Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia by Thomas Hager: 4****

What a marvelous book about a little known chapter in American history. I listened to a podcast in which the author was interviewed and was so impressed that I moved the book to the top of my reading list, and once I began the book it was hard for me to put it down!

This is the story of the attempt by Henry Ford to change the destiny of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama region and to create a utopian society based on 19th century values and ethics. It was a plan where Ford would purchase government owned facilities, facilities that have been deserted after World War One, and he would finish the damming of the Tennessee river, would finish nitrate fertilizer plants that had also been halted, and would create a massive amount of electric energy that he would use to create a 75 mile development plan for this upper Alabama region. It was an ambitious endeavor, but one which the citizens were wildly in favor of because of how backward, desolate and impoverished this area was.

The book is an extremely fast read, as a matter of fact the first section I read in under a day. It slows down a bit once the focus gets off of Henry Ford, and instead focuses on the main opponent to this project, Nebraska Senator George Norris who way back in the 1920s believed that natural resources in America should be controlled by a public entity and not private corporations. He believed that Ford was lowballing the purchase price, was not willing to commit to certain enhancements and for almost three years this US Senator was able to block any and all attempts by Ford to purchase the property and make these improvements.

Henry Ford was an icon, and in addition he brought in his friend Thomas Edison to help promote the project’s use of hydroelectric power by damming the Tennessee river. What I never realized was that Henry Ford wanted clean and green energy. He hated coal and the smoke and dirt that it produced. As a matter of fact I got the distinct impression that Ford would have preferred his automobiles to be electrified but there was not a way to feasibly do that when he developed the Model T. By this time in his life Ford was most likely the wealthiest man in the world and he had dreams of expanding his automobile dynasty as well as dreams of creating an America that was based upon his work ethics. He planned for villages that would be developed that had a 40 acre village green, a church, housing, some small businesses, all of which would be populated by people who would work at Ford’s automobile factory, or supply chain in the area. He may have been the first person who dreamt of something we now know as the suburbs, And his ideas on small family farming we’re truly revolutionary. But no matter what he did he was opposed by George Norris. Norris eventually drafted a bill which would lead to the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Norris believed that the Tennessee River should be damned for the benefit of all people in the area not just to benefit Ford.

This is a truly eye opening book about something I had never heard of and I was fascinated to read all that was involved in this project. A project that actually had its beginnings in the 1890s, expedited during the early years of World War One, and before the whole project could be finalized the war ended. It was at that time that Henry Ford decided he would come in and help revitalize that area by taking over the government projects and structures and use them for his utopian dream.

For me this was a well written book, a fabulous read come which bogs down a bit when we get into the middle portion of the book because the focus no longer is on Ford or Edison, but rather on Norris, government hearings and what impediments could be put in the way of Henry Ford so that he did not get this land. I heartily recommend this to anyone who is interested in history, the TVA, and the question of government versus public ownership of utilities. It’s not a dry read, but rather it is one that kept me from putting this book down until I finished it. A top notch effort to put it mildly!

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