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Harry Herbert Bennett (January 17, 1892 – January 4, 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 Henry Ford, his union busting tactics, of which the Battle of the Overpass was a prime example, made him the nemesis of the United Auto Workers.
Henry Ford II fired him in 1945. He left Michigan to live in California, and died in Los Gatos, California, on January 4, 1979, of an undisclosed cause. 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.
Harry Bennett was born in 1892. He went to common schools. As a youth, Bennett started competing in boxing and won some city bouts. He served in the Navy during World War I.
In the early days of Ford Motor Company. a security department operated under the name of the Ford Service Department. It was to try to control the growing labor unrest and suppress the emerging labor unions. Ford had instituted a policy called "speed up", by which the speed of the assembly lines was increased slightly every week, and employees were feeling the strain. The labor issues sometimes led to violent clashes between Ford's management, the police, and some workers. Henry Ford needed someone able to handle rough situations as head of his Service Department.
Harry Bennett served as the head of the Ford Motor Company Service Department for over two decades, beginning in 1921. Bennett was 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) and in great physical shape due to his years of boxing and service in the Navy. Legend traces Bennett's relationship to Ford Motor Company to a 1916 street brawl in New York City. At the time, Bennett, 24, was a sailor and was just off his ship. He was saved from being thrown into jail by an acquaintance of Henry Ford, Bernie Ghers, who happened to witness the fight while on his way to a meeting with Ford. Ghers, a Hearst newspaper columnist who had credibility with the police, convinced them that Bennett was not at fault, so they released Bennett without charges. On the spur of the moment, Ghers decided to take Bennett along with him to see Ford. At the meeting, Ford was more interested in Bennett's prowess in the street fight than the business at hand, and he offered Bennett a security job at the Rouge plant. Bennett's interview for the job was reported to be short. He was asked only one question by Ford as to his capabilities. "Can you shoot?" asked Henry. He could.
Bennett was known for talking and acting tough around the Ford plants. For target practice, Bennett would fire 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 kept lions as pets at his Ann Arbor estate. He startled fellow executives by bringing the "big cats" to his office and painting images of them.
"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."
Bennett soon recruited a collection of football players, boxers, wrestlers and Detroit river gang members as Service Department employees. He knew nothing about making cars, but he did not need to. Bennett's close relationship with Henry Ford and his ability to get things done made him a success. 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 when a journalist asked Bennett during an interview, "If Henry Ford asked you to black out the sky tomorrow, what would you do?" Bennett thought for a moment and 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 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, 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.
Upon the 1943 death of company president Edsel Ford, the founder's overshadowed son, Bennett was Henry Ford's choice to succeed Edsel. However, Edsel Ford's widow blamed Bennett for her husband's early death and effectively vetoed the appointment. Instead, Henry Ford appointed Bennett to the Ford Motor Company board of directors. After some attempted shenanigans with Henry Ford's will which would have given Bennett control over the company, the Ford women stepped in and demanded Bennett's ouster. In September 1945, Henry Ford II was summoned to 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, had John Bugas hand Bennett his walking papers (after which Bennett and Bugas drew pistols on each other). Bennett told the younger Ford, "You're taking over a billion-dollar company that you haven't contributed a thing to." That afternoon, on September 21, 1945, Bennett departed, ending his 30-year career with the Ford Motor Company.
The ruthless Bennett era was finally over. Afterward, Henry Ford II went to Ford to tell 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." Ford quite nonchalantly said, "Well, now Harry is back on the streets where he started."
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 worried about 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 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 to memorize their spacing in order to give him an advantage if pursued. One hidden room had access 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 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 were purchased in 1964 by the Boy Scouts of America, Clinton Valley Council. The property was developed for the Lost Lake Scout Reservation. The lodge was abandoned after the reservation was closed. Much of the furniture remains, but the pool has fallen into disrepair. Trees have been planted on the airfield.
Harry Bennett had a similar outpost east across Geddes Road about 3,000 feet (910 m) 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 flathead V-8 generator. The bunker was similar to the ones at Ford's Fair Lane estate.
- Bennett, Harry (1951). We Never Called Him Henry. New York: Gold Medal Books. ASIN B000I955G2. LCCN 51036122.
- Ann Arbor News (January 13, 1979) "Ford Friend Harry Bennett Dies" Retrieved on 2015-05-27
- A&E: "The History of the Mob in America".
- Sugar, Maurice (1980). Ann Fagan Ginger (ed.). The Ford Hunger March. Berkeley, CA: Meikeljohn Civil Liberties Institute. p. 37. ISBN 0-913876-15-1.
- Wilson, Amy, "The Rise and Fall of Harry Bennett," Automotive News, June 2, 2003, Retrieved February 1, 2019.