Ford, Edison, and the Quest for the World’s Largest

I love that my children are back in school and that our sense of routine has returned. Still, a couple weeks in, I also have to admit that I miss the open road. This was a summer of lots of travel for us.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints and general lack of family interest, I once again missed the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson Monty Python’s Spamalot at Akasaka ACT Theater via photopin (license)

We didn’t go the huge distances we have in some years, but we made it to New Orleans so my kids could cross Louisiana off the list of states they’ve visited. We spent family time in Minnesota fishing and exploring. We took off to Madison, Wisconsin to participate in an Insane Inflatable 5K, and later the boys and I spent a week in Chicago. Rarely did a week pass us by when we didn’t set out in the old family truckster for an adventure at least a couple hours away.

I really couldn’t imagine passing the summer any other way, and I’m not alone. According to a 2019 AAA poll, 100 million Americans planned to vacation this year. Sixty-eight percent of those had plans to travel during the summer months and more than half of all travelers intended to pack up their cars and hit the road.

Henry Ford and the original family truckster. New York, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes sense. A road trip is almost certainly cheaper for a family than air travel, there’s plenty to see across this great big country, and a good car trip means hours of forced family togetherness searching for state license plates. Plus there’re plenty of convenient amenities along the way like gas stations and restaurants and hotels. And how else are you going to see all those quirky tourist attractions like the world’s largest turkey?

A hundred years ago or so when the American road trip was just getting its start, life on the road wasn’t quite as convenient, nor were there as many roads to choose from. Prior to the invention of the automobile, the average American never traveled more than 12 miles from his or her home. I’d probably travel that far to buy a bag of my favorite potato chips.

Minnesota is the home to many of the world’s largest road trip attractions, including the biggest ball of twine in Darwin, the world’s largest turkey in Frazee, and this enormous boot in Redwing.

It’s likely not surprising that the American road trip developed in large part because of Henry Ford. When in 1908, Ford began producing the Model T (I think the “T” stood for truckster), suddenly families with modest incomes could afford a motor vehicle and they started to get an itch to see the world’s largest ball of twine.

But it was more than just Ford’s cars that inspired a new freedom to the American public. Along with his famous buddies Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burrows, Henry Ford embarked on a series of more or less annual road trips across various parts of the country between the years 1914 to 1924.

Guinn’s book peeks behind the scenes of these early road trips to explore the motives and strong personalities behind them. It’s a great read!

Because I never take a road trip without a few good books to read, I picked up The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn this summer. The book is fascinating and it made me grateful for the amenities I enjoyed along the way. When the “Vagabonds” first started road tripping, it was pretty rough going, even with an entourage of personal servants to set up camp and cook gourmet meals.

In the pre-Kardashian era of the early twentieth century Ford and his gang were what passed for celebrities. As such their highly publicized trips gained a lot of attention. Soon the American public caught on to the idea and as the traffic increased, so did the infrastructure to support it, including the world’s largest light bulb in Edison, New Jersey. Maybe I’ll hit the road and go see that one next summer.

Dancing with the Squares

In 1923 America’s dance floors were headed for trouble. Ladies were just beginning to wear almost sensible clothing that allowed them to move and swing, jazz was emerging as a fast-paced and exciting music style, and the kids were snuggling close with a good fox trot or waltz and then dancing themselves silly with the Lindy Hop and the Charleston. The morals of a bygone era were fast crumbling away.

Henry Ford. This man knows his way around a Virginia Reel. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Ford, who once famously said, “You can dance any way that you want, so long as it’s square.” [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One man decided he was going to do something about it. The father of the auto industry and master of the assembly line, Henry Ford, figured if he could put together a car one piece at a time, then he could put wholesome American culture back together the same way, one dance step at a time. And so he set out on a crusade to bring back the good old-fashioned square dance.

American square dance has a muddy history, but it generally traces its roots back to the coordinated group dances of England in the early 1600s. Of course when settlers brought it with them to the new world, it took on a uniquely American flavor. A caller announced the moves, which were given French names (because that seemed likely to irritate the English) like “promenade,” “allemande,” and dos-à-dos” (which quickly became “do-si-do,” because that seemed likely to irritate the French).

As America became more urbanized, square dancing faded, but Ford saw the dance as a way to promote exercise as well as genteel manners. He hired a square dance caller by the name of Benjamin Lovett to teach square dance full time in Dearborn, Michigan and required his employees to engage in the activity. He also sponsored square dance programs in many public schools, on college campuses, and over the radio waves.

It worked. The dance started to catch on. Soon ladies and gentlemen were lined up in groups on the dance floor to bow to their partners and perform coordinated dance steps with very little touching and plenty of room for the Holy Spirit. The dance’s popularity continued through World War II and the following decade before it began once again to fade. But I think it’s going to surge again, led by an army of enthusiastic Missouri 4th graders.

My kids are officially out of school for the summer now, but these last few weeks leading up to the last day have been busy.

Making car parts for the American working square dancer, because that's who they are and that's who they care about. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Making car parts for the American working square dancer, because that’s who they are and that’s who they care about. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There’ve been awards ceremonies and book fairs and pizza parties and field days. And, yes, square dancing.

Last week, my fourth grader (now officially a 5th grader!) participated in Missouri Day at school. I don’t know if this is a state required thing or if it’s just something our school does, but the kids were taken through a series of activities to help them learn about all things Missouri. Because I am a sucker who can’t say no dedicated parent, I volunteered to help.

It turns out the official state folk dance of Missouri is the square dance (as opposed to other kinds of American folk dances….go on, try to name one). In fact, twenty-four states have declared the square dance their state folk dance, and it would be twenty-five if Minnesota would just bite the bullet and make it official since it was proposed in both 1992 and 1994, but I suppose something this important shouldn’t be rushed.

Go ahead. Just try to do this without making any physical contact with your partner. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Go ahead. Just try to do this without getting cooties. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So I went to the school to help the fourth graders learn to square dance. Of course I don’t believe I’ve ever square danced. I went to fourth grade in the state of Illinois (where the square dance is also the state folk dance) and no one seemed to care whether or not I learned this critical life skill.

Basically my job was to try to help two groups of eight kids interpret the instruction given by the elderly square dance caller. Allegedly.

What I really did was attempt to convince a bunch of ten-year-olds that they probably won’t die from touching another ten-year-old of the opposite sex, and failing that, how they might effectively swing their partner without actually coming into contact with him or her.

And I think once they figured it out, the kids  had a pretty good time. Henry Ford would have been proud.