Henry Ford and his links to Ballinascarthy, West Cork

TO this day the legend persists that if only the parish priests hadn’t got involved, Ballinscarthy in West Cork would have its own Ford factory.

Henry Ford and his links to Ballinascarthy, West Cork

The village, just a few kilometres north of Clonakilty, is the birthplace of William Ford, father to Henry Ford, the carmaker extraordinaire who transformed American life. Born 150 years ago today in the month when the largest city in his home state of Michigan — Detroit, the Motor City — has declared bankruptcy, it might be appropriate to review his family’s connection with Ballinascarthy, and in particular, the time one of America’s richest men decided he couldn’t afford the asking price for a piece of his own family’s past.

Anyone driving into West Cork on the N71 will notice the shiny silver Model T Ford in the centre of Ballinascarthy, unveiled in 2000, and the nearby Henry Ford Tavern. The links between the village and the Fords of America have become even more pronounced in the past 20 years, especially since Benson Ford and his sister Lynn Alandit visited in 1992. Ten years earlier, Henry Ford II, Henry’s grandson, paid a call and before that came the visit all of Ballinascarthy had been waiting for — the return in 1912 of the prodigal son, Henry Ford.

One of his direct descendants is Hazel Ford Buttimer, who still lives in Crohane outside Ballinascarthy. Henry Ford was born in Dearborn, Michigan, but his father William left Ballinascarthy as a 21-year-old farmer and carpenter in 1847. It was the second phase of a Ford family migration to the US, but as Betty Hennessey, secretary of the Ballinascarthy Festival Committee, explains, Henry wasn’t ever quite done with the land of his father.

“Henry was back in 1912 and he tried to buy the place,” Betty says, referring to the empty tenant cottage and 30 acres of land in nearby Lisselane where William had lived. “It was only a tiny hut.”

When Henry returned in 1912, alongside his son Edsel, he was a man of means. Betty’s husband, Patrick, also a Henry Ford buff, claims the man who popularised motor travel made an effort to buy the farm but there were three single brothers who wouldn’t sell. “The parish priests advised them to hold on because there was more in him,” Patrick says. It seems you can put a price on sentiment, and in this case, it was one Henry Ford wasn’t willing to pay. As Hazel puts it with a smile: “He wasn’t going to be run up the street on that one.” By all accounts Henry took away the hearthstone from the old house and wasn’t seen in the vicinity for years afterwards.

The people of Ballinascarthy intend to mark the 150th anniversary of Henry’s birth, but Hazel has already been party to some of the celebrations planned in Michigan. She was in the Ford stronghold of Dearborn at the end of May, when the last house in which he lived was being renovated to mark his 150th birthday. “We have been over three times altogether,” Hazel says. It’s a far cry from the decades up to 1992, before which Hazel was unfamiliar with her American cousins. “I could not honestly say we were related,” she says. “My father would not have known much at all.”

By contrast, Hazel is now a veritable library of Ford family facts, so much so that her own son, Clifford, says to her: “Mother, would you ever write that down?” Fords have been at Crohane for over 300 years, or as she puts it with a laugh, until she got married and changed the name. She has instant recall of various aspects of the story, which began when Samuel and George Ford went to Michigan to secure their own land holding, as opposed to the lease on land the family had back in West Cork, in 1832. Fifteen years later Samuel and George’s brother John (Henry’s grandfather) and Henry’s father, 21-year-old William, emigrated to America along with the rest of the family, including the brothers’ mother, then in her early 70s.

“William was farming and he took his carpentry tools with them when they went over,” Hazel says. “He worked on his father’s farm over there. There was a family of Aherns from Cork City — they were next door to them and farmers as well and William got attracted to Mary (Litogot — a Dutch girl who had been fostered by the Aherns). Mary died quite young and William got the farm from the Aherns, next door to his own.”

Henry was born into farm life and by 1896 had built his first car. He founded the Ford Motor Co in 1903 and the first Ford cars seen in Ireland were at the 1907 Irish Motor Show at the RDS.

As legend has it — and it is the version told by Hazel — Henry Ford got the idea for assembly line car manufacturing when he saw wool moving from sheep to material in a textile factory. The idea was the launchpad for the Ford Motor Co, which transformed America and turned Henry into one of the great industrialists of the age. The ready availability of car travel changed America; even today, any visitor to the US will note how everyone seems to drive and few people seem to walk anywhere.

From the company’s Michigan base Ford stamped his imprint on the American economy, but while the hearthstone was the only item salvaged from his Ballinascarthy trip — and placed in his own Fair Lane house in Dearborn — he did think of Cork when it came to expanding the Ford business overseas. By 1917 a Ford office had opened in Cork ahead of the opening of the factory which was to play such a key role on Leeside for decades afterwards.

In the meantime, Hazel has entertained visiting Fords three times at her house since 1992 and has visited Michigan over the years. On the relationship between the Fords of America and Ballinascarthy, Betty says: “It has got stronger really,. They hadn’t the interest earlier in the century but they have of late because of Hazel really.”

By the 2000 unveiling of the Model T the Ford company covered some of the shortfall for the stonework around it, while on Aug 3 two years ago, William Clay Ford, Henry’s great grandson, paid a visit alongside his wife and children, unveiling a plaque at the ancestral home. “It was the greatest festival we ever had,” Betty says. It had been the most high-profile Ford visit since Jun 21, 2004 when Edsel II, son of Henry II, called in.

There might not be only a modest get-together tonight to mark Henry Ford’s 150th, but the community celebrated earlier this month, when around two dozen Model T Fords veered off the main Bandon to Clonakilty road and pulled into the driveway of Hazel Ford’s house just outside Ballinascarthy, en route to a festival in Clonakilty. In a way, the cavalcade was yet another homecoming.

* A celebration of Henry Ford’s 150th birthday will take place tonight in the Ballinascarthy Community Hall, with music, tea and a talk by local historian Timmy Crowley. All are welcome.

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