Camera Rolls: 311:33-36
Sound Rolls: 311:19-20
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Francis Imoberstag , 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.*
Let's begin. Where did you get your first car?
My first car. We always called it the Yellow Bug and it was designed by Edsel, built at the Ford Motor Company, and it was built as a racing car. Well, after they built it, it was no longer a toy. They didn't know what to do with it, so they gave it to me. I was 13 at the time, and obviously was not capable of driving a racing car, so they took the motor out and put in an ordinary Ford motor. I guess that would have been Model A times, and I had it. I drove it until I went to college and my father sold it. I don't think I've ever quite forgiven him [laughs].
Speaking of that, I had not planned to ask you about this, but did Henry Ford's cars make a difference for women in this country do you think?
I'd never thought of that. I suppose it did. It certainly has made a difference in my life. I don't know how I'd exist if I couldn't drive. Well, I have learned in the past six months and it's not very fun. So I suppose it made it easier for them to get around.
What's your very, very earliest memory of Henry and Clara, of Henry actually? I had the two of them together. Can you remember what that might have been?
No. I remember them being in and out of our home quite a lot, but I don't know what my earliest memory would be.
Let me phrase it differently. In those days when you were very young, say in the '20s, can you tell me what he looked like? If I walked into a room and I had to pick Henry Ford out of 100 people how would I recognize him?
Well, if you've ever seen a picture he looked exactly like the pictures. He was very slender. I don't remember his ever having anything but grey hair. Of course our hair never did grey. But if you'd ever seen a picture you'd know him instantly.
Was he imposing?
No, he was very slender. Not terribly tall, maybe five ten or so, I don't know. Men didn't seem to be as tall in those days as they are now. Now if you're six three or four or five people, why people think you aren't very tall.
What were your feelings toward him? Were you fond of him?
Very fond of him.
Let's hold on just one second until this airplane goes over.
Let's pick up where we left off. Tell me how you felt about him.
We were never impressed. We just grew up, they were a part of our family. Mrs. Ford in particular was very fond of my father and I think it was because they spent so much time together when they were younger. Mrs. Ford was the third oldest in this family of ten 10 my father was the youngest. And he was, I think it was seven years, I might be wrong on that, older than Edsel. After Edsel was born there wasn't anybody around for him to play with, and so my father went to live with them and lived with them at what we call the Homestead Corner. I don't know if you know where it is. He lived with them until he went to high school. So they became very close.
Did they seem as ordinary people to you?
Exactly. Exactly. I think they liked to be treated as ordinary people. Well they were. That's, exactly what they were. They seemed to have free reign of my father's house and the same way here. We were welcome anytime.
When you came here you spent a lot of time in this house and these grounds.
Well, not a lot but a fair amount, certainly.
If I were to come to Fair Lane in 1926 or 1927 and walked around the grounds or you showed me around the grounds, give me a list of the things that I would find. A bowling alley, little golf course?
Well, the bowling alley was there, of course, but nobody ever used it that I know of. I don't even know if Edsel ever used it when he was there, but I never did and Mr. and Mrs. Ford never did.
What were some of the other features of this estate?
Well, when I was quite young my sister and I stayed here. Of course Mrs. Ford was very fond of the gardens and they're not restored as yet, but one of the things I do remember, the large peony bed in the front yard. We named the allies and the lanes in the peony bed with botanical names, which she was determined we would learn. The only one I remember to this day is Gypsophila. All the rest I've totally forgotten, the botanical names of the different flowers. We were very familiar with the gardens and...
What about visiting here in the winter time? What sorts of things would you do in the winter here?
I remember they were very generous with our friends, and quite often in the winter times she would tell me to invite some people over and we would go skating down by the lake. There was a building, not a very large building, there on the lake, but there was always a fireplace and, you know, some hot cocoa and that kind of thing. We'd come over and skate, my friends from high school. They used to do the same thing with the pool, sometimes. My friends really, really appreciated that.
Did you ever see Henry Ford skating?
Oh, yes. He was a good skater. He used to skate up the river by our house every once and a while. She was not a good skater. Every once and awhile he'd appear, and the same river goes right below my parents house, and he'd skate up the river, come to say hi and then skate home again. Of course he couldn't get too near the dam because the water never froze there. The river did freeze quite a bit. We all used to skate down there. I remember as we got older part of our job was to carry the kitchen chairs down to the ice so the older people could skate more readily. There were several older people, including Mrs. Ford, who used to skate badly and they would use the chairs.
How would you describe his skating?
Well they didn't have the kind of skates that they have now. They were just old-fashioned skates.
Was Henry himself an elegant skater?
They never taught him to skate for heaven sake. They never taught anybody to skate in those days. You just skated and if you managed to stand up that was fine.
Speaking of teaching, what kind of education did Henry Ford have?
The only two in that family who went to high school. They used to take—they had jobs and rooms in Detroit and went to Central High School...to us when we met...the people I don't remember, I'm sure there were a lot of people in town who were in and out.
They didn't think I was too young for that. But an interesting thing,
he thought everybody should learn to dance, and so they had dancing class, I think it was once a week, I'm not positive of that, over at the same engineering building for the school children.
** Whenever our day was, we used to take our little dress shoes in a bag of some sort to school with us,
** walk over there after school, and everybody, girls and boys, went to dancing class.
** I doubt very much if you could get a class of high school boys to go to dancing class today. But they did in those days, and Mr. Lovett of course taught the classes and we learned to dance.
Why do you suppose he felt it was important for people to dance?
Tell me more about that, about his notions of what might be good for everyone?
Well, he had very definite educational things. I think he was very conscious that he didn't have much formal education and that it was good for people to have formal education. I have no idea whether they financially helped people go to college but I suspect they did. I know they were always very respectful of teachers and people who had considerable formal education.
Continuing on the dancing, in some of the books I've read there are accounts of some Ford employees being required to go to the dances. Do you know anything about that?
There might have been. I don't know.
Can you tell me about that?
At the time, I don't think I was conscious...I liked to go. I think the people in town who went liked to go. But they were personal friends, and if Ford employees resented it I wasn't conscious of it. But it's very possible. I think when he said something everybody jumped. Not necessarily my family because that was different. He never commanded us to do anything, you know. We were very fond of him.
Did he command people to do things?
Well, he might have. Some of the books indicate that. But I never saw it.
I want to pursue the dancing a little more because it interests me. I was not alive during that period of course, so I don't know the culture at that time, but in some of the books I understand that the old fashioned dancing was not quite exactly in touch with the kind of dancing that people might have been doing.
Well, it was the days of the Charleston and some things like that.
I'm going to have you start that sentence again because I was talking when you started.
Oh, well the days when I went to old-fashioned dancing class were the days of the Charleston and of course everybody learned to do that. So regulars that were being done were not of that type. They were considerably more athletic I think. But I enjoyed the old-fashioned dances and we used to come over here on Sunday afternoons quite often, the field room, where he'd put the gramophone on and we'd dance. Sometimes they'd ask a few other people but sometimes it was just my family and the two of them. So we liked that. I like to dance.
Great. Great. Can we talk about the Depression a little bit? I'm curious, what is your own overriding memory of the Depression? When I say the Great Depression is there anything that comes to your mind?
I was out in college at the time, and I remember, I didn't have any money, either, at the time. Everybody gets a little low on cash now and then, and that was one time for me. So I called my father and said could he send me any money? He said, well, he could send me $100 but it would have to last a very long time. He didn't know when there would ever be any more. I scrimped and saved and managed to make that $100 last until the end of the year. Of course things were not quite as expensive as they are now. Everybody just stopped buying everything they didn't need. I remember debating a long time as to whether I could spend 35 cents to go to see . [laughs]. And I did go to see it.
Did you get your money's worth?
Yes, I think I did. People stopped having their hair done, and instead of taking the train home at Christmas I'd take the bus. Everybody saved that way.
When the Depression first hit did it make a difference to the Fords?
I don't think so. I don't see how it could have. Of course, I've never been involved with that much money, but I don't figure it changed their lifestyle. They were not extravagant people by any means. I think perhaps the gardens, the property was the only extravagance that I can think of.
Let me have you say that again as a full sentence, that I don't think it affected him, I don't think the Depression had any effect on him.
I don't think the Depression had any real effect on them. I don't think it changed their lifestyle, but then they were not extravagant people in any way. The only extravagance I can think of was the gardens and I'm sure there were a lot of gardeners and that probably cost a good deal of money. We were never conscious of money as far as they were concerned.
Around that time unemployment was beginning to be very, very widespread in Detroit and there was a lot of controversy around Ford because he was running into competition and at various points they had to shut some of the plants down. Do you have any personal memories of being aware of his attitudes or his feelings toward the unemployed or Ford workers that had been laid off? Or was that something that was not talked about?
I don't recall it ever being talked about. I do know that during that period I had a number of friends whose fathers were laid off. People worked for Ford Motor Company, nearly everybody in this town worked for the Ford Motor Company in those days. When they let me have a swimming party here at Fair Lane those friends were always delighted to come and that was never, the fact that their fathers were laid off was just never discussed.
Interesting. I have one last question about the Depression.
I have another question about the Depression. I'm curious, as a young woman at that time here in Detroit, and also you were in Cambridge at the time, if you were aware of attitudes of the well-to-do, how the well-to-do felt about poor people and how poor people felt about the well-to-do at that time. Do you understand what I'm saying?
Yes I do.
I'm very interested, again try to separate your thinking from—I don't want to know what feelings are now, today. I want to know back in the early 1930s. Let's begin with what was your sense of how the well-to-do thought about the poor?
We were discussing how the ordinary person in Dearborn felt about the Fords and during the Depression perhaps some of them were laid off. I suppose there were some really poor people in this town, but I'm not conscious of any of them. Nobody in Dearborn had as much money as Mr. and Mrs. Ford, obviously. So that everybody was just the same as far as I was concerned. I lived in a bigger house than some of them did, but it didn't make any difference. They were just as welcome there as I was in their houses. I don't think there was any real feeling. Perhaps with the parents of my friends there was some resentment, but I was never made conscious of that.
Now what about the other way around? Did you have a sense of how Mr. Ford might have felt about the very poor during that period?
I honestly think—
[production discussion][cut] [change to camera roll 311:35]
Your understanding of how Henry Ford may have felt about poor people in Detroit, unemployed people.
I honestly don't think he ever thought about rich people or poor people. I don't think it made any difference to him. Oh, he obviously had to know that he was making a great deal of money, but as far as the people he saw and people he talked with and people he liked it didn't make any difference. They didn't carry money, they didn't have money in the house. I remember one specific time my husband—this is later of course—to make an unexpected trip and we didn't have any money. None of my friends or my father did. So we finally came over here and said could we borrow, I think it was $50 that we wanted to borrow. They absolutely turned out their pockets and pocketbooks and they couldn't come up with more than $5 [laughs]. Money as money didn't mean anything. They had it so long that if they bought something that was expensive it didn't mean anything either. It wasn't something that they were conscious of.
When the Depression happened, did Henry Ford get it? Did he understand what was going on out there in the world?
I don't know. Obviously he didn't discuss it with me. I just don't know.
I don't think it affected him, really. They read the papers,
** and of course we didn't have television in those days. So I'm sure they knew what was going on. But whether they were ever affected by bread lines and that type of thing I simply don't know.
Chopping. Do you remember Henry Ford chopping wood? Remember that the audience will not hear my voice, so if you could use the term "chopping wood."
I do know that he did chop wood and that he believed in chopping wood. Of course, at the time he was born I suppose everybody chopped wood. But he continued it and you undoubtedly have seen the carving on the fireplace downstairs which says, "If you chop your own wood you are twice warmed." So he did. He chopped wood. I think perhaps in later years for exercise. I think it was deliberate. I know he didn't chop wood he used.
Was he what you might call a Calvinist, that is, a person who felt it built character to do difficult tasks?
Perhaps. I've never thought of it that way, but it could be. I think that perhaps he felt about the wood chopping as he felt about dancing. This was something that was good for you, just do it, keep at it. He also rode a bicycle consistently. I have tried very hard to get Don to put a bicycle out here. He says, "Well somebody will walk off with it. I said, "Well chain it so it doesn't show." But that's where the bicycle was, always was, right outside the front door. He rode it everyday.
Did he ride it to work?
Just around the grounds?
Just around here, up and down the road.
Tell me about the Rouge. Tell me about your memories of the Rouge as a little girl. Use the word "the Rouge" remembering that people will not hear my voice.
You mean the plant?
The plant. What was it like?
Except that I had been there to see it. I was impressed by the machinery. I didn't really think very much about it. My friends' fathers worked there, but a good many of them worked in the offices and some were in the plant. Was there as a child, and I worked there after I got out of college.
What did you do there?
I worked in the employment office, and that's when I worked for Harry Bennett.
Tell me about Harry Bennett.
I'm sure he had tremendous power. I
** kind of think that's what they were afraid of. I think he probably had the power to hire or fire anybody.
** The people who worked for him were big people. He liked ex-FBI people, there were a good many of those. As I say, some of them I knew very well. He had a grungy old office down in the basement of the...over on Schaffer Road, whatever that building was called in those days. It wasn't pretentious. I never went to his home. I always wanted to.
I understood it was quite something. There were secret panels and hidden tunnels and all kinds of things. It was rumored that he had a lot of underworld friends and all kinds of things. My dad liked him. My dad used to see him on a personal basis.
What about his eccentricities, like his pistol range in his office and...?
Well, I guess he figured he had to keep up his shooting skills. I don't know, he certainly was handy with it that day I saw it. I suppose sometimes you are so startled that you don't move.
Actually, why don't you tell me as a complete sentence that he had a pistol range in his office and he used to shoot in his office from time to time.
Well I was conscious that Harry Bennett had a pistol range in his office, which was not a pretentious office, down in the basement and he used to shoot regularly. I don't know but I suspect that some of the ex-FBI men that were employed by him used to shoot with him sometimes.
Great. Your father was a Ford dealer.
During your growing up years were you conscious of the sales of Ford cars going up and down, any cyclical...?
What memories do you have of the dealership?
Not very many. We always had cars. I know at model change time he used to bring them over and park them around the house there, hide them because he couldn't take them to the dealership before they were announced. He had a dealership in Ohio at one stage, and we moved down there. We were not encouraged...we were very conscious of the dealership except if anything went wrong they'd fix our cars.
On a different subject, going back to the world of Fair Lane, I've read in books that there was a point in the late '20s when Henry, and I guess Clara also, became worried about the safety of their grandchildren?
I've heard about that.
Can you tell me about that?
Just what I've reed in books.
You can tell me that.
Well, the books have hinted at it: they were not very close to their grandchildren, and I don't think that was their fault.
The few times I was here with the grandchildren
** they didn't want to come. There were always elaborate preparations made. I remember, I don't know whether he had it made or whether he bought it, a miniature farm. There was a thrashing machine and a tractor, you know, elaborate. He thought the boys would have a good time playing with these things.
** They weren't the least bit interested, and didn't try. My sisters and I were quite fascinated with the thrashing machine and stuff, but of course we were girls. We weren't allowed to touch them. It's a general feeling I had that they were not close, and no matter how much effort Mr. and Mrs. Ford made they just didn't like to come here. I think perhaps it showed after they were gone when they showed no interest at all in this place or any of the things in it.
We need to change film.
In the late 1920s and especially in the early '30s communists were organizing in Detroit. Were you aware of that? Is that something you want to talk a little bit about?
I don't think I was terribly aware of it. I don't think I know enough about it to talk about it.
Let me phrase it differently then. If you don't know you can just simply say you don't know.
[production discussion][cut] [slate marker visible on screen]
Right before you went to college in 1930, did communism mean anything to you or to the Fords at that point? If you could try to use the word communism because people will not hear my voice.
I don't think that communism as I think of it today meant anything much to me in those days. The only thing I can think of that might have some bearing on it, or maybe it was something else, I had my car by that time. I was thrilled because I got to do a lot of the errands that my mother was tired of doing, but at the same time it was my job to see that my sisters and brother got to school properly. They used to ride with me. That was a responsibility, and it may have had something to do with a fear on the part of my parents that something might happen to somebody. I don't know. But I know that we were not allowed to walk alone at that time. Whether it was the threat of kidnapping or anything like that I wouldn't have any idea. But it was perhaps more than a chore. It was a responsibility.
For the safety of the others.
Well, it wasn't put as safety, but it was put that it was my responsibility.
Do you remember hearing about the Ford Hunger March, when the marchers...?
Of course. I was old enough to read the papers by then.
How did you hear about it and what was your reaction?
Reading the papers probably. I don't remember really discussing it.
One of the questions from the Depression years that I wanted to ask, Ford made many efforts at various kinds of charity for the community in the early years of the Depression. Were you familiar with those?
I wasn't conscious of it. I think anything I remember would be what I had read.
OK. Let's cut for one moment.
Pretend that you never told me about your first car. Tell me about your first car.
Do you want all about being experimental and all that stuff?
Well, I was in high school, and cousin Edsel had designed this racing car and had it built. It was shaped like a bullet and was yellow, and after it was built it was no longer a fun toy and they had to do something with it, so they gave it to me. Obviously at 13 years old I couldn't drive a racing car, so they pulled the motor and put an ordinary Ford engine in the car. I was kind of intimidated by it. Never did find out how fast it would go. But I suppose about as fast as Model As would go in those days. I was underage, so they had to get me a special drivers license. Part of my responsibilities were to drive my sisters and my brothers to and from school or wherever they had to go. At that age I liked to drive and I didn't mind a bit. I didn't consider it a chore, but as I think it over perhaps it was a true responsibility. My mother didn't want them walking around alone.
Tell me about, what kind of guy was cousin Edsel? Was he different from Henry Ford?
No. Very kind, very gentle. I didn't know him all that well. We lived a long way apart and in our later years when I grew up and got into volunteer work and that type of thing I became very fond of cousin Eleanor and got to know her quite well, but he was gone by then. Edsel was gone by then.
In the books there's some discussion of differences between father and son. Were you aware of that?
No, never. I was never aware of that. No, Mr. and Mrs. Ford did not discuss Edsel.
I just have two last questions. Where there any painful memories from the Fords?
It was a good—
What's the most pleasant memory you have, the most joyful memory you have of Henry Ford?
Oh that's impossible to say, impossible. I loved them very much. Not as celebrities, certainly, just as people that I liked.
They were fun to be with?
Fun to be with? No, not fun. They weren't terribly fun. They were very quiet and very reserved. They were comfortable to be with.