Dearborn Ford Homes Historic District takes you back

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
  • Eleven home in the Ford Historic Homes District will open their doors for Sunday’s tour
  • Homes were built between 1919-1920 for Henry Ford’s workers at the Henry Ford & Son Tractor plant
  • Built in an assembly-line style similar to cars by workers from Ford’s factories

Shirley Damps’ mother used to tell her she was born in the wrong century.

At 18, Damps bought her first antique – a small table. Today, the retired teacher’s home in Dearborn’s Ford Homes Historic District is a cornucopia of old paintings, antique furniture and vintage hats. She collects hand-painted china and clocks, among other things.

“I collect a lot of things that are historical,” says Damps, who spent her career in suburban Chicago before moving to Dearborn 13 years ago. “I have a Model A in the garage.”

But of all her collections, Damps’ biggest passion may not be for an object, but for a person. She’s done extensive research on Clara Bryant Ford, Henry Ford’s wife, and gives talks all over town, often wearing vintage dresses and hats similar to what Clara would’ve worn.

“She’s always been in the background, but she was very philanthropic in her own way,” says Damps, whose interest in the Fords, and specifically Clara, piqued when she was a docent at the Henry Ford Estate at Fair Lane for seven years. “... Very few people know about all the wonderful things she accomplished.”

This weekend, Damps will show off not only her collection of Clara Bryant Ford history and hats, but her home as part of the Ford Historic Homes Holiday Home Tour on Sunday. The tour – the first since 2009 in this unique part of Dearborn, south of Michigan Avenue and east of Outer Drive – will showcase 11 Ford homes. All were built between 1919 and 1920 by Henry Ford’s employees in an approach very similar to how he built cars.

The homes reflect seven styles. Like Ford’s cars, each style was given a letter, A through G. They all share similar features, such as distinctive door pediments and a porch. The houses are solid, but not overly ornate.

“Henry wanted simplicity, but he liked things that were solid and wanted things to look well,” says Damps.

Damps had actually never heard of the Ford homes until she was visiting Greenfield Village from the Chicago area several years ago. She met a presenter at the Village who suggested she take a look at the district. She did and an idea was born: Once she retired, she’d leave Chicago and move to Dearborn. And she did.

“I like the neighborhood and I like the people,” says Damps, who now works at Mrs. Cohen’s Millinery at Greenfield Village. “I’ve been here 13 years. Moving here, you meet a lot of Ford-ophiles.”

Visiting the Ford homes is like “stepping back in time,” says Linda Tafelski, a tour organizer. “The people are so inviting. It’s just a different feeling.”

Damps has actually lived in two Ford homes. Her first was a D style. Her current home, on Nona, is an E style. It spans 2,400 square feet and has three bedrooms and 21/2 baths.

Just off the foyer is the front living room with a fireplace and built-in bookshelves. A door leads to the enclosed porch, which every Ford home has.

“Henry wanted people to have fresh air and sit out at night,” says Damps.

Shirley Damps’ front living room, which includes a wall of built-in bookshelves, flows into a formal dining room and then the back living room. The back living room was an addition, built in the 1930s.

The front living room flows right into the dining room and then an informal living room, which Damps uses as a TV room. The back living room, along with a bathroom, were added to the house in the 1930s.

The home has its own unique history. A doctor, a general practitioner who once owned the house, ran his practice out of the basement.

Much of the furnishings are antiques that fit with the style and age of the home. The dining room table is oak. Nearby is a lovely dollhouse with a decoupaged roof. It’s filled with figurines, many of which Damps inherited from her aunt.

“She was in the antique business with her husband,” says Damps.

And of course, Clara Bryant Ford also figures into the decor. There are several vintage dolls, which Ford collected. And woven throughout the built-in bookshelves in the front living room are hats similar to what Ford would’ve worn.

“I probably have 100 hats upstairs and clothing,” says Damps. “I wear period clothing all the time.”

And Damps says the more she learns about Clara, the more she feels like she channels her spirit. When she talks about Clara, she always wears an angel pin that mimics a large angel embedded into the fireplace in the formal parlor at the Ford Estate at Fair Lane. She also wears a pocket watch etched with butterflies, which Clara loved.

“I speak as though I’m her spirit, looking into the amazing accomplishments during her entire life,” says Damps.

(313) 223-4686

The Ford Homes

The Ford Homes Historic District includes about 250 homes all in a colonial style. It’s bounded by the Michigan Central Railroad tracks, Military, Nowlin and Monroe. The homes were built because there was a shortage of housing in Dearborn for workers at the Henry Ford & Son Tractor Plant, according to historian Joseph Oldenburg. Most were forced to rent homes in Detroit and then spend an hour each day on a streetcar to get to work, wrote Oldenburg in a history of the historic district.

It isn’t clear who, but someone suggested Henry Ford build homes to solve the housing problem. Ford agreed, but didn’t want his name attached to the project so it succeeded or failed in its own right. He had three conditions: the homes had to be sufficiently different in appearance so they didn’t look machine made; they had to big enough to accommodate an average family; and the best materials had to be used. In January 1919, the Dearborn Realty and Construction Co. was incorporated.

To build the houses – and cut the cost of using contractors – Ford used his own workers. Carpenters, bricklayers, and stonemasons working in his factories were given the chance to build houses. Houses cost between $4,500-$5,500.

“Each crew had its own specialty reminiscent of Ford’s development of the assembly line to produce cars faster,” wrote Oldenburg. “These principles are used in today’s residential construction, but in 1919 they were radically different from the building style of the day.”

Ford Historic Homes Holiday Home Tour

¦1-6 p.m. Sunday

¦11 homes, all built between 1919-1920

¦Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at door

¦Tour booklets must be picked up at Reach International Church, 1865 Nowlin

¦Call (313) 565-2424 or visit