’s answer to conquering a bullet train’s unwelcome sonic boom. / Illustration by James Round
Shinkansen engineers faced a serious structural challenge while designing the bullet train: It created a sonic boom as it emerged from tunnels at high speeds. One of the team’s engineers, who had observed the kingfisher’s precise diving technique, suggested they mimic the bird’s beak shape in the train’s design. Voila! The sonic boom disappeared.
The bullet train’s unique design also had other unforeseen benefits. Its new nose safely increased travel speeds, lowered fuel consumption, and reduced operating costs.
Nature-Inspired Agriculture Infrastructure
A beehive’s structure, a spider web’s power of attraction, and an ice plant’s water storage system are nature’s answers to creating more sustainable food systems. / Illustration by James Round
To promote local agriculture, NexLoop focuses on creating renewable water infrastructure for sustainable food systems. Its main product, AquaWeb, captures, stores and distributes just the right amount of water at just the right time for local food production.
How does it strike this balance? AquaWeb takes its cues from the efficiency of nature, incorporating learnings from multiple organisms: beehives to create structural strength, spider webs to capture water, ice plants to store water and mycelium to distribute water.
Restoring Nature Using Nature’s Models
Biomimicry also guided the strategy of Nucleário, winner of the Ray of Hope Prize, an initiative of the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Company founders wanted to repopulate the forests of their home country, Brazil, where young tree seedlings face overwhelmingly adverse survival odds. Their roots are choked by grasses while their leaves are devoured by leaf-cutter ants.
Of the small handful of trees that reach their first birthday, 95% don’t live to see their second. It’s these long-shot odds that Nucleário sought to combat.
Like NexLoop, Nucleário combined the designs of several natural models to create its tree seedling pods—from the protective abilities of leaf litter and water accumulation talents of bromeliads (think of a pineapple) to the graceful air dispersal skills of anemocoric seeds.
“Our connection to nature and deep-rooted gratitude for all life inspires and sustains us,” said Bruno Rutman Pagnoncelli, CEO and founder of Nucleário. “We look to nature to guide our decisions, from design to raw material selection and everything in between.”
Combining the natural models that inspired them, Nucleário’s founders have built a planting system that provides protection as well as nutrient and moisture maintenance with less human intervention and tending. Their design is both lightweight and strong, with water chambers that collect and distribute water the same way nature does.
Hooked by Nature
Burdock burrs inspired the creation of Velcro during the mid-20th century.
In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral was hunting and noticed his pants were covered with burdock burrs. He wondered how the seedpods could hold on and took to his microscope, examining the burrs’ “hooks” and the way they clung to fabric. After years of research, de Mestral was granted a U.S. patent in 1955 for what became Velcro, his famous hook-and-loop fastener.
What’s Next in Biomimicry?
“Using nature as a model for sustainability means that we always have a benchmark for our designs,” said AskNature’s Ralevski. “This benchmarking is critical to determine success and improve our iterations.”
A hallmark of nature, and by extension biomimicry, is that there is a progression of continuous improvement over time within the context of a specific situation—which could include the geography, environmental circumstances, and economic situation in which a design solution must exist and operate.
Biomimicry successes in energy management, transportation, and architectural design are spurring design experiments in fields as varied as medicine, materials science, textiles, and urban planning. We’re also beginning to see social science applications of biomimicry in community organizations, economic development, and communication systems.
“Biomimicry’s greatest legacy will be more than a stronger fiber or a new drug,” said Janine Benyus. “It will be gratitude and an ardent desire to protect the genius that surrounds us."
To explore some examples of biomimicry in artifacts from the collections of The Henry Ford, check out this expert set.
For many 19th-century railroaders, holidays were workdays like any other. / THF286590
As we gather with family and friends to celebrate the holidays this year, many of us will enjoy a day (or several days) away from the job. But for our essential workers, time off may not be an option. For those who do the daily work that makes modern life possible, a holiday is just another day. In the mid-19th century, the railroader was America’s preeminent essential worker. (Don’t get me wrong—railroaders are still essential workers in the early 21st century, but their industry isn’t as prominent in today’s culture.) Trains had to roll, tracks had to be kept clear, and freight had to move—no matter what the calendar said.
The railroad’s timetable was gospel, holiday or not. / THF203346
Mainline railroading was a 24/7 operation. It was possible to shutter most operations at a roundhouse for a day, and railroads could cancel the local trains that served nearby industries, but longer-distance through freight and passenger trains had to keep moving. Stop a train somewhere and you block that track—and all the other trains that need to use it. Before long, the whole system grinds to a halt. (Today’s passenger airlines experience the same problem when bad weather shuts down a hub airport. Delays cascade throughout the entire network. But airlines can “reset” each night when far fewer flights operate. That’s an advantage railroads have never enjoyed.)
Conductors, engineers, fireman, brakemen, and others often spent their holidays either out on the line or bunking in a railroad dormitory far from home, waiting for their next run. And there might be miserable weather to contend with too. In northern states, December meant cold and snow. Consider the plight of a mid-19th-century brakeman. In the days before George Westinghouse’s air brake, the only way to stop a train was to manually set the individual handbrakes on each car. When the engineer gave the signal, brakemen had to scramble along the roofs of the railcars and spin the iron wheels that applied those brakes. It was a dangerous job in fair weather, but it could be deadly when ice and snow made everything slippery. On a windy night, a brakeman might be blown off into a snowbank below—where he hoped his crewmates noticed his absence before the train went too far.
The firebox kept a locomotive’s cab warm throughout the year—a decided advantage in winter. / THF286564
For the engineer and fireman in the locomotive cab, life was somewhat better. They stayed warm even through the coldest winter days due to the heat from the locomotive’s firebox. (There were surely more than a few enginemen who preferred the cold to sweltering summer days, when cab temperatures were hellish.) But there were still challenges. Snow and ice on the rails required extra skill to keep the locomotive’s wheels from spinning when climbing a long grade. Falling snow obscured the track ahead, making it difficult to see signal lights and lanterns—or an unexpected stopped train.
Polished passenger cars were aesthetically pleasing. They were also highly combustible, should the coal stove (at lower left) tip over in an accident. / THF176785
Riders on passenger trains also stayed out of the weather, but even they had their struggles. Wooden passenger cars were drafty. In the mid-19th century, heat came from a single coal stove in each car. Inevitably, those seated far from the stove shivered, while those seated nearest to it sweated. Given that cars of this period were heavily varnished and trimmed with any number of flammable fabrics and surfaces, coal stoves also posed a serious fire hazard.
Two of America’s worst railroad disasters involved December fires. On December 18, 1867, an eastbound express train derailed while crossing a bridge near Angola, New York. The last car plummeted off the bridge and its stove came apart, scattering hot coals over the wreckage. Forty-nine people are believed to have died in the wreck—most of them burned in the resulting inferno. Newspapers referred to the carnage as the “Angola Horror.”
Nine years later, another bridge-fire accident occurred at Ashtabula, Ohio. On December 29, 1876, a faulty bridge collapsed under the Pacific Express as the train headed west. This time, 11 passenger cars fell into the chasm and an estimated 92 people lost their lives. Some were killed in the crash itself, but others succumbed to the fire ignited by spilled coals and fueled by wooden wreckage. The “Ashtabula Horror” exceeded that of Angola and would remain America’s deadliest railroad accident for more than 40 years.
Clearing snow was the most backbreaking task on the railroad in winter. / THF120726
Trains didn’t go anywhere if the track was blocked, so in snowstorms track crews battled fiercely against falling and drifting snow to keep the way clear. Brute force and backbreaking effort were their best tools. Large plows, pushed by powerful locomotives, threw snow clear of the right-of-way. When the crew encountered a particularly deep or stubborn blockage, there was little choice but to back the plow up for some distance, then open the throttle and hit the drift hard and fast. With luck, the plow pushed through and continued on its way, or at least made a sizeable dent before another try. The worst-case scenario had the plow stuck so deep into a drift that it couldn’t be extracted. When that happened, crew members simply had to shovel it, however long it took. Powerful rotary plows—essentially, snowblowers for railroad track—made the job easier when they arrived in the 1880s, but these expensive machines were generally only used on mountain railroads in the American West.
Artist (and automotive designer) Virgil Exner captured a more romantic vision of winter railroading in this painting from about 1970. / THF36304
Later in the 20th century, as working conditions and passenger safety improved, and as steel coaches and steam heat replaced wooden cars with coal stoves, the railroad found a happier place in our holiday culture. Trains became synonymous with trips back home to visit loved ones, and electric train sets became staples under the Christmas tree—whether as gifts or as decorations. More recently, popular movies like The Polar Express have continued the trend. It may be that there were no holidays on the railroad, but it’s equally true that our holidays wouldn’t be what they are today without it.
In my last blog post, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and, following the war, became part of the Fords’ inner circle.
The Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford holds significant correspondence, designs, and records relating to commissions between Houghton and Henry and Clara Ford. Probably the single document that details the variety of Ford commissions associated with Houghton is a brochure, more of a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm.
From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that no longer survive, as well as provide background for some that are still do. This post centers on two projects, the Fair Lane rail car and Henry and Edsel Ford’s offices in the Ford Engineering Laboratory, which still exist. Fortunately, aspects of both still exist in The Henry Ford’s collection!
Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara Ford, and Mina and Thomas Edison pose on the car’s rear platform about 1923. / THF97966
Images of the Fair Lane rail car from Houghton brochure. / THF121225a
The Fair Lane rail car was built by the Pullman Rail Car Company in Pullman, Illinois, and delivered to Henry and Clara Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, in summer 1921. A detailed history and background on the rail car by Matt Anderson, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Transportation, can be found here.
Sidney Houghton was responsible for creating the interiors and furnishings for the car. Many sources state that he worked with Clara Ford on the designs. What is likely is that Clara Ford approved or disapproved of Houghton’s design work. This is especially evident in the public rooms of the rail car—what Houghton called the “dining saloon” and the “observation parlour.”
The dining room walls are paneled in dark walnut, with veneered elements of mahogany. The effect suggests a richly appointed room from which to view the passing scenery. The styles that Houghton employed, and Clara Ford approved, derived from a combination of eighteenth-century English classical styles, including the caned and oval-backed side chairs and the elegantly carved three-quarter relief columns around the walls. China and glassware were stored in built-in units fitted with slots or pegs to keep the objects from shifting during travel.
What Houghton called the “observation saloon” was where passengers would spend their days while traveling. It was fitted out with sets of upholstered armchairs below the windows and a slant front desk and bookcase against the inner wall. This was an extremely useful piece of furniture; while at the desk, you could read or write correspondence, and when done, store your letters in one of the many drawers in the desk. The upper case allowed plenty of room to store books and other reading materials. Dials above the door to the observation platform displayed the miles per hour, the time, and the outdoor temperature.
As you can see in the recent photographs, over time the painted woodwork in this room was stripped and refinished. Also, the wonderful slant front desk and original light fixtures have not survived. Fortunately, after the Fords sold the rail car in 1942, a subsequent owner lovingly restored the interior, including reproducing much of the furniture, before donating it to The Henry Ford.
The Ford Engineering Laboratory Offices
In the early 1920s, Henry Ford commissioned his favorite architect, Albert Kahn, to design what Ford called his Engineering Laboratory in Dearborn. Completed in 1923, this building came to be the heart of the Ford Motor Company enterprise. Both Henry and his son, Edsel, had offices in the building, and Henry commissioned Sidney Houghton to design identical furniture and woodwork for each. Both offices survive, as does most of the furniture, which is now in the collections of The Henry Ford. Of all of Houghton’s projects for the Fords, it is the best preserved.
Edsel Ford’s office (top) and Henry Ford’s office (bottom) from Houghton brochure. /THF121221a
In looking at the offices, one thing comes to mind: they were designed to impress. Like the rail car, they are paneled in rich walnut, with matching walnut furniture. Both have large conference tables; Henry’s is round, while Edsel’s is rectangular.
Conference table used in Edsel Ford’s office. / THF158754
The chairs and tables all feature heavy, turned, and curved legs, known as cabriole legs. They are also inlaid with woods with their grains carefully arranged to their fullest and most luxurious effect.
The style of this furniture is English Jacobean, deriving from forms used in the seventeenth century. The intent with this furniture was to show off wealth and good taste—as befit a person of Henry Ford’s status.
This console table, seen in the photograph behind Henry Ford’s desk, is inlaid with matched veneers along the drawer front and handles in the shapes of shells. The elaborately turned legs, which look like upside down trumpets, are characteristic of the Jacobean style in England. Combined with the cabriole legs on the chairs, Houghton has mixed and matched English furniture styles here in what decorative arts historians call an eclectic fashion.
Tall Case Clock, works by Waltham Clock Company. / THF158743
If the rest of the office furniture was meant to impress, the tall case clock takes it over the top. Henry Ford was known for his love of clocks and watches. This piece was undoubtedly something that he was proud to possess and show off to guests in his office.
We know from documents that Henry Ford rarely used his office. He preferred to be out in the field visiting with employees or, in later years, in Greenfield Village. Consequently, the furniture shows little signs of wear. Further, there are few photographs of Henry Ford in his office, other than those taken in 1923 when it was newly installed.
On the wall behind the desk is a painting by artist Edward Pennoyer, used as an illustration for a 1931 advertisement. Henry Ford undoubtedly liked the image of himself with the Quadricycle, his first automobile, and hung it behind his desk.
Photograph of Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, to Henry Ford’s right, surrounded by unknown figures, November 1941. / THF240734
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241506
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241508
Only three photographs survive of Henry Ford in his office. All date to November 1941, when the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, visited Henry Ford and toured the Rouge Factory. Guests to the Engineering Laboratory were almost always photographed outside the building or in the adjacent Henry Ford Museum or Greenfield Village.
The third photograph above shows another work of art in the office. The landscape shows Henry Ford’s Wayside Inn, in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, purchased in 1923. This, of course, was a place near and dear to Henry Ford, and helped him to realize his goal of creating Greenfield Village.
As we can see, Sidney Houghton was close to Henry and Clara Ford, designing Henry’s office and the Fair Lane rail car intimate environment, used on a very regular basis. In the next blog post, I will look at the most intimate of the Fords’ interiors—their Fair Lane Estate, onto which Houghton put his own influence during the first half of the 1920s.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. 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.
These days, most people may not be familiar with the interior of a rail car, let alone set foot inside one that is 100 years old. For those of you who have never been inside a railcar, it is very tight quarters—both for people and also for photography equipment and lights. So, when photographer Rudy Ruzicska and myself were tasked with getting new images of the interior of the 1921 Fair Lane, Henry Ford’s private railroad car (now located in the Railroads exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation), we knew we were going to have to get creative—and close!
Photographer Rudy Ruzicska setting up lights for our first exterior shot of the railcar…
We knew that this was going to be a challenge, but a fun one. The largest rooms were at the front and the back of the car, with narrow hallways and small bedrooms between—and even smaller bathrooms! We captured as many angles as we could within such small spaces.
Rudy again, setting up lights for our first interior shot of the lounge….
For most photos, we use a Canon 5D Mark III camera tethered to a MacBook laptop. While we did use that camera for this photo shoot, we knew we would need something with a wider range to capture the small rooms. A fisheye lens is very convex, and because of that shape it allows the camera to capture a larger area. While these lenses are great, their downside is the distortion they create because of the curve of the glass. Since our job in the Photo Studio is, at the core, documentation, we want to show our artifacts exactly as they are, without that distortion, so to capture these small rooms we needed something more.
Our solution was to use another tool already in our toolbox, the Ricoh Theta 360 camera. This small camera is operated via cellphone and app and uses two fisheye lenses to capture a space. The app control allows us to preview the 360-degree image and remotely trigger the camera (so we can make sure we’re out of the shot). The app then stitches together the images to create a full 360-degree interactive image. This is how we were able to capture the interiors of the rooms completely, including the nooks and crannies of these small spaces where our Canon camera simply couldn’t reach.
The Theta camera, mounted on a stand, ready to capture the interior of the lounge. See the 360-degree image (and the others we took) here!
We captured all of the rooms (and bathrooms!) this way, with the Theta, as well as with the Canon camera, to make sure everything was thoroughly documented. Though this certainly led us into a few tight spaces….
Jillian and Rudy doing their best to capture the very small main bathroom and shower off the Fair Lane’s main hallway…
As photographers of the wide variety of artifacts at The Henry Ford, our job is certainly never boring, but when faced with unique requests like the Fair Lane, we get to have a little more fun than usual and really test the limits of our creativity and ingenuity.
I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at how we photographed Henry Ford’s private railcar. Be sure to check out some of the new images on the artifact card below, or click through to our Digital Collections to explore all of the images and 360-degree interiors! And read more about the Fair Lane, its travels, and its history in celebration of its 100th birthday this year.
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.”
Off at the back of the museum’s Made in America: Power exhibit is a rangy apparatus—a water pump made mostly of wood, mounted on a granite plinth. Its business end, a clanking group of wrought- and cast-iron components, represents a beginning point for the technology seen in full flower in the Allegheny locomotive in the Railroads exhibit. Institutionally, we are fortunate in having both the world’s oldest surviving steam engine and one of the most advanced examples of reciprocating steam technology as applied to railroads.
The Newcomen Engine, circa 1750—the world’s oldest surviving steam engine. / THF110472
The importance of the Allegheny locomotive—both institutionally and historically—is hard to overstate. It is both straightforward and paradoxical: an overwhelming machine that has great human appeal; close at hand and yet impossible to fully take in; a blunt instrument of industrial efficiency enshrined on a teakwood floor in an approachable museum setting. In short, it is both plainly stated and chameleon-like—a perfect museum artifact.
Historically, it represents a technology played to the limit of tight physical constraints imposed by a railroad’s right-of-way (sharpness of curves, size of adjacent structures, axle loading of track and bridges). The Allegheny represents a masterfully trim packaging of all the components necessary to make an efficient steam locomotive—a technology pushed to a particular limit with spectacular results.
The refinements embodied by the Allegheny were the result of the Lima Locomotive Company’s chief mechanical engineer, William Woodard, and his relentless pursuit of “superpower.” His success was borne out by designs that demonstrated a 25 to 30 percent increase in efficiency—success that resulted in a steam design revolution that spread to all American locomotive manufacturers.
Ingersoll-Rand Number 90 Diesel-Electric Locomotive, 1926 / THF67890
Despite its virtually complete lack of visual charm (not a shred of rugged elegance here; this is the classic “box on wheels”), the Ingersoll-Rand Diesel-Electric Locomotive on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is actually one of the most significant items in our railroad collections. This engine was part of a calculated and savvy business move by Ingersoll-Rand (partnering with General Electric and American Locomotive) to produce a new locomotive type to challenge the steam locomotive—a deliberate attempt to break into the massive railroad market using internal combustion technology. While Ingersoll-Rand never really gained a foothold in the field, its venture played a successful part in the practical demonstration of this new form of motive power.
Hindsight suggests certain inevitability in the demise of the steam locomotive—an inflexible and inefficient mechanism compared with the modular, easily deployed workhorse diesel. From a 1920s perspective, however, the diesel had little going for it. Overly complex and unproven, it seemed a minor interloper in an industry with so much invested—both monetarily and intellectually—in what was then a mature and refined technology. Even then, however, there were factors starting to work against the all-pervasive steam locomotive, specifically the mid-1920s moves by New York City and Chicago to ban the use of steam locomotives within their city limits on account of pollution concerns—fertile soil for the growth of alternative technologies.
Ingersoll-Rand's Diesel-Electric Locomotive #90 in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1926. Ingersoll-Rand used the locomotive in the railyard at its Phillipsburg plant for some 40 years. Donated to The Henry Ford in 1970, the locomotive received a cosmetic restoration in 1983. / THF271022
There is a touch of David and Goliath about this artifact when viewed in the context of the sheer numbers of steam locomotives then in service. This and other units like it were the unassuming thin end of a wedge that was to revolutionize the railroad scene. In 1925, there was just one diesel to 63,612 steam locomotives in mainline service in the United States; by 1945, there were 3,816 diesels to 38,853 steam locomotives; and by 1960, the final year for steam on Class I railroads here, there were 28,278 diesels to 261 steam locomotives.
Explore our Ingersoll-Rand locomotive and the transition from steam to internal combustion power further here.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”