September 22, 2014

Henry Ford's cargo ship house


David Ellis

WE'VE written over the years about some pretty strange things that have become people's somewhat bizarre homes, holiday retreats and even offices, amongst them a few converted passenger jets, plenty of churches, lighthouses, a couple of one-time houses of ill repute – even an ice-works and a former funeral parlour or two.

But one that got our attention in North America recently was probably the best yet in one-offs: the complete forecastle of pilot house (bridge) and the owner's and captain's quarters, as well as the deck and bow, from a-once Ford Motor Company cargo ship, and which now sits atop a little promontory on Lake Erie as the ultimate in cool-idea holiday homes.

The ship from which it came was the coal and iron-ore carrier Benson Ford, named after a grandson of the company's founder, Henry. It did sterling service across North America's Great Lakes for some 57 years – and although running aground on a couple of occasions, never suffered any major harm.

Henry Ford loved the ship as a relaxing way of visiting his factories around the Great Lakes, and to ensure his absolute in creature comforts, designed much of the vessel's walnut-lined Owner's Quarters himself, as well as a main Guests' Lounge and Bedroom, all to a degree that would do a luxury liner proud.

So grand, in fact, that local newspapers quickly defined it as "the most modern ship on the Great Lakes."

But by 1981 her days were up, and the Benson Ford was decommissioned so her name could be given to a newer ship of the Ford fleet; the hull was then re-named John Dykstra II, after the Hollywood special effects and computer genius whom George Lucas recruited to make such blockbusters as Star Wars and Spider-Man 2.

But she sailed ne'er a single nautical mile under her new name, instead languishing dockside for four years until being unexpectedly rescued by an Ohio couple – who to the surprise and bemusement of many, oxy'd-off the entire forecastle, deck and bow, and floated this strange sight 100km by barge to Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie's South Bass Island.

There the 4-storey, 20m by 20m structure was lifted by cranes to the top of a low promontory protruding into the lake, allowing its new owners to take-in the most wondrous views from their bizarre-looking new home. And by carefully positioning it with a part of the bow sticking jauntily over the promontory's edge, it gave them and their guests the impression of being aboard a ship at sea.

In 1992, six years after moving in, they applied to the local Zoning Board for permission to register their towering "shiphouse" as a Bed and Breakfast, a request that resulted in a long and costly legal battle, and which they eventually lost.

After finally conceding defeat, the couple put the place to auction in 1999, with an amazing 128 bidders from ten American States and Canada registering interest. The successful bidders were an Ohio father and son, Jerry and Bryan Kasper who've turned it today into a holiday retreat most of us could only fantasise about.

For wanting to maintain the original Henry Ford ambience, they've recreated much of the lavishness of the Ford era, the polished walnut panels glowing once-more, and rich button-stitched leather and other elaborate furnishings of his time its highlights throughout.

There are also Ford-era mementoes, curios and photographs, as well as antiques that are a nod to the inventiveness of Ford's good friend Thomas Edison, who once sailed with him aboard the Benson Ford.

The Kasper's have also renovated dining and sleeping areas including creating a yester-year family room, put full-size baths into ensuites attached to each of five refurbished guest bedrooms, added a bar adjacent to the refurbished dining-  and living-room, and a library… and as their only concession to the 21st century, modernised the kitchen to state-of-the-art.

And while many of these areas take-in expansive views of Lake Erie, it's from the pilot house atop the four-storey forecastle that the Kasper's and personal guests can take-in wondrous million-dollar sunset views across the lake, and their shore-side surrounds below them.

And they've returned the name Benson Ford to the bow: were he around today, it would doubtless suit old Henry to a T.




[] ONE of the more unusual in holiday retreats, a complete cargo ship's forecastle. (Jerry Kasper)

[] THE Benson Ford as she originally sailed on America's Great Lakes for the Ford Motor Company. (Ford Motor Company)

[] FROM ashore you can see how the complete forecastle was cut off and relocated.  (Jerry Kasper)

[] THE luxurious leather and walnut lounge. (Jerry Kasper)

[] HOME comforts of the spacious master bedroom as originally designed by Henry Ford. (Jerry Kasper)

[] HENRY Ford at the wheel of his twenty millionth vehicle, a Model A in April 1931. It is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, Michigan. (Henry Ford Museum)



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