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When William Shakespeare wrote "All the world's a stage. And all the men and women merely players," he did not have the likes of Henry Ford in mind. The world may have been Ford's stage, but he was not merely a player. He was a superstar! Some have called him the major architect of modern America and, in many ways, he was. Few Americans in American lore can match the impact the farmer mechanic had in forever changing our way of life.
Ford was born on July 30, 1863, near Dearborn, Michigan. His father was a reasonably prosperous farmer, a member of an emerging middle class, yet Ford's childhood had all the earmarks of a rural upbringing.
Ford's mother, Mary, was the greater influence on his life. She emphasized self-control and warned him that he had to earn the right to play. "My mother taught me to work," he said. She also taught him to read, introducing him to the McGuffey Eclectic Reader. Ford biographer Steven Watts noted, "The impact of McGuffey on Henry Ford's character and principles was profound."
Ford attended the one-room Scotch Settlement School a few miles from the farm. Ford was more of a prankster than a serious student. His best friend at school was Edsel Ruddiman, after whom Ford would later name his only son.
Although one farmer called Ford "the laziest bugger on the face of the earth," Ford was not lazy. Farming, to Ford, was a form of servitude; it held little interest for him. He was drawn to mechanical things, working with tools, experimenting with steam engines and dismantling and repairing watches and clocks.
Ford's sanguine life took a severe blow in 1876, when his mother, only thirty-seven, died giving birth. Ford placed the blame on his father. Friction between father and son had been building up for years. They were not cut from the same cloth. Ford's father was conservative, disinclined to take risks, a farmer who viewed land as the principal source of security. He detested his son's interest in mechanical things.
The more Ford's father tried to imbue his son with agrarian values, the more Ford rebelled. In 1879 Ford left the family farm and headed to Detroit where he apprenticed as a maker of brass and iron castings. Nine months later he found a job as a machinist with the Detroit Dry Dock Company, the largest shipbuilding facility in the city. The ten-hour days were followed by six-hour nights repairing watches for a local jeweler. The pay barely covered his room and board.
Ford returned home each fall to help with the family harvest. One of Ford's farming neighbors had purchased a portable Westinghouse steam engine to thresh his grain but could not find competent help to repair it. The neighbor sought Ford's help, and Ford fixed it adeptly. The regional manager of Westinghouse took notice of Ford's work and hired him as a demonstrator and repairman. Ford also took drafting, bookkeeping and business courses at a Detroit business school.