Cherry Hill Farm Remembers

Henry Ford was the biggest landowner in Wayne County by the time he bought "Cherry Hill Farm," just on the other side of the Washtenaw County line. He also owned various and sundry other vacation homes around the nation, wherever his industries had involvement (so that he could go spend time there and spy on his employees to make sure they were doing their jobs to his satisfaction). The Cherry Hill Farm is also nearly next-door to the famous Willow Run Bomber Plant, which Ford built around the same time he purchased this farm.


By the way, this is not an abandoned location like most of the sites I feature on this website, but it was vacant and wide-open when I paid my visit. My understanding is that usually Ford Motor Co. rents the house out to their head farmer and his family, or whoever is willing to live in an old house in the middle of nowhere with no air-conditioning (sign me up!).

The name "Cherry Hill" must be familiar to residents of western Wayne County, since the well-traveled Cherry Hill Road runs westerly from Dearborn through the Detroit suburbs all the way to the county line. But the road got its name from an old farming village that once existed on the western fringes of Wayne County, which has all but faded away. It was this village that both the road, and Mr. Ford's farm were named after.


After the Arsenal of Democracy days were over, the Ford Empire began changing. Henry retired and his grandson Henry Ford II took over, who immediately began selling off his grandfather's treasured (but anachronistic and unprofitable) "Northern Michigan Operations" and "Village Industries" holdings, which included this farm and other mills, mines, and lands. I wrote about a couple of these peripheral Ford industries in older posts, including the Kingsford Woodie PlantPequaming Sawmill, and the Nankin Mills.

The 800-acre Cherry Hill Farm on Gotfredson Road was more than just a farm. It was the Ford Tractor Division's proving grounds, as well as a laboratory where Mr. Ford experimented with crops for biomaterials, and different farming techniques. He was deeply interested in finding ways to merge new technology with agriculture as part of his "lifelong efforts to improve the lot of farmers," who had traditionally been his most loyal buyers of cars, trucks, and tractors.


Mr. Ford was obsessed with soybeans for instance, and the many different things they could be used for; he even made a prototype car out of them, called the "Soybean Car." One of the many famous Henry Ford stories was how he had a soy-plastic trunklid installed on his personal car, the strength of which he apparently delighted in demonstrating to people by taking a swing at it with an axe.

Henry was also obsessed with soy milk, which he made at his Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village. It is said that he pushed it on his son Edsel, which supposedly contributed to the stomach ulcers that killed him at a young age.


An article in the Ypsilanti Courier from June 2012 stated that this was Ford Motor Co.'s last working farm, which is saying something because Henry Ford used to own a lot of them. And it's funny, because it was loathing of his farm upbringing that led him to become an inventor.

Anyway, according to a book called Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, some of the main Ford farms in Michigan were the Harrison Farm up in Clare County, and the farms at Belleville, Nankin, Macon, and Dearborn.


There were plenty of others out of state too. Raymond Dahlinger (who I've written about in an older post) was assigned as the head of Ford Farms, as he was one of Henry's close personal friends. The Ypsilanti Courier article said that starting in 1906 Henry Ford acquired a total of 26,000 acres of farmland in southern Michigan, and continued to do so throughout the first half of the century. His vast holdings were mostly made up from hundreds of small family farms with a livable house standing on the property.

Results from tax information shown on a real estate website indicate that this house was built in the year 1900, and comprises 2,700 square feet.


As was his style, Mr. Ford often personally tended to these farm properties in detail. It was on these farms that he tinkered with new farming techniques, searched for ways to invent improvements to the farming industry that he could market through his company, and then used them as the proving grounds for the concepts that he came up with. They were quite literally laboratory farms.

Ford also had been in the tractor manufacturing business since the very beginning (if the name "Fordson Tractors" rings a bell), so naturally this was where he took his new tractor prototypes for field testing. The Cherry Hill Farm was specifically the farm that Ford used for tractor and farm implement testing, but it was also for raising crops to be used in experiments with biomaterials and food production methods.


A zoom-in of the sign on this pole shed shows that this place is indeed still Ford Motor Co. property:


As usual, any property of Mr. Henry Ford had to be kept up to his exacting standards—as well as anything else around it for a five-mile radius—so when he bought this place he had all the fences fixed, the roads repaired, and made sure the local school was up to snuff. Ford's paternalism knew no bounds, and he even used his farms as community meeting places. Dances were held in the barns here, and the townsfolk were invited to hold meetings in the farmhouse as well.

According to the book Cornerstones: A History of Canton Township Families, this farm was originally known as the Gotfredson farm, which Ford purchased for use as "a test site for farm machinery." This might explain why the farmhouse actually looks like two farmhouses joined together; this photo of its rear illustrates what looks like a smaller, older farmhouse, onto which the larger present farmhouse was added:


I would like to think that the smaller house was original to the Gotfredson family farm before Henry moved in and took over, but it is entirely possible that both were built by the Gotfredsons over the years. I also hypothesize that this house may have been where Henry Ford stayed overnight if he happened to be spending a lot of time at the Willow Run Bomber Plant, which, during World War II, was probably often.

Let's take a look inside, shall we?


Today the farm is managed jointly by Ford Land and VanWashenova Farms, producing corn, wheat, hay, and—of course—soybeans. In 2012 it was verified under the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) for effective land stewardship, which is a program to show food producers "how to identify and prevent agricultural pollution risks on their farms."

By the looks of the furniture situation, someone recently lived here.


Restoration work on the house and historic barns has been ongoing according to the 2012 Ypsilanti Courier article, but unfortunately that has included vinyl siding and vinyl windows. So I guess you wouldn't really call it a "restoration," then; you'd call it a remodel. I wish I could have seen this house in its glory before all that tacky plastic BS was stuck all over it.

At least this fabulous hardwood staircase is unmolested...


As I said earlier, Mr. Ford had the old local schoolhouse renovated when he established the Cherry Hill Farm. The original Cherry Hill Schoolhouse was built in the 1830s according to cantonhistoricalsociety.org, but it was replaced with a new one in 1875, located at 50440 Cherry Hill Road, in Canton Township. By the time Henry Ford came around these parts in 1942 however, this school was outmoded and in disrepair again.

An article in the Detroit Free Press from 1985 offers a tale about how Ford became involved. "As the story goes," Mr. Ford was driving through the Cherry Hill area one day (most likely on his way to or from this farm I presume), and came upon a woman with 10 children on the side of the road, so he stopped to see if she needed assistance. She said they were homeless, since her husband was out of work.


Ford's solution to this was to offer the man a job at Cherry Hill Farm, and his family subsequently became residents of the farm. However, since the farm was not quite in the same district as the Cherry Hill Schoolhouse, the 10 children could not be enrolled in school. Mr. Ford made the board of education an offer to renovate the schoolhouse, build an addition, and hire a second teacher if these children could be admitted.

The board accepted, and in 1943 Ford paid $22,000 to tune up the old Cherry Hill Schoolhouse and make it part of his Edison Institute School System. Ford operated 23 schools within a 100-mile radius of Dearborn in those days, most of them out-of-pocket, according to the article. The Edison Institute was the genesis of what became the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, and Benson Ford Research Center. I wrote about another Ford-built schoolhouse in an older post, about the Nankin School.


The cantonhistoricalsociety.org page also says that Ford had one of his small "Village Industries" factories nearby, at the corner of Cherry Hill Road and Ridge Road, which was designed to offer employment to wounded war veterans.


According to a volume of the trade publication Automotive Industries from 1973, Ford Motor Co. petitioned the Superior Township Planning Commission to have 230 acres of the 883-acre Cherry Hill Farm rezoned from agricultural to industrial. The plan was to begin construction that June on a new small engineering laboratory and a 5,000-foot long test track, to be completed by the end of that year. The article also specified that the farm was still under the control of the Ford Tractor Operations division.


I decided to check out the basement, which was very big. It is actually a brick foundation that has been covered in a concrete shell (which means that this house could be older than c.1900):


Not sure what this little trough area was for:


This part of the basement was under the smaller house:


Back upstairs, more rooms that looked like people were in the process of either moving in or out:


The house had baseboard heating throughout, and the windows are low enough to the floor that there would probably not have been tall radiators under them at any point in the house's history:


I came across a link online that lists the Cherry Hill Farm as a film scouting location with the Michigan Film Office, which calls it a "Beautiful farm on a dirt road run by Ford as a test farm." Who knows, maybe this place will end up in some movie. Maybe it will even be worth watching, unlike Michael Bay's umpteen rehashes of the Packard Plant and MCS.


Heading up to the second floor:


Just can't get enough of that bannister and all this original door trim:


On the second floor:


There were more bedrooms on the left and right, but nothing of photographic interest was in them.


Ahead was a connecting hallway that led from the second-floor of the bigger house into what had been the attic of the smaller, original house. You can tell by the steep angle of the ceiling:


To the right, the narrow stairs coming up from the kitchen:


Now this is one hell of an upstairs bathroom:


These fixtures look to date from the 1930s, possibly a remodel job dating from when the house was taken over by Ford:


Now that's some creativity...


The recently painted barns were in full view out the small attic window:


It was hard not to imagine Henry's lanky ghost wandering these halls...


Heading up to the attic, or third floor:


Well this is rather nicely outfitted, for an attic...and big windows in three directions!


This is definitely where I would have put my bedroom and study at, if I lived here. In fact, screw the whole rest of the house.


The big square pillars in the middle of the room hide the chimneys:


Blechhh...vinyl windows...


View across the top of the smaller house, with its two dormer windows:


Back downstairs we go.


Obviously the kitchen is a total gut-remod, as was the first-floor bathroom (which I did not deem worthy of photographing). This kitchen in fact covered most of what would have been the first floor of the smaller, original house.


Here in the pantry are some older cabinets and original window trim, though as you can see we have more fugly plastic windows and a trendy CFL twirly-bulb light:


Let's head out to the backyard, shall we?


Out in the yard, some golden oldies were rusting away...dig that 9000!


A lot of this machinery is still in regular use however, illustrating that this is still a working farm, despite the fact that no one actually lived here at the moment:


I am sure that old Henry would never stand for this business of putting equipment away without washing it first...


Oh yeah...look at this old C-700!


Now this really takes me back to my youth, when these split-shift beasts used to be seen on the road regularly in the form of fire trucks, garbage trucks, lineman trucks, and other big stuff that little boys love.


Love the nostalgic Ford "cog & lightning bolt" emblem too...trucks just aren't like this anymore, just lots of ergonomic false machismo; really expensive (functionless) paint colors, heated leather seats, and silly mallrat wheels. Trucks are for work, dammit.


Here's a little 1220, from back when Ford still made tractors with their name on them:


The 1220 model was made up until 1999, although Ford started getting out of the farm equipment business in 1990, with their models being badged under the New Holland name (which Ford bought in 1985). They still retained some Ford drivetrain and front-end components from what I can tell, and they are still painted the same distinctive Ford blue color. But they are all constructed in Europe, not Dearborn or Highland Park.


I did manage to peek my head inside a couple of the barns, although for the most part there was not much to see. The middle "barn" seems to have actually been a bean elevator:




I made a point of going up in the loft of at least one of the barns, knowing that one of them had once been used for the aforementioned community square dances...Henry sure loved his square dancing.


Sadly there were no traces of any old-time square dancing left behind, just some piles of poop.


Reminiscent of the Evil Dead basement door:


In another barn I came across two more great tractor finds. These are 1960s models, which is when Ford debuted their trademark blue & white color scheme, on the "Thousand" Series tractors:


According to livinghistoryfarm.org, Ford was still battling in the 1950s to regain market share in the tractor industry after having withdrawn from building farm equipment in the U.S. during the Depression, to focus on developing a car to replace the outdated Model-T. The all-new tractors didn't get enough prototype testing the website says, and as a result they developed engine and transmission issues, so Ford completely retooled in 1961-'62 and came out with these new blue & white models.


The Ford Tractor and Implement Division had opened their "Farm Machinery Research and Engineering Center" in Birmingham, Michigan in 1955, and consolidated all of its tractor production at the former Highland Park Model-T Plant in 1964, where they continued to be made until 1973 when the tractor plant in Romeo was opened. The Romeo plant ceased making tractors in 1986, and that was the end of Ford tractor production in Michigan.



References:
Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, by Ford R. Bryan, p. 223-224, 397
Automotive Industries, Vol. 148, p. 19 (1973)
Cornerstones: A History of Canton Township Families, by Diane Follmer Wilson (1988)
"Renovation will bring new life to historic school," Detroit Free Press, December 25, 1985, p. 134
Ypsilanti Courier, June 24, 2012
http://www.cantonhistoricalsociety.org/p/visit.html
https://www.thehenryford.org/research/soybeancar.aspx
http://www.soyinfocenter.com/HSS/henry_ford_and_employees.php
http://www.macsmotorcitygarage.com/2015/03/05/the-truth-about-henry-fords-soybean-car/
http://www.trulia.com/homes/Michigan/Ypsilanti/sold/2054898-2734-Gotfredson-Rd-Ypsilanti-MI-48198
http://mi.reel-scout.com/loc_detail.aspx?id=10026168&g=0&cid=14
http://www.tractordata.com/farm-tractors/tractor-brands/ford/ford-tractors.html
http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/machines_06.html
http://www.ntractorclub.com/forums/nhistory/messages/2911.html

3 comments:

  1. did someone pay you to paint such a nice picture of henry ford? mind boggling

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    Replies
    1. Perhaps you should read my other, much more popular posts about Ford, where I focus in more on the negative aspects of his personality. Even the biggest asshole in the world was a nice guy at least some of the time, and deserves to be portrayed from multiple perspectives--an allowance that I'm sure you too would likewise appreciate.

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  2. Love all your research and blogs on Ford related material. Am presently reading 'Henry and Edsel' which is a pretty good read on Ford's transition from altruistic industrial genius to mean spirited megalomaniac. I think his growing need for complete control over time ( finances and stock, from successful executives, car product, Edsel) was a major theme in his unraveling and going down the dark path. Even the Dahlinger thing has such a control theme in terms of keeping her nearby in a lavish estate with all the gifts for his purposes. Sadly Edsels contributions and what Hank II did to save the company do not get their fair recognition in the history

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