Henry Ford: Collector

Henry Ford was both interested in artifacts that told a tale of technological advancement, and also those that told the everyday stories of American citizens. His collecting would grow to encompass both.

Origins

Although Henry Ford became one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful industrialists, he never forgot the values of the rural life he had left behind growing up on a farm. His interest in collecting began in 1914, as he searched for McGuffey Readers to verify a long-remembered verse from one of his old grade school recitations. Soon, the clocks and watches he had loved tinkering with and repairing since childhood grew into a collection of their own. Before long, he was accumulating the objects of ordinary people, items connected with his heroes and from his own past, and examples of industrial progress.

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Henry Ford with a McGuffey Reader at the restored McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village.

"History is More or Less Bunk"

In 1916, a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune attacked Henry Ford for his support of U.S. pacifism in World War I. In one article, Ford was quoted as saying, “History is more or less bunk.” Ford sued the Tribune for libel. At the trial that ensued, lawyers mercilessly examined Ford on a variety of schoolbook topics, especially history. As Ford answered question after question incorrectly, he replied in exasperation, “I did not say it was bunk. It was bunk to me…”

Henry Ford never really believed that history is bunk. What he believed was bunk was the kind of history taught in schools—that emphasized kings and generals and omitted the lives of ordinary folks. The trial inspired in Ford the idea of building a museum that would show people a kind of history that wasn’t bunk.

When I went to our American history books to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land, I discovered that the historians knew nothing about harrows. Yet our country has depended more on harrows than on guns or speeches. I thought that a history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk and I think so yet.
Henry Ford American Legion Magazine, October 1932

Restorations

In 1919, Henry Ford learned that his birthplace was at risk because of a road improvement project. He took charge—moving the farmhouse and restoring it to the way he remembered it from the time of his mother’s death in 1876, when he was 13. He and his assistants combed the countryside for items that he remembered and insisted on tracking down.

He followed this up by restoring his old one-room school, Scotch Settlement School; the 1686 Wayside Inn in South Sudbury, Massachusetts (with a plan to develop a “working” colonial village); and the 1836 Botsford Inn in Farmington, Michigan, a stagecoach inn where he and his wife Clara had once attended old-fashioned dances. These restorations gave Ford many opportunities to add to his rapidly growing collections while honing his ideas for his own historic village.

Edisons, Fords and Firestones Visiting Wayside Inn, Sudbury, Massachusetts, circa 1924

  Details

Edisons, Fords and Firestones Visiting Wayside Inn, Sudbury, Massachusetts, circa 1924

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Edisons, Fords and Firestones Visiting Wayside Inn, Sudbury, Massachusetts, circa 1924

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

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Ford Home, Original Site, Dearborn, Michigan, 1930

  Details

Ford Home, Original Site, Dearborn, Michigan, 1930

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Summary

Henry Ford began restoration of his Dearborn, Michigan birthplace in 1919. He repaired or replaced the farm buildings and filled the small, white clapboard house with original or similar furnishings he remembered from his boyhood. He dedicated the restoration to the memory of his beloved mother, Mary Litogot Ford, who died in 1876. In 1944, the house and outbuildings were moved to Greenfield Village.

Object ID

EI.1929.3155

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Related Objects

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Ford Home, Original Site, Dearborn, Michigan, 1930

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Scotch Settlement School at Its Original Site in Dearborn Township, Michigan, circa 1926

  Details

Scotch Settlement School at Its Original Site in Dearborn Township, Michigan, circa 1926

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Summary

Henry Ford attended this one-room school from age seven to ten. In 1923, Henry Ford restored the school on its original site and operated an experimental preschool there--a precursor to the more extensive school system that Henry Ford started in Greenfield Village in 1929.

Creators

Unknown 

Object ID

EI.1929.P.O.6246

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Related Objects

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Scotch Settlement School at Its Original Site in Dearborn Township, Michigan, circa 1926

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Ford Home, Front Parlor, Original Site, Dearborn, Michigan, 1923

  Details

Ford Home, Front Parlor, Original Site, Dearborn, Michigan, 1923

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Summary

Henry Ford began restoration of his Dearborn, Michigan birthplace in 1919. He repaired or replaced the farm buildings and filled the small, white clapboard house with original or similar furnishings he remembered from his boyhood. He dedicated the restoration to the memory of his beloved mother, Mary Litogot Ford, who died in 1876. In 1944, the house and outbuildings were moved to Greenfield Village.

Creators

Unknown 

Object ID

EI.1929.3210

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Related Objects

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Ford Home, Front Parlor, Original Site, Dearborn, Michigan, 1923

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

The Botsford Inn, Farmington, Michigan, circa 1900

  Details

The Botsford Inn, Farmington, Michigan, circa 1900

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Summary

In the 1800s, long-distance travelers often rode public coaches "in stages," jostling along rough country roads with mail, freight, and other passengers. Every few hours, the coach would stop to change horses. This tavern and meeting place on Michigan's Grand River plank road catered to coach traffic, serving as a stagecoach stop and providing meals and lodging to weary travelers.

Creators

Unknown 

Object ID

84.1.1660.P.O.5584

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

The Botsford Inn, Farmington, Michigan, circa 1900

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Something of Everything

In the early 1920s, Henry Ford moved his growing hoard of antiques into a vacated tractor assembly building. The objects fit every description. Large items hung from rafters; smaller ones sat on makeshift benches and racks. Watches and clocks hung along the wall. Henry and his wife Clara enjoyed sharing their relics with others. Once people learned Ford was collecting objects for a museum, they flooded his office with letters offering to give or sell him antiques.

Henry Ford, rightly or wrongly, never does things by halves, and in this instance he made a real job of it, and the result was one of the most amazing and complete collections of its kind.
H.F. Morton Strange Commissions for Henry Ford, 1934

Ford also sent out assistants to help him find and acquire the kinds of objects he felt were important to preserve. Goods intended for the museum arrived in Dearborn almost daily—sometimes by the train-car full. By the late 1920s, Henry Ford had become the primary collector of Americana in the world.

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Two of Henry Ford’s assistants (Frank Campsall and Charles Newton) stand with Henry Ford (right), amidst their latest acquisitions in 1928.
Igor Sikorsky flies his first helicopter to the museum to present to Henry Ford, 1943.