Sunday, August 15, 2021

Hoarders Henry and Clara B. Ford

Clara B. and Henry Ford

After Mrs. Clara Bryant Ford died at the age of eighty-four on September 29, 1950, lawyers, executors, and archivists discovered in the Ford family's Fair Lane mansion a massive accumulation of memorabilia and business documents tucked away in shoe boxes, desk drawers, file cabinets, and dressers.

Among their findings in the fifty-five room, greystone mansion were records from the earliest days of the Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo), 25,000 assorted photographs, bales of greeting cards tied with string, blueprints, contracts, maps, legal documents, personal letters, magazines, newspaper articles, and Henry Ford's "jot books."

Archivists filled 24 document boxes with Christmas cards alone and another 11 boxes with financial receipts for common household expenses from 1889 to 1950. Also found lying around carelessly was $40,000 in loose cash, 10,000 unopened letters, and many uncashed dividend checks.

Fair Lane Mansion

In their fifty-nine-year marriage, Henry and Clara lived in twelve different places before they built Fair Lane, and apparently neither of them ever threw anything away. Collectively, the treasure trove of documents was dubbed the Fair Lane Papers and occupied more than 700 feet of shelf space in double-tiered, steel document racks installed above the filled-in indoor swimming pool at the mansion. A full-time staff of sixteen historians, librarians, and archivists was hired by the Ford Foundation to organize and catalogue this vast, new documentary resource.

The operation was split into two units. The Records section was led by Dr. Richard Ruddell, a professional librarian whose team cataloged, annotated, and microfilmed over five million perishable papers and photographs. Their offices were on the main floor at Fair Lane.

The Living History section was led by Dr. Owen Bombard of Columbia University. His office was the master bedroom upstairs where Henry Ford had died six years before. The combined objective of both units was to assemble a rounded picture of the late industrialist.

Dr. Bombard set out to capture the living history about Henry Ford by interviewing and recording three hundred people who knew Mr. Ford. Participants were asked to share their tape recorded memories of the auto magnate. Only five people declined the invitation. Two people said they had nothing significant to add, and three former FoMoCo employees harbored resentment against the old man and did not want to be recorded.

On May 7, 1953, Detroit Free Press feature reporter Ed Winge asked Dr. Bombard in a interview if former Ford security chief Harry Bennett would be invited to record his memories for the oral history project. Bombard cautiously replied, "Bennett hasn't been approached yet. But he may be contacted in the future if it is felt that he has something to contribute."

For background, Harry Bennett published his autobiography in 1951 titled We Never Called Him Henry about his controversial years as Mr. Ford's right-hand man and company enforcer. The Ford family was united in their contempt for the former Ford Security chieftain, although a copy of his book is one of many books written about Henry Ford in the archive's collection.

Throughout the1920s and 1930s, Henry Ford was the world's best known American citizen. Because of the intense public and world interest in the enigma that was Henry Ford, his decendants opened the Fair Lane archives to historians, scholars, and authors. The Fair Lane Papers collection has since moved to the Benson Ford Research Center adjacent to Greenfield Village.

Henry Ford's Tough Guy--Harry Bennett