With the purchase of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in 1923, Henry Ford envisioned transforming the old Colonial Inn into a living museum of American history, an interest that predates the development of both Greenfield Village and Colonial Williamsburg. Henry Ford assured the continued survival of the old coach stop. In a 1924 interview for the New York Times, Ford credits his admiration for Longfellow, especially the poem “A Psalm of Life, ” as motivation for the purchase.
Pursuing his vision to create a living museum of Americana that would be the first of its kind in the country, Ford purchased 3, 000 acres of property surrounding the Inn, added eight new buildings to the site, and collected antiquities, including lost How(e) family property. He commissioned the building of a fully operating grist mill by renowned hydraulic engineer J.B. Campbell of Philadelphia that was completed in 1929. He used the Inn property to pursue his educational philosophies as well. He moved a one-room schoolhouse onto the property that was used to educate local children (the Redstone School) and opened the Wayside Inn School for Boys to train indigent boys for eventual employment in his Michigan factories. Boys from the school built the Martha-Mary Chapel with trees damaged by the historic Hurricane of 1938. Ford’s activities on the property attracted the interest of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who came in 1930 after buying the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg to learn about the issues of managing a historic site.
Under Ford’s private ownership, the Inn continued to operate as a hotel and restaurant. His stature brought the Inn to a level of recognized international significance, and with that, came prominent visitors such as Calvin Coolidge and Charles Lindbergh. As important as the living museum concept was to Ford, the Wayside Inn also afforded him a rustic venue with which to conduct his annual “Vagabond” retreats with friends Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs.
The Inn provided a convenient break for the Ford family as they traveled by train from Michigan to family property in Maine every summer. The Hostess Diaries that were kept at Ford’s insistence chronicle the comings and goings of these visitors and record the delight with which the staff received the Ford children, Henry Ford II, William Clay Ford, Sr., and Josephine Ford.
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