Henry Ford for Kids: His Life and Ideas, with 21 Activities

Henry Ford for Kids: His Life and Ideas, with 21 Activities

by Ronald A. Reis


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Henry Ford for Kids provides an in-depth portrait of the man who “put America on wheels.” You'll learn about Ford's childhood on a Michigan farm, where the budding engineer loved to take apart and reassamble everything from toys to watches to machinery; about his revolutionary labor ideas, including paying higher wages and hiring women and the disabled at a time when many companies would not; about his fervent opposition to war and the lasting impact of his widespread philanthropy. But you'll also learn that this automotive giant was a flawed individual whose controversial views and heavy-handed management style alienated many, yet whose engineering genius and impact on the world are undeniable.

Packed with historic photos and illuminating sidebars, the book brings the turn of the 20th century to life. Twenty-one hands-on activities encourage young innovators to apply engineering and production ideas and learn more about the era. Kids will build a lemon-powered battery; form an assembly line; learn to "read" simple industrial drawings; design an automobile dashboard; learn to dance the waltz; and much more. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613730904
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/01/2016
Series: Chicago Review Press For Kids Series
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 543,259
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.40(d)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

Ronald A. Reis is the author of numerous nonfiction books for kids and young adults, including The US Congress for Kids and Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids, selected for the NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People list.  

Read an Excerpt

Henry Ford for Kids

His Life and Ideas, with 21 Activities

By Ronald A. Reis

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Ronald A. Reis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-093-5



Henry Ford was born to William and Mary Ford on July 30, 1863, in Dearborn, Michigan, a rural farm town eight miles west of Detroit. The oldest of six children, Henry claimed to the day he died that the monotony of farming was his inspiration for creating all things mechanical. "I have followed many a weary mile behind a plow and I know all the drudgery of it," Ford wrote. "What a waste ... when in the same time a tractor could do six times as much work."

Henry's father, William, fled Ireland at the age of 21, during the great potato famine of 1847. William's parents, two brothers, and four sisters made the dangerous Atlantic voyage to the United States along with him. Though William was called a boy in the Irish tradition (because his father was still alive), he was very much a man. Described as "of medium height, with a muscular strength, gray eyes, and a serious demeanor," William arrived in America already a skilled carpenter. He would put his talents to good use as a farmer.

Ford "Bird Hotels"

Henry Ford's love of birds stayed with him all his life. As he gained wealth, Ford found himself in a position to indulge his interest in feathery creatures. At his home, called Fair Lane, Henry Ford set up a sanctuary for birds unlike anything in North America. It became the envy of every ornithologist (one who studies birds) the world over.

With close to 1,500 acres devoted to providing a home to 200 bird species, Ford hired an entire ground crew to take care of them. The nature lover had 200 multistory "bird hotels" placed throughout his estate. One such "hotel" was said to have 500 "rooms." In addition to the "hotels," there were dozens of birdbaths. Feeding stations were everywhere.

Henry and Clara liked nothing better than to sit on their sunporch at the rear of their house and, with binoculars in hand, watch the birds.

Once, the ground crew put white netting over two cherry trees near the house. They wanted to protect the fruit for use in cooking and preserving. When Henry Ford went to work in the morning, he noticed a couple of robins entangled in the webbing. He tore the netting off. Later he scolded the men who had put it there, saying, "Don't put that back no matter who wants it back on there. There's plenty of cherries for the birds and us, too."

Mary, Henry's mother, met William in Dearborn, where the Fords had settled. Though William was 14 years older than Mary, he was willing to wait until the brown-haired, dark-eyed girl graduated from high school before asking her to marry him. Their wedding took place in Detroit, on April 25, 1861.

The Fords had six children, four boys and two girls, yet none gave them the pride of their firstborn — Henry.

As a toddler, Henry took to the Fords' prosperous Dearborn farm as any curious child would. The land was fertile, with evergreen shrubs, an orchard, and well-cultivated fields of wheat, corn, and hay. Patches of timber were filled with wild creatures. Henry became familiar with the small native animals among the trees: skunks, raccoons, foxes, minks, muskrats, and rabbits. Henry Ford's earliest recollections were of the forest at the back of the farm.

"The first thing I remember in my life," Ford wrote decades later, "is my father taking my brother and myself to see a bird's nest under a big oak. ... John was so young that he could not walk. Father carried him. I being two years older could run along with him. ... I remember the nest with four eggs and also the bird and hearing it sing."

Memories such as this one gave young Henry a great love of nature that would last a lifetime. Those memories were mingled with his fondness and admiration for his father. Henry recalled his dad turning the plow aside to spare a bird's nest.

In his early years, Henry saw his father as a firm, caring man. He viewed his mother as his moral teacher. "You must earn the right to play," Mary told her eldest son. "The best fun follows a duty done."

Such lectures had a strong impact on Henry. He carried them with him for the rest of his life. When people later asked Henry Ford what he remembered of his mother, he simply quoted her. "Life will give you many unpleasant tasks to do, and your duty will be hard and disagreeable and painful to you at times, but you must do it. You may have pity on others, but you must not pity yourself."

Henry Ford later said of his mother, giving her the highest compliment, "She was that rarest type, one who so loved her children that she did not care whether they loved her. What I mean by this is that she would do whatever she considered necessary for our welfare even if she thereby lost our good will."


Growing up, Henry's relationship with his brothers and sisters was playful and teasing. However, as Henry grew older and began to tinker, the siblings got nervous. When toys arrived for birthdays and Christmas, someone would always shout: "Don't let Henry see them! He'll take them apart!" The brothers and sisters should not have worried. While many kids could disassemble such toys, Henry had also learned to put them back together. For Henry Ford, tools were his toys and always would be.

At seven years of age (in 1871), Henry headed off to a one-room schoolhouse about two miles from his home. He proved to be a bright but unexceptional student.

It was in school that Henry developed his lifelong love of playing tricks on people. According to one account, "Henry once bored two small holes in the bottom of another student's seat. In one hole he hid a needle with the point up, and then ran a connecting string down through the other hole and under the bench to his seat. During a dead space in the school day, he yanked on the string, and the resulting howls brought loud laughter from his classmates."

On Henry's 13th birthday he was given a watch as a present. The teenager sat down, took the timepiece apart, and reassembled it. In no time Henry, the farm boy mechanic, learned to repair watches.

Fixing watches was for Henry the beginning of his love of mechanical devices. "Machines are to a mechanic what books are to a writer," he later said. "He gets ideas from them and if he has any brains he will apply them."

Though the Ford farm was doing well, bringing in a good yearly income, plenty of work was required to make that a reality. According to one of the Fords' neighbors, "Farmers set off for their fields and went to work from daylight to dark, and then went home and did their chores." All the Ford children were expected to do their share, too.

In the spring of 1876, the Fords prepared to welcome another member into the family. Mary Ford was pregnant again, and by all indications her eighth child would be delivered with little trouble. Her first infant had been stillborn (born dead) in 1861. But after that, Mary had a run of successful deliveries, with Henry (1863), John (1865),

Margaret (1867), Jane (1869), William Junior (1871), and Robert (1873). As was the custom at the time, Mrs. Ford would be giving birth at home.

This time, unexplainably, something went terribly wrong. The baby was lost. Twelve days later, on March 29, Mary died. She was just 37 years old.

Henry Ford was emotionally devastated. His world was turned upside down. "I thought a great wrong had been done to me when my mother was taken," Henry later declared. "The house was like a watch without a mainspring."


At the age of 17, Henry Ford had had enough of farm life. He was now through with school and restless to move on. Henry's experiences so far with things mechanical had whetted his appetite for more. Deep down inside, he felt he was meant to be a mechanic. To prove it, if to no one else but himself, young Henry would have to go to Detroit, to apprentice at a machine shop. At five feet eight inches tall, with a tough, wiry strength, Henry felt he was ready for the challenge.

On December 1, 1879, Henry Ford took off for Detroit, walking eight miles to the city. It took him half a day.

Henry didn't tell anyone he was leaving. His family discovered his absence only after Henry was gone. Though he never spoke of running away, the family knew he was about to make the move.

Some believe that William Ford was opposed to Henry going to Detroit. William, they said, felt Henry's future was in farming. Yet, according to Henry's sister Margaret, their father was OK with young Henry going. "My father was sympathetic and understanding of Henry's desire to supplement his mechanical training and education with actually working in a shop." Maybe William felt working in a hot, dirty machine shop would cure Henry of a desire to do so, and he would then head back home to a life on the farm.

The Detroit that Henry Ford arrived at in 1879 was still a small city. The 1880 census shows only 116,340 people. But there was a bustle to the place, with industrial activity everywhere, particularly along the Detroit River. Altogether, there were nearly 1,000 mechanical and manufacturing establishments. Upon arrival in the city, Henry rented a room and went out looking for a job.

Henry found immediate employment at the Michigan Car Company, which built streetcars. He was fired after just six days on the job, however. According to one account, "Henry quickly solved a problem in the construction process which a number of employees had worked all day trying to correct, thus embarrassing them and their foreman."

Henry had no trouble finding a second job, this one at the James Flower and Brothers Machine Shop, where he worked 60-hour weeks for a wage of $2.50 per week. To supplement his income, Henry took in watches and clocks to repair.

After a few months at Flower Brothers, Henry moved on to the Detroit Dry Dock Engine Works, where he stayed two years. There, at the city's largest shipbuilding firm, Henry began working with motors. Most of the engines the young Ford labored on were powered by steam, but around this time Henry read about a curious engine that ran on gasoline. Known as an internal combustion engine, it was Henry's introduction to what became his lifelong occupation — the making of gasoline-driven road vehicles.


Though William Ford had gone along with Henry's desire to seek work as a machinist in Detroit, he never gave up trying to persuade his son to return to farming. After two years on his own, Henry gave in and went back to Dearborn in 1882. But the now 19-year-old son made it clear to his father he was not returning to be a farmer. Henry's days of milking cows and picking up a shovel were over.

Although Henry did move back into his father's house, the young man maintained his city interests. Henry Ford enrolled in night courses at Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business College in Detroit, studying shorthand, typing, accounting, and drafting. He also worked part-time for the Westinghouse Engine Company as an expert in steam engines, traveling around the countryside fixing broken equipment for farmers and mill workers.

In 1886, William Ford offered his eldest son something too good to pass up. Henry's dad would give him 80 acres of prime farm- and forestland not far from where he lived. Henry took it, expanded the small house on the property, and went into business cutting and supplying lumber to neighbors, shipyards, factories, and shops in Detroit. At least it was not farming.

All this work, with little play, had made Henry, now 22 years old, seem a dull man. To improve his social life, Henry took dancing lessons, learning the waltz and the polka.

On New Year's Eve, 1885, Henry Ford attended a dance at the Martindale House in nearby Greenfield. A tall, handsome man, who was also a good dancer, Ford had every confidence he would find a "mash" (sweetheart) for the evening.

There, he was introduced to a petite local girl of 18, named Clara Jane Bryant. After a few dances, Ford reached into his pocket and pulled out an unusual double-dialed watch he had made, one that told both railroad and "sun" time. Clara was enthralled. Returning home that evening, she told her mother, "He's different. He didn't just chatter about the music or talk about people. He's a serious- minded person."

Henry later told his sister Margaret that after 30 seconds of conversation with Clara Bryant, he knew she was the one for him.

The couple began courting, or dating, in the early winter of 1886. Henry owned a sleek, forest-green, low-slung sleigh called a cutter. They went to ice-skating parties. In the spring they took buggy rides and went on picnics. In keeping with the custom at the time, all their outings were strictly chaperoned.

On April 19, 1886, Clara and Henry became engaged. But it would be two more years before they got married. Henry had little money and needed to work hard and accumulate a respectable savings before the two could rightfully marry. Finally, on April 11, 1888 (Clara's birthday), they were married at her parents' house. The couple built a new home on Henry's property, and they moved in June 1889.

From the beginning of their marriage, Clara had great confidence in her husband and whatever he chose to do. When Henry began to talk of developing a gas-powered horseless carriage, Clara was enthusiastic and supportive. Henry soon started calling her "The Believer." Clara would always be there, believing in every move Henry Ford would make.



After their marriage, Clara and Henry seemed to be settling into life in the country. Yet, it was not to be. One day, after repairing a gas engine used for sawing lumber on the farm, Henry sat Clara down for a serious talk. Ford told his wife he was convinced that a gasoline engine could be adapted to a road-going vehicle. In September 1891, the Fords moved back to Detroit, where Henry took an engineering job at the Edison Illuminating Company. It was the perfect place for him to learn everything he could about electricity and mechanics.

In his spare time, Ford began experimenting with materials necessary to make his own internal combustion engine. It was also at this time, in late 1893, that Clara gave birth to a baby boy. The couple named him Edsel, after a close high school friend of Henry's. Edsel was Clara and Henry's only child.

By Christmas Eve 1893, the budding inventor was ready to demonstrate his "tabletop model" to Clara. Built of discarded metal parts, and looking like a toy cannon mounted on a board, Ford spun its flywheel while Clara trickled gasoline into its intake port.

Nothing happened at first. Then, according to historian Douglas Brinkley, "On the second attempt the crude little engine coughed to life and then into flames, filling the Ford kitchen with foul-smelling black smoke and making a terrible racket. The experiment was a triumph, though, even to Clara."

Behind his house in Detroit, Henry had a tiny shed with a workbench inside. It was here, in 1896, that Ford began (with the help of some friends from the Edison Company) to build his first automobile, known as the Quadricycle.

The Quadricycle had four bicycle wheels. Its power source, a twin-cylinder engine, produced four horsepower (enough to equal four horses pulling a wagon). The engine itself was air cooled, though Ford later added water jackets — a water-filled casing that helps control the engine's temperature.

Power was delivered to the car's rear axlethrough a drive chain and sprocket. The cart-like machine had no brakes. Steering was by a lever.

In the early morning of June 4, 1896, Ford and an assistant were ready to take the Quadricycle out for its first test drive. But, to both men's horror, they realized a terrible oversight. "In his determination to build the vehicle," reported biographer Stephen Watts, "Ford had failed to notice that it was too large to fit through the shed door. Ford grabbed an ax and doubled the opening by knocking out some bricks. The pair then wheeled the Quadricycle out onto the cobblestoned alley."

Henry Ford had done it. He had built his own internal combustion engine and mounted it in a vehicle. Ford had constructed a horseless carriage. He had an automobile.


Excerpted from Henry Ford for Kids by Ronald A. Reis. Copyright © 2016 Ronald A. Reis. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Farm Boy Mechanic,
2. The Ford Motor Company,
3. Tin Lizzie,
4. Peace, War, and Politics,
5. On the Dark Side,
6. Father and Sons,
7. From Soup to Nuts,
8. Celebrating America's Rural Roots,
9. Tarnished Hero,
10. Reluctant Warrior,

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