'I Think Mr. Ford is Leaving Us'

Ford’s Fair Lane estate in Dearborn, alongside the Rouge River.

He was one of the world’s most powerful men, but the only light in his home on the night that he died came from candles and kerosene lamps. The only heat was provided by logs burning in the fireplaces. The telephones were dead.

Swollen from a torrential Easter Sunday rain, the usually placid Rouge River was on a rampage. The water was eight to ten feet above its normal crest. Never before had it risen so high. The flood had put out of action the power plant for Fair Lane, Henry Ford’s mansion on the river’s north bank in Dearborn.

Only three people were in the house on the night of Monday, April 7, 1947. They were Ford himself, his wife, Clara Bryant Ford, and a maid, Rosa Buhler. Ford was 83 and had been in a steady physical decline for three years, but he had insisted that day on seeing the damage caused by the flood.

Ray Dahlinger, his farm superintendent, first drove him to Greenfield Village, where Ford had gathered structures from all over the country that reminded him of the horse-and-buggy America of his youth. The area was dangerously close to the river, but he was happy to find that no real harm had been done. At the Ford Rouge plant he was cheered by finding his giant ore boat, the Henry Ford II, safely in dock from its first spring trip down the Great Lakes.

ImageA contemplative Ford surveys his estate.

    In midafternoon he rejoined Mrs. Ford at Fair Lane. At dinner he talked over plans for a 100-mile trip with Dahlinger the next day.

Ford said that he wanted to see how the village industry centers at Milan and Flat Rock had fared. But talking made him tired. At 9 p.m. he said good night and went to his bedroom.

At about 11:15, Mrs. Ford heard him calling. She hurried to him, as she always did when Henry called. He told her he didn’t feel well. His head ached, he said, and his throat was dry.

Mrs. Ford gave him a glass of water. She sent Miss Buhler to alert Robert Rankin, the family chauffeur, in his living quarters over the garage behind the house, to get a message to the family physician. It took Rankin only a few minutes to drive to the nearest workable telephone, half a mile away at the Ford Engineering Laboratories. He called Dr. John G. Mateer, of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, and the oldest grandson, Henry Ford II, at his home in Grosse Pointe Farms.

When Miss Buhler returned to the bedroom, she heard Mrs. Ford say, “Henry, speak to me!” Ford’s heavy breathing had stopped.

ImageFord and his wife, Clara, sat for this portrait in their Fair Lane home in 1943, when Ford was 80. Mrs. Ford, the former Clara Bryant, died in 1950.

    “What do you think of it?” Mrs. Ford asked her. “If only the doctor would come!”

“I think Mr. Ford is leaving us,” Miss Buhler said.

Mrs. Ford went to get some warmer clothing. As the maid watched Ford it seemed to her that he tried to fold his hands, as if in prayer, and there was a change in his face. She called to Mrs. Ford. The two women sat on one bed, watching him. Minutes went by and then Miss Buhler got up and listened to the old man’s heart.

“I think he has just passed away,” she said.

She was right. When Dr. Mateer arrived 20 minutes later, Ford’s heart had stopped beating.

Fate had contrived an ironic touch in putting Ford’s death in the setting of the same flickering light by which he had come into the world 83 years before. Still, his whole lifetime was marked by irony. He did more to bring about the passing of that earlier era than anyone else, unless it was his friend Thomas A. Edison. But he loved, collected and preserved the artifacts of the old way of life in one of the real passions of his life.

ImageThe Fords at the entrance to their Dearborn estate.

    The people who knew Henry Ford best said goodbye to him on Wednesday, April 9, 1947. His body rested on a bier at Greenfield Village. They passed the black casket at the rate of 5,000 an hour, but still the waiting line grew longer with men and women who wanted a last look at Ford’s gnarled face.

In the line there was mention of the July in which he was born—-the July of Gettysburg, when the struggle of Americans north and south was at the crossroads. And they spoke of Ford as he looked in a more recent July, during World War II on his last public birthday observance. It was a celebration and a testimonial to a man who had lost his only son, and who came out of retirement to work again for America.

In the line were some who, in past decades, felt that the name of Ford was the personification of America. Born under the eagles of a kaiser or czar, they crossed the seas for a new life under the eagle of freedom — coming with two words of a new tongue to guide them to their goal: “America. Ford.”

ImageFord sits by the fireplace at the Botsford Inn at Eight Mile and Grand River, which he bought in 1924. He had danced there as a boy and bought the inn and 33 surrounding acres for its historical value.

    There were men and women in line who had been city children, and who could remember first springtimes in the country, brought to them by the rattling magic of a sturdy Model T.

In many quarters, there were stories of the early days of automobiling, when a tall, gaunt stranger in a Ford, who knew all about engines, stopped to help a fellow motorist stranded on the road — -and fixed the car himself, on the spot.

One man in line recalled how Ford visited a coal mine that he had just bought in Nuttalsburg, W. Va., and turned from the functionaries in blue suits to talk to the grimy miners. He said Ford asked for a suit of overalls and went down the shaft, to learn that the men worked in corridors so low they could not stand erect. He remembered, too, how quickly Ford modernized the mine.

They spoke of Henry’s friendships, of the way he never forgot his friends. John Burroughs — they thought of the thousands of birdhouses Ford put up on his home woodland; Thomas A. Edison — -they glanced toward the inventor’s workshop, enshrined nearby.

ImageHenry Ford, right, with two of his friends: Luther Burbank, left, and Thomas Edison.

    Some of the Ford stories stressed the adamant side of his nature — some called it, less politely, Henry’s stubborn streak. Often quoted was his answer to a suggestion by one of his executives that cars be manufactured in a choice of colors.

“Let the customer have the car in any color he wants,” agreed Ford, “so long as it’s black.”

It was remembered how, at a congress of his sales managers, he listened patiently while the men suggested changes to increase sales. Ford heard them out for two hours without saying a word. Then he yawned, stood up and stretched.

“Gentlemen, as far as I can see there is only one trouble with the Ford car,” he said. “We can’t make them fast enough.”

Other stories concerned a contrasting side of his nature, his reverence for all life.

There was the Saturday when he told Dahlinger, on a tour of the Ford farm acreage: “The wheat is ready to cut. Better get into those fields next week.”

On Monday morning, a caravan of agricultural vehicles headed out to the wheat fields. Just before work began, however, the wire-wheeled Ford coupe known all over Dearborn as “the chief’s” drove up.

ImageMourners line up to view Ford’s casket, which was placed on a bier at Greenfield Village.

    “Better hold up a few days,” Ford told Dahlinger.

“But the crop’s just right and we’re ready to go,” answered the farm superintendent.

“I know,” said Ford. “But I took a walk here yesterday and saw a lot of meadowlarks. The young ones are still in the nests. Wait until the fledglings will be able to fly away and not get hurt.”

It was remembered that when Ford moved into the Dearborn estate he delighted in roaming over the wooded acres to see how the birds and small animals were thriving.

One day his friend Charles Daniel, a former game warden, accompanied him. Driving down an old lane through the property, they came to a point where they could see running water. Nearby, a portion of the streamlet had dried, leaving an isolated pool.

“That water will stagnate,” Ford said. “I wonder if there are fish in it?”

ImageMourners passed the casket all day at the rate of 5,000 each hour.

    He leaped out of the car, followed by Daniel. They found half a dozen fish trapped in the pool.

“We can’t let them die,” Ford said.

They drove to the Ford home, obtained two pails, and returned. Scooping up water and fish, they carried the loads to the running brook, until every marooned fish was rescued.

There were as many stories, it seemed that day, as there were men and women in the line — the almost endless line of friends of Henry Ford.

On Thursday only 600 could get inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Detroit for the funeral. But 20,000 stood quietly outside in the rain until the long service ended.

ImageOnly 600 could get inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Detroit for the funeral. But 20,000 stood quietly outside in the rain.

By Don Lochbiler / Special to The News