Harry Bennett

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For other people named Harry Bennett, see Harry Bennett (disambiguation).

Harry Bennett (1892–1979), a former boxer and ex-Navy sailor, was an executive at Ford Motor Company during the 1930s and 1940s. He was best known as the head of Ford’s Service Department, or Internal Security. While working for Ford, his union busting tactics, of which The Battle of the Overpass was a prime example, made him a foe of the United Auto Workers. He was fired in 1945 by Henry Ford II, and died in 1979 of natural causes. He had various residences in Michigan, including Bennett's Lodge near Farwell, a log cabin style house in East Tawas, and Bennett's Castle located on the Huron River in Ypsilanti.

Background[edit]

In the early days of Ford Motor Company there existed a security department of sorts called the Ford Service Department. The job of the Service Department was to deal with the growing labor unrest and the labor unions that were starting to form. Ford had instituted a policy called "speed up" by which the speed of the assembly lines were increased slightly every week and employees were feeling the strain.

The head of the Service Department was Harry Bennett. At 5 feet, 6 inches he was in great physical shape due to his years of boxing. Legend traces Bennett's relationship to Ford Motor Company back to a brawl in the streets of New York. Bennett was a sailor, just off ship, and was saved from being thrown into jail by an acquaintance of Henry Ford who happened to witness the fight. The police were convinced by Ford's friend that Bennett wasn't at fault and he was released. By further coincidence, Henry Ford's acquaintance was on his way to a meeting with Ford and decided to take Bennett along with him. At the meeting, Henry was more interested in the tale of the street fight than the business at hand and offered Bennett a security job at the Rouge plant. Rumor has it that Bennett's interview for the job was short. He was asked only one question by Henry as to his capabilities. "Can you shoot?" asked Henry.

Bennett liked to talk and act tough. He took target practice by firing BB's from an air pistol at a small target mechanism on a filing cabinet in his basement office at the Rouge. Visitors and co-workers were puzzled by the muffled sounds of pellets striking the target. Bennett furthered his tough guy image by keeping lions as pets at his Ann Arbor estate. He startled fellow executives by bringing the cats to his office and painting their likenesses.

"Harry Bennett used to sit at his desk, with his feet up on the desk, and a target at the other end of the room and fire a 45 target practice in his office and if someone was invited in to have a meeting with him they better make certain that his presence was properly announced or they may have intercepted one of those."[1]

It didn't take Bennett long to assemble a collection of football players, boxers, wrestlers and even Detroit river gang members as Service Department employees. Bennett possessed no car making skills at all. His success with the company came solely from his close relationship with Henry Ford and his ability to get things done. All Henry had to do was ask, "Can you take care of that, Harry?" and it was done.

Bennett was so loyal to Henry Ford that during a newspaper interview a journalist asked Bennett, "If Henry Ford asked you to black out the sky tomorrow, what would you do?" Bennett thought for a moment as said, "I might have a little trouble arranging that one but you'd see 100,000 workers coming through the plant gates with dark glasses on tomorrow." In the mid-1920s, Bennett often drove to Henry Ford's Fair Lane mansion to ask his boss if there was anything he could do for him. By the time the Model A production was in full swing in 1928-29, the morning meetings had become a habit. For the better part of 20 years, Harry Bennett spent his days at Henry Ford's side.

Bennett led Ford's opposition to the Ford Hunger March of unemployed workers on March 7, 1932. Dearborn police and Ford service department men including Bennett opened fire on the protesters as they advanced toward the Ford River Rouge Complex. Four marchers were shot to death, and Bennett himself was hospitalized after being hit by a rock.[2]

Upon the death of company president Edsel Ford, the founder's overshadowed son, in 1943, Bennett was Henry Ford's choice to succeed Edsel. This did not sit well with Edsel Ford's widow, who blamed Bennett for her husband's early death. In 1945 Henry Ford II was summoned to Henry Ford's estate and informed that he would be the new president of Ford Motor Company. As his first act, Henry Ford II, then 28, handed Bennett his walking papers. Bennett got in a parting shot by telling Ford, "You're taking over a billion-dollar company that you haven't contributed a thing to." That afternoon, Bennett departed, ending his strange 30 year career with the Ford Motor Company.

The bizarre and ruthless Bennett era was finally over. Afterwards, Henry Ford II went to Henry Ford to inform him of his first executive decision: "I went to him (Henry Ford) with my guard up. I was sure he was going to blow my head off." Henry Ford, quite nonchalantly said "Well, now Harry is back on the streets where he started."[citation needed]

Bennett's Lodge[edit]

Bennett had a lodge built for him in Freeman Township, Michigan, on Lost Lake. The house is constructed of brick and concrete block with concrete siding fashioned to make it look like a log cabin. It has wooden floors and wall paneling, a 128-foot (39 m) long porch, and a stone fireplace. Chairs and sofas for the house were custom made by the finest craftsmen and upholstered using the highest grade of leather that Ford acquired for use in their most luxurious automobiles of the era.

The swimming pool beside the house provided more than the usual entertainment to Bennett and his guests: The pool was constructed with a viewing room (complete with wet bar) adjacent to the pool. A glass window looked into the pool under water, so Harry and company could enjoy watching their female guests swim.

Since Bennett was always paranoid of being under attack, he included many security features in the lodge. The lodge was surrounded by a moat full of pointed posts. The bridge over the moat was kept loaded with dynamite. The lodge itself has many custom features. Hidden behind a hinged bookcase in the study is a secret passageway which leads to the dock. Every step of the staircase in the passageway is a different height from the others to make tripping more likely. Bennett would practice running down the steps so that he memorized their spacing to give him a head start if pursued. There is also a hidden room which was home to a central point in the ventilation system, where conversations from multiple rooms could be clearly overheard. The roof of the building featured a guard station parapet at one end, complete with a fireplace to keep Bennett's men warm while on 24-hour armed watch when Bennett was at the lodge in colder months. Bennett also had a private airfield with an airplane at the other end of Lost Lake. In the event of an attack, Bennett could take the secret passageway, emerge by the dock, take a boat across the lake, and escape by airplane. The attack never came.

The lodge and property was purchased by the Boy Scouts of America, Clinton Valley Council in 1964. Lost Lake Scout Reservation now stands on the site. The lodge is abandoned, as the reservation is now closed. Much of the furniture remains, but the pool has fallen into disrepair. Trees have been planted on the airfield.

Bennett's Hideout[edit]

Harry Bennett also had a similar outpost east across Geddes Rd. about 3000 ft. from his estate near Ypsilanti. It was a concrete cabin constructed to look like a log cabin. A hidden door behind the fireplace led to the attic which had gun ports. Near this cabin was an underground bunker with a Ford flat-head V-8 generator. The bunker was similar to the ones at Henry Ford's Fairlane estate. Perhaps this was the original use of the bunkers at Fairlane.[citation needed] There was rumored to be a tunnel to this cabin from Bennett's estate.[citation needed]

Memoir[edit]

  • Bennett, Harry; with Marcus, Paul (1951). We Never Called Him Henry. New York: Fawcett Publications. LCCN 51036122. 

References[edit]

  1. ^ A&E: The history of the mob in America.
  2. ^ Sugar, Maurice (1980). Ann Fagan Ginger, ed. The Ford Hunger March. Berkeley, CA: Meikeljohn Civil Liberties Institute. p. 37. ISBN 0-913876-15-1. 

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