Henry Ford

One of the great benefits of living in Southwest Florida is getting visited by friends and family.  When I lived in Le Roy, Illinois, if I wanted to spend time with any of my old acquaintances, I had to go to them.  But the world comes to Florida to play, and my friends and family are no exception. I enjoy having company, most of all because when people on vacation come to visit, they come with a relaxed, vacation mindset.  That makes being with them a bit of a vacation for me as well, even if I never leave Lee County.

                My cousin Thea’s family visited us from the Netherlands this summer, so I got the pleasure of seeing home afresh through their eyes.  Of course, one of the things we had to do was tour the Edison-Ford Estate.  I watched my relatives as they walked through the property. I took notice of the things they noticed, I read the things they read, and I lingered in the places they lingered.  Then I took a few moments, like I do every time I visit the estates, to wonder about the men who built the place. 

                After Thea left,  I took a week of leave to work on my dissertation, and I hid out at my mom’s house to get my work done.  I took one afternoon and went to Dearborn to visit Greenfield Village, the northern counterpart of the Edison-Ford Estate. As I wandered the grounds, I again reflected upon Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, arguably two of the most influential men who have ever lived. And yet, as is so often the case with those who have been influential and mighty, the story of Henry Ford is filled with tragedy.

                Greenfield Village feels like it is Henry Ford’s playground.  In sharp contrast to his infamous proclamation that “history is bunk,” Mr. Ford created one of the most fascinating museum complexes in the world. It is a delightful place to visit.  After my father died, my mother went to Greenfield Village several times, “just to sit and read.”  She described the village as a place she could go where it felt like she was leaving this world and entering another.  I suspect a similar sentiment was in Mr. Ford’s mind as he assembled his project. 

                Like most of us, Mr. Ford was a man who enjoyed enjoying himself. And with his almost unlimited supply of money, Henry Ford was able to indulge in recreation in ways most of us can’t. And yet he spent his leisure time doing the same thing most of us do. He sought the company of friends.  And as he grew older, he reflected upon the memories of pleasant bygone days.

                As I walked the streets of Greenfield Village, the place began to make more and more sense to me. In many ways it reflects Henry Ford’s power. He respected Abraham Lincoln, learned the courthouse in which Abraham Lincoln first practiced was still standing, and so he moved the courthouse into his new village.  The townspeople in Illinois objected, but Mr. Ford removed the building so quickly they were unable to mount an effective protest in time. Likewise, he wanted Thomas Edison’s Fort Myers laboratory in his new village.  Mr. Ford didn’t want his friend’s Fort Myers home to be devoid of the laboratory, so he had a replica built — in Fort Myers.  The real laboratory is in Greenfield village, moved a thousand miles away by Henry Ford.  Interestingly, Mr. Ford had no objections to using replicas in Greenfield village.  Most of the Edison Menlo Park exhibit consists of painstakingly accurate replica buildings.  If there was any way he could have the original, he procured the original.  But he was determined to have the village he wanted, even if originals were not available.

                More than his power, however, Greenfield Village represents Mr. Ford’s sentiment. He chose the buildings for which he had an emotional attachment.  They were buildings that represented the places he loved, those he wanted gathered together in one place.    In one corner of the village lies the old barn where, when he was a boy, Mr. Ford’s family would bring the wool from the sheep they were raising on the family farm. Young Henry would ride in a horse-drawn wagon with his father many miles to deliver the wool. At another corner of the village stands the laboratory complex of his dear friend, Thomas Edison.  One can imagine Mr. Ford gathering with a few close friends in Greenfield Village and strolling in the evening from building to building, reminiscing about working with his dad, or about visiting the work of his dear friend, Thomas. 

                We were created to do work.  Work is part of creation that precedes the Fall.  In Genesis we read of the time before plants existed on this world.  There was no purpose for plants yet, because “there was no man to till the ground” (Genesis 3:5b, NKJ). God’s purpose for mankind before the Fall was to have him work and be productive in the world.  After the Fall, with the introduction of sin, work often becomes drudgery, an unpleasant task we must accomplish.  But the ultimate picture of mankind in his proper place is not that of a man snoozing under a tree, it is that of a man productively working at something he enjoys. 

                A wonderful picture of this can be found in John 21.  After the resurrection, after Jesus accomplished the work for which He came, He met His disciples at the beach.  Peter and the others had gone fishing, but after fishing all night they hadn’t caught anything. So Jesus performed a miracle, and suddenly the disciples’ net was filled with fish, which they brought ashore after a great struggle. There are spiritual implications to this story, of course, but there is also a beautiful picture of relaxing together after work.  Jesus had already prepared bread and a fire, with fish cooking over the fire.  He could have just fed them himself, as he had done with the multitudes before.  But he told them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”  Take the work you have accomplished, and let’s enjoy it together. He made certain their efforts were incorporated into the celebration.

                Henry Ford’s best memories, too, seemed to revolve around work.  It must have been a cherished memory to have helped his dad bring the wool to the mill.  He wouldn’t have bothered bringing the building to his village if it wasn’t dear to him.  How sad it is then that his relationship with his son Edsel was so tumultuous.

                When he was a child, Henry Ford’s family attended an Episcopalian church.  My understanding is that they were regular attenders.  And on the highest spot of land in Greenfield Village, Mr. Ford built the Martha Mary Chapel, one of five such chapels he built around the country.  He also bought a Bible for a friend of his, John Newton, and underlined Hebrews 11:1 in that Bible.  I’ve looked in that Bible, it is now owned by Sam Galloway. Henry Ford knew about Christianity.

                Unfortunately, it appears that Mr. Ford’s faith was limited to pleasant memories of his childhood.  Many of us are just like that.  Especially in a place like this, coming here can bring back memories of pleasant days gone by.  That’s not necessarily bad. But if that’s all Christianity is to you, then it is bad.  Because you’ve mistaken the feeling, the sentiment, for the real thing.  The sentiment is nice.  The emotional uplift you get here can be delightful.  But it doesn’t do you much good after you leave this place.  It’s a shelter from the storm for an hour, but it won’t get you through the storm and beyond to the place you need to go.  That will only happen if you have what it appears Henry Ford was never quite willing to have — a personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ.  Mr. Ford gained the whole world.  But what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but never finds lasting peace for his own soul?

                Perhaps Henry Ford did develop a relationship with Jesus before he left this world.  No one really knows.  The only thing we can be certain about is our own heart. Is church a place to relive old memories?  Would you build a chapel on your estate, just because it feels like a nice thing to have around?  Or are you ready to take the next step?

                If you hear God’s call today, harden not your heart.