The caretaker bid his farewell just in time. Had he waited until spring, he might not have been able to pull himself away from the 87 acres he nurtured for nearly 40 years.
Flowering trees and the blue carpet of blooming scilla always made him partial to this season. But like the romantic ballad from Camelot, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” there’s no easy time to walk away from metro Detroit’s own Camelot — the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House.
Don Snodgrass, the director of grounds at the Grosse Pointe Shores estate who retired earlier this year while the landscape was still blanketed in snow, took with him memories of the historical setting that once was the home of one of Detroit’s leading families.
“Mrs. Ford, she was a very friendly and grand lady,” Snodgrass says. “She walked every day. She’d walk by and call out the Tigers score to us. She’d walk summer or winter. One of our main jobs was to keep the road clear for her.”
A staff of about seven maintains the present-day property, famous not only for its owners, but for Jens Jensen, the Danish-born landscape architect who, beginning in 1926, designed the grounds in his signature naturalistic style.
“People would think it would be easier to maintain, but you have to trim shrubs so they look like they haven’t been trimmed,” Snodgrass says. “We trim trees to keep the light as Jensen designed it.”
The property, on Lake St. Clair’s Gaukler Point, is carefully tended, but remains wild in some regards. Coyotes and foxes share the turf with the usual raccoons, squirrels, and rabbits. Notably absent are deer. In all of his time there, Snodgrass spotted only one, which stayed three weeks and then vanished.
Not all creatures are welcome. The Ford House employs a goose dog, a trained border collie named Hank that keeps the geese at bay. Before Hank, and his predecessor, Shiner, “it was nothing for us to have 200 to 300 geese here,” Snodgrass says.
Snodgrass takes an almost paternal pride in the botanical inhabitants of the grounds. “We’re probably one of the few areas that still has elms — over 45,” he says, referring to the ravages of Dutch elm disease. “We treat them on a two-year program.” Because of the estate’s historical status, they try to maintain key features. Elm trees lost near the Albert Kahn-designed home were replaced with more disease-resistant elm varieties, he says.
Owing to the threat of emerald ash borer, they also treat ashes. “We’ve lost 2,500 ash trees on ‘Bird Island’ and in the wooded area,” Snodgrass says. “On the main part of the estate, we treat about 90 ash.”
Also gracing the property are weeping willows, black willows, and birches. “Jensen planted birch by the pool to represent Northern Michigan,” Snodgrass says. Jensen’s favorite tree was the hawthorn, the cockspur hawthorn, Snodgrass says. And although a thornless hawthorn has been developed, Snodgrass sought out the thorned variety to keep the plantings as historically accurate as possible.
Other notable features include the rose garden, with its more than 600 plants. “It generally takes two people in the bloom period to keep that and our flower lane,” Snodgrass says. The floral display also includes daffodils (the crew planted 10,000 bulbs about 20 years ago), phlox, yarrow, salvia, black-eyed Susans, hollyhocks, day lilies, astilbe, coreopsis, monkshood, peonies, and bearded irises.
The result is a pastoral fantasy that served as a secret garden of sorts, one that afforded cherished privacy for the high-profile Fords and their four children — Henry II, Benson, Josephine, and William.
“We all thought how nice it would be to grow up here, the games you could play on the acreage,” Snodgrass says. “I’m sure they had croquet, and I’ve seen pictures of adults golfing on the front lawn.”
Every day, when Snodgrass left work, he returned to his ranch home in Warren, where the Jensen style influenced his own surburban lot. “I have a natural landscape,” he says. “I keep shrubs all around my yard to be sort of a wild screen. I plant daffodils and I have a couple of large maples in the backyard.”
No matter the scale, people need contact with “the living green,” as Jensen said.
“I’m kind of glad,” Snodgrass muses, as he leaves the legacy in other hands, “that I was a part of history that people will enjoy for years to come.”
Tour information and Ford House history: fordhouse.org.