The Mansion will be closed Jan. 23 – Feb. 5. The grounds remain open.

In 1923, Henry Ford and his wife Clara visited Mount Vernon and he became fascinated by George Washington’s smoke jack.

This trip turned into the start of a still ongoing relationship between the Ford Motor Company and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Many years later Harrison Dodge, longtime director of Mount Vernon, recalled the Fords’ visit.

Not having been warned of their coming, I was surprised to find them one day in the upper story, eagerly leaning over the rails at the doors which serve to protect the rooms, intently examining the furniture.

I did not know at that time of Mr. Ford's in­terest in Early American things-in fact his Dearborn museum project may not have then been in his mind. However, I took them into the rooms and was rewarded by finding them the most appreciative and enthusiastic guests we had had for a long while. It was refreshing to see how a man of Mr. Ford's wide interests and numerous responsibilities could give himself over to such complete and eager absorption in the matters that were brought to his attention.1 

Ford was interested in many things on his visit, especially items related to daily life. He found the smoke jack particularly interesting. This device used the heat of the fire to rotate a spit which evenly cooked meat. A fan was placed in the chimney and as heat from the fire rose it spun the fan. Connected to the fan was a chain that turned the spit. The constant draft from the fire kept the spit turning at a consistent pace.2

A sketch of a smoke jack based on the model Harrison Dodge sent to Henry Ford, from the collections of The Henry Ford, www.thehenryford.org.

18th Century Cooking

Looking up the chimney at the smoke jack inside the Kitchen at Mount Vernon, MVLA.

Looking up the chimney at the smoke jack inside the Kitchen at Mount Vernon, MVLA.

In November of 1790, Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear recorded that a jack was installed in the Kitchen by George Breiming.3 Despite some repairs, it is believed that this smoke jack is still installed in the Kitchen at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

On December 6, 1923, Ford’s office reached out to Dodge requesting a sketch “of the automatic spit at Mount Vernon. Also the method and measurements of running the chain, or cord, to the trammel which turns in front of the fire.”4 Although it had been months since his visit, Ford was still curious about this device. Dodge was happy to oblige. However, a few weeks later he “found it so difficult to show certain intracacies[sic] of this old ‘smoke jack,’…I concluded to make (for Mr Ford’s mechanic to copy) a miniature working model of the apparatus…”5

A Working Model

Model of a smoke jack inside a chimney from the MVLA collection, [RN06.422].

Model of a smoke jack inside a chimney from the MVLA collection, [RN06.422].

A close up of the chain and spit of the model of a smoke jack inside a chimney from the MVLA collection, [RN06.422].

A close up of the chain and spit of the model of a smoke jack inside a chimney from the MVLA collection, [RN06.422].

Dodge mailed the working model in January of 1924.6 Less than two weeks later, he was upset to find it had been returned. Included was a note that stated, “Returned not interested.”7 Dodge did not understand why after it had been specifically requested and he had taken “such pains in the making of” the model Ford would no longer want it.8

So Dodge quickly inquired who “at your [Ford’s] Office is to blame for the blunder.”9 He received a telegram from Frank Campsall, Ford’s assistant secretary, who called the whole thing a “deeply regret[ed] mistake”.10 Another member of Ford’s office, H.M. Cordell, explained the incident in much greater detail:

…I doubt if you can properly realize my surprise to find that the model had reached Dearborn and had been sent back to you. Needless to say, inquiries were promptly made, with the following result. As you, of course, realize we receive daily scores of models of all shapes and dimensions. A great many of these are freak inventions in which we are not at all interested… It transpired that on receipt of the model of the automatic spit, that our young man took it for a patent window-sash arrangement and followed his instructions [to return]… Please accept our most profound apologies…11

Dodge, of course, quickly resent the model to Ford’s office. Less than a month later, Dodge received a letter explaining that the model “has been gone over thoroughly by Mr Ford and his designer.”12 Ford found the model “an exceedingly interesting piece of mechanism” and working plans were created from it.13 Sadly there is no record as to if Ford ever built a smoke jack based on these plans.

Returning the Model

A letter from the Office of Henry Ford to Harrison Dodge about returning the smoke jack model, from the collections of The Henry Ford, www.thehenryford.org.

A letter from the Office of Henry Ford to Harrison Dodge about returning the smoke jack model, from the collections of The Henry Ford, www.thehenryford.org.

Dodge had requested that once Ford was done with the model be returned to preserve in case something should ever happen to the actual smoke jack.14 Ford’s office sent it back to Mount Vernon on March 3, 1924.15

This model is just one example of the ongoing relationship between Henry Ford and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. On the same trip, Ford learned of the smoke jack he became aware of the organization’s need for modern fire equipment. Since 1923, Ford and the Ford Motor Company have helped ensure Mount Vernon is protected for future generations.

 

Jeanette Patrick
George Washington's Mount Vernon

Henry Ford to the Rescue

In 1923, Ford sent Mount Vernon an American-LaFrance Combination Chemical and Hose Car.

Learn More

Notes

1. Harrison Dodge, Mount Vernon: Its Owner and Its Story, 120-123.
2. Notes from Wilstach, Mount Vernon, 1916 and Charles Wall, Superintendent Talk to Guards, June 1, 1949 both included in History of the Smoke Jack in the Kitchen by Gretchen Goodell.
3. Kitchen Timeline: A History of Changes in Structure and Interpretation. Stephen Decatur, Jr., Private Affairs of George Washington (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933) 164 included in History of the Smoke Jack in the Kitchen by Gretchen Goodell.
4. Frank Campsall, Assistant Secretary to Henry Ford to Harrison Dodge, December 6, 1923, MVLA Archive.
5. Harrison Dodge to Frank Campsall, February 9, 1924, MVLA Archive.
6. Harrison Dodge to Frank Campsall, February 9, 1924, MVLA Archive.
7. Harrison Dodge to Frank Campsall, February 9, 1924, MVLA Archive.
8. Harrison Dodge to Frank Campsall, February 9, 1924, MVLA Archive.
9. Harrison Dodge to Frank Campsall, February 9, 1924, MVLA Archive.
10. Frank Campsall to Harrison Dodge, February 11, 1924 telegram, MVLA Archive.
11. H.M. Cordell, Office of Henry Ford, to Harrison Dodge, February 11, 1924, MVLA Archive.
12. H.M. Cordell, to Harrison Dodge, March 10, 1924, From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Acc 285, Box 262 T-Z 369.
13. H.M. Cordell, to Harrison Dodge, March 10, 1924, From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Acc 285, Box 262, T-Z 369.
14. Harrison Dodge to Henry Ford, January 23, 1924, From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Acc 285, Box 262, T-Z 369.
15. Ship to Col HH Dodge Mt Vernon-on-the –Potomac Fairfax County, Virginia, 3/10/24, From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Acc 285, Box 262, T-Z 369.

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