Henry Ford, the genius of yesterday, is so much the man of today that his ideas are still printed on milk cartons in grocery stores.
Not ideas about cars.
Ideas about soybeans.
"Henry Ford: A Man Who Used His Bean" trumpets a panel on a White Wave soymilk carton.
"By 1936, Ford was using a bushel of soybeans in every car that rolled off the line," the milk carton states. "Soybean meal was converted to plastic used to make over 20 parts, including horn buttons and gearshift knobs." Henry Ford also invented soybean fiber that found its way into automobile upholstery and a suit he wore on "special media occasions," notes the carton.
Exploring the potential of soybeans was among numerous ventures undertaken by Henry Ford, according to Ford R. Bryan, author of Beyond the Model T. Indeed, the mere recitation and dating of Henry Ford's diverse ventures - and adventures - beyond automobiles requires more than 225 pages in Bryan's book.
Henry Ford's relentless curiosity led the early Ford Motor Co. into hydroelectric plants, iron and coal mining, railroad operation, wireless telegraphy, radio broadcasting, airplane production, shipbuilding, experimental farming, lumbering, education, newspaper publishing, Brazilian rubber production, hospitals, medical projects and numerous other ventures.
Coffee, tea and toothpaste
Long before Sam Walton and the value prices of Wal-Mart there were Ford commissaries. And just like Wal-Mart stores, the commissaries even had a greeter known as a "service man" at the entrance.
Aware that inflation was undermining his employees' purchasing power, Henry Ford in 1919 opened the first Ford commissary across from the Ford Highland Park plant powerhouse, according to Bryan. More than a dozen stores would follow.
Henry Ford wanted to operate "high-volume outlets" where his employees "could buy high-quality commodities at rock-bottom prices," Bryan says in his book. "Ford's system for providing high-quality, low-cost merchandise was very straightforward. It simply employed bulk purchasing together with production-line delivery."
Henry Ford's stores even offered products bearing a private label, a merchandising phenomenon embraced by retailers of every stripe today. Rather than advertised brand names, the stores sold coffee, tea, flour, butter, toothpaste, aspirin, cold tablets and antiseptic mouthwash bearing the Ford label, according to Bryan. Ford flour, a blend of spring and winter wheat grown on Ford farms, was a big seller.
The philosophy behind the Ford stores found its way into many ventures. For example, in 1919 he went into lumbering in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Today, backyard-barbecue aficionados still enjoy an offshoot of that venture.
Henry Ford acquired 313,447 acres of forest for about $3 million with the aid of E.G. Kingsford, a Ford dealer in the Upper Peninsula, according to Bryan. At the time, each Model T used 250 board feet of hardwood in body framework, floorboards and wheels.
"Wood wastes from the Iron Mountain sawing operations were used not only to produce steam,'' Bryan notes. "Hardwood chips were charred, ground, mixed with starch, and compressed to form nearly a hundred tons per day of the well-known Ford charcoal briquettes sold by Ford dealers all over the United States. These pillow-shaped briquettes are still manufactured by Kingsford Products Company of Oakland, Calif., and sold by the name of Kingsford."
Bryan's chronicle of Henry Ford's far-ranging interests creates a portrait of a man whose mind never lay idle, who saw possibilities within possibilities that others could not begin to articulate.
The Ford farm tractor. The Fordson Estates Ltd. agricultural experiment in England. Ship building and the production of the U.S. Navy's submarine chaser, the Eagle, during World War I.
For example, Bryan points to Henry Ford's schedule as Ford contemplated entering the wireless business, in 1919. Henry Ford's corporate agenda would put to shame that of a global CEO today.
"A wireless station, to be sure, was not a major item on Ford's 1919 agenda," Bryan writes.
"This was the year he was fighting dissident stockholders by putting Edsel (Ford) in charge of Ford Motor Company and threatening to start his own company and build a new $250 car as competition. He was trying to build the Rouge plant, fight the Chicago Tribune in a lawsuit, launch the Dearborn Independent, start the Ford Technical Institute, build a gasoline streetcar, plan a dirigible factory, locate timber and mining properties, take over a railroad, start a new tractor plant in Ireland, and introduce modern manufacturing methods in Japan. Yet wireless intrigued him."
And Henry Ford turned into reality things that intrigued him. By November 1920, the Ford wireless station was among the first to broadcast presidential election returns.
Ford Motor Co. has tried to capture a sense of Henry Ford's insatiable curiosity. It produced a 2003 concept car that pays homage to the interests of the company's founder. The concept vehicle, dubbed the Model U and created as part of the centennial celebration, even uses soy-based materials in the tailgate and in seating foam to invoke the explorations of the company's founder.