Forgotten History: The Ford Motor Company Pipe Band, Detroit

This article was first published 31 January 2020 in the Piping Press. We wish to thank both the Piping Press(Robert Wallace) and Steve Thomason from Dumbarton for allowing us to re-publish the article . Please feel free to support the Piping Press by subscribing and donating to the Piping Press.

Original Article 2020-01-31 Piping Press

We are grateful to reader Steve Thomson from Dumbarton, but now resident in Detroit, Michigan, for alerting us to this previously unknown piece of pipe band history. The Ford band is pictured above in 1939. The story is from ‘The Henry Ford’ an innovation and history project. It reads:

If you’re out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day you’re sure to hear the sound of the bagpipes. In America, you’ll most likely hear the Scottish Highland pipes, not the Irish uilleann pipes, but over the years the Highland pipes have been assimilated into Irish culture and it’s hard to pass a St. Patrick’s Day celebration without hearing the familiar strain of the pipers. 

And speaking of bagpipes, did you know Ford Motor Company sponsored its own pipe band in the 1930s and 1940s? Henry Ford was a lover of music, so it should come as no surprise that he sponsored a number of employee bands, one of which was a group of Scottish and Irish pipers and drummers. 

The Ford Pipe Band, also known as the Ford Kiltie Band, was formed in 1932, with most of the members coming from the St. Andrew’s Pipe Band in Detroit. [The band is pictured below with the original caption to the photograph.]

It started when Alexander Adams, the drum major, who was Edsel Ford’s bodyguard [Edsel Ford was Henry Ford’s only son and President of the company from 1919 until his death in 1943], began recruiting other members of the band to come work at Ford. 

The Pipe Major, Hector McInnes, bass drummer, William Riddock, and pipers, James Cullen and Donald McPhee all worked in Plant Protection, with many of the other members working in departments across the company.

Ford sponsored the band and paid for all transportation and rooming, but the band had to pay for their own uniforms. Alec Bryce, one of the drummers, recalled that the band specially ordered their uniforms from Scotland and had them shipped to Ontario, bringing the uniforms into the U.S. piece by piece. A long process, but perhaps they decided it was worth the effort when the won Best Dressed Pipe Band at the Cowal Games in 1939.

Ford Motor Company provided members a practice space at the Highland Park plant, and gave the pipers and drummers paid time off for performances and competitions as well as credited work time for all travel.

The band consisted of first-rate musicians, many of the members had been regimental pipers and drummers in the Scots Guard during WWI and had continued to play in local bands in the Detroit area. During the peak of the band in 1934-36 as many as 20 pipers and drummers played for Ford Motor Company.

The band played all events and performances for free, and travelled across the United States and Canada for shows and competitions. They entertained Ford employees at the Ford Merit Club meetings, local parades, and other Ford events.

In addition to performances, the pipers and drummers were top-notch competitors being named North American Champion Bagpipe Band for 1934, 1935 and 1936, winning 15 silver cups in open competition during 1934 alone. They also won both the American and All-Canadian championships in 1939.

The band took a break during World War II, but some of the members reformed the group when the war was over to continue the piping tradition at Ford with a new set of musicians. The band played in their first post-war major competition in 1948 and continued to place well in competitions all over the United States and Canada. They also played at Ford and Lincoln-Mercury sponsored events, parades, and Scottish games.

Other References

After the article was published, others commented about the article and the history of Detroit Pipe Bands.  Here are a few comments.

Original Article 2020-01-31 Piping Press with comments

Stephen MacNeil - My grandfather spoke of this band to me over the years. His said the band was formed after Henry Ford found out that rival auto companies had their own small pipe bands. Ford wanted the best group so he sent his people to Scotland to bring players back to start the band up and teach. The 4 players brought in were George Duncan , Donald MacPhee, Donald MacMillian and Hector MacInnes. All of being from the Outer Hebrides with George Duncan already living in New York. Duncan was the first PM thru the glory years Hector MacInnes being the poorest player of the 4 and was PM when the band was just performing as a local street band. Many of the top players broke away to form the very famous “Detroit Highlanders”.

Robert Wallace - That’s very interesting Stephen. I’d be very keen for more on the Detroit Highlanders. They must have been some bunch to inspire such a fine tune. RW