Henry Ford and the Great American Barbecue

Updated on December 20, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Henry Ford was a famously frugal man; he hated wasting anything. Each Model T that came off the production line used about 100 board feet of wood for such things as wheel spokes, frame, floors, and steering wheels. Inevitably, there was a fair amount of waste wood and Ford turned his ever-inventive brain to finding a way of making money out of saw dust and shavings.


Ford Buys a Forest

In the summer of 1919, Henry Ford invited the husband of his cousin, real estate agent Edward Kingsford, to join him on a camping trip.

This was no ordinary roughing-it-in-the-woods outing. Included in the party that cheekily called itself the Vagabonds, were Harvey Firestone of tire fame, naturalist John Burroughs, and inventor Thomas Edison.

To look after the creature comforts of these rugged outdoors men were a chef, a kitchen truck, and six cars loaded with supplies.

Ford wanted to pick Kingsford’s brain about available timber land in Michigan’s upper peninsular. The car maker decided he could save money by growing his own timber for his vehicles rather than pay someone else to do it.

The following year, a deal was done and Ford bought more than 300,000 acres of forest at Iron Mountain, Michigan. A sawmill was built and also a nearby plant to turn lumber into car parts. He also built a town, named Kingsford, to house the workers.

Ford's sawmill and parts factory at Iron Mountain, Michigan.
Ford's sawmill and parts factory at Iron Mountain, Michigan. | Source

Turning Waste into Money

You’ve probably noticed that trees don’t natural grow in a steering-wheel shape. So, turning a maple log into a steering wheel meant a lot of off-cuts fell to the factory floor. A lot of small branches and stumps from the forest added to the waste.

In the West Coast timber country of Oregon a chemist called Orin Stafford had been looking into commercial uses for sawmill waste. He combined sawdust and ground up shavings and chips with cornstarch and tar that were formed into small nuggets. These were fired in an oxygen-free furnace which drove off the binding agents.

Stafford called the end product “charcoal briquettes.”

Ford called on fellow “camper” Thomas Edison to build a plant in Kingsford to make Stafford’s creation on an industrial scale. Henry didn’t much like the fancy-pants “briquettes” name so he changed it to the more down-to-earth “Ford Briquets.”

Selling Barbecue Culture

Of course, barbecuing has been a method of cooking meat since fire was discovered. In colonial America barbecues were very popular, but usually involved roasting a whole animal turning on a spit over an open flame.

Barbecuing in the modern era and context starts with Henry Ford’s charcoal briquets.

In the beginning, the briquets were sold to meat and fish smokers but they didn’t gobble up enough of the product, so Ford started selling the product through his dealerships.

To help sales he put together “Picnic Kits.” A portable grill and charcoal briquets were marketed as the way for Ford customers to enjoy the great outdoors.

The advertising copy gushed “Enjoy a modern picnic. Sizzling broiled meats, steaming coffee, toasted sandwiches.”

The Model T and the great outdoors.
The Model T and the great outdoors. | Source

Load up the old Tin Lizzy with the wife, kiddies, and Picnic Kit and head off to some leafy bower in the countryside and char a few steaks.


Henry Ford, it seems, was a bit ahead of his time. The United States ran headlong into the Great Depression so there was little enthusiasm or money for most families to head off into the backwoods to sear a T-bone.

Cooking outdoors in the 1930s was something that happened in Hooverville shantytowns filled will indigent men down on their luck.

Barbecue Boom

It wasn’t until the soldiers, sailors, and airmen came back from the Second World War that the backyard barbecue started to really catch on. Families moved from inner cities to the suburbs so they could have a backyard.

In 1951, Ford sold the charcoal briquet business to a group of investors who named the product Kingsford in honour of Edward Kingsford, the real estate man. This, married to the arrival of the Weber grill, led to mouth-watering scents wafting over American suburbs every summer evening. (Vegans likely won't agree).

Ken Padgett (Agile Writer) notes that “Over 77 percent of all U.S. households own a barbecue grill and nearly half barbecue year round and use their grills five times a month.” And, Forbes Magazine adds (April 2016) that “11 percent of grill owners prepared breakfast [on barbecues] in the past year.”

The popularity is such that The Reader’s Digest was moved to comment “Cooking with charcoal ... is now as deeply ingrained in American life as the long weekend and the servantless kitchen.” Of course, that was before the stainless steel grill running on propane or natural gas pushed charcoal aside.

But, the purists still stick to charcoal as the only proper way to barbecue meat or marshmallows.


Bonus Factoids

Despite the popularity of gas-fired barbecues, more than a million tons of waste wood is turned into charcoal briquettes every year in the U.S.

The most popular origin of the word barbecue is that it comes from the Taino Indians of the Caribbean. Spanish explorers of the 16th century found these people roasting fish and meat over an open fire in a process they called “barbacoa.”

One of Henry Ford’s cars was rigged up as a barbecue. He and his pal Thomas Edison would head off into the countryside while their picnic fare was cooked by the heat of the engine.

In 1925, a Model T Ford cost $260 (around $3,600 in today’s money). In 2018, the Sotherby’s auction house sold a pair of Ford Charcoal Briquet Picnic Kits for $480.

In 2013, authorities in Beijing began confiscating and destroying outdoor barbecues in an attempt to cut the city’s chronic air pollution.


  • “Charcoal Briquettes.” Andy Boyd, University of Houston, February 25, 2016.
  • “Who Made That Charcoal Briquette?” Dashka Slater, New York Times, Magazine, September 26, 2014.
  • “Henry Ford.” Barbecue Hall of Fame, undated.
  • “The History of Barbecue.” Ken Padgett, Agilewriter.com, undated.
  • “The United States of Barbecue – America’s Love Affair With Backyard Cooking.” Larry Olmstead, Forbes, April 28, 2016.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      15 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Wesman. Lunch sounds good. What time do you want me to drop by?

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      15 months ago from California Gold Country

      I had no idea that there was a connection between Henry Ford and briquettes. What an interesting bit of modern history. I will think of it the next time I buy a bag of Kingsford charcoal. Nice article!

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      15 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Trees don't grow in steering wheel shapes? Tha hell you say! I think about this sort of thing constantly, for the simple fact that trees don't grow in guitar shapes either.

      Meat plus fire equals very very good goodness! My younger brother runs one of the most well known BBQ restaurants in Texas. And here in Texas, BBQ is a very common thing. Our Hispanic brothers and sisters feel the same way as we do about meat cooked with fire. Oh we have wonderful meals.

      I was raised to abhor waste. I shudder at wasted food more than any other form of waste. Well, lunch is warming on the skillet. It'll be a combination of turkey and pork roast, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. I'm going to put it into a tortilla.

      Good day to you, Sir.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)