Almost 300 years of History to Explore

Henry Ford's Historic Preservation (1923-1960)

With the purchase of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in 1923, Henry Ford envisioned transforming the old Colonial Inn into a living museum of American history, an interest that predates the development of both Greenfield Village and Colonial Williamsburg. Henry Ford assured the continued survival of the old coach stop. In a 1924 interview for the New York Times, Ford credits his admiration for Longfellow, especially the poem “A Psalm of Life,” as motivation for the purchase.

Pursuing his vision to create a living museum of Americana that would be the first of its kind in the country, Ford purchased 3,000 acres of property surrounding the Inn, added eight new buildings to the site, and collected antiquities, including lost How(e) family property. He commissioned the building of a fully operating grist mill by renowned hydraulic engineer J.B. Campbell of Philadelphia that was completed in 1929. He used the Inn property to pursue his educational philosophies as well. He moved a one-room schoolhouse onto the property that was used to educate local children (the Redstone School) and opened the Wayside Inn School for Boys to train indigent boys for eventual employment in his Michigan factories. Boys from the school built the Martha-Mary Chapel with trees damaged by the historic Hurricane of 1938. Ford’s activities on the property attracted the interest of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who came in 1930 after buying the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg to learn about the issues of managing a historic site.

Under Ford’s private ownership, the Inn continued to operate as a hotel and restaurant. His stature brought the Inn to a level of recognized international significance, and with that, came prominent visitors such as Calvin Coolidge and Charles Lindbergh. As important as the living museum concept was to Ford, the Wayside Inn also afforded him a rustic venue with which to conduct his annual “Vagabond” retreats with friends Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs.

The Inn provided a convenient break for the Ford family as they traveled by train from Michigan to family property in Maine every summer. The Hostess Diaries that were kept at Ford’s insistence chronicle the comings and goings of these visitors and record the delight with which the staff received the Ford children, Henry Ford II, William Clay Ford, Sr., and Josephine Ford.

Ford’s financial investment in the Inn was not the only important contributing factor to the preservation of the property. In 1944, Henry and Clara Ford placed the original 125-acre parcel into a non-profit trust in order to preserve the old Inn for benefit of the public in perpetuity. After Henry Ford’s death in 1947, Ford family and business representatives served on the Board of the Inn, including Benson Ford, William Clay Ford, Sr., Henry Ford II, Dr. Donald Shelley (Edison Institute/Henry Ford Museum), Donald David (Ford Foundation), and Charles Moore (Ford Motor Company). The Ford Board supervised the selling off of much of the 3,000 acres Henry Ford had purchased and assured the preservation of the pastoral quality of the Wayside Inn landscape by placing 50-year development restrictions on each of the parcels sold. Wayside Inn Board President William Clay Ford, Sr. acted quickly and decisively after a devastating fire in 1955 to fully preserve the Inn. The Board secured nationally renowned historic preservationist Ralph Carpenter, Jr. to supervise the Inn’s restoration and helped to move the Inn toward eventual self-sufficiency by transitioning Board governance from Ford representatives to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1957.

The post-fire renovation was costly. Most likely because the Ford Foundation had financed the post-fire renovation, the Ford Board transitioned governance of the Inn to the National Trust without provision for an endowment. The National Trust itself did not have the resources to support the continued operation of the Inn, which had been operating at a deficit since the 1940s. National Trust Board Member Louise DuPont Crowninshield, well known in historic preservation circles, approached prominent Bostonians to serve on the Board, thereby transitioning governance from the National Trust in 1960.

Beloved additions to the Inn’s landscape made by Henry Ford. The Martha-Mary Chapel (1941) is a popular wedding venue. The Grist Mill (1929), a full-time Pepperidge Farm production facility from 1952–1967, is the last fully operational mill in the Northeast.