PERSPECTIVES: Mr. Ford Came to Dinner


Above, a 1934 Wheaton College yearbook photo of Franklin’s Madeleine Clark, about a decade after her encounter with Henry Ford, pictured at the right, around 1919.

By James C. Johnston Jr.

For many years, two of my very best friends, Edward and Madeleine (Clark) Wallace, lived in a large Edwardian House behind that great Victorian Landmark, Jackson’s Funeral Home [now Ginley’s], on School Street. Since their deaths in 1985, the property has passed to Dean College. It is a lovely old place, and in the back yard of the house Maddy’s playhouse stands. It is an almost magical little building, and in my mind’s eye, I can see little Maddy Clark playing there in that wonderful playhouse more than a century ago.

Maddy’s father was one of the principal partners in the firm of Clark, Cutler, and Mc Dermott. Their principal customer from the earliest part of the Twentieth Century was Mr. Henry Ford. The firm of Clark, Cutler, and Mc Dermott furnished the Ford Motor Corporation with the majority of the upholstery material for its cars back in those days and for the better part of a century. What was not generally known was that Mr. Ford also visited the Clarks at their Franklin Home. I say their Franklin Home, because they also owned a large house at Onset not far from the summer houses of the great American actor Joseph Jefferson and former President of the United States Grover Cleveland. Both of these gentlemen were known to Mr. Clark and they were known to have doffed their hats to each other like good neighbors when passing by on a soft Summer’s evening by the Ocean when out for an evening’s stroll.

I am happy to recall the time I spent in that lovely old house in Onset back in the 1970’s. In the stillness of the early summer season, it must have still been very much as it had been when the Clarks lived there in the time far more than a half a century before my visit. Sitting outside on the veranda on a warm evening in conversation with my friends, Maddy would tell me stories of her growing up in Franklin and in Onset during her early Teens and Twenties. As I have already stated, there were many celebrities who used to live in Onset when it was still a quietly fashionable “Summer Watering Hole” from the 1820’s until after the Civil War period. It was the special place for Boston and some New York Society to recreate themselves in the hot summer season when the favorite meal was salmon and peas with salads and fruit loaded ices served by young serving girls in crisp starched white uniform dresses, and aprons, and caps on wide verandas. But Newport had supplanted places like Onset and even Saratoga by the time Maddy was growing into a fine young lady, but her mother had told her of the social history of the place.

Still some “Old Timers” and Boston Society like the Cabots and the Lodges, and more respectable actors who had been accepted as “The Right Sort”, like Joseph Jefferson, founder of The Player’s Club of New York, and Former President and New York Governor Grover Cleveland came to Onset until they passed from this mortal coil [an area of Buzzards Bay is still known as Cleveland Ledge, since that’s where he like to fish]. People of their background and other “Older Members of Eastern Society” did not like the “flash and glitz” of “Those New People” like the Astors and the Vanderbilts.

Then suddenly Maddy would reflect, “But Jimmy, one thing I do remember with a little horror was Mr. Ford coming to dinner at our place in Franklin, and how I hated that!”

“You mean Henry Ford! Henry Ford came to Franklin!” I softly exclaimed. This is something I had not known when I wrote my histories of Franklin back in the early and mid-1970’s and after.

“Oh yes, Mr. Ford came to dinner after he had discussed business with Father. It was really a horrible experience for a young person to have to sit through those deadly dinners. Even in those days when the old Victorian wisdom of children being seen and not heard, was the dominate characteristic common to child rearing. Not being allowed to speak at table, especially when distinguished guests were present, was really irritating. Most of my friends had much younger parents who seemed to enjoy listening to their children at table. That certainly was not the case with my father.”

“That doesn’t seem like fun for anybody never mind a bright child, like you, who most likely had a great deal to contribute to the general conversation at an evening meal,” I casually said.

Maddy was a very good conversationalist who had lived a very interesting life far different from the experience of most of the women I had known. She had been well educated at Wheaton in an age when most young women still did not go on to college even if they did get to graduate from High School. During her college years, Maddy had a life as part of a Boston Salon dominated by the great Music Educator Madam Johnson. Arthur Fiedler and other luminaries of Boston’s music scene were also to be frequently found there.

“When I was allowed to join my parents at the dinner table, I was expected to follow all the social conventions common to formal dining. My father came to love having me at table like an ornament he could show off in my pretty clothes, and my good manners, my smile, and my stillness,” she said.

“It was really awful,” Maddy told me.

Then she told me how she had to sit through those meals, with only her mother making some effort at interesting conversation, made me realize how agonizing those culinary experiences must have been. Maddy told me that once in a while, her father might react to something he found interesting. “I was a child of my father’s older age,” Maddy said one evening, ”Yes, Father was a bit older than Mother. He even, joked about it, which in and of itself was a rare thing. He was not well known for being a humorous man. My father would say that he spent so much of his time building a business and a home that he had almost forgotten about having a wife, and children, and generally getting married. So when he found Mother, he wasted little time in courting. He asked my Grandmother Wyatt for my mother’s hand in marriage. Grandmother was something of an artist and a free soul, and she asked her daughter what her intentions were and if she really wanted to marry this older man. My mother said that Mr. Clark was very nice and kind, and that she rather liked him, and that was that.”

“I guess that was reasonably romantic for the period,’’ I replied.

“My father was a very nice man and kind as far as he knew how to be kind. His parents were prim and proper Victorians, and I think that he did his best, but in Mr. Henry Ford, he found his match. Never were two men so alike. They really enjoyed each other’s company and hardly ever exchanged a word about any subject beyond business and some public matters that held some interest for both of them,” said Maddy almost wistfully, and then she laughed.

“We had a really good cook and a housekeeper in Franklin, and a local couple to look after the Onset place who worked at keeping the place in order and the lawns cut. My father liked Yankee cooking. In addition to meals that kicked off each summer season with salmon and peas, he also liked: roast beef, roast chicken, broiled or baked ham, baked potatoes, garden vegetables, apple pie, pumpkin pie, and that wonderful bread cooked right here in our oven. He liked the way our cook made pies, cakes, doughnuts, and other familiar pastry. Mr. Ford also loved this same sort of cooking. My father thought that a little conversation should take place before dinner, and that time at the table should be spent savoring the meal itself, and Mr. Ford was of the exact same opinion,” Maddy recalled.

“My father would come back from his office at the factory about five o’clock on the days when Mr. Ford was expected for dinner. He would go upstairs to wash and change his clothes from his business suit into evening wear, or into a fresh suit if he knew that Mr. Ford was not dressing for dinner. At seven o’clock, Mr. Ford would arrive and be shown into the parlor where my father would rise from his chair where he had been reading the paper. They would then sit and exchange something that passed for conversation usually criticizing Mr. Wilson, or praising Mr. Harding, and later, Mr. Coolidge. Our housekeeper would bring in some coffee for my father and Mr. Ford. Neither one of them ever drank a cocktail nor any form of alcohol as I recall. My mother and I would enter the room after a short while. The gentlemen would arise acknowledge our presence then resume their conversation with smiles that reflected their comradeship and general mutuality of opinion.”

“Our House Keeper, wearing one of her freshly starched shirt waists, and well cut suits, which were worn on nights when we had guests, announced dinner. My mother and I were then escorted into the dining room. I was on my father’s arm, and Mr. Ford always took my Mother in to dinner. After we were seated, a soup was served. This was followed by the meat course of roasted beef served with a rich gravy sauce, a baked potato, three vegetables, all slavered with butter, and iced water, lemonade, ice tea, or even coffee. No wine ever graced the table in my father’s time in our very abstemious household. After these courses, came a salad then coffee and dessert. Our cook knew that Mr. Ford loved her apple pie served with a wedge of Vermont cheddar cheese.”

“Did Mr. Ford drive himself in those days?” I asked.

“No, not on the nights he dined with us. Mr. Ford had a chauffeur, and my Father insisted that the man be allowed the courtesy of our kitchen and not be forced to stay in the car during the visit as was the custom with servants when visiting in the country in those days,” replied Maddy, “We fed him well. Mr. Ford’s chauffer always liked coming to Franklin, because in our house, the help ate the same food that we ate, and Ford’s man was very happy about that. He also liked talking to our cook and housekeeper. They spoke very quietly of course. Only a thin door separated us, in that comparatively small house, from where the help was eating in the kitchen, and the dining room. In spite of my mother’s very best efforts at conversation, it was very quiet indeed at our table except for the very quiet sound of those two men silently enjoying their food as if engaged in a holy ritual.”

“I am getting hungry just thinking about that meal that you described far too well Maddy,” I said while mulling over the memory of that tempting Old Yankee Banquet she had recalled half-a-century later. “I was about twelve years old at the time Jim, and it was now almost quarter to ten o’clock, and I had school the next day. As I told you, my father liked having me at table, and I had already been there more than two-and-a-half-hours alternately sitting and eating dinner in almost utter silence. There was no escape until…”, a smile spread over her face and she dropped her voice as if telling me a secret, “… the cook and the housekeeper came in, and cleared the table, and then swept the table of all the crumbs into the silver silent butler! It was then I knew that I was almost home-free.”

“It was always the same. Some strange and truly weird ritual would be acted out by my father and Mr. Ford that I had not seen before or since taking place in company! My father and Mr. Ford would look at each other, smile, cross their arms on the table, put their heads down on them, close their eyes, and go to sleep for upwards of an hour. My mother was back in the room in a jiffy, and in a minute’s time I was upstairs getting ready for bed. I was totally exhausted from Mr. Ford’s visit. I do not want you to have impression that Mr. Ford was an unkind man, but he knew little about how to behave in company and next to nothing about children. I think that was one of the many things that Mr. Ford and my father had in common was that neither Mr. Ford nor my father were really ever allowed to be children themselves! It was almost as if they were told that there was something terribly wrong with exacting any joy from living. It was as if having fun was an invitation to some sort of Hell.”

That moment was like an epiphany for Maddy. I think that for the very first time Maddy realized that in many ways growing up and coming of age in the culture of Nineteenth Century America was a much harder job than she had ever realized.

I am so glad that over so many decades that I have had so many great conversations with people, now long gone, who shared their life experiences with me. The people I have had the good fortune to talk to over the last eight decades had lived lives stretching back to 1847! I am happy that I still remember these great oral social histories and can share them with you. “Living History”! You just have to love it.

[Before her passing, “Maddy” contributed funds to create the Madeleine Clark Wallace Library at Wheaton College in Norton.]

James C. Johnston Jr. is a former Franklin selectman, Franklin High School history teacher, and author. Article copyright James C. Johnston, Jr. 2022, used with permission

I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified