By Henry Dominguez: I have been writing about Ford history for nearly forty years and thought that everything had been written about Henry Ford that could be written about the motor magnate. Every so often, a “new” biography would come out, which I would readily buy, looking for that new tidbit of information. Unfortunately, they were all the same story, just told a little differently. But then a serendipitous thing happened.
While I was doing research on another Ford book, I made contact with the widow of an old-time Ford dealer—she had some photographs and other materials that she was going to give me. Among the stuff she gave me was a book entitled “The Day Lincoln Was Shot,” an almost minute-by-minute account of that fateful event. I started reading it, and then it hit me—a similar book could be written about Henry Ford’s last day!
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of this before. Why? Because I had known for years that my good friend and fellow Ford aficionado, Dick Folsom, had personally interviewed Rosa Buhler, the Fords’ maid, back in the late Seventies. She had given him an almost minute-by-minute account of Mr. Ford’s last hours on earth. And there was an interview of Robert Rankin, the Fords’ chauffeur, which gave a detailed account of Henry’s last day. Rankin’s interview resides at The Benson Ford Research Center, and it has been used by historians to some degree. However, Buhler’s interview is deposited at The University of Michigan and, therefore, is somewhat obscure.
I hadn’t read these interviews in years, but I knew they contained the nuggets of a Henry Ford story that had never been told. I got to work immediately.
The first thing I did was call Dick Folsom, and told him of my idea. He thought it was great, and agreed that a story could be made from the information. Then he mentioned a few more ideas. “I have the name of a man who was supposedly a guard at Fair Lane the night Henry Ford died,” Dick told me. “I’ve never talked to him, and I don’t know if he is still alive.” Then he suggested calling Carol Lemons, the last living niece of Henry and Clara Ford, and contacting Berry College in Georgia for possible information. All of these leads turned out to be precious, indeed.
Harold Priebe was still alive and well…, he was the night guard at Fair Lane…, and he was there the night Henry Ford died. Carol Lemons, who was ninety at the time I interviewed her, told me about how Henry and Clara had come over to her parents’ house for Easter the day before Henry’s death. And Berry College had a letter written by Clara, which gave details of how her husband died. From there, I tracked down forty other people who had attended events surrounding the last days of Henry Ford—the viewing and the funeral, for example—and got their personal stories.
With these interviews, combined with hundreds of pages of newspaper accounts, I was able to piece together this last, great story of Henry Ford’s life.
As I got more and more involved in the research, I decided to expand the project to include the last year of Ford’s life and the three years following his death, culminating with the death of Clara Ford. I did this for two reasons: firstly, while Henry was old and senile, he still attended many events in his honor throughout 1946 (the fiftieth anniversary of him driving this first car through the streets of Detroit), and those events have never been sufficiently chronicled.
Secondly, the events that occurred after Henry’s death were just too unbelievable not to expand on. While this book does have some familiar material in it, at least eighty percent is brand new, never-before-written-about material. As Robert Lacey, author of the New York Times best-selling book, Ford: The Men and the Machine, says, “The Last Days of Henry Ford is a beautifully written, meticulously researched and compulsively readable work of history.”
- The funeral cortege passing in front of the General Motors building on its way to the Ford Cemetery.
Fortunately, I started my research when I did, because a number of people whom I interviewed have since died. Harold Priebe is still going strong at 90, but Carol Lemons died a couple of years ago, as did, Mary Grace Simescu—the Queen of the Automobile Jubilee. (She witnessed Henry Ford being inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1946.) But I got their stories before it was too late, and now their stories will become part of the great Ford legend.
Editors note: This book by Henry Dominguez covers new and interesting ground. Instead of doing a conventional book review, we thought there was more to be learned about the subject by letting him tell us about his experiences in writing this book. You can learn more about The Last Days of Henry Ford at Racemaker Press, and read a few words about the new book by noted automotive writer Michael Lamm. The top photo in the post shows an old and feeble Henry Ford being escorted to the Awards Banquet during the Automobile Golden Jubilee, May 1946.