Remembering Clara Ford
April 10, 2023
By Alexandria Edwards, Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator
April 11 was Clara Ford’s birthday and this year marks the 156th anniversary of her birth. Clara, Henry Ford’s wife, was a pioneer woman and philanthropist who spent countless hours leading charitable projects that provided resources for young adults and others to help them lead successful lives. She was born in 1866 in rural Michigan and grew up in a house at the intersection of Grand River Road and Greenfield Road. As a young girl, she attended the crowded one-room Greenfield Township District No.3 School and completed her studies at the Franklin School, where she showed exceptional ability in penmanship. As the eldest daughter in the family of 12, Clara helped manage the household, which afforded her with valuable leadership skills.
The long Michigan winters allowed Clara and other young members of the Wayne County community to participate in fun social gatherings when they were not studying or taking care of tasks at home. Dancing was a very popular pastime; groups of people danced at a variety of locations, including Coon’s Tavern on Plymouth Road and other houses and inns on Grand River Avenue. One place that was not far from the Bryant home was the Martindale Four Mile House. Special dances were often held on New Year’s, Easter Monday, and Thanksgiving. Occasionally, these informal gatherings would last until dawn. Girls were often escorted to these functions by their brothers and boys would pay $1.25 for the supper and dance. At midnight, oysters would be served and a downstairs bar offered drinks.
Henry and Clara first met at the 1885 New Year’s Dance at the Martindale House. Clara’s brother, William, brought her to the dance and Annie Ford, Henry’s cousin, introduced him to the young philanthropist. Clara’s neighbor, Edward Monnier, recalled that “Henry was not very forward at that age. He was a little shy.” Clara was not very impressed by Henry at that first dance; however, they had an opportunity to meet again at a later dance. Henry showed Clara his watch and told her stories of the time he spent repairing and putting them back together. Through this conversation, Clara sensed that he was “different” from the others. Clara admired the automobile industrialist’s mechanical talents and Henry appreciated her serious disposition. While courting, the couple participated in the rural town activities, such as husking corn. At the time, Martha Bryant, Clara’s mother, thought she was too young to be married, so Bryant and Ford waited until April 19, 1886, to get engaged. They were married on April 11, 1888, at Clara’s family home. After they were married, Clara built a strong family to support Ford as he was experimenting with the gasoline powered engine (in the 1890s). Henry affectionately called her Callie, stating “She is my great believer, she never suggested that I give up. Always she gave me hope and help to try again.”
After Henry Ford found success with the Model T, charity became an ongoing interest for him and Clara. It was important for them to help those that faced the same struggles they did growing up on a small income with minimal resources. The first project they focused on was Gulley Farm, which Henry gave to Clara in 1908. Clara’s brother, Fred Bryant, was hired to manage it, and Henry paid twelve workers to care for the farm. Gulley Farm was utilized for raising crops and livestock; however, when Ford accepted membership on the Board of Council for the Protestant Orphan Assylum of Detroit, he allowed the group to use the farm for their operations. In December 1909, twenty iron beds and kapok mattresses were delivered to the farm. The Fords established a farmhouse where the boys from the asylum were given food and clothing in return for raising crops and livestock. Clara’s landscape designer, T.G. Phillips, handled the necessary alterations to the property to accommodate the boys.
In 1918, Clara gave the Women’s Hospital of Detroit permission to use the farm for a hospital annex, a home for new mothers who didn’t have help from their families. A full-time graduate nurse was brought in to teach the mothers how to care for their children, housekeeping, cooking, sewing and more. During this time, Clara was facing some health issues and received care from Dr. Metcalf, a prominent surgeon who organized and raised money for the Detroit General Hospital.
The Detroit General Hospital Association was formed to establish the hospital; however, by 1912, there were insufficient funds available to carry on the project. Henry Ford took over leading the organization and made a proposal to fund the outstanding debts and contracts for the buildings. His offer was accepted in 1914, and the present site was deeded to Henry and Clara Ford. The Henry Ford hospital was opened on West Grand Boulevard in October 1915 with room for 48 patients. By 1921, an additional building was completed, raising the capacity to 500. In 1925, the Clara Ford nursing home wing was added to the institution, where she established a School of Home Arts to teach young girls how to care for a home and children.
As the Ford’s carried on with these projects, Clara’s main goal was to help women become leaders in American society, which led her to get involved in advancing woman’s suffrage during World War I. She worked to organize the Women’s Suffrage Campaign and served as the vice chair of the Dearborn branch of the Equal Suffrage League of Wayne County. Following that role, she served on the Board of the Michigan League of Women Voters in 1921.
The couple not only spent time assisting individuals and organizations secure basic necessities, but supported existing educational facilities expand their campuses. The Fords frequently visited Thomas and Mina Edison in West Orange, New Jersey and met Martha Berry, the founder of Berry Schools, at the Edison’s home. Berry invited the couple to visit her school and the principles “earn while you learn” and “learn by doing” resonated in their hearts. After the tour, the couple took serious interest in the school and funded a new girl’s dormitory named Clara Hall (dining hall), the Henry Ford Chapel, and Mary Hall, a new recreation hall named after Henry Ford’s mother.
In addition, a group of sisters from the House of Good Shepherd arrived in Detroit to establish a home. Over the years, they provided service to a rapidly growing number of young women. In the 1930s, the sisters partnered with the Salvation Army to raise money for constructing new buildings but did not have enough property to accommodate additional facilities. One day, an acquaintance of Henry and Clara Ford approached them and stated that the family wished to give the sisters 50 acres of land on West Warren Avenue in Dearborn Heights. The sisters bought the land from the Fords for just $1 and built residence halls, a school, an auditorium and a gymnasium. On December 8, 1942, the group opened the new establishment, named Vista Maria.
Although Clara Ford enjoyed volunteering, her ultimate passion was horticulture, something she had in common with Mina Edison. Although she was not as active in local beautification projects like Mina, she dedicated time to the Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association and served as president of the organization in 1927. The mission of the club was to bridge the gap between women in the city and on the farm and provided assistance to woman who wanted to have a career in horticulture. Flowers meant a lot to Clara; her Fairlane estate garden in Michigan contained more than 10,000 roses. For Clara, “to watch the growth of flowers is to undergo growth of one’s character. A person cannot be connected with such lovely things as flowers and not feel the meaning and underlying expression of life.”