DEARBORN - The world knew Henry Ford as an innovator, engineer and industrial genius. But he was also a nature lover and conservationist.
Ford recognized the economic benefits of using sustainable agricultural products in the cars he built. Water was seen as a sustainable resource, with a number of plants being powered by a waterwheel or by hydroelectric power.
In the years just before and after 1920, Henry Ford and his friends the “Vagabonds” went on annual camping trips to various parts of the country.
Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and others accompanied Ford, sleeping in tents and spending evenings around the camp fire. Days were spent walking through the woods and along streams to reconnect with nature.
In the 1920s, Ford began researching the possibilities of using soybeans and other farm products in manufacturing. Wheat straw was used in steering wheels. Soybeans were used to manufacture plastic parts such as horn buttons and soybean oil was used in paint.
Ford said, “I foresee the time when industry shall no longer denude the forests, which require generations to mature, nor use up the mines, which were ages in the making, but shall draw its raw material largely from the annual produce of the field.”
Ford also held a special place in his heart for birds.
By 1909 he owned more than 2,000 acres along the Rouge River in Dearborn Township. Initially, he treated this property as a wildlife preserve where he could occasionally escape the pressures of a growing business.
The property had a population of nearly 300 deer as well as foxes, raccoons, squirrels and other native species. To foster the bird population, Ford had more than 500 birdhouses and feeding stations installed around the property.
Additional species of songbirds were imported (unsuccessfully) from Britain. In 1915, Ford and his wife moved into a new house called Fair Lane on the Dearborn property, where they could enjoy the natural setting.
Ford farms produced grain that was used to feed local bird populations, and the Ypsilanti Plant had an estimated 3,500 ducks living on the pond below its dam.
By 1913, Ford was a director of the State Audubon Society through which he sponsored a local bird population survey as well as programs for educating children on bird protection. In 1925, he was named an honorary vice president of the American Audubon Society.
Ford supported proposed legislation to help protect migratory birds in 1912. The McLean Migratory Bird Bill had been introduced several years before, but was not likely to be passed until Ford got behind it.
He helped get a campaign started to raise awareness, and the bill was soon passed in the Senate. To get the bill through the House, Ford sent his head of Advertising, Glen Buck, to Washington to help convince the legislators.
Once signed by President Taft, the new law helped place migratory birds under federal control and protection.
While there were other notable supporters of the law, the Detroit News Tribune called Ford, “Savior of the Birds.” Famed naturalist and author John Burroughs (later one of the Vagabonds) wrote of Ford: “His interest in birds is keen and his knowledge considerable.”