Don Bush still carries a certain amount of respect for the automotive giant who employed his family in the 1930s and 1940s. Even 63 years after Henry Ford’s death, Bush refers to him as “Mr. Ford.”
Bush, the fourth of six children of Leland and Hazel Bush, grew up on a farm in Macon Township, Mich., as the nation reeled from the Great Depression. The Bush family lost their cash crop of sugar beets to the Depression and their swine to hog cholera. Leland Bush turned to a job repairing roads to help make ends meet.
That’s when Henry Ford entered their lives. From Brooklyn to Macon, the businessman from Dearborn was investing in communities to advance his business ventures beyond auto making. “Mr. Ford bought a number of farms in the area because he was interested in using soybeans for fuel experimentations,” Don says. “He was also interested in using hydraulic equipment on tractors.”
Don says Ford acquired approximately 10,000 acres in Lenawee County under the corporation name “Quirk Farms.” The properties, including the 80 acres the Bush family rented, provided the setting for Ford to test new designs in an agricultural environment.
Leland Bush was employed as a mechanic on the Macon Township farm, working with the tractors that Ford had delivered to the farm to be tested against competing models and tweaked before hitting the public market. The farmers would report concerns to managers, who in turn made improvement recommendations to Ford.
The experimental tractors were usually painted with a red stripe, Don says. Though Don was not employed by Ford because of his young age, he worked alongside his older brothers who were on the payroll and learned how to drive the tractors by age 8.
When it came to the tractors, however, it was an unspoken rule that the conceptual designs were not discussed outside the farm. “We never talked about what we saw,” Don says. “But then again, our entire community was the farm network, so everyone we knew knew about what went on there.”
One of the problems with the early experimental tractors was fire, Don says. Gasoline poured into the front gas tank would often splash back on the battery and short out the wires. Don’s dad went out on a limb and fashioned a piece of curved tin over the battery as a makeshift cover, which appeared to solve the problem.
At first, the jerry-rigged fix seemed to irk Ford. “Mr. Ford was active in the design of the tractors, and at first did not like dad interfering like that,” Don says. However, Ford apparently saw the potential in the elder Bush’s ideas and they worked out their differences. “Mr. Ford got to know dad quite a bit after that,” he says.
Don says Ford had also invested in Macon-area schoolhouses and even had a production mill constructed in Macon. “Mr. Ford furnished all our school books, healthcare and dental work,” he says, adding that the tonsillectomy he had as a child was paid for by Ford.
Don first met Ford in 1938 when he came out to visit the schoolhouse Don attended as a kindergartner. Don says Ford shook everyone’s hand and spoke briefly with the students. The boys each received a pocket watch and the girls a stuffed doll.
The inventor would often make personal – and unannounced – stops at the farm or school, which always encouraged everyone to be at their best all the time. “If someone in Dearborn got wind he was coming out, they would call and warn us,” Don says with a chuckle.
One of the last times Don was face-to-face with Ford was in about 1945, when he paid a visit to the farm and noticed the barn was a little worse for wear. “Get those boys a new barn,” Don remembers Ford telling his managers. However, the new barn was never built. Ford was forced to retire shortly thereafter due to ill health and the Ford mill at Macon was shut down before it went into full production.
After Ford died in 1947, the corporation’s interest in the farms soon followed suit. “Henry Ford II said he wanted to discard the farms,” Don says. “We were allowed to buy the farm we rented for the price they bought it for.” Among the inventory the Bush family got were two Ford tractors, both of which remain in the family today.
Don says he has not forgotten the mogul’s generosity toward his family during the lean times of the Depression and World War II. “If it hadn’t been for Mr. Ford, there might not have been many opportunities for the people in the communities, including us,” he says. FC
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Telegram, Adrian, Mich., where it originally appeared. Our appreciation to Farm Collector reader Josh Van Camp, who alerted us to the piece.