With the success of the Model T, and the coffers full, Henry turned to his next project, the envisioned River Rouge Plant.
Like most men of his ilk, micro-management was the norm. These men are control freaks. They are not satisfied until they have all the marbles. Much like Rockefeller who when faced with railroads intent upon getting a bigger profit from carrying his crude, built his own pipeline to carry crude to his refineries, (while destroying a few railroads and putting thousands out of work), Henry didn’t like buying steel. He wanted to make his own.
The Rouge Plant was his vision for doing that. The Rouge River runs through Dearborn, and has access to the Detroit River, which gave Henry access to water transportation for iron ore. Dredging the river, he was able to bring raw materials to his new factory which was 1.5 miles by 1 mile in size. It ultimately employed as many as 100,000 people, and turned raw iron ore into a finished car. Hundreds of miles of roads and rail supported the 93 buildings.
But we move ahead of ourselves. When Henry made known his desires to build the Rouge, his investors balked. They wanted dividends to be paid on the enormous profits that Henry was holding. Henry had always hated investors considering them to offer him nothing but money, missing the point that of course he could do little without it. Henry refused to issue a dividend, they sued, they won. Henry was livid. He concocted a scheme with his son Edsel to wrest control from their hands.
All sorts of “plans” were announced for the future, plans that seemed scary and likely to bankrupt the company. People became nervous, and soon investors were selling stock off to willing buyers (all of course fronts for Henry). When all the stock had been re-acquired, it is said that Henry danced a jig. Now with control of his company, he turned to building the Rouge.
Once built, he spent little time there, finding it cold and ugly. It was as one put it, soulless. It was worse than soulless, it was a hateful place to work.
Along the same lines, Henry bought thousands of acres in the Brazilian Amazon forest, clear-cut it (always the environmentalist), and started a rubber farm, replete with “Americanized local workers” and a town and neighborhood called Fordlandia, where happy families would live life according to Henry’s model of perfect family living.
Meanwhile, at the Rouge plant a security division was run by one Harry Bennett, who had become Henry’s most loyal and trusted friend. He was a man of little education, and he rose through the ranks of Henry’s organization, being the tough. At the Rouge, he supervised a security team of nearly 3000, and enforced the rules. His team consisted of thugs, ex-cons, ex-cops and various mafioso.
The rules were simple. No sitting, no talking, and no gathering in groups of even two during breaks. Talking was dangerous.
Why? The Wagner Act.
In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Board act, which in part legalized the rights of workers to unionize. (Back when Republicans actually thought unions a good thing)
The United Auto Workers formed and chose GM as their first strike target. After months of struggle, GM gave in and negotiated a contract. Chrysler quickly followed suit. When UAW organizers came to the Ford to pass out literature outside the plant, well, Bennett was ready. Although plenty of journalists had appeared to watch the confrontation, Bennett thought he had that covered. Cameras and equipment were snatched and smashed. Yet pictures were taken and they were printed. They showed Bennett and his thugs beating union organizers with baseball bats.
Henry was having none of the this union business. He continued to fight unionization at his company, until Edsel quietly on his own negotiated a contract and ended the matter. Henry really never forgave him. Edsel also continued to bring new car concepts to the old man, which were always rejected, finally resulting in Henry telling Edsel to take a long vacation in California and not come back until Henry called to see him.
But running his company was not enough. Henry also had a paper that he published out of Dearborn. As the war years loomed, Henry became increasingly fanatic in his anti-Semitism, blaming Jews for almost everything wrong in America. He blamed them for World War I and sympathized with Hitler. His tracts in The Dearborn Independent were bound and sold in Germany under the title The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. Hitler called Ford an “inspiration” a man who had maintained his independence from the “masters of the producers”, namely Jews.
Sales slumped, Henry issued the pro forma apology, and the Dearborn Independent was closed.
Meanwhile, Edsel grew sick, and eventually died of stomach cancer, leaving the old man in control again. However, by now Henry’s mental faculties had been ravaged by dementia and the company for some time was in chaos as he made and changed directives daily. He continued as head during the war years, though at one point Roosevelt considered taking over the company to protect its war manufacturing, so erratic had Henry become.
In 1945, he turned over the reins to Henry II his grandson. He died some two years later. Henry sold off the failed Fordlandia and took the company public again soon after.
The five-dollar day is one thing Ford is remembered for, and it was a good thing, although as we saw, it was intended to stop a savage turnover rate that was costing too much in training new workers. He did, hit on the idea of the assembly line, although there is reason to believe that it was a team discovery. He did develop a serviceable and cheap auto that changed the face of America, though certainly no such thing was envisioned at first.
Does this offset his craziness and the pain and suffering he caused to so many? The meddling in others personal lives, they intimidation and fear that was said to be so thick you could cut it with a knife on the factory floor? The outrageous hatred of Jewish people, and the aid and comfort he gave to Hitler? The bullying of his only son? The incessant drum beat that Henry knew how everyone else should live?
I don’t know. I suspect that the assembly line would have been created by someone and in no short time. Any manufacturer at some point (unless they make yachts) recognizes that more money can be had when products are cheaper and can be purchased by a broader public. The determination to lower costs will always drive technology.
The Model T? Oh it was a glorious car no doubt, but there was no shortage of cars, and again, it would not have taken long for other car makers to conclude that selling to the rich insured a small market.
So you judge? Did the ends justify the means? Is Ford a man to be held up as a brilliant diamond in the firmament of American industrialization, or as a sleazy awful human being, with a personality that drove him to succeed, and inadvertently to provide a service (mobility on the cheap) that changed a country, and ultimately the world?
It’s a hard call.
Tell me, what do you think?
Oh, and the Contrarianism?
After watching the PBS documentary on Ford the other night, we had just got in bed, and were talking about the unions. The Contrarian mentioned Jimmy Hoffa and his disappearance in 1975. I agreed, a lot had happened relative to unions during our lives.
“Yes,” he pointed out, “and there was Joe Louis from the United Mine Workers.”
“No, no it’s not Joe, it’s Lewis, but not Joe,” I moaned.
“Yes, it is, sure, it is.” he assured me.
“NO,” I exclaimed, “that’s the boxer,” I said.
“NO, it’s Joe E. Louis,” he whispered.
I scrambled from the bed. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the computer to look up the name, I can’t sleep now!” I yelled.
I returned to bed a couple of minutes later.
“Its JOHN L. LEWIS!”
“Yes, but the E. was a nice touch don’t you think?” he chuckled, turned over, and snuggled into the covers.
“Oh God,” I moaned, “I’m really expecting a big job up there, I really am!”