America's leading industrialist died in a cold, dark, stone fortress that was buffeted by high winds and racked by rain.
The date was April 7, 1947. Floodwaters had ravaged Dearborn, Mich., leaving much of the area without power. Fair Lane, Henry Ford's mansion, was not spared. The only heat was from fireplaces; the only illumination from oil lamps and candles.
The circumstances were not unlike those of his birth 83 years earlier on a farm in Dearborn.
With him at the end was Clara, his wife of 59 years. No children were present; their only child, Edsel, had died in 1943. No grandchildren or other relatives were there. The storm had knocked out Fair Lane's telephones so no one could be summoned.
The automotive pioneer died just before midnight. Death came swiftly and quietly as the result of a cerebral hemorrhage.
He was mourned like the important person that he was.
One hundred thousand people in lines stretching for blocks passed Ford's bier at Greenfield Village in Dearborn to bid him farewell. The wheels of the auto industry came to a halt in tribute to Ford, the man who had created so much automotive history.
National leaders joined automotive greats to express their sympathy. Among them was President Harry Truman, whose message to the Ford family said in part: "In the sorrow which has come with such sudden and unexpected force, I offer to you and to all who mourn with you this assurance of deepest sympathy."
Perhaps the greatest accolade to Henry Ford was one of the briefest: He put the world on wheels. Not only through his ubiquitous Model T (which was the People's Car decades before the Volkswagen was conceived). His $5-a-day wage made it possible for common folk to own a car, and his low prices (as low as $260) made it even more possible.
Active to the end
Henry Ford was active to the end. He had been in excellent spirits over the weekend. On Easter Sunday, April 6, Ford and his wife visited relatives in Dearborn. The weather that day was atrocious. A heavy rain caused the usually placid Rouge River to overflow, putting the Fair Lane power plant out of action.
The next day, Ford's farm superintendent drove him to Greenfield Village, Henry Ford's outdoor museum of Americana, to inspect flood damage. That area was dangerously close to the Rouge River, but Ford was happy to find that nothing had been harmed.
At dinner he talked about plans for a 100-mile trip the next day to inspect flood damage at other Ford enterprises. He retired at 9 p.m. as usual.
At about 11:15 p.m., Clara heard Ford call, and she hurried to him. He told her that his head ached and his throat was dry. She gave him a glass of water and then, because the telephone was not working, she sent Rosa Buhler, her maid, to Robert Rankin, the family chauffeur, in his lodgings above the garage, to tell him to get a doctor. Rankin drove to the Ford Engineering Laboratories, half a mile away, and called Dr. John Mateer of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
When the maid returned to the bedroom, she heard Clara say, "Henry, speak to me." Ford's breathing seemed to have stopped. "What do you think of it?" Clara asked Buhler. "I think," the maid replied, "Mr. Ford will be leaving us."
When the doctor arrived at the house at around midnight, Ford was dead.
The sad news went around the world quickly. On its editorial page, Automotive News paid tribute to the complexity of the man and to his genius: "Those who knew him best have said that it was impossible to assess him, to sum him up, for like a rare diamond, he had many facets, yet had essentially simple tastes.
"Even his close friends never knew what he would do next," Automotive News continued. "Unlike most of us, he was totally unafraid of new things, of tomorrow. Yet his course was remarkably straight. It was always what he thought best for the most people." The editorial was headlined "Henry Ford: He opened door to tomorrow."
On the night of Ford's death, the Associated Press dispatched a long report detailing his life. It was the work of David Wilkie, longtime AP auto editor who was an Automotive News columnist after his retirement from AP in the 1960s. Wilkie wrote nonstop for several hours, calling on no reference material other than his own notes. Wilkie knew Ford, and he knew how to write about him.
The New York Times ran the AP story, starting on Page 1 and filling another entire page. The following day, the Times continued its coverage with a report on how Ford's death shocked Detroit: "It was as if an ageless landmark had suddenly crumbled," the story said.
British newspapers carried the story of Ford's death with streamer headlines, pointing out that Ford of England employed thousands in a huge plant outside London. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the evening papers called Ford a "world benefactor."
Ford received respect from everyone. From early in the morning till late at night on April 9, nearly 100,000 people filed past his bier at Greenfield Village to pay their respects. According to one published report, a man in line recalled that Ford visited a coal mine he had bought in Nuttalsburg, W.Va., showing up in a blue suit to talk to the grimy miners. He said Ford asked for a suit of overalls and went down into the shaft, where he learned that the men worked in corridors so low that they could not stand erect. He remembered, too, that Ford quickly modernized the mine.
20,000 in the rain
At the funeral on April 10, St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Detroit was jammed with 1,400 people, and 20,000 stood outside in the rain. To honor Ford, buses, cabs and most private vehicles turned to the curb for 60 seconds of tribute to the man who had made the car a part of people's lives. Bells tolled across the city. City Hall was draped in black, with a 30-foot portrait of Ford hanging down the front. The cathedral was filled at every window, at every doorway and at either side of the altar with magnificent floral tributes. Lilies were the dominant flowers.
In the afternoon, Ford's body was interred in a plot near the graves of his mother and father in Detroit. The burial was private, with only members of the immediate family present.
The skies, which had been gray for two days, were filled with dazzling sunlight as the coffin was lowered into the grave.
Sources: Automotive News, The New York Times, The Detroit News, the Associated Press and Ford: The Men and the Machine by Robert Lacey