The Maecenas Of The Motor – American Travel

THE great trouble with Detroit, from my point of view, is that there is too much which should be mentioned : Grosse Pointe with its rich setting and rich homes; the fine new railroad station; the “Cabbage Patch” ; the “Indian Village” (so called because the streets bear Indian names) with its examples of modest, pleasing, domestic architecture. Then there are the boulevards, the fine Wayne County roads, the clubs—the Country Club, the Yacht Club, the Boat Club, the Detroit Club, the University Club, all with certain individuality. And there is the unique little Yondatega Club of which Theodore Roosevelt said: “It is beyond all doubt the best club in the country.”

Also there is Henry Ford.

I suppose there is no individual having to do with manufacturing of any kind whose name is at present more familiar to the world. But in all this ocean of publicity which has resulted from Mr. Ford’s development of a reliable, cheap car, from the stupefying growth of his business and his fortune, and more recently from his sudden distribution among his working people of ten million dollars of profits from his business—in all this publicity I have seen nothing that gave me a clear idea of Henry Ford himself. I wanted to see him—to assure myself that he was not some fabulous being out of a Detroit saga. I wanted to know what kind of man he was to look at and to listen to.

The Ford plant is far, far out on Woodward Avenue. It is so gigantic that there is no use wasting words in trying to express its vastness ; so full of people, all of them working for Ford, that a thousand or two more or less would make no difference in the looks of things. And among all those people there was just one man I really wanted to see, and just one man I really wanted not to see. I wanted to see Henry Ford and I wanted not to see a man named Liebold, because, they say, if you see Liebold first you never do see Ford. That is what Liebold is for. He is the man whose business in life it is to know where Henry Ford isn’t.

To get into Mr. Ford’s presence is an undertaking. It is not easy even to find out whether he is there. Lie-bold is so zealous in his protection that he even protects Mr. Ford from his own employees. Thus, when the young official who had my companion and me in charge, received word over the office telephone that Mr. Ford was not in the building, he did n’t believe it. He went on a quiet scouting expedition of his own before he was convinced. Presently he returned to the office in which he had deposited us.

“No; he really isn’t here just now,” he said. “He’ll be in presently. Come on ; I’ll take you through the plant.”

The machine shop is one room, with a glass roof, covering an area of something less than thirty acres. It is simply unbelievable in its size, its noise and its ghastly furious activity. It was peopled when we were there by five thousand men—the day shift in that one shop alone. (The total force of workmen was some-thing like three times that number.)

Of course there was order in that place, of course there was system—relentless system—terrible “efficiency”—but to my mind, unaccustomed to such things, the whole room, with its interminable aisles, its whirling shafts and wheels, its forest of roof-supporting posts and flapping, flying, leather belting, its endless rows of writhing machinery, its shrieking, hammering, and clatter, its smell of oil, its autumn haze of smoke, its savage-looking foreign population—to my mind it expressed but one thing, and that thing was delirium.

Fancy a jungle of wheels and belts and weird iron forms—of men, machinery and movement—add to it every kind of sound you can imagine : the sound of a million squirrels chirking, a million monkeys quarreling, a million lions roaring, a million pigs dying, a million elephants smashing through a forest of sheet iron, a million boys whistling on their fingers, a million others coughing with the whooping cough, a million sinners groaning as they are dragged to hell—imagine all of this happening at the very edge of Niagara Falls, with the everlasting roar of the cataract as a perpetual back-ground, and you may acquire a vague conception of that place.

Fancy all this riot going on at once; then imagine the effect of its suddenly ceasing. For that is what it did. The wheels slowed down and became still. The belts stopped flapping. The machines lay dead. The noise faded to a murmur; then to utter silence. Our ears rang with the quiet. The aisles all at once were full of men in overalls, each with a paper package or a box. Some of them walked swiftly toward the exits. Others settled down on piles of automobile parts, or the bases of machines, to eat, like grimy soldiers on a battlefield. It was the lull of noon.

I was glad to leave the machine shop. It dazed me. I should have liked to leave it some time before I actually did, but the agreeable young enthusiast who was conducting us delighted in explaining things—shouting the explanations in our ears. Half of them I could not hear; the other half I could not comprehend. Here and there I recognized familiar automobile parts—great heaps of them—cylinder castings, crank cases, axles. Then as things began to get a little bit coherent, along would come a train of cars hanging insanely from a single overhead rail, the man in the cab tooting his shrill whistle; whereupon I would promptly retire into mental fog once more, losing all sense of what things meant, feeling that I was not in any factory, but in a Gargantuan lunatic asylum where fifteen thousand raving, tearing maniacs had been given full authority to go ahead and do their damnedest.

In that entire factory there was for me but one completely lucid spot. That was the place where cars were being assembled. There I perceived the system. No sooner had axle, frame, and wheels been joined together than the skeleton thus formed was attached, by means of a short wooden coupling, to the rear end of a long train of embryonic automobiles, which was kept moving slowly forward toward a far-distant door. Beside this train of chassis stood a row of men, and as each succeeding chassis came abreast of him, each man did something to it, bringing it just a little further to-ward completion. We walked ahead beside the row of moving partially-built cars, and each car we passed was a little nearer to its finished state than was the one behind it. Just inside the door we paused and watched them come successively into first place in the line. As they moved up, they were uncoupled. Gasoline was fed into them from one pipe, oil from another, water from still another.

Then as a man leaped to the driver’s seat, a machine situated in the floor spun the back wheels around, causing the motor to start ; whereupon the little Ford moved out into the wide, wide world, a completed thing, propelled by its own power.

In a glass shed of the size of a small exposition building the members of the Ford staff park their little cars. It was in this shed that we discovered Mr. Ford. He had just driven in (in a Ford!) and was standing beside it—the god out of the machine.

“Nine o’clock tomorrow morning,” he said to me in reply to my request for an appointment.

I may have shuddered slightly. I know that my companion shuddered, and that, for one brief instant, I felt a strong desire to intimate to Mr. Ford that ten o’clock would suit me better. But I restrained myself.

Inwardly I argued thus : “I am in the presence of an amazing man—a prince of industry—the Maecenas of the motor car. Here is a man who, they say, makes a million dollars a month, even in a short month like February. Probably he makes a million and a quarter in the thirty-one-day months when he has time to get into the spirit of the thing. I wish to pay a beautiful tribute to this man, not because he has more money than I have—I don’t admit that he has—but because he con-serves his money better than I conserve mine. It is for that that I take off my hat to him, even if I have to get up and dress and be away out here on Woodward Avenue by 9 A. M. to do it.”

Furthermore, I thought to myself that Mr. Ford was the kind of business man you read about in novels; one who, when he says “nine,” does n’t mean five minutes after nine, but nine sharp. If you aren’t there your chance is gone. You are a ruined man.

“Very well,” I said, trying to speak in a natural tone, “we will be on hand at nine.”

Then he went into the building, and my companion and I debated long as to how the feat should be accomplished. He favored sitting up all night in order to be safe about it, but we compromised at last on sitting up only a little more than half the night.

The cold, dismal dawn of the day following found us shaved and dressed. We went out to the factory. It was a long, chilly, expensive, silent taxi ride. At five minutes before nine we were there. The factory was there. The clerks were there. Fourteen thousand one hundred and eighty-seven workmen were there—those workmen who divided the ten millions—everything and every one was there with a single exception. And that exception was Mr. Henry Ford.

True, he did come at last. True, he talked with us. But he was not there at nine o’clock, nor yet at ten. Nor do I blame him. For if I were in the place of Mr. Henry Ford, there would be just one man whom I should meet at nine o’clock, and that man would be Meadows, my faithful valet.

Apropos of that, it occurs to me that there is one point of similarity between Mr. Ford and myself : neither of us has a valet just at present. Still, on thinking it over, we aren’t so very much alike, after all, for there is one of us—I shan’t say which—who hopes to have a valet some day.

Mr. Ford’s office is a room somewhat smaller than the machine shop. It is situated in one corner of the administration building, and I am told that there is a private entrance, making it unnecessary for Mr. Ford to run the gantlet of the main doorway and waiting room, where there are almost always persons waiting to ask him for a present of a million or so in money ; or, if not that, for four or five thousand dollars’ worth of time—for if Mr. Ford makes what they say, and does n’t work overtime, his hour is worth about four thousand five hundred dollars.

He wasn’t in the office when we entered. That gave us time to look about. There was a large flat-top desk. The floor was covered with an enormous, costly Oriental rug. At one end of the room, in a glass case, was a tiny and very perfect model of a Ford car. On the walls were four photographs: one of Mr. James Couzens, vice-president and treasurer of the Ford Company; another, a life-size head of “Your friend, John Wanamaker,” and two of Thomas A. Edison. Under one of the latter, in the handwriting of the inventor—handwriting which, oddly enough, resembles nothing so much as neatly bent wire—was this inscription :

To Henry Ford, one of a group of men who have helped to make U. S. A. the most progressive nation in the world.

Thomas A. Edison.

Presently Mr. Ford came in—a lean man, of good height, wearing a rather shabby brown suit. Without being powerfully built, Mr. Ford looks sinewy, wiry.. His gait is loose-jointed—almost boyish. His manner, too, has something boyish about it. I got the feeling that he was a little bit embarrassed at being interviewed. That made me sorry for him—I had been interviewed, myself, the day before. When he sat he hunched down in his chair, resting on the small of his back, with his legs crossed and propped upon a large wooden wastebasket—the attitude of a lanky boy. And, despite his gray hair and the netted wrinkles about his eyes, his face is comparatively youthful, too. His mouth is wide and determined, and it is capable of an exceedingly dry grin, in which the eyes collaborate. They are fine, keen eyes, set high under the brows, wide apart, and they seem to express shrewdness, kindliness, humor, and a distinct wistfulness. Also, like every other item in Mr. Ford’s physical make-up, they indicate a high degree of honesty. There never was a man more genuine than Mr. Ford. He has n’t the faintest sign of that veneer so common to distinguished men, which is most eloquently described by the slang term “front.” Nor is he, on the other hand, one of those men who (like so many politicians) try to simulate a simple manner. He is just exactly Henry Ford, no more, no less; take it or leave it. If you are any judge at all of character, you know immediately that Henry Ford is a man whom you can trust. I would trust him with anything. He didn’t ask me to, but I would. I would trust him with all my money.

And, considering that I say that, I think he ought to be willing, in common courtesy, to reciprocate.

He told us about the Ford business. “We’ve done two hundred and five millions of business to date,” he said. “Our profits have amounted to about fifty-nine millions. About twenty-five per cent. has been put back into the business—into the plant and the branches. All the actual cash that was ever put in was twenty-eight thousand dollars. The rest has been built up out of profits. Yes—it has happened in a pretty short time; the big growth has come in the last six years.”

I asked if the rapid increase had surprised him.

“Oh, in a way,” he said. “Of course we could n’t be just sure what she was going to do. But we figured we had the right idea.”

“What is the idea?” I questioned.

Then with deep sincerity, with the conviction of a man who states the very foundation of all that he believes, Mr. Ford told us his idea. His statement did not have the awful majesty of an utterance by Mr. Freer. He did not flame, although his eyes did seem to glow with his conviction.

“It is one model!” he said. “That ‘s the secret of the whole doggone thing !” (That is exactly what he said. I noted it immediately for “character.”)

Having revealed the “secret,” Mr. Ford directed our attention to the little toy Ford in the glass case.

“There she is,” he said. “She’s always the same. I tell everybody that ‘s the way to make a success. Every manufacturer ought to do it. The thing is to find out something that everybody is after and then make that one thing and nothing else. Shoemakers ought to do it. They ought to get one kind of shoe that will suit every-body, instead of making all kinds. Stove men ought to do it, too. I told a stove man that just the other day.”

That, I believe, is, briefly, the business philosophy of Henry Ford.

“It just amounts to specializing,” he continued. “I like a good specialist. I like Harry Lauder—he ‘s a great specialist. So is Edison. Edison has done more for people than any other living man. You can’t look anywhere without seeing something he has invented. Edison does n’t care anything about money.. I don’t either. You ‘ve got to have money to use, that ‘s all. I have n’t got any job here, you know. I just go around and keep the fellows lined up.”

I don’t know how I came by the idea, but I was conscious of the thought that Mr. Ford’s money worried him. He looks somehow as though it did. And it must, coming in such a deluge and so suddenly. I asked if wealth had not compelled material changes in his mode of life.

“Do you mean the way we live at home?” he asked. “Yes ; that kind of thing.”

“Oh, that hasn’t changed to any great extent,” he said. “I’ve got a little house over here a ways. It ‘s nothing very much—just comfortable. It ‘s all we need. You can have the man drive you around there on your way back if you want. You ‘ll see.” (Later I did see; it is a very pleasant, very simple type of brick suburban residence.)

“Do you get up early?” I ventured, having, as I have already intimated, my own ideas as to what I should do if I were a Henry Ford.

“Well, I was up at quarter of seven this morning,” he declared. “I went for a long ride in my car. I usually get down to the plant around eight-thirty or nine o’clock.”

Then I asked if the change had not forced him to do a deal of entertaining.

“No,” he said. “We know the same people we knew twenty years ago. They are our friends today. They come to our house. The main difference is that Mrs. Ford used to do the cooking. Lately we ‘ve kept a cook. Cooks try to give me fancy food, but I won’t stand for it. They can’t cook as well as Mrs. Ford either—none of them can.”

I wish you could have heard him say that! It was one of his deep convictions, like the “one model” idea.

“What are your hobbies outside your business?” I asked him.

It seemed to me that Mr. Ford looked a little doubtful about that. Certainly his manner, in replying, lacked that animation which you expect of a golfer or a yachts-man or an art collector—or, for the matter of that, a postage-stamp collector.

“Oh, I have my farm out at Dearborn—the place where I was born,” he replied. “I ‘m building a house out there—not as much of a house as they try to make out, though. And I ‘m interested in birds, too.”

Then, thinking of Mr. Freer, I inquired : “Do you care for art?”

The answer, like all the rest, was definite enough.

“I would n’t give five cents for all the art in the world,” said Mr. Ford without a moment’s hesitation.

I admired him enormously for saying that. So many people feel as he does in their hearts, yet would not dare to say so. So many people have the air of posturing before a work of art, trying to look intelligent, trying to “say the right thing” before the right painting—the right painting as prescribed by Baedeker. True, I think the man who declares he would not give five cents for all the art in the world thereby declares himself a barbarian of sorts. But a good, honest, open-hearted barbarian is a fine creature. For one thing, there is nothing false about him. And there is nothing soft about him either. It is the poseur who is soft—soft at the very top, where Henry Ford is hard.

I saw from his manner that he was becoming restless. Perhaps we had stayed too long. Or perhaps he was bored because I spoke about an abstract thing like art.

I asked but one more question.

“Mr. Ford,” I said, “I should think that when a man is very rich he might hardly know, sometimes, whether people are really his friends or whether they are cultivating him because of his money. Isn’t that so? ”

Mr. Ford’s dry grin spread across his face. He replied with a question :

“When people come after you because they want to get something out of you, don’t you get their number ?” “I think I do,” I answered.

“Well, so do I,” said Mr. Ford.