Henry Ford and Thomas Alva Edison were the twin wizards of the first decades of the 20th century in America. They were models of industrial ingenuity and wealth – Ford was the richest man in the country, Edison the supreme inventor – even more renowned than their today’s counterparts, Elon Musk and the late Steve Jobs. Ford and Edison, accompanied by the tire mogul Harvey Firestone and a suite of servants, would take “camping trips” by car each summer to promote the sales of cars (and themselves) that were covered by reporters. like big news. And in the early 1920s, they collaborated for a time on one of the strangest episodes in the saga of American business.
The story of this couple’s wasted efforts to build a utopian garden city powered by a massive hydroelectric dam in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is nearly forgotten. Now it has been exhumed by Thomas Hager, in “Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia“, a well-researched and precisely written tale, tinged with irony.
Ford was one of the most complicated figures of his time – a barely-educated farm boy turned mechanical ace who essentially invented the American auto industry and improved the lives of countless of his fellow citizens. Both an ignorant and a know-it-all, a patriot and a vicious anti-Semite, Ford brought out millions of its cheap and durable T-Models at the mile-long River Rouge factory in the outside of Detroit, and dreamed big. He lost a race for the US Senate in 1918 by a few thousand votes and flirted with the presidential bid in 1924. But he was thwarted in his bigger project by an American political system that worked better a hundred years ago. years than it does now.
Muscle Shoals, on the winding Tennessee River in northwestern Alabama, was originally called Mussel Shoals, after the tasty bivalve that was a staple of the Indian tribes who occupied the land until which Andrew Jackson leads them to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. The white farmers who replaced them, many of whom were sharecroppers, grew quality cotton, but poverty was rampant, as were the devastating floods. During World War I, the government devised a plan to build a dam on the river and use the electricity produced to power two factories producing nitrates for ammunition. The dam was half-built and the factories equipped when the war ended and the project was abandoned.
President Warren Harding did not want to spend the $ 30 million needed to complete the 10-story, mile-wide dam and told underlings to lease the entire work to private interests. Ford had previously been tempted to acquire the nitrate factories, which could be redeveloped to produce the type of fertilizer used by regional farmers. He imagined that the completed dam would provide cheap electricity to his new American community of garden cities stretching for miles along the river. The worker-farmers were going – in their T-models, of course – to small factories running on electricity from the dam. They would have free time during the planting and harvest season to grow crops that they could sell to supplement their income. It was a Jeffersonian vision of America updated in the age of the automobile and bountiful electricity.
Ford appealed to the prestige and intelligence of his camping buddy Edison. They wanted, writes Hager, “to provide the nation they loved with a titanic, living example of how they believed America should work.” . . The results would be new types of cities, new ways of making things, new approaches to work and play, and improved lives for everyone.
Thus began a bitter six-year struggle between Ford and his adversaries. In 1921, he made a low-cost bid for the project, including only $ 5 million to complete the dam. He enlisted the Ford advertising operation and shrewd political hands to gain government acceptance. He and Edison even devised a wacky plan to fund the deal with a proto-cryptocurrency – “energy dollars” – backed by the value of the electricity produced by the dam supplemented by the money from the juice. They even invited Harding on one of their summer camping trips to sell him the case.
Some industrial rivals of Ford have tried to block it. But the real resistance came from the government. Secretary of War John Wingate Weeks, who was in charge of offloading Muscle Shoals, insisted that the stubborn Ford increase his offer. But the crusher was George Norris, the unreconstructed populist senator from Nebraska, who insisted that the people, not a capitalist, should develop such important public work. When Harding died of “apoplexy,” of a stroke at the time, Vice President Calvin Coolidge inherited the problem. Adorned with buttons and props for Coolidge’s 1924 election campaign, Ford and Edison attempted to pressure the new president, but Silent Cal wouldn’t let them speak slyly.
Hopes that Ford would win sparked a hysterical real estate boom in still poor northwest Alabama. Developers bought huge tracts of cheap land, and all kinds of people spent their meager nest eggs on an area they knew would make them rich when Ford’s utopia materialized.
In the end, Edison disappeared from the board, and Norris ended Ford’s hopes by passing legislation that made Muscle Shoals a federal pledge, though Coolidge refused to sign it. And in the wonderful alchemy of American politics, when the Great Depression propelled Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House, Muscle Shoals became the nucleus of the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the earliest and greatest achievements. by FDR. TVA quickly constructed more than 50 small upstream dams to combat flooding and provided grants, training programs and other welfare state elements to many of the South’s most needy.
Inadvertently, the paternalistic and authoritarian Henry Ford, who later gained Hitler awareness in “Mein Kampf”, turned out to have been a precursor to the New Deal.
Mr. Kosner is the former editor of Newsweek, New York magazine, Esquire and the New York Daily News.
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