Henry Ford: Industrial titan and, believe it or not, school headmaster

Bob Panter's 1929 Model A Truck

At one time or another, you may have fantasized about sharing a cup of coffee or a beer with a personal hero, dead or alive. For car nuts that might be Harley Earl, David Revson, Carroll Shelby, or Stirling Moss. Hagerty customer Bob Panter actually experienced greatness on a regular basis when he was a kid, attending a school in which the one-and-only Henry Ford served as unofficial headmaster.

Panter, a retired educator from Traverse City, Michigan, is an avid Ford Model A collector. He had the unique opportunity to attend Greenfield Village Schools, an experimental learning facility in the early days of the Edison Institute. This school was formed by Henry and Clara Ford, who were supporters of hands-on education and were involved in numerous initiatives on the subject. The concept of teaching American ingenuity in the midst of this great museum/historic village must have been quite the educational experience.

The school opened on September 16, 1929, which preceded the opening of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in 1933. There was no tuition, as Ford paid for everything. Students were selected from a waiting list of children from a variety of backgrounds; they were not necessarily related to Ford Motor Company employees. While an enrollment committee decided who would attend, Ford often added children upon receiving personal requests. He provided supplies, transportation, and lunches served on linen tablecloths with matching napkins. Ford was determined that his students would learn practical skills so that their transition from school to the working world would be more seamless.

Henry Ford meeting students outside of the Edison Institute
Edison Institute classroom

The first year the school opened, there were 32 students in the first through fourth grades. The guiding principle of Edison Institute Schools, as it was later called, was “to learn by doing,” an approach developed by educational pioneer Thomas Dewey. Students planted gardens, and learned a variety of crafts and mechanical skills in addition to traditional book learning. They took field trips with Mr. Ford himself often serving as the chaperone. Ford felt strongly that the benefits of a one-room schoolhouse education should be incorporated into the program, so older children were tasked with helping and tutoring younger students.

Bob Panter began attending the school as kindergartener in 1944–45. By this time the student body had grown to 250 students and classes were available for K-12. There was a ballroom where students learned dancing, and there was also an Olympic-size swimming pool.

“The whole school would start each day at the Martha Mary Chapel in the village, where we would have a 20-minute non-denominational service,” Panter remembers. “Students would sing a few hymns, a couple of students were assigned to read a poem, and a teacher might give a motivational word or two, often from the Bible. Then we would all disperse into the village or museum to our assigned areas and get on with our day.”

an Edison Institute student working on a Model T
The Henry Ford Archive
an Edison Institute student working on a Model T

Ford often watched over these services from the balcony in the church, sometimes accompanied by famous guests like Will Rogers or George Washington Carver (both of whom visited before Panter’s tenure there).

On average, there were about 20 students per classroom. High school students did many in-depth research projects, using the artifacts and exhibits of the museum collection to gather information while also gaining practical hands-on learning experiences. Students also published a monthly newsletter called The Herald, reporting on student projects K-12.

“We called it a newsletter, but it was really a magazine with full glossy pages and photographs similar to Time or Life magazines published at the time,” Panter recalls. “It was a really big deal when it was released each month because there would be features about the younger students’ reports as well. It made you work really hard on your school work and have a sense of pride in what you did because you knew it would be published and read by everyone and their families. This also kept us all more connected with each other and what everyone was doing in the other classes. Younger students often wrote stories about trips or adventures with their families, so you knew what was going on in each other’s family lives, as well.”

Panter also remembers that each student would receive a birthday telegram, sent to their home.  “You felt really special because it was such a big deal to get a telegram in those days!”

Birthday telegram to Bob Panter from Henry Ford
Bob Panter
Birthday telegram to Bob Panter from Henry Ford

Panter recalls that, about a week before Christmas, a school bus would come by and pick up all the children and take them to old Ford Farm, now the site of the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus. Once at the farm, they were served hot chocolate, and students and staff would sing Christmas carols and visit with Santa. Before leaving, the children were ushered into the old Ford farmhouse, where they found shelves filled with toys. Each child got to pick one and take it home. Panter still owns a toy truck that he chose one year.

By the time Panter started attending the school, Henry Ford was quite elderly and showing signs of his age, but he still remained a presence at the school whenever possible. When Ford died in April 1947, each class walked to the museum, where students got pay their final respects in private before viewing was open to the public. Clara Ford died in 1952, and with the school’s biggest promoters gone, the high school closed in 1953.

After graduating from Dearborn High, Panter went on to college, became an educator himself, and moved to northern Michigan. In 1963, he was offered an opportunity to return to the Village School in Dearborn and teach, but Panter felt Traverse City was the right place to work and raise his family, so he declined.

Panter went on to become one of Traverse City’s most beloved educators and administrators at the Old Mission Peninsula Elementary School. Now retired, he keeps busy by working on his Model As, and he still shares his passion with students. Panter often speaks to classes who take field trips to The Henry Ford and shares his childhood experiences at the school, which—thanks to one of the world’s most influential industrialists and philanthropists—helped shape the man he became.

Henry Ford at the Edision Institute dedication in 1929
Ackley Covered bridge at the Edison Institute