Re-tooling society: A lesser known side of Henry Ford

For Henry Ford's 150th birthday today, Christopher Wilson, Director of the Program in African American History and Culture, shares a fascinating, less famous side of the famous industrialist.

Though we think of Henry Ford mostly for the Model T, the assembly line, and the fantastic wealth that went along with them, the industrialist was interested in much more than invention and profit. As much as he wanted to make cars and make money, Ford wanted to "make men," turning people into his vision of what it meant to be American. Whether in his plants in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, his schools and "Village Industries" near where he grew up, or in the jungles of Brazil in a city he named Fordlandia, Ford sought to retool society.

Ford made his winter home in Richmond Hill in Bryan Country, Georgia. It was also the site of one of his major social experiments. In this photograph, a field worker at the Richmond Hill Plantation transplanting crops in the spring.
Ford made his winter home in Richmond Hill in Bryan County, Georgia. It was also the site of one of his major social experiments. In this photograph, a field worker at the Richmond Hill Plantation transplanting crops in the spring.

Ford is often credited with creating the American middle class when he more than doubled the minimum wage for Ford Motor Company employees from $2.34 a day to $5.00. It is less well known, however, that Ford's new wage standard was about more than business; it was the inauguration of a social policy by Ford. In order to be eligible for the five dollar day, a worker had to submit to an exhaustive and intrusive inspection of their homes, activities, dress, and hygiene.

In the 1930s and 1940s in coastal Georgia, just outside Savannah, where the toil and suffering of generations of enslaved African Americans had made a few rice plantation owners some of the richest men in the nation, Ford created Richmond Hill Plantation, a billionaire Northerner's re-invention of an Old South plantation that was no less a social experiment.

This is a headstone from the slave cemetery on Cherry Hill Plantation, one of the several rice plantations whose land would eventually make up Richmond Hill.
This is a headstone from the slave cemetery on Cherry Hill Plantation, one of the several rice plantations whose land would eventually make up Richmond Hill.


When he first visited Bryan County, Georgia, in the late 1920s, Ford saw an area that the 20th century had bypassed. The rice economy fell apart after the Civil War, leaving poverty in its wake for the inhabitants, black and white, of what would become Richmond Hill.

Ford determined not only to improve conditions in the Bryan County area by creating jobs, building schools, and improving health care—he also to decided he wanted to see what he could make of the people living there. Ford wanted to prove his belief that giving people a living wage and proper guidance in their own environment could make them better citizens, useful and productive workers, and loyal consumers. Ford looked on the residents as flawed social outcasts and determined to make them better people. In addition, he felt his experiment could provide an answer to the "race question" that continued to challenge the nation.

 

Though Richmond Hill was originally conceived as a place to grow agricultural crops that might be turned by Ford chemists into car parts, lettuce ended up as the most lucrative crop grown there.
Though Richmond Hill was originally conceived as a place to grow agricultural crops that might be turned by Ford chemists into car parts, lettuce ended up as the most lucrative crop grown there.


The residents of Richmond Hill worked on Ford's farms, cut wood in his sawmills, went to his schools, worshipped in his churches, and bought food in his stores. They were also controlled by Ford's rules. He dictated their wardrobes, taught them old-time European folk dances, and dissuaded them from drinking and hunting wild game. They achieved prosperity and good health, but lost the autonomy that they had cherished since the ending of slavery and became dependent on his leadership and philanthropy.

 

Ford built this house as a winter getaway on the site of a rice plantation mansion that had been destroyed during Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Ford built this house as a winter getaway on the site of a rice plantation mansion that had been destroyed during Sherman's March to the Sea.


By the time of Ford's death in 1947, Richmond Hill was already in a slow decline. Within a few years, the project would be shuttered completely and the more than 80,000 acres of land sold. The community that was once so independent in poverty had grown completely dependent on the Richmond Hill experiment. The project's lessons would seem quite relevant today. Ford's firm belief that he could redesign society was rooted in an unwavering faith in wealth and economic success. Richmond Hill ultimately made clear the limits of even a purse as rich as Henry Ford's.

 

Ford’s house today viewed from the Ogeechee River
Ford's house today, viewed from the Ogeechee River

Christopher Wilson is Director of the Program in African American History and Culture at the National Museum of American History. He has also blogged about how we don't generally remember Frederick Douglass as we should.

Posted at 11:31 am EDT in Invention & Innovation,Musings