Henry Ford in the U.P.

Henry Ford is pictured. (Courtesy photo)

The name Ford is synonymous with Detroit, but Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company had a significant impact on the Upper Peninsula as well. At one time, the boundaries of the Ford lands encompassed about 500,000 acres in Alger, Marquette, Baraga, Dickinson, Iron, Gogebic, and Ontonagon Counties. The company employed between 14,000 and 15,000 people in the UP, with 10,000 of them in the Kingsford area.

Henry Ford was obsessed with building the Model-T as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. To do that, he wanted his growing industry to be as self-sufficient as possible, which was achieved using vertical integration where Ford Motor Company created companies that supplied the factory with materials. These subsidiaries mined their own iron for steel, harvested rubber, and built sawmills to provide lumber to the factory.

The Ford connection to the Upper Peninsula began in 1921 when the Kingsford sawmill was established. This was in the days when a considerable amount of wood went into car bodies and the plant took advantage of the proximity to the raw materials. At times it was necessary for the plant to work three eight-hour shifts daily to keep up with the demand for sedan floorboards. Employment skyrocketed in the Iron Mountain-Kingsford area.

Additional sawmills were located at L’Anse, Pequaming, Alberta and Big Bay. Alberta in Baraga County was conceived as a sociological experiment and a model forest community. It was constructed from scratch in the heart of an extensive hardwood forest. The tiny community carved out of the woods consisted of a spic-and-span sawmill, modern homes, schools, and accessory buildings. The community was named after the daughter of one of Ford’s executives.

Soaring Ford sales touched off a boom in Upper Peninsula logging. In conjunction with the sawmills, there were lumber camps scattered throughout the central and western Upper Peninsula. Ford’s fondness for neatness and order even manifested itself in the camps. They were considered the most modern ever seen in the Upper Peninsula. The men who worked in these camps were scornfully called “lumber ladies” by other lumberjacks.

Ford saw the leftover sawdust from the sawmills and felt it was going to waste. A chemist then invented a method for making pillow-shaped lumps of fuel from the sawdust- the charcoal briquette was born. Thomas Edison designed the briquette factory next to the sawmill in Kingsford. The briquettes were sold in Ford dealerships and following WWII, the demand for charcoal soared.

In the same year that Ford started the Kingsford plant, 1921, he reopened the Imperial Mine. Regarding the Imperial, E.G. Muck of Michigamme later recalled, “He made a lot of changes in the mine out there, as far as cleanliness in the way they operated was concerned. Paint, paint, paint: He had six or eight men painting the year ’round. They painted every house and every one of the company shops. Then they’d go back and start all over again.”

Ford obviously loved the Upper Peninsula. He made frequent trips north of the Straits to inspect his far-flung properties or just to relax. In mid-August 1923, preceded by rumors, Henry Ford, along with several friends and family members, visited the Imperial Mine and camped on the shore of Lake Michigamme near the village.

Ford had driven from his Dearborn estate to Ohio, where he picked up Thomas Edison and tire tycoon Harvey Firestone, along with their wives. The tourists then drove to Traverse City, boarding Ford’s yacht, Sialia. The 300-foot-long seagoing vessel was manned by a crew of thirty. Behind the yacht came a chartered car ferry, hauling four Lincoln touring cars, three heavy trucks loaded with camping gear, and a Model T truck transporting a motion picture photographer and his equipment.

The group landed at Escanaba on August 19, 1923, where they were joined by Edwin Kingsford, manager of Ford’s Upper Peninsula operations. According to the Escanaba Daily Press, “Hundreds of Escanaba people, attracted by the prospect of seeing the three people who were, in their respective lines, the greatest in the world today, crowded the dock to welcome the party as they came down the gangplank.”

As Ford and the others set off on their “motor tour” of the Upper Peninsula, reporters followed them around, but when they spent a few days relaxing at Lake Michigamme, reporters were barred from the camp. Big-city newspaper editors demanded fresh news daily, so reporters wrote articles based on gossip, hearsay, and misinformation, or simply made up “news” about the trip to fill their columns.

To hear more about the amusing details of this hundred-year-old fake news fiasco and see silent film footage of the trip, join local history buff Bill Van Kosky for Pestered by the Press at the Marquette Regional History Center on Wednesday, April 10 at 6:30 pm. There is a $5 suggested donation. For more information visit marquettehistory.org or call 906-226-3571.


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