Henry Ford is well-known as a pioneer of big industry, but another defining trait was his deep appreciation for friends and his altruistic, giving nature. Early home movies show Henry Ford cavorting with some of these close friends as they picnicked or camped in various outdoor locations. In the best-selling book, Ford, the Man and the Machine, by Robert Lacy, photographs eloquently depict 'Ford's vagabonds' usually camping out in the Smoky Mountains or the Adirondacks. These vagabonds often included his close friends and business associates such as Harvey Firestone, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, John Burroughs (famous naturalist), Luther Burbank - and especially his long-time acquaintance and mentor Thomas Alva Edison.
Documents also show that during his lifetime Ford also gave away 200 cars, 23 trucks and 15 tractors to associates and friends - including Edison. The Edison-Ford connection was particularly strong since Edison gave the young industrialist his first job at the Edison Illuminating Co., where he learned fundamental engineering skills and became a lifelong friend of the distinguished scientist/inventor. As a token of Ford's appreciation to his mentors, Edison and others were presented with a Fordson tractor when they were released in 1918. Reynold Wik wrote in his book, Henry Ford and Grass Roots America, that the first production Fordson made on April 23, 1918, was shipped to Luther Burbank in Santa Rosa, Calif. When it rolled into Burbank's yard, the famous botanist is said to have exclaimed: 'It's just like Ford, all motor and no frame.'
Reynolds Wik also said the second tractor off the assembly line was given to Edison. While it's not known what happened to most of these Fordson gifts, an 'Edison Fordson' was recently discovered. However, due to the date on the bill of sale, the newly found Fordson contains a bit of a mystery.
Wik claims Edison's Fordson was presented to him when the tractor was initially released in 1918, but a bill of sale indicates the recently discovered Edison Fordson was sold to Edison's son, Theodore, for $1 in April 1928. Few would doubt the tractor was given as a gift (the $1 is believed to be the bookkeeper's charge for writing the contract).
The Edison Fordson's serial number, 685593, positively indicates the tractor was manufactured in 1927, most likely in early June. However, that doesn't mean Wik's assertion that Edison was given a Fordson in 1918 should be discounted. It's very plausible that Edison received one when the Fordson was initially released in 1918 (that tractor has never been located) and yet another at the end of U.S. Fordson production.
All in the Family
Phil Bochicchio, the Edison Fordson's present owner - and one-time neighbor to Theodore Edison - explains that Thomas Edison asked that the tractor be put in Theodore's name since the scientist had no use for it: Edison was 81 years of age when the second Fordson was acquired. Theodore owned acreage close to his father's home in Whippany, N.J., and Edison intended for his son to use it around the farm for minor chores.
The 1928 Fordson remained on Theodore's farm for many years, and Phil's father, Rocco, kept it in running shape for Theodore, performing routine mechanical maintenance. In 1943, Theodore's wife, Ann, sold the Fordson to Rocco for $100. The tractor was lost to obscurity for many years until very recently when Phil pulled it from its years under sections of metal roofing.
The gift of a second Fordson to Edison seems rather odd, but considering some key facts about Fordson production, the mystery becomes a little clearer. In 1927, the last year of full production, 9,500 Fordsons were assembled. Some 8,000 more were finished in January 1928 before the Detroit Fordson plant was disassembled.
After the factory shut down, all parts, equipment, engineering sheets, etc., were shipped to Cork, Ireland, to expedite progress on the 'Improved Irish Fordson.' Many of these Cork-built models were subsequently shipped back to Canadian and American Fordson dealers. It is also to be suspected that a few Fordsons were left at the factory and that Ford, possibly wanting to clear out inventory and much needed space for production of the new Model A Ford automobile, gave a few away to friends and associates. Among those recipients was Edison.
The enigmatic Edison Fordson's history may be revealed when more is known. But without additional documentation, or the first Fordson gift or Edison's own words, little else exists to critically evaluate. Perhaps other Fordsons that Ford gave away to other old cronies and friends (besides Burbank and Edison) will be discovered some day with complete documentation. I wonder how many present Fordson tractor owners have checked their engine numbers to make sure they don't own one of these prized presents?
As for this Edison Fordson, Phil plans to either donate it to a New Jersey museum or place it in the hands of a collector to show it at antique tractor shows.
Jack Heald is the national director of the Fordson Tractor Club. Contact him at Fordson Tractor Club, 250 Robinson Road, Cave Junction, OR 97523.