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The Life of Henry Ford



Ford Shifts An Industry Into High Gear

At the birth home of Henry Ford

"It's all just so amazing, isn't it?" the engineer asked as we stood in the middle of the Ford assembly plant and stared around at the machinery and the car parts moving from here to there, from way up high to far down low, from gigantic, yellow robotic arms gluing windshields onto car frames, to forklifts zooming by in front of us like a video on fast forward. Yes, it was amazing-the assembly line-seeing it work, seeing the place where every single Ford Expedition on the planet is made.

Trekker Stephen amidst of sea of brand new Ford Expeditions at the Michigan Truck Plant

But sheesh! I was amazed from the minute Nick and I slipped off the frozen Detroit highway and into Ford Town, USA, a.k.a. Dearborn, Michigan. The Ford Motor Company international headquarters is there, as is the Henry Ford Museum, the Henry Ford Estate, Ford manufacturing plants, the Centennial Ford Library, Ford's Automobile Hall of Fame, Ford dealerships, Ford trucks, Ford cars, Ford EVERYTHING!!! It's like we got sucked into a strange Ford vortex.

I first thought that the Ford company would be to Dearborn, Michigan, as the Coca-Cola company is to my home town of Atlanta, Georgia. After the first twelve hours there, and after speaking with some of the workers at the Michigan truck plant, however, I found that the spirit of Ford in Dearborn is like Atlanta's love for Coca-Cola, jacked up on steroids.


The workers at the Michigan Truck Plant, who spend their days assembling the Ford F-150, the Ford Expedition, and the Lincoln Navigator, explain that every vehicle in their parking lot is a Ford because they receive really good discounts, but I think it's because they are still in awe of the man who turned his little farming town into the hub of the biggest automobile company in the world.


Anyone out there?...I am lost in space.

Henry Ford was born there, in Dearborn, and ever since he first saw a steam-powered tractor rolling across the fields of his family's farm, he knew he wanted to be a mechanic. He had dreams of building cars and bringing them down in price in order to make them available to the common man. Dearborn resident and Ford fan, Chris Wilson, told me that Ford believed "cars shouldn't be a rich man's toy, but a poor man's utility." And so, just as his third attempt to open up his own automobile company was two hundred dollars away from bankruptcy, Ford struck gold with the development of the Model T.

What Ford and his company did in the years between the development of the Model T in 1908, and its mass-production in 1923, is still considered by many to be a stroke of pure business genius. He designed a car that could easily and cheaply be assembled using very simple parts. With the manufacture of the Model T, Ford alone shot down the going price of automobiles from $800 to $260. People started buying up Fords like wildfire and just as soon as the last one was sold, they started to scream for more. There was so much demand for the Model T that Ford opened up an assembly plant where he shot down the time to manufacture one car from an entire day to 90 minutes! To do this, he added moving conveyor belts to an assembly line, where workers would complete one specific task before passing the car on to another worker with a different task. At the Michigan truck plant today, Ford's assembly line has become so advanced and efficient that workers can make 56 trucks every hour!

Ford's savvy bought him fame, his fortune bought him this house!

The development of the Model T, combined with the innovative engineering behind the moving assembly line, gave birth to the concept of mass production. It also made Henry Ford's automobile company the largest car manufacturer in the world, started a revolution in American industrialization, and changed the way people live and work throughout the world. British business commissions and world leaders like China's Sun Yat-sen looked to the industries in and around Detroit, like Ford's, to modernize their own businesses. Because the ideas behind mass production had such broad worldwide influence, some people believe Ford's first auto manufacturing plant was the place where the 20th century was born.

Yes, it's true.  Nick CAN fly!

Up to that point in history, commercial goods, such as cars, were all built by craftsmen. With the advent of mass production, however, the value of machinery took over the quality of handmade goods, and high-speed output became king. It was here in Dearborn that bosses began to think about producing more for less, to think about creating enough goods to supply a widening human market. So now, when we think about big business and stores chock-full of computer games, stuffed animals, and endless candy bars, we are experiencing the legacy and spirit of Ford's mechanized assembly line. Check out the dispatch on my trek through the Mall of America to see just how far reaching Ford's legacy really is.

A river runs through Ford's estate and the land where he built one of America's first business empires

We can pretty much agree that the birth of mass production changed our world, but not everyone was so gung-ho about the Ford Company's manufacturing revolution. The workers at the assembly plant hated it. They hated completing such specialized tasks for hours on end, and constantly having to put up with bosses ordering them to work harder and faster. Workers became so uncomfortable with the new system of over-production that huge numbers of them began to quit their jobs.

For the assembly line to work, the Ford Company needed a lot of workers and couldn't afford to keep losing such large numbers of employees. For that reason, Henry offered to pay his workers an additional $5 a day. Sure, it doesn't seem like much now, but at the time the people around Henry, especially his workers, thought he was crazy to make such a great offer. Henry wanted to feel that his workers were treated well, though. He wanted to make sure they had an incentive to do good work. Not only did Henry Ford change the face of modern industry, but he also introduced the idea of profit sharing and employee incentive programs.

What Ford would have wanted the US Trek's cars to look like

When you are in Dearborn, the residents there will be quick to tell you that the superman of the automobile industry, Henry Ford, the man who put their town on the map, was not all about cars, money, and machinery, however. He was actually a pretty diversified man with extensive and sometimes radically unorthodox ideas. Even though Henry liked cars, for example, he also liked beans...yes, beans. The potential for agricultural products fascinated Henry so much that he built a chemical factory to develop effective and efficient ways to engineer things like clothes, fans, and car parts made out of soybeans. On his path toward vegetarianism, Henry Ford actually wore a soybean suit!!!

That's where Ford made a car out of soybeans!

No doubt, Henry Ford would have liked The Odyssey, too. He may have even made a good trekker, because like most of us on the team he never really liked history books. He thought the most valuable way to learn was by doing, by experiencing education hands on. He was so emphatic about that philosophy of learning and so dedicated to the preservation of history that he started a collection of objects to demonstrate America's history of innovation. Although the millions of objects he collected now constitute the largest historical complex in the world, during his lifetime he meant for them to be housed in a school for kids to be able to see and experience history first hand.

Trekker Stephen and Henry Ford, in flesh and bronze

And so, after Nick and I packed up our sleeping bags, we slipped back onto the freezing highway leading away from Dearborn and Detroit, and agreed that, yes, "it's all just so amazing." It's amazing how all of us following along with the trek are really keeping Henry Ford's ideas about history, education, and innovation alive. It's amazing to imagine that so long as we never stop learning and never stop taking risks, we just might strike gold ourselves!


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - "You are now entering the Mall of America: Consumerism is good. Consumerism is good. Consumerism is good."
Making A Difference - Does your community need a facelift?
Rebecca - Out to get us: How GM destroyed our good public transportation
Neda - How many licks does it take to sell you a lollypop?