Henry Ford educated generations of tradesmen

Students of the Henry Ford Trade School head for class in January of 1941.

“We try to stimulate boys to think for themselves by working out practical problems and doing practical work. Our text books are the basic things-the materials and forces of nature and human society.” — Henry Ford.

That belief was the driving force behind the Henry Ford Trade School, which opened October 25, 1916 with six boys and one instructor.

By 1931 the enrollment had risen to 2,800 with 135 instructors.

The school’s mission was to give needy boys an opportunity to help support themselves and to learn a trade that would be useful in adult life.

Henry Ford believed that the American worker had lost the use of his hands and his trade school would teach the boys to use their hands as well as their heads, just as Henry Ford had taught himself to do.

Incorporated under Michigan statute, the school operated as a non-profit enterprise.

Henry Ford wanted to give young boys the foundation for a career in auto manufacturing when he opened the school on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park.

In the 1930s, the trade school was relocated to the Ford Rouge complex in Dearborn. The floor space of the school covered three acres and was set apart from the other plants for its exclusive use.

Boys were given an opportunity to work in the Die, Gage, Forge, Carpentry, Sheet Metal, Tool Repair, Nickel Plating Wood Pattern and Metal Pattern shops located in the Rouge complex.

Ford, an ardent supporter of education, opened 54 other educational facilities throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.

Classroom time was divided between the customary high school subjects and the plant shops where the boys learned the rudiments of shop work. Cash scholarships were awarded and paid regularly to the young men.

Enrollment preference was given to needy children. In 1935, at the height of the school’s enrollment, five percent of the boys were orphans and 40 poercent had no father able to help support the family.

The school became a critical link in the effort to win World War II. Skilled tradesmen taught some 200,000 people including Navy machinists, airmen and “Rosie the Riveters,” women who helped produced B-24s for Ford at Willow Run airport.

In 1952, when the automaker was struggling financially, Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, closed the facility.

More than 8,000 tradesmen were graduated from the school during the 33 years of its existence.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )