Edsel Bryant Ford was born in Detroit in 1893, he was the only child of Henry and Clara Ford. From an early age he was passionate about art, with Henry Ford as his father he naturally went into the family business, Ford Motor Company. In 1916 he married Eleanor Lowthian Clay, they went on to have 4 children together, in 1919 he became the youngest president of Ford Motor Company, that same year Henry and Edsel became sole owners of Ford Motor Company, not bad for a 26 year-old man. In the early 1920’s Edsel began buying up land in Highland and White Lake Townships with the intention of building a self-sufficient retreat to escape city life; what he created was a 2,422 acre estate called Haven Hill. Today we’re in the Highland Recreation Area for the Haven Hill Festival.
We park near the Gate House, built in 1927 this was the original entrance to the estate, anybody entering would have to pass through security to gain access to the property, remember these were the days of kidnapping, labor unrest and gangsters during prohibition. Today it serves as a headquarters for the festival. Inside a man is finishing talking about the property, restoration of the remaining buildings, historic photos and renderings cover the walls and tables. Jens Jensen and Genevieve Gillette worked together on the original landscape design, I’m not sure how much of it remains.
We make our way to Goose Meadow, a line of Model A’s from members of the Livingston A’s Driving Club are on display; Edsel was responsible for the design of the Model A. The brass band is playing in the distance as an 1860’s era baseball game is finishing up. Under a canopy historic photos of Edsel, Eleanor and their children at Haven Hill are on display; in those days Edsel held the world on a string. We take the Jeep up a narrow lane that winds through the park till we arrive at the Carriage House. The building, a charming log cabin nestled into the woods, still looks to be in decent condition, windows are boarded up for protection. Originally intended to house the chauffeur and the Ford family cars, it became the playhouse for Henry II, Benson, Josephine and William Clay.
Just up the hill is the site of the Lodge, the 6,900 sq. ft. hilltop residence at Haven Hill; only it isn’t there anymore. In 1999 the building burned to the ground due to arson; I find the site absolutely fascinating. Concrete steps lead us under an arch, up a hill to the homes footprint, historic markers are placed about representing the various rooms of the estate, placards display black and white photos of the room in which we are standing. Footings remain, spray paint maps out the floor plan, the grand stone fireplace is crumbling. I stand in front of the photo that includes the fireplace, in my mind I can see the family gatherings that took place, well-known visitors such as Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Jackie Cooper, the Prince of Wales and Admiral Richard Byrd were frequent guests.
The terrace patio remains, a photo shows a group of lounge chairs providing a restful place outdoors. Here and there colorful stone remains, random groups of flowers are in bloom. I meander room to room; photos display conservative furnishings, a child’s bedroom holds a canopy bed, crib and rocking chair. A few steps lead to the top of the hill, the view now obscured by trees. We look around for what’s left of the swimming pool and tennis court, the path is overgrown and impossible to pass. It’s kind of eerie, here we are standing in what remains of the grand lodge where the Ford family spent 20 years, their children grew up here, they had a 3,000 ft tow-return toboggan run, they rode horses and went fishing, such personal stories laid out for all of us to see.
On the way down from the lodge we notice a pair of pretty cupolas in the horizon, a closer look reveals a group of buildings once used for the Ford farm, now used as the maintenance shop for the Highland State Recreation Area. The Edsel Ford Barn was built in the 1930’s, a large section of it was blown down by high winds in 2008, crews are currently working on restoring the remaining section of the barn. Haven Hill was a working farm, Henry Ford once said “With one foot in industry and one foot in agriculture America is safe.” Wise words from a wise man… The barn originally housed 1,500 sheep, later it was home to horses and cattle. The barn with its 3-tiered roof is actually quite lovely, I’d love to come back and see it when it’s done.
Edsel Ford was the longest running president in the history of Ford Motor Company, he introduced the Model A, Mercury and the Continental. He was a supporter of Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight, Admiral Richard Byrd’s North and South Pole flights, he was the chairman of the DIA. In 1943 at the age of 49 Edsel died at home in Grosse Pointe. Three years later Eleanor sold the Haven Hill Estate to the Michigan State Park System. State budget cuts lead to the closure of the structures in the 1980’s, the riding stables and lodge were lost to fire. Now the Friends of Highland Recreation Area and Michigan DNR are working together to bring the 3 remaining structures back to life, it’s an incredible piece of history that has gone largely unnoticed for decades.
On our way out of the park we make a stop at Teeple Lake Beach, a canopy on the beach is ready for a wedding ceremony, the shelter is set up for the reception. The small lake is a pretty sight; wildflowers sprout near the shoreline, the water is almost still, a picturesque wedding venue. We are headed to the Village of Milford for lunch, this quaint little town is home to nice boutiques, restaurants, parks, and a trail system, it’s not unusual to see bicyclists riding through town. The rain has begun, we luck out and get a parking space on Main Street directly in front of Palate. The attractive interior has a rustic, old-fashioned feeling to it, dark wood, brick, wooden barrels stamped with names of local breweries. Servers are friendly and helpful. We are having the Fried Chicken and Waffle sandwich: buttermilk-soaked fried chicken, pickles, 3-pepper gouda, bacon and chipotle aioli all stuffed between two golden malted waffles. The sandwich is delicious, the chicken is crispy and juicy, the cheese and aioli provide a little kick and the waffle is a tasty and tender alternative to a boring bun. Served with a side salad, it is plenty for the two of us.
Driving through town we notice the Milford Historical Museum is open, let’s go in. The museum is located in an 1853 Greek Revival home built by local cabinet maker John Wood—seriously. The structure has seen time as a family home, Doctor’s office, village offices and police department, it as been the local history museum since 1976. Milford began as a rural mill community, the Huron River was attractive to settlers from New England and New York. Farmers raised cereal grains, mills processed timber and farm products. The railroad arrived in 1871; there was a door knob factory in the 1880’s, residents manufactured window screens and furniture. Henry Ford created one of his Village Industries along the Huron River and began manufacturing Ford carburetors here in 1938, that’s quite a history for a small town.
Inside the tiny museum we are greeted by volunteers, near the stairway is an exhibit taken from the old Milford Post office. Up the stairs rooms are furnished in the late Victorian-era, many of the items were manufactured in Milford. I like the rose-colored glass of the hanging light fixture in the formal parlor, the kitchen is full of labor-intensive gadgets. The bedroom has a rope bed high off the floor, the toy room is popular with visitors. The Log Cabin exhibit is a depiction of the Bigelow cabin built in the south end of Milford in 1833. The fireplace was not only a source of heat for the family it was essentially the stove too. It was in this cabin that Mrs. Bigelow started the first school for children in the area. I always enjoy visiting little local history museums, they share the history and heritage of the town and its residents. Without fail we gain insight into the past helping us to understand the present and have fun while we’re at it.