A ‘plain man of the people” who looks sixty years of age, but undoubtedly is a good deal younger, of medium size, spare habit, colorless skin, and neutral-tinted hair which might have been brushed with his hands, clad in a dark, shapeless suit that sits on him as if placed there with a pitchfork such is your first impression of Henry Ford, inventor, millionaire, reformer, and human target for the paragraphers. The faraway expression of his eyes warns you that he is an eccentric, his large mouth is rendered larger in effect by an almost perpetual smile which is one of benevolence rather than of humor, and his manner of address has a quality which might be mistaken for timidity, but is really only the hesitancy of one poor at translating his thoughts into words. For he is neither a scholar nor an orator, and what he has had to say to the world he has said through his deeds.
The public knows Mr. Ford chiefly as the inventor of an automobile which, in the language of one satirist, has “made walking a luxury,” and of a futile scheme for bringing peace to a war-racked continent. How a single mind could evolve two ideas so widely variant in practicality has puzzled multitudes; and yet, when you know the man and his history, the phenomenon ceases to excite your wonder. In his early days Ford had a struggle with poverty through which he acquired a strong sympathy with the men and women with whom he then brushed elbows; and after he had settled down to the manufacture of automobile machinery he resolved to construct a car which should be so cheap that almost any steady earner of fair wages could afford one, and which could he used not only for strictly utilitarian purposes, but for a family holiday outing as well. Doubtless, without realizing it, he had struck a great popular vein; for no sooner had his industry got a start than orders began to pour in more rapidly than he could respond to them, and in an inconceivably short time he was numbered among the rich men of the country.
Here was undreamed-of wealth and nothing to spend it on. He had no extravagant babits or tastes, and Mrs Ford’s desires were equally modest. Why not, then, return a large part of the surplus profit to the men whose mechanical skill and to the customers whose patronage had won it for him? This unique distribution paved the way for other projects that lay near his heart. Intoxicants and cigarettes were two of the worst evils with which he had had to contend among the young men in his works; and now that he was able to make employment in the Ford shops so desirable pecuniarily, he felt that he had a strong initial leverage on the men he hoped to fortify against their own appetites. Thus, step by step, he extended his sphere of influence, sometimes by wise methods and sometimes by foolish.