Genius, as Albert Einstein pointed out, is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Sometimes that perspiration is the result of error and misjudgment. Sometimes it is exasperated by a culmination of forces beyond your control. Today’s story involves the error and misjudgment of a famous industrial leader. While learning lessons and having the ability to move on from mistakes are important characteristics of leaders, today’s story focuses on a failure. The focus on failure is not to undermine the later success but to remind us that without failure we cannot truly have success.
The setting for today’s story is the early part of last century. World War One, the Great War, the war that was supposed to have ended all other wars ended a few years earlier. The industrial revolution had taken its firm grip on America. New millionaires were spreading their new found wealth. It was the Roaring Twenties. Prosperity and progress were everywhere. Cars were rolling off the assembly lines and the auto industry was booming.
Henry Ford was among the people leading the charge of prosperity and forever changing how people live. Curiously, Ford also was obsessed with preserving history. Accurately preserving and remembering the very culture Ford helped change forever was more than just a passion. It was a pursuit that brought us Historic Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, and Colonial Williamsburg.
Prior to Colonial Williamsburg and prior to Greenfield Village Ford’s first attempt at creating an historic village focused on Sudbury, Massachusetts. In 1923 the Wayside Inn, also known as Howe’s Tavern, one of the oldest and most famous of the old inns, and the very same inn that was made famous by Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn, went up for sale. Ford seized the opportunity to purchase the famous landmark, located off the old Boston Post Road, about a day’s journey (by stage coach) from Boston, and acquired about 3000 surrounding acres to boot. Ford also purchased the nearby Parmenter’s mill, which he was hoping to turn into an auto parts manufacturer, but that is another story.
Ford set out to create an historically accurate 19th century village. Across the street from the Inn, Ford build a very picturesque working grist mill and a church. In 1926, Ford also purchased a small school house from a farm in nearby Sterling, Massachusetts, reassembled it on the site and proclaimed that it was the little red schoolhouse to which Mary Sawyer brought her lamb and inspired Sarah Hale’s nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” As an aside, it turns out that the school house in Sterling, Massachusetts that Mary Sawyer attended remained in Sterling (and was destroyed by fire in 2007). The school house that Ford bought and reassembled at Wayside turned out to be the Redstone School, build in 1798. Still old and historic, but lambless. It could be that Ford’s efforts at finding Mary Sawyer’s school were intended as an homage to his friend and mentor, Thomas Edison. Ford had worked for Edison as Chief Engineer in Detroit. In 1877 the first words ever recorded on Edison’s phonograph invention were the opening lines to Mary Had A Little Lamb. Sarah Hale died in 1927 and in that same year Edison re-enacted the recording of that rhyme 50 years earlier.
But, I digress.
Ford needed water to power the proposed factory and the Grist Mill. He also needed a source of water for use as a fire pond for the Wayside Village he planned. Guiseppi Cavicchio owned the water rights to nearby Hop Brook, but refused to sell those rights to Ford. Undaunted, Ford surveyed the land, located the source of the brook and proceeded to build a massive sixty (60) foot dam on Nobscott Mountain. Obsessed with historical accuracy, Ford prohibited the use of modern power tools and assembled an army of laborers to create the stonework dam the old fashion way. Huge boulders were moved into place and layered on top of each other without modern machinery. Just old fashion human labor. Pipes and valves were placed on the dam.
This dam created by Ford still exists today. In fact, it still holds the exact same amount of water it held when it was first put to use. It is called Ford’s Folly and is nestled in the woods near the Wayside Inn for all to see, if you can find it. Oh, the amount of water it holds is zero. Zilch. Nada. Not a drop. The damn dam never worked! With all the engineering and all the labor and work to build this monument, not once did anyone think that there may not be sufficient water to fill the resevoir, nor did they check to see if the ground could hold the water. The structure nevertheless was constructed.
The pictures of Ford’s Folly below show the stonework, and a few views including pipes and screws and working mechanics of the dam. It was an incredible engineering feat. Set your GPS to N 42° 21.255 W 071° 27.609 and head on over.
By 1929, Ford had given up the battle for water rights. He had moved another historic building from the center of Sudbury a few miles down the road in Marlborough next to an existing dam and opened a Country Store, which still exists today. Ford moved on and focused his efforts closer to his home. He moved Edison’s original labs from Menlo Park to Greenfield, Michigan and eventually created a huge 19th century village still in operation today known as Greenfield Village.
Persistence and perspiration win the day, but not without a few set backs. Ford’s Folly serves to remind us that no path we choose will lead us directly to our destination, but every path is a part of our journey.
Mechanical pumps and valves in the dam.