Author: Grace Shackman
Weller's guests dine where Henry Ford once dabbled
"When I was working the midnight shift, many times Henry Ford would visit unannounced," recalls Kenny Rogers, who was employed at the Ford Soybean Mill in Saline in the 1940s, when he was a teenager. During Ford's last years, the auto tycoon bought up old mills all over southeast Michigan and used them to pursue his sometimes eccentric personal interests. At the Saline mill, workers extracted oil from soybeans, oil that Ford used to make enamel paint and plastic for automotive steering wheels, switches, and knobs.
When Ford bought the Saline mill in 1935, it was already ninety years old. Schuyler Haywood had built the gristmill in 1845, and it soon became the center of an independent town as Haywood's relatives and other businesses settled nearby. Haywood named the town Barnegat, after his hometown in New Jersey. "Barnegat was a booming town and Saline a bedroom community," explains Saline historian Alberta Rogers. "They had barrel making, a slaughterhouse, even a house of ill repute." Barnegat was annexed to the village of Saline in 1848.
Barnegat and downtown Saline, about a half mile apart, were separated by a big hill, as high as the hill where the American Legion sits now. Ford flattened the hill when he bought Schuyler's Mill. He also moved the mill building farther from the road and built a factory behind it, in a Greek Revival style compatible with the mill.
A farm boy who became the world's most famous industrialist. Ford was intrigued by the notion of making car parts from crops. He provided soybean seeds to many area farmers, who delivered their harvests to the old mill building. A chute dropped the beans from their third-floor storage bin to a conveyor belt, which carried them to the new factory. There, oil was extracted from the beans with steam and a solvent. The oil was stored in a tank in the adjoining pump house until it could be trucked to Ford's River Rouge plant, where it was used to make plastics and paints. The leftover soybean meal was dried, toasted, and sold as animal feed. A water-powered generator in the mill produced most of the operation's electricity. Soy-based paints were tested in a lab on the second floor.
The plant operated around the clock except on Sunday. Only five or six people worked on each shift, since it was mostly automated. Rogers remembers they spent a lot of time cleaning in anticipation of Ford's surprise visits.
"We kept it immaculate; we'd polish the brass valves, wax the floors," Rogers recalls. Ford usually came accompanied by friends. "They'd be all dressed up in suits and ties as if they'd been out to dinner, and Ford said, 'I'll take you out and show you.' The mills were his toys."
After Ford's death, the mill was sold to a soybean processing company, but the machinery soon became obsolete. Barbara Hamel, daughter of the new owner, re-named Ford's factory the "carriage house" and started a summer theater there (the actors slept in the mill building next door). WAAM radio host Ted Heusel remembers directing plays there. One of Heusel's apprentices at the playhouse was Martha Henry; now one of Canada's most prominent actresses, she recently starred in Much Ado about Nothing at the Stratford Festival.
In 1964, Carl and Micki Weller purchased the buildings and grounds, and they have steadily worked at restoring and landscaping them ever since. Once an antique shop, then a cafe, the buildings now house a banquet facility, run by Carl and Micki's daughter, Wendy Weller. There's room for three events at the same time—in the carriage house and on two floors of the mill. The old pump house is now Weller's office.
Traces of the old operation add flavor to events at Weller's. Pathways are paved with old firebricks, and the old steam boiler is now used as a bar. The carriage house although not air-conditioned, is surprisingly cool in the heat of summer, thanks to windows and vents designed to draw out air from the factory. Carl Weller, who has come to understand the soybean extraction operation well after years of renovation work, explains, "The steam made it so hot [that] even in winter, they could work in their undershirts."