Camera Rolls: 311:36-39
Sound Rolls: 311:21-22
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ford Bryan , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 21, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
You know where I'd like to start, actually, let's go right to the meat of things. Tell me about Henry Ford during the Great Depression. You said you might have some interesting things to say about that.
Well, during the Depression Henry Ford was very, very active trying to keep people employed. Of course cars weren't selling well and he devised several methods of trying to keep more people going. One of them was that dealers could bring used cars in and he would have an assembly line in the plant that would restore those cars to new condition. That kept more people employed. One time, I think, during the Depression the various plants, especially the Ypsilanti plant that made new generators and starters, it seems that about a third of the work there was rebuilding starters and generators. So that was one of the things he was doing to try and keep more people employed. He seemed to be especially desirous of employing people and having them use gardens to supplement their income. A lot of people, some of Henry's relatively close relatives were cut down to maybe three days a week but they were encouraged to have gardens. The garden program that Henry put forth at that time was rather tremendous because he had hundreds of tractors out and could plow up a field or plow up a garden, sometimes it would just be a forty foot plot in the backyard, but he would send his tractors and men out there to plow it up, furnish some seed. He would do that primarily for his employees all around the Detroit area. Maybe twenty-five miles to the north and west and south. Of course to the east would have been Canada. He didn't send his tractors across the Detroit river.
Did he give money also during the Depression?
He wasn't so inclined to give money except as wages. I don't think he believed in charities in the sense of just handing out money, but he tried to give everyone a job. He worked very closely with the city of Dearborn, for instance, the city of Inkster, Garden City to make sure that anyone who wanted a job could have a job. It might be a farming job. He might take a truck and send them out to some of his soy bean fields to haul weeds because there were thousands of acres of soy beans that he was planting in the early part of the Depression. That seemed to be something he was advocating, that people by all means have a garden, supplement their income by working in a garden. Then too during the Depression I recall he had I think about four hundred acres of carrots that he paid people to plant and harvest and were given to the city for a welfare use. He had something like a hundred and sixty acres of onions, about a hundred acres of peas. He had thirty men, I think working in a cannery to can tomatoes and tomato juice. All this was for the welfare, mostly for the city of Dearborn welfare.
What do you suppose was his, this never occurred to me until now, what do you suspect was his feeling about public welfare, about the kind of welfare that Frank Murphy's administration was giving out, cash money in those early years?
I don't he think he was too favorable towards that.
We have to change.
Let's start again. Explain to me how Henry Ford might have felt...
All right. We're going to talk about how Henry Ford might have felt about the cash public welfare that Frank Murphy was dispensing.
I don't believe he believed in just handing over money to people. He thought that the best thing would be to give them something to do, make certain that they knew that the money was due to working, because he felt that he would much rather, even handicapped people he wanted them to work. He gave them hundreds of jobs, and of course for that matter he was also very partial to trying to get ex-prisoners into his plants. But as far as welfare was concerned he thought that work was the cure for just about everything. He recognized that some people just weren't able to, and he was very, very good about helping those people out regardless of whether it was a medical problem or whether it was with their home. He would fix up their home, sometimes put on a roof. He did let a good many of his employees run accounts and some I noticed that were behind in their accounts by, one I remember was something like twelve, fifteen hundred dollars. The idea was that some of these were unemployed, but as soon as they obtained a job, and he would usually help them get a job, then they would gradually pay off the debt.
I think it's difficult sometimes for a public television audience to understand the kinds of hard choices that a business person, an industrialist has to make. Can you talk a little bit about, and what I'm talking about is when, for instance, you have to shut down the line. In 1927 and again in 1931, first when they stopped the Model T and then when they stopped the Model A. Can you talk about the choices that Henry Ford, the hard troubles that he was up against?
It was hard on him to have the plant down. The Model A changeover for instance was very hard on him. Of course he hoped that a good many of his people had some other income and that's why he created the village industry, so that these people would in a sense be half farmers and half factory workers.
For a junior high school kid who doesn't know this history explain to us in real simple terms why he had to shut down the line at the Rouge in '31. What were the pressures?
Yeah. When they came to the end of the Model A.
I didn't realize that it was shut down to any great extent at that time. During 1927 shifting over to a Model A car it was down completely.
Start with '27 and explain to us why he had to shut down the line in '27.
Well in 1927 of course it was well-recognized by that time that the Model T was obsolete. It took years and years to convince Henry Ford that it was obsolete, but Henry, you know, in the back of his head he had an "X" engine in mind and that the new car was supposed to have this X engine, but they just couldn't get the X engine to work. It was a very revolutionary type of engine. It was almost like an aircraft engine, an X engine with the soldiers going this way and that way. The mud would get on the spark plugs on the bottom and so on. They worked from 1920 to 1926 to develop that engine, and Henry actually expected that would be the new Ford. Then when the engine just wouldn't quite work up to snuff he decided all of a sudden he has to switch to something else. He has to go into another four cylinder, expanded engine. With Edsel's help of course they came out with better styling. When they closed down the Model T, that's all they made was the Model T. If they closed down that it meant everything's down.
Let's move up to 1931. Can you talk about sales of the Model A declining in '31 as the Depression picked up steam until they finally stopped production of the Model A? Do you understand what I'm getting at?
I didn't realize that they shut down to that extent anytime during the Model A.
Yeah, in '31. The last Model A came off the line in August of '31.
Well, I'm inclined to think that the slowdown on the Model A at that time would have been because of the competition from Chevrolet. Chevrolet had come out with a six. Henry didn't ever like a six. He always figured it had a model that was a four, eight, twelve maybe, maybe sixteen, but no six. So I think that was the reason for a slowdown at that time. Then of course he figured, "Well, what are we going to do? If General Motors has a six I've got to have an eight." So he hurried and got an eight together, and the eight was rather radical in that it had a one-piece block I think, which hadn't been ordinarily done on an eight. He got into trouble on oil, so in a sense it wasn't as successful as it might have been but for 1932 it did real well in that year.
In 1927, 1928, the late '20s there...let's cut for a moment.
You can go ahead and tell me about your dad.
Well, my father grew up on a farm, so in that sense he was a farmer. He in college learned to be a teacher so he taught school about fifteen years. Then he finally found that he enjoyed carpentry work more than either of those so he started building houses. That was in about 1924, '25. We were growing great guns in the building business because he could build a house a year and make more money than he would either teaching or farming. But then about 1927 things became different in the real estate business. Houses he was building wouldn't sell so well and the price would be less. In fact in '27 the last house he built before the Depression he'd borrowed money, seven percent, and that house wouldn't sell for what he'd borrowed. So he let it go. We felt the Depression that early, it was 1927. He traded a land contract for a farm and the one who had to take it back was very, very sorry about having to take it back because he knew he couldn't get his money out if it. Two thousand dollars was all the mortgage was. There were houses at that time, maybe a year or so later at Clawson, which is fourteen miles out of Detroit, you could buy a forty foot lot with a one and half story house, not a large house but a cute little house: three hundred and fifty dollars, lot and house and all. It was that bad.
Did anyone buy?
They must have been sold eventually. But there were a whole string of them for sale at one time at that price. So the Depression was hitting real estate, my dad's business in 1927. So he moved on to the farm.
Were you on the farm during the Depression?
We had the farm during the Depression.
Tell me about that.
Well, it's interesting. My dad liked to grow his berries, strawberries, raspberries, sometimes some sweet corn and things, and market that at local markets. There were times when about all we'd sell would be enough to pay for our gasoline from the farm into the market. A ten dollar day sales was a good day. Some days we'd end up practically trading. There'd be people who would bake and bring baked goods into the market and we would trade celery for apples and berries for something else. So we'd go home with a couple loads of bread and that would be about the day's benefit. That would be during the winter time when there wouldn't be a great deal going on. But of course gasoline was, let's see, the highest number of gallons one could get in Detroit during the Depression was fourteen gallons for a dollar. You might get a two pound box of sugar with that.
So those times in Detroit in the Depression, a lot of people out of work, there's a lot of poverty around. There were also a lot of very well-to-do people in Detroit at the same time. Do you have memories of what the attitudes were, how the rich people felt about the poor people and how the poor people felt about the rich people? Back then. I'm not talking about now, I'm talking about back then. Do you have any memories of that?
Of course I was never right in the city.
I wasn't associating with any of those wealthy. They didn't bother me much because they weren't that close by. There would only be what I might read in the paper, but no, there was no antagonism on our part as far as I know about rich people. In fact in the suburbs where I was and in the countryside where our farm was people weren't doing so well. On the other hand most of their associates weren't doing well either and it wasn't too bothersome. I think in the city there was more inclination, I think, the distinction between the fellow selling apples on the corner and the fellow going by in the limousine was much, much different than it would be from people out in the hinterlands.
I think that's probably true to this day. We have to reload.
Explain for me or give me a listing of this empire with the Rouge at the center of this octopus that spread all over the world with plantations, the steel mills...
Well, yes Henry Ford soon found that—
It's coming. Let's cut for a moment.
Henry Ford soon found...
Yes, Henry Ford soon found in making automobiles that he would run into difficulties because he was expanding his production so fast that he found that—
One second. Let's cut.
OK. Let's try it again.
Yes. When Henry Ford starting producing cars in the volume that he wanted to produce, this was when the Model T was developed, he got into difficulties in supplies. He found that
there'd be a coal strike and they wouldn't have their power for a while. Then there'd be a railroad strike, so he felt that he had to have control over those facilities in order to make sure that he could continue producing cars at the rate he wanted to produce them.
** So he bought coal mines down in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Let's hold on just one second. I just was waiting for the people. You can begin with "He bought."
He bought coal mines in Kentucky and West Virginia. He bought a railroad that went down to those coal mines so that he'd be sure that he could control how much coal he was going to get and get it up here to Highland Park where needed it. Then there was a crisis in the rubber supply, later, and he and Firestone were good friends and they found that the British were raising the price of rubber. They had a monopoly on it over in the Far East, so they kept raising the price until it was maybe ten times as much as it needed to be. So they began to investigate where they could raise their own rubber. Henry Ford was taken with the area of Brazil, the Amazon Valley, and so he got I think it was two million acres of land that he leased from the government of Brazil. He began to produce his rubber, and that was fairly successful up until the time of World War...it took twenty years or so for the trees to grow up, of course, and by that time synthetic rubber was being developed, so he lost twenty million dollars, but that was one of the areas in which he was trying to keep himself supplied with material. Same went for iron ore, same for timber for bodies for his car. Then of course he needed his own Great Lake fleet to get the ore down from where he had established the mines. So his system of integration, I don't think he thought so much about it in advance. I think these were things that came up to solve this problem, that problem. Pretty soon he had the whole thing together.
Was he the kind of man to whom it was important to control things?
Yes. He was a perfectionist in that he wanted to know exactly when he was going to get things, how he was going to get things. He didn't want to be dependent on other people.
Did he also, was he also the kind of guy who liked to be the one who called the shots? Do you know what I'm saying?
Yes, I think he wanted to be in complete control, even though he had stockholders and that sort of thing. He wanted to call the shots.
What happened to those stockholders eventually, in 1920?
In 1919, he bought them out and it was to quite an extent because he wanted to develop a big plant at the Rouge to build tractors. His stockholders weren't interested in tractors. So the stockholders wanted a big amount of dividends on their investment in Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford was inclined to want to plow back the profits into the company to expand the company, to pay higher wages. The stockholders weren't necessarily in favor of high wages. They wanted the money for themselves. So Henry had to get rid of them. They made lots of money even though he bought them out, but I don't think they would have sold out if they'd known it was Henry who was making the offer.
Good. Let's talk about Model Ts, especially your own. I don't want to do the whole trip down to Richmond, but give me some of your own memories of the Model T as what I call a "democratic" car or a do-it-yourself car, or a car we would now call user-friendly. Was that true?
It must have been one that was quite easily handled by a farmer. They were designed for farmers. Not all farmers are mechanics. My dad was a farmer. He was not a mechanic, but he did learn to take care of his own Model T. He could fill the front hubs with grease and he could change the bands and take a timer off and wipe it off because it would get oily. So he maintained a Model T right along and seldom would he take it to a garage. He liked horses, he didn't like automobiles. That proves that anybody could take care of a Model T, I think.
Let's cut for a moment.
In 1927 or 1931, either Model Ts or Model As, do you have any recollections of ways of fixing them, the cars, in order to keep them going to avoid buying a new car? Do you know what I'm talking about?
Our first Model T was a 1919 model. We lived in a small town about ten miles from another town here in Michigan. My dad was Superintendent of Schools then. We bought this used car, used Model T sedan for three hundred dollars. It had the original tires on, Firestone non-skid, which were very popular then. The tread was in good shape and so on, but the car had been standing for a while in the garage. It belonged to a cousin of ours. Our first trip I remember going the ten miles from Columbiaville to the pier. We had three blowouts, and that was just the beginning. All those tires were gone. I think within a year's time we had to have all new tires. They had rotted out. Then, of course, every time there'd be a blowout or maybe even a puncture we'd put a boot in the tire. Bumpy bumpy bumpy bump on these boots.
You're talking about real boots.
Well, they could be foot boots. But no, usually you could buy them maybe for ten cents apiece. Some were thicker than others but we'd maybe have a half a dozen boots in one tire.
Let's shift gears. Let's talk about Harry Bennett.
Harry Bennett. We'd all heard of him. Not many of us really had any close contact with him and we were mighty glad of it.
** Harry Bennett was presumably in charge of "Ford Service," as the term was, over at the Rouge. Ford Service is what everybody watched out for. If you were caught with a cigarette, even if it wasn't lighted, any of his men in the Ford Service, he was supposed to have had I think the largest private police force in the world. I think it was over three thousand men. A lot of these were ex-pugilists and they were ex-convicts and anybody, and Henry was apparently in favor of Bennett's getting those people in, rehabilitating some of them and anyways...Ford Service had a terrible, had an awful reputation, not only in the Rouge with the employees but people knew of it all over the city. He was apparently the one in charge although he contradicts that somewhat in saying that Pete Martin was in charge. I don't think it was Pete Martin. Pete Martin was a different character entirely.
How did it come about that a guy like Henry Ford ended up with this thug as his right hand man? Is that an accurate description of him?
I wouldn't say that Bennett was a thug. He had maybe some associates who were thugs, but Bennett himself...of course, he was somewhat of a pugilist. He was in the Navy and had won some awards I guess in boxing in the Navy. But he was also a saxophone and clarinet player, belonged to the musicians union. So there are two sides to Bennett for sure. I had fraternity brothers in school who got jobs through Bennett and they were going to school at the same time. They worked the midnight shift and tried to stay awake during the class in class, but Bennett was a friend of a lot of people.
I'm going to pick up where we left off. Did Henry Ford have fears for his grandchildren? If so, why and what did he do about it?
Yes, I imagine some of the kidnappings that he had heard about made him feel that he'd better watch out for his grandchildren. When his grandchildren ever visited Fair Lane I gather that the chauffeur was armed and there was always somebody ready to take care of them there. I think one of the chief responsibilities of Harry Bennett, and maybe one of the reasons he was associated with gangsters to quite an extent, was probably Henry's instructions to Bennett to take care of Edsel's children, make certain that they were safe.
I want to get back to, go ahead into 1930, '31, '32, right around there, which I know you were away at college, but did you ever hear anything about Frank Murphy?
Not a great deal.
Did you ever read anything good about him, anything bad about him?
What I heard good about him was that he was from a little town where I used to teach school, and even though it was a Republican neighborhood they thought Murphy was fine. I never heard anything detrimental about him in Detroit.
Good. Around the time when Murphy was mayor there was the Ford Hunger March.
How did you hear about that and what was your response?
At the time, all I heard about it was through newspapers. Since that time I've heard more and maybe from biased sources, but it was spoken of as a march of communists and they wondered what they thought they were going to do with Henry Ford's property. It was a little bit doubtful whether they really wanted to come...They said they needed jobs, but some thought, "Well, they really didn't want work. They wanted money, but they didn't really want to work." That I think was an attitude that was harbored in the Dearborn area, anyway.
What do you suppose they wanted from Henry Ford?
Well, that's it. One would have thought they'd known that Henry Ford was,
if he couldn't sell his cars, what was he, is he going to continue to make cars and then disassemble them and assemble them and disassemble them and that sort of thing? I mean, where were the jobs going to come from?
** He was hiring as many as he could right then. So I can't quite see the reasoning behind attacking the Rouge plant or coming to try...Henry wasn't there anyways, they knew that. What were they really trying to do? One can feel sorry for them but I don't think that was the tactic that would really benefit them.
Could Henry Ford have stopped the Great Depression?
Oh, no. No, he couldn't have stopped the Depression, but he tried hard. He tried to rectify things in all Western Wayne County, anyway. He had a tremendous impact on the shallowness of the Depression. In Dearborn, in Highland Park, in St. Clair Shores, in areas where Ford had some influence and could be of some help, the unemployment rate varied. It was about nine percent in Dearborn, nine percent in Highland Park. It went as high as twenty-nine in some. Outside Bay City, for instance, was about twenty-nine. Clausen was high. A lot of towns around the area, Oakland County, were high. I think Dearborn was the lowest of the group indicated in the tabulation.
Good. Let's cut for a minute.
It seems to me that Henry Ford is perhaps recognized and appreciated more outside of the Detroit area than he is in Detroit. In other places in the United States, like Richmond Hill, Georgia, Berry College, places like that where he made tremendous contributions to the community and to the college. And in Europe I think his outstanding capabilities in manufacturing were recognized there because there were courses given in Fordism at the universities. Fordism here I think is interpreted as meaning working people too hard, mass production and the evil things that go with it. But in Europe, in Germany, Latvia, I know, some of those countries and perhaps in Russia Fordism was considered something that was an economic theory. It was economic, not only theory but practice, that if you could make enough things cheaply enough and get them out to the population that that would raise the standard of living to a tremendous degree. So I think Henry's attitude toward mass production and his efficiency in operations were recognized and appreciated more outside the United States, perhaps, than in.
His drive to produce more and to produce more efficiently, was that driven because he wanted to make profits? What drove that?
I think he's telling the truth when he says he doesn't do this for money. Money isn't the object. Money is the wherewithal to get things done, but the object is to have things for people and have people enjoy getting these things and having a higher standard of living.
Speaking of money and political systems, do you have any memories of your own about how you might have heard of communism in the 1920s, 1930s, and what that might have conjured up for you?
To me, in school, I guess I was rather naive. Communism was a bad word, but I didn't know really what it meant, how the system worked. I do know that about the time of the Hunger March there were groups of communists that were meeting in Detroit and its said that they were the ones behind the hunger march. I don't think communism was recognized where I was. It wasn't debated. It was just something that seemed to be very localized as far as I know in the city of Detroit. I don't know if there were communists all over the United States having get-togethers and plans to take over some plant or get after some rich person. I don't know.
Henry Ford's brother Will Ford had tractor distributorships in the very beginning when the Ford tractor was put on the market here in the United States. And he had the distributorship for Michigan, part of Ohio, part of Indiana, quite a large dealership territory. He also, on his own, sold implements because Henry Ford only sold the tractor. He didn't sell any plows, carburetors, that sort of thing, so Will Ford went into the business of supplying Ford dealers with these implements. It was a nice business. He was going well. About 1927 he built himself a factory over near the Highland Park Ford Motor Company to build cranes, hoes, rather large implements based on using the Fordson Tractor Power Plant. These instruments were trademarked "Wilford."
I'm going to have you move ahead to the part where he goes bankrupt.
Oh, yeah. In 1928, Will didn't know about this, Henry Ford shifted his tractor manufacturing to Ireland and so Will was without his power plants or his equipment, and he went broke. He lost. It wasn't a corporation. It was his private business. He lost quite a bit of his own money. Henry did not come to his rescue. As far as we know Henry wasn't involved at all and just ignored it. Henry and the company man had told Will before that yes, tractors would continue to be produced, everything was OK. That was maybe a year or so before Henry shifted it all to Ireland. So Henry didn't help him out, but in another year or so Edsel Ford did. Edsel Ford came to his rescue. Maybe Henry mentioned it to Edsel and maybe suggested, but Henry wasn't going to help Will. They didn't get along too well anyway.
He was not close to his own close relatives.
That's true. Edsel helped him out by putting some of the Ford Motor Company finance people into the company with Will. Eventually that same company paid off his debts in about two years, paid off the sum that Edsel had set aside in an account for him. That company ended up in the hands of Ernie Breach's son, the Will Ford Company.