Walter Karp noted in our December, 1980, issue, that Henry Ford’s astonishing effort to re-create the American past in Greenfield Village, Michigan, was emblematic of a paradox that still haunts us: “It is nothing less than the grand contradiction of modern American life, the San Andreas Fault in the American soul—the schism between our faith in technological progress and our gnawing suspicion that the old rural republic was a finer, braver, and freer place than the industrial America that now sustains us. If that contradiction runs through Henry Ford’s titanic reconstruction … it is because no American ever experienced the contradiction more intensely than Henry Ford himself.”
Greenfield Village, then, is a monument to paradox—and a successful one. But it was not Henry Ford’s only attempt to tinker with the past, and in this other instance the effort was a failure that pointed up not only the contradictions in the man but also his frequently quixotic nature.
Ford—whose own factory at Dearborn was the epitome of the modern urban industrial plant—wanted to decentralize American manufacturing, take it out of the cities and put it back into the rural setting in which it had begun. The theory behind what he called his “village industries” was that they would give farm families the opportunity to earn money during the long months between planting and harvest and stem the pernicious flow of young, able-bodied workers from small towns to the industrial warrens of the cities—many traveling in Model T Fords, of course. “With one foot on the land and one foot in industry,” he declared, “America is safe!”
Being a man of action as well as of theory, and rich, and in full control of his own company, Ford first implemented his notion in 1919 by converting a small mill on the River Rouge near Northville, Michigan, into a plant producing valves for Ford cars. Employing a comparative handful of workers and operating with electricity generated by its large wheel, the River Rouge plant was typical of those that followed—and by the end of the 1930’s there were eighteen of them turning out valves, starters, gauges, springs, generators, ignition coils, headlights, and other small parts for Ford products. Each plant site was personally selected by Ford himself, who also supervised the conversion of the old mills, and as late as 1938 he was happily going over a list of 212 additional possibilities.
But the Motor King’s dream of turning back the wheels of progress with the wheels of old gristmills and the like was doomed from the start—a “trivial activity,” according to Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest Hill in Ford: Decline and Rebirth , employing fewer than four thousand people. “Nobody had any financial authority over the village industries,” they wrote, “which Ford operated for personal satisfaction. We can only guess at their gains and losses. ”
Today most of the mill plants have vanished, though a few survive as residences and small office buildings—streamside tributes to an idea whose time had gone.