(NOTE: not all the photos in this post are mine)
For our spring break we opted to stay local. My kids having just finished a unit in history on The Industrial Revolution and being residence of Michigan, we went to Detroit to experience the tumultuous ride of the Ford legacy. Henry Ford had one child named Edsel. He married Eleanor (who was from the J.L Hudson family) and all the research I conducted suggests they had a wonderful relationship and were both humble and inspirational people.
Eleanor for instance insisted that their boys share a bedroom because she believed that if they didn’t bond as boys they wouldn’t as men. She also insisted that the staff eat the same meals the family did, and if you had to work over a holiday, you got a take home meal packed for you so you could just go home and eat with your family and not have to work even more. And… if you came to visit the staff would take your car and wash it, fill it up and bring it back to the front door… even if it was a Chrysler.
They had four kids and built a phenomenal home on Lake St. Claire that was inspired by cottages in Cotsworth England where they had visited several times. It was their intent to build a haven for their family rather than as statement of wealth.
Henry (Edsel’s father) was a control zealot and although employed Edsel as president it apparently was a placebo position with Henry calling all the shots behind his back leaving a very passive Edsel with ideas that would have vaulted Ford to leadership but were held captive by family dynamics. Edsel’s internal struggle is perhaps what created such a drive to focus on his family and pet car projects but what is seldom discussed is it also resulted in severe ulcers which lead to stomach cancer, killing him at age 49.
It is said that it was this point when Henry realized his loss, and never truly got over it. As a parent and a son, it is one of my worst fears to out live my own children and yet have my own parents outlive me. Henry began implementing Edsel’s ideas such as better dealer relationships, technology integration, style, form, customer choice, foreign presence, in essence making Ford what it is today. But at the same time Henry’s health began to decline and the too died 4 years later.
One article I read said the Eleanor threatened to sell all her stock if Henry didn’t give up control of the company to those with greater vision.
We toured the Edsel and Eleanor Estate in the pouring rain. Camera’s are not allowed in the house but the grounds include a very natural looking pool, a 2/3 scale fully functional play house for Josephine (the only daughter, a gift from Grama) rose gardens, and two lagoons which is where Edsel spent much of his time after he was diagnosed.
It is such an inspiring story but at the same time haunting. To witness first hand what they had accomplished in such a short period and then to be chopped down by cancer. It brings painful insights into what being human is all about. It’s a good reminder, like splitting wood in January with an axe and hitting the log just off enough to have it go careening wildly out of control, twisting in you hands and burrowing head deep into frozen soil.
Fear when managed is a form of self presservation… focus and motivation. What will our legacy be? What is your focus now?
I was so impressed with the life style Edsel and Eleanor established but continue to be haunted by the life story. After Edsel’s death, Eleanor remained on in the house for 33 years and never remarried. To this day the house is not only open to the public (per Eleanor’s will) but it is used for corporate and family meetings. William Clay Ford, the youngest of the four and the only one remaining, still lives on the lake but in another dwelling, 5 doors south (without doing the math… his grandfather was Henry Ford!) Edsel and Eleanor owned 3 other dwellings, one an hour north for their horses, another further north than that as a lakeside retreat, and the third in Maine which is now owned by Martha Stewart.
We also attempted to tour the Ford Rough River plant but missed the last tour bus… next time.