In all my years of collecting these stories, I’ve come across a lot of unusual things about Henry Ford. Everybody knows that he came up with a Model T, made the cars available to the masses, he came up with the assembly line. But he did some peculiar things including some of the prejudicial statements he made in publications that he put out. He also tried to build cars entirely manufactured from soybeans and sought a use for soybeans in just about everything. Ford also invented the barbecue briquette.
Yet, today’s story is about him trying to get people dancing again and it’s a very interesting little story. A funny, humorous one from history that probably didn’t offend anyone.
Let’s start with an event that occurred in 1916. In fact, in May of 1916, Henry Ford was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and asked a little bit about history and he claimed that history is just a bunch of bunk. Afterward, he felt that his comments had been taken out of context. What he was implying is that you should live for today and not really worry so much about the past and that phrase just haunted him. The Chicago Tribune took him to task on that. They ran bad story after bad story on him and eventually they accused him of not rehiring workers who performed military service.
Ford felt that they finally had stepped over the line. In the past, they had accused of being ignorant, being dumb, and not knowing a whole heck of a lot, but when they accused him of not rehiring those workers, he felt that that was untrue and he took him to court, he sued the Chicago Tribune for libel.
When Ford was put up on the stand, he was asked a whole bunch of questions about history in an effort to embarrass him. For example, Ford thought that Benedict Arnold was a writer and he confused the American Revolution with the War of 1812. The court ruled in favor of Ford. In 1919, he was awarded a whole 6 cents in damage. The money wasn’t that important because Ford was one of the richest men in the world, but public opinion of him was swayed forever. People now viewed him to be an extremely wealthy man, but also a very ignorant man.
In response, Henry Ford amassed a very large collection of antiques and purchasing historic properties. This was to prove to the world that he was interested in American history and history in general. One of these properties was the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, which to this day is the oldest operating inn in the United States.
When Henry Ford purchased this, he wished to create a Living Museum and he purchased property all around the Wayside. He expanded the property to approximately 3000 acres. He also added eight buildings to the property, including an old barn and a schoolhouse that he had moved there, plus he built a chapel and an operating grist mill. Ford also added some antiquities to it. Henry Ford was the last private owner of the Wayside Inn. In 1944, three years before his death, he set aside 125 acres with the Inn on that property and set it up as a non-profit organization. In this way, the Inn could continue after his death and not be destroyed or ripped down.
So, I guess you are asking yourself what in the world does this have to do with dancing?
It was at the Wayside Inn that his wife Clara reminded him that they had danced very little since they were young. Henry Ford had become so rich and so successful and so busy that their passion for dancing that they had when they first met was gone. They hadn’t danced in years.
Henry and his wife Clara decided at the Wayside Inn to start learning to dance again. And what they found out was that the years had gone by and they weren’t very good at it anymore. They decided to seek out an instructor.
Ford found exactly who is looking for in a guy name Benjamin Lovett. Benjamin Lovett and his wife Charlotte, who were both from New Hampshire, had been teaching traditional American dances – basically country line dancing – throughout New England for approximately twenty years. But it wasn’t just the dancing that attracted Ford to Lovett. It was that they both shared the same common belief that the modern dances, the swing dances, the Jazz of the 1920s, were bad for American youth. The old traditional dances were better. They somehow not only taught you to dance, but they gave you better social grace. They gave you better manners.
Ford was so impressed by the Lovetts that they were invited back to Dearborn, Michigan with him to help organize a series of dances.
The Lovetts expected to possibly stay a month or two. Instead, they stayed close to twenty years.
Ford not only brought in the service of the Lovetts, but he also found the best fiddle players, sousaphone players, dulcimer players and so on to put together a country house orchestra at the Ford plant.
The one thing Ford lacked was a dance hall, a dance studio, so all of these people were given rehearsal space in a section of the large Ford Dearborn Engineering Laboratory. All of them had to be ready at a moment ‘s notice. Anytime Ford came in and wanted to dance, they had to start playing.
Ford felt so strongly about the effect of dance; its ability to make people better people; to have greater morals; that he insisted that all of his executives learn to dance. At least they had to dance the way that he wanted them to dance. Night after night for about two weeks he forced his executives to come into the engineering facility and learn to dance. They also had to bring their spouses with them. There were no exceptions. If you couldn’t make it at a certain time, he would schedule the dance at a different time.
In 1926, with the Lovetts’ help, Henry Ford published the book titled “Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old-Fashioned Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford.”
For Henry Ford, it wasn’t enough just to get his executives and their wives dancing. He wanted to get all of America dancing. He wanted the students, the young people, the old people, and everyone in-between dancing. But they couldn’t be dancing to anything. None of that crazy jazz stuff that was corrupting the youth. He wanted everyone to dance those traditional American dances. His book contains square dances, contra dances, maybe a few waltzes and a polka, but they’re all traditional dances.
As you can imagine, these dances were very out of step with what was going on at that time. The press had a field day with this, yet Ford with all his power and money was able to get the movement spreading.
He set up a school for boys and girls to learn how to dance and, eventually, it became part of all of the schools in the Dearborn, Michigan area. At its peak, it’s estimated that approximately 22,000 students were learning these traditional dances in school. The Detroit Public Schools used Ford’s book as part of its curriculum for many, many years, and then some universities and colleges took it in, and the movement spread.
But it wasn’t to last long. Like all fads and crazes, they die out very quickly and by the end of 1926 the public had gone back to jazz and doing what they were doing before. But a dying fad did not stop Henry Ford. He continued to push for traditional American dances to be taught to students and others all across this country.
As an example, in 1937 he built Lovett Hall, which was a beautiful, elegant ballroom. It’s still in existence today in Greenfield Village, which is known as the Henry Ford Museum today. It’s the largest outdoor museum in the United States.
Sadly, Henry Ford’s enthusiasm for traditional American dance lasted until 1943 when his only child Edsel died of cancer. At that point he just lost it. He could not deal with life anymore and died in 1947.
Yet, his death didn’t bring an end to these dances. The foundation that ran Lovett Hall continued over the years, at least sporadically, to hold these dances. They went on for decades. And finally, in the early 1980s, they set up monthly dances. The Hall was rented out, and they had monthly Contra dancing and country dancing at Lovett Hall. These dances continued monthly until February 6, 2005. That’s what 23 years later, when 537 attendees were the last ones to dance one of the traditional Ford dances at Lovett Hall.
The organizers of the event didn’t want it to end. It was the Ford Foundation that ended the dances. The foundation operators insisted that the dance organizers pay $800 to rent the Hall and, in addition, they had to contract to spend at least $4000 each time on catered food. The organizer of the event realized that this was impossible and opted to stop the dancing at Lovett Hall.
So now you know the story of how Henry Ford got the whole country dancing.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.