By 1914, Henry Ford's fame had reached global proportions, and he and Clara were ready for a home that offered them more privacy and a chance to indulge in their interests in gardening and bird watching.
Henry and Clara chose to build their new home on a 1,300-acre tract of land in Dearborn, Michigan, approximately two miles from Mr. Ford’s birthplace. The new fifty-six room residence and estate were named “Fair Lane” after an area in County Cork, Ireland, the birthplace of Mr. Ford's foster grandfather, Patrick Ahern.
In keeping with the Fords’ love of nature, Fair Lane was built with rough-hewn Ohio limestone to harmonize with the surrounding countryside. The grounds, designed by noted landscape architect Jens Jensen, were transformed from farmland into a natural, native landscape.
During the Fords' residency, Fair Lane bustled with activity. In addition to the residence and its powerhouse, the estate included a summer house, man-made lake, staff cottages, gatehouse, pony barn, skating house, greenhouse, root cellar, vegetable garden, 1,000-plant peony garden, 10,000-plant rose garden, a "Santa's Workshop" for Christmas celebrations, maple sugar shack, working farm for the Ford grandchildren built to their scale, agricultural research facilities and 500 birdhouses.
Henry Ford had long been interested in alternative energy. When he built Fair Lane, he harnessed the power of the Rouge River to run the estate entirely on hydroelectric power.
Fair Lane’s hydroelectric power was generated in a stand-alone powerhouse on the property. The powerhouse was dedicated by Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford's good friend and the famous inventor, in October 1914. The eight-foot dam powered two 55-kilowatt generators that continue to function today.
This dam was particularly important to Henry Ford, not only because it provided efficient and inexpensive power, but also because it was non-polluting. Ford cared deeply about the natural world and made efforts large and small throughout his life not to affect it adversely and to conserve it whenever he could.
Around his home, Ford installed bat houses to control mosquitoes organically and avoid the need to introduce harmful chemicals into the environment. Stories abound of the incredible lengths Ford took to make sure that local wildlife was safely relocated before he’d begin work at a new site—including stories that he would hire boys to track down every last squirrel! And in 1913 he was instrumental in getting the McLean Migratory Bird Bill (to protect the birds from illegal hunting) through Congress, where it otherwise would likely have been ignored without Ford's strong campaigning.
Henry Ford died at Fair Lane in 1947, and Mrs. Ford lived there until her death three years later. In 1952, the Ford Motor Company purchased the estate from the heirs. In 1957, the company donated the residence, powerhouse, 210 acres, and $6.5 million to the University of Michigan for the creation of the Dearborn campus.
Today, an Environmental Interpretive Center and the River Rouge Bird Observatory are also located on the university grounds, where the adjacent area along the Rouge River is home to many species of birds and other animals.
The Henry Ford Estate, including 72 of the original 1,300 acres, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Public tours of the historic home have been ongoing since the 1970s, and include a wide variety of educational programs.