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Industrial family still steers car giant, community 100 years after eccentric inventor cranked up dynasty

March 12, 2003

From the Henry Ford museum and Ford Motor Co. collections Where it all started: Henry Ford with his first car, the 1896 Quadricycle.

One day in the early 1970s, Robert McCabe, who headed a group of business executives dedicated to improving life in southeast Michigan, cornered Henry Ford II.

"You don't do anything for Detroit," McCabe told Ford. "You've got this city that's deteriorating. It's in a hell of a mess, and you haven't done a damn thing for it, and I think that's terrible."

Said Ford: "I listened."

The result, a few years later, was the $337-million Renaissance Center, built by a consortium of companies Ford assembled by twisting arms in corporate boardrooms across the region.

The center, which includes Michigan's tallest building, turned out to be a financial and architectural flop.

But in those grim, post-1967-riot days, its soaring glass towers stood as a symbol that Detroit still could build upon its dreams. In fact, the RenCen -- now world headquarters for General Motors Corp. -- still symbolizes a reborn Detroit, even if Detroit's rebirth continues to proceed in fits and starts.

It was not surprising that a member of the Ford family was instrumental in metro Detroit's most significant construction project in a generation.

From the dark shapes of the Rouge plant in Dearborn to the Cotswold-style mansion in Grosse Pointe Shores to signature football stadiums in Detroit and Pontiac to the sprawling Henry Ford medical campus on Maple Road in West Bloomfield, for 100 years Ford family members have embedded themselves in an amazing array of projects, buildings, institutions and causes, all while serving as Detroit's highest-profile ambassadors to the world.

"They have had an enormous impact," McCabe said. "It would be hard to imagine a family in America that has done more for a community than what the Fords have done for Detroit."

For five generations now, Detroiters have followed the Fords through their epic adventure -- the Model T, world fame, the B24 bombers, the Mustang -- as well as the booze, bad parenting, bad marriages, corporate intrigue and former president Lee Iacocca.

Through it all, the Fords remain Motown's true hometown car family. Walter Chrysler built his signature building in New York, and the organization men who ran General Motors Corp. were heavily influenced for years by the DuPont family of Delaware.

Henry Ford was born and died in Dearborn, though, and many of his heirs have stayed close to home. William Clay Ford Jr., a member of the family's fourth generation, is Ford Motor Co.'s chief executive. A cousin, Elena Ford, a member of the fifth generation, is rising through the ranks.

Ford Motor today is by far the largest publicly held industrial corporation in the United States still dominated by a single family, and the Fords have made their mark on their hometown as few other families in U.S. history.

Beyond creating the car company and donating millions to various causes, for example:

The Fords established metro Detroit's most-popular tourist attraction, Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, recently renamed the Henry Ford: America's Greatest History Attraction.

Edsel Ford, Henry's only child, commissioned Detroit's greatest work of art, the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Henry Ford became one of the most influential white persons ever in Detroit's black community.

Ford's favorite architect, Detroiter Albert Kahn, revolutionized the building of American factories and influenced such international architectural stars as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.

William Clay Ford Jr. was instrumental in closing the deal for Ford Field and returning the family-owned Lions to downtown Detroit last year, 27 years after his father moved them to Pontiac.
Ford even had an impact on Detroit's best-known cultural export, music. Motown founder Berry Gordy, who worked in a Ford plant, used Henry Ford's assembly-line techniques to mass-produce hits. Like Ford Motor, Gordy's company was vertically integrated, with an in-house band and studio and songwriting production teams.

Those are some of the tangible things the Fords have done.

There's another, less palpable side to the Ford influence, too. Henry Ford, the ultimate gearhead, set a tone about the inherent righteousness of machines that did much to create a metal-bending mentality in Detroit, which appreciates people who can tune an engine the way Paris appreciates artists and New York understands bond traders.

Next to the 6,000-horsepower generator at the Henry Ford Museum that once helped power the Highland Park plant, a sign reads:

"These engines represented for Mr. Ford the pinnacle of power, efficiency and beauty."

Though he was unquestionably a genius, Ford also had a dark side that also played itself out across metro Detroit.

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, a French writer who worked at the Rouge plant before World War II, saw how Ford's factories dehumanized Detroiters. "We ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din," he wrote. "It gripped us around our heads and in our bowels and rose up to the eyes in quick continuous jolts."

Sometimes the Fords, particularly Henry, behaved like caricatures of rich, powerful, boorish people.

There are still metro Detroit families, especially those with Jewish or labor roots, who say they believe Henry Ford was the personification of evil. He was one of the most prominent anti-Semites in U.S. history, and spent a considerable amount of money and energy disseminating his views around the world.

Ford also pioneered new -- and often cruel -- techniques in worker control that, paradoxically, helped the United Auto Workers gain a foothold. During the 1930s, the company conducted a reign of terror against employees who showed union sympathies that was symbolized most notably when his henchmen attacked UAW leafleteers in the 1937 Battle of the Overpass. In 1932, Ford Motor personnel and Dearborn police gunned down unarmed participants in a peaceful hunger march outside the Rouge plant, killing five.

The father of Doug Fraser, the former UAW president, was appalled at the treatment of employees when he worked at the company in the pre-union 1920s. The elder Fraser told his children that workers were herded like cattle and not permitted to washabove the wrists because they would be wasting company time.

Fraser's father would never buy a Ford car, and years later, when another son wanted to buy a Ford, he told him he could not park a Ford in the driveway. The boy bought a Chevrolet.

"Old Man Ford was a fascist," Doug Fraser said recently. "Those were the terrible old days. He fought us every step of the way, but in the end, his opposition generated a tremendous amount of sympathy for the union. Henry Ford II was a very different article. He was nearly all positive."

While the Fords have long received credit for their good works, the jobs they created and their leadership, they can't escape a share of responsibility for helping to build the metro Detroit of the 21st Century, a troubled and racially segregated metropolis of streetscapes devoid of pedestrians, dysfunctional mass transit, endless expressways filled with single-occupancy vehicles and a broken-down inner core.

"The city that spawned the auto age is the place where everything that could go wrong in a city did go wrong, in large part because of the car," wrote James Howard Kunstler in "The Geography of Nowhere."

The world, after Ford
People today forget that Henry Ford, who died in 1947, was one of the most famous people who ever lived.

People saw him as a god. Literally. In 1932, Aldous Huxley made Ford a deity-like figure in his book "Brave New World," in which people measure time in years "A.F." -- "After Ford" -- and cross themselves by making the sign of the "T."

Ford became such a legend that his name became a noun:

Fordism, which described his assembly-line methods that replaced the craft-based production of the 19th Century. He marketed a car for the masses and created a social revolution by paying many of his workers $5 a day. During the 1920s, Ford Motor mined coal, owned a rubber plantation in South America, ran a railroad, published a weekly newspaper with a circulation of nearly 1 million and built airplanes -- among many other ventures. Because Ford so changed the world, Fortune Magazine in 1999 named him businessman of the century.

As Ford was transforming the world, he was also changing Detroit.

An Ellis Island annex
Ford's Highland Park plant made Detroit a magnet for immigrants, and by 1914, seven of 10 Ford workers had been born in a foreign country. As he was turning out Model T's, Ford decided he also needed to mass-produce middle-class Americans who would become obedient employees, so he instituted a Sociological Department that dispatched investigators to visit workers' homes and pry into their private lives.

The company taught English to immigrants and advised them how to wash and use silverware. In his book, "The Five Dollar Day," author Stephen Meyer quotes a Ford manager as saying: "The first thing we teach them to say is, 'I am a good American,' and then we try to get them to live up to that statement."

The Americanization program culminated in a graduation pageant that symbolized the workers' transoceanic journeys. Dressed as an immigrant in the clothes of their native lands, the workers walked through a representation of a giant melting pot, which their teachers pretended to stir with long ladles. The workers emerged wearing American clothes and waving U.S. flags.

Ford's openness to immigrants mostly attracted Europeans, but Mexicans and men from Lebanon and Syria also made their way to Detroit. The influx from the Middle East set the stage for today's large Arab-American community in Dearborn.

"In a very real sense, Highland Park, and later, Ford Motor's Rouge complex, acted as a Michigan-annex Ellis Island for Middle Eastern immigrants," writes Douglas Brinkley in his upcoming history of Ford Motor, "Wheels for the World."

'A revolution in race'
It's largely forgotten, but Ford became a huge force in Detroit's black community because he was one of the few American industrialists of that era who hired African Americans and paid lots of attention to the black community.

Ford formed alliances with prominent black clergy members as well as leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. He gave the black institutions money and moral support. He visited their offices and churches and, most important, he hired black workers in unprecedented numbers.

Before World War II, 17,653 black people worked at Ford. In an article for the Journal of Economic History, economists Thomas Maloney and Warren Whatley found that by 1940, Ford was virtually the only employer of black autoworkers in Detroit. Amazingly, roughly half of all Detroit's black workingmenwere on Ford's payroll.

Ford created "a revolution in race relations" at the Rouge plant, concluded University of Michigan professor and Ford expert David Lewis. Ford's hiring was one of the chief reasons tens of thousands of African Americans left the South and journeyed to Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland in the World War I era.

A blues singer named Blind Blake captured that era in a song:

" . . . I'm going to Detroit, get myself a good job

Tried to stay away from the starvation mob I'm going to get me a job up there in Mr. Ford's place Stop these meatless days from starin' me in the face."

Lewis noted that black workers were concentrated in the hot and dirty foundry, heat-treating department and unskilled jobs. But Lewis also found that black workers worked next to whites in other areas, made the same wage and, in some cases, supervised white men -- another situation almost unheard of in that era.

Ford was "one of the major benefactors of black people in 20th-Century America," wrote Richard Thomas in his book about black Detroit, "Life for Us Is What We Made It."

Ford believed that hiring black workers would help solve racial problems, and his reaching out made him a savior in Detroit's segregated black neighborhoods.

Critics, though, say Ford practiced what Wayne State University's Christopher Johnson called "a racist paternalism" in that while hiring blacks, he simultaneously was advocating segregation in housing, education and marriage, and using racial slurs in his private writings.

Ford's links to Detroit's black community touched off a bitter controversy in the late 1930s when union organizers took on his company, and the company fought back by using blacks as strikebreakers.

"Ford knew damn well that the black workers were his strike insurance," former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young recalled in his autobiography, "Hard Stuff." Young, who worked at Ford and participated in the union drive, added: "The white workers had to think twice about forming a union and walking out on their jobs when the old man had thousands of hungry blacks at his beck and call."

Slowly, the UAW won over black converts. After a long campaign marked by considerable violence, Ford finally signed a union contract in 1941.

Experts say the lengthy battle against the company's intransigence had a major long-term effect: It unified activists from a variety of Detroit's labor, black, ethnic and leftist groups. Over the next four decades, many of them would come together again surrounding such issues as open housing, fair employment, police brutality and the 1973 election of Young, Detroit's first black mayor.

Wrote historian Angela Denise Dillard: "The struggle to unionize Ford became, in effect, a proving ground for the entire civil rights community."

Dearborn vs. the Pointes
As the rest of the world identifies the Fords with Detroit, Detroiters often identify them with suburbs on opposite sides of Wayne County, the Grosse Pointes and Dearborn.

In the 1920s, Henry Ford's only child, Edsel, and his wife, Eleanor, began building their dream house on Lake St. Clair in what is now Grosse Pointe Shores.

Henry attempted to talk him out of it. Henry hated the Grosse Pointes, and the feeling was mutual. Grosse Pointers with old railroad and lumber money looked down on him as a nouveau riche grease monkey.

Despite Henry's disapproval, all four of Edsel and Eleanor's children raised their families there, and the name Ford became synonymous with the Pointes. Members of three Ford generations have lived on Provencal Road, a winding, secluded, tree-shaded lane in Grosse Pointe Farms across from the Country Club of Detroit.

Fords were setting the social tone in the Pointes by the 1960s, when their teenage daughters would make their debuts into high society during spectacular parties that made front-page news in the Detroit papers.

Across town is Dearborn, and Dearborn is truly Fordland.

It is Henry Ford's hometown and the home of Ford Motor's headquarters, the Rouge plant and about 100 Ford office buildings and workplaces. A model of Henry's first car sits on a shelf behind the desk of Mayor Michael Guido, and an image of the car decorates Dearborn street signs and the masthead of the Dearborn Press & Guide.

The epicenter of Fordland might be the Ford Collection in a room at the Henry Ford Centennial Library.

The room contains hundreds of books written about the Fords and their company. The library, a stunning edifice for a suburb that was built by a contribution from Ford on land once owned by Henry Ford, is on Michigan Avenue, just down the street from Ford Motor's world headquarters and the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center.

Those buildings are not far from Henry Ford Elementary School, Henry Ford Museum, Edsel Ford High School, Fordson High School, Henry Ford Community College, Henry Ford Retirement Village, William Ford Elementary, the Ford Fair Lane Estate, Ford Road, Ford Woods Park and Ford Field (the Dearborn playfield, as opposed to the downtown stadium).

Ford people, money and land are behind all of it.

There are also two Ford-built neighborhoods -- Springwells Park and the Ford Homes district.

Dearborn is a city of 97,775, whose daytime population swells to nearly 300,000 because of Ford Motor and all the other industry, offices, shopping and colleges, plus the former Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum.

The city is known for its high level of services -- it maintains 43 parks, eight swimming pools and 626-acre Camp Dearborn, near Milford. It also runs six residences for senior citizens, including one in Clearwater, Fla. It even operates its own health department, something few suburbs attempt to do.

Guido said the city is able to afford those things because of the large amount of industry and commerce, of which Ford is the prime example.

"All of those costs are spread not only among home owners but from an industrial tax base," Guido said. "I think for every $1 in services residents receive, they are paying 38 cents. The other 62 cents is paid for by business and industry. Of the 62 cents, Ford Motor pays 70 percent. And we love them for it."

Dearborn also has an unusual geography: It's intensely developed on the east and west sides, which have the weathered look of a city that grew up between World War I and World War II.

In the middle, it looks new, like Troy.

Ford is also behind that.

Since 1970, the company's wholly owned subsidiary, Ford Motor Land Development Co., has developed 2,360 acres surrounding Ford world headquarters, virtually all of it once owned by Henry Ford, into office complexes, research and development parks, the Fairlane Town Center, the Hyatt Regency and Ritz-Carlton hotels, restaurants, residences and recreational facilities, including the Tournament Players Club golf course.

"Their impact on Dearborn is astonishing," said Wayne State University history professor Charles Hyde.

"The company has really determined the whole shape of Dearborn. You can't look at anything less than 20 years old in Dearborn and not find the stamp of Ford Land on it," Hyde said.

"We are, in a sense, a company town," Guido said. "We're loyal to Ford Motor and their products. We appreciate what they have done to help Dearborn become a very strong and dynamic community. But we have a saying around City Hall: 'When Ford catches a cold, Dearborn catches pneumonia.' "

Giving to the city
Henry Ford often denounced charity, saying giving away money destroys the recipient and creates a society of nonproducers.

Those beliefs did not stop him from donating millions of dollars during his life. His heirs have given away even more. Ford launched Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, which pioneered a number of practices and over the years developed a national reputation. The hospital has grown into a multicampus health system whose 15,000 employees treated 20 percent of the outpatients in metro Detroit last year. Ford Hospital also gave birth to Health Alliance Plan, the state's second-largest health care provider. Neither the hospital system nor the health care plan has any financial link to the Ford family or company today.

Henry's only child, Edsel, and his wife, Eleanor, wasted no time in making their mark in the world of philanthropy -- especially at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

A computer printout from the DIA of the Fords' contributions of priceless artwork runs 45 pages. And it does not include the millions of dollars they donated to the institution, nor does it quantify the courage Edsel Ford showed when he defended the Rivera murals, which he commissioned, from critics who saw them as sacrilegious and communistic and wanted them removed.

Joe Bianco, former director of the DIA's Founders Society, said: "From the 1920s to the 1970s, especially, the Fords were critical to the growth and development of the museum. They just kept the place going. During the Depression, Edsel and his family underwrote the staff's salaries. Later, whatever the deficit was at the end of the year, Mrs. Ford wrote a check to cover it."

Although the family members today act as a unit when it comes to managing their ownership share of the company, they act independently when it comes to charitable giving.

Ford family members operate six independent charitable foundations that contained assets totaling about $120 million in 2001, the last year for which records have been filed. In addition, the charitable trust that runs the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House has assets of $106 million.

The various foundations run by family members gave away about $6.7 million in 2001, mostly to local nonprofit organizations.

Henry II's 'biggest mistake'
Despite the massive giving by the Ford family over the years, some people involved in metro Detroit's cultural and nonprofit organizations fantasize about how things would be if only the Fords had managed to hold onto the Ford Foundation.

The foundation began in 1936, with a $25,000 check from Edsel Ford. It grew slowly for its first decade, giving away about $1 million a year, mainly to Detroit-based institutions such as Ford Hospital and the DIA.

By the late 1940s, though, after the deaths of Edsel Ford (1943) and Henry Ford (1947), the foundation held Ford stock that was conservatively valued at $500 million. Edsel and Henry put 90 percent of their estate into the foundation so that their heirs would avoid New Deal-era federal inheritance tax payments that were estimated at $321 million.

By the 1970s, the Ford Foundation had grown into the largest in the nation. Today it is No. 3, with assets of more than $10 billion. Local activists can only imagine what that kind of money could be doing for museums and orchestras and endowments across metro Detroit.

What happened?

In the 1950s, Henry Ford II decided that the foundation had become too big and important for one family to manage, so he added to the board nationally prominent people who were independent of the Ford family. The board, not surprisingly, became increasingly independent. In essence, Ford gave away the keys to the foundation. He did not have to do anything. That decision haunted Ford, and it remains a sore point in the family today.

"I made a lot of mistakes, but the biggest mistake I ever made was to give up control of the Ford Foundation," Ford said in an oral history done for the foundation in 1973. "It was a horrendous error. I never should have done it."

The foundation, now based in New York, has flourished. It gave away $842 million in 2001 to a wide array of programs worldwide.

There is no connection today between the family and the foundation, and the foundation owns no Ford Motor stock. Family members have discussed trying to have one of their members appointed to the board, but the foundation has shown little interest.

Said Bianco, former head of the Founders Society, which manages the DIA: "Supporting Detroit institutions was the whole point of the foundation when it began.

"We would not have had the financial problems and roller-coaster rides of recent years. Had it not been taken away, that money would have made a major difference."

A family with staying power
The Fords are a remarkable clan for a number of reasons, and one is the feat of outlasting the hundreds of families in Detroit that launched an automobile company in the early 20th Century. Entering its second century, Ford Motor remains a manufacturing powerhouse with 350,000 employees worldwide and a famous brand, even though the company lost $6.4 billion in the last two years in an increasingly cutthroat global market.

The family is changing. It is growing and spreading out. The second generation's sole member -- Edsel Ford -- gave way to four members of the third generation -- Henry II, Benson, Josephine and William Clay Sr. -- and they produced 13 members of the fourth generation, including current CEO William Clay Ford Jr.

There are 34 members of the fifth generation -- Henry Ford's great-great grandchildren -- and they are led by 36-year-old Elena Ford, director of business strategy for Ford Motor's international 1operations and the first Ford female to work at the firm. The sixth generation numbers 12 members, so far.

That genealogy is important, because the family must stay unified to continue its control over the company, and many of America's corporate families fall apart when they grow too large. "It's very unusual that a business can stay in a family for more than two generations," said Leon Danko, chairman of the Center for Family Business, a Cleveland consulting firm that advises firms run by related individuals.

Will Elena Ford run the company some day? It's far too soon to tell, but that is another key question in maintaining family stewardship as the years go on. "It happened that at least one Ford family member in each generation proved to be at least reasonably competent in running the company," noted Charles Hyde, the WSU auto industry expert.

Few things last forever. One of Detroit's other important families throughout the 20th Century was the Hudsons. As late as the 1970s, it seemed impossible that the J.L. Hudson Co. would not run its fabled emporium on Woodward Avenue well into the future. Today, that building is long gone, and in 2001, the family name came off its remaining department stores, replaced by that of Marshall Field's.

Asked what strikes her as interesting about the Ford saga, Charlotte Ford, Henry Ford II's daughter and author of books on etitquette, said:

"What comes to mind is the fact that the family is still together. It's 100 years later. And, contrary to a lot of other families, we are still a unit. It's amazing. But we work hard it. We really work hard at it."

Anne Ford, her sister, added: "The family is very close. There is no animosity. We all back each other up. We hope we are running the company for 100 more years."
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