Drive behind the flame: How Henry Ford established a charcoal company in Michigan’s UP

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Display of Kingsford brand charcoal outside a supermarket in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, September 13, 2016. With warm weather lasting into the late Fall, the grilling season in California extends until the end of November. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

IRON MOUNTAIN, Mich. – Barbecue season is here, and if you plan on grilling this summer, you will most likely pick up a bag of charcoal from the local grocery store.

Well, do you know where your charcoal is from? Kingsford Charcoal is one of the more popular brands out there. If you’re like me, this brand might be your dad’s go-to when planning for the next cookout.

So, what makes Kingsford Charcoal so special? Well, for starters, it has ties to Metro Detroit, which already scores more points than any other brand -- at least, in my book, it does.

Kingsford Charcoal is made with 100% American materials and was produced by the Ford Motor Company during the 20th century. According to the Menominee Range Historical Foundation, charcoal briquette was first patented in 1895 by W. P. Taggart, noted his item as a “lump of fuel.”

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Henry Ford may not have the best reputation, but there are hard facts that the Metro Detroiter was an outdoorsman and even somewhat of an environmentalist.

According to the History Daily, Ford was bothered by all the wasted wood at his sawmill in the Upper Peninsula. While camping with his cousin-in-law Edward G. Kingsford and friends Thomas Edison and John Burrough, he figured out a way to use the scrap and dust from his Iron Mountain sawmill into something more.

The Henry Ford Museum says that Kingsford operated a Ford dealership in Iron Mountain, before the Ford factory campus that was eventually built there in the 1920s. Ford contacted his cousin-in-law, questioning the lumber situation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After getting the information he needed, Ford Motor Company purchased roughly 313,000 acres in Iron Mountain, including sawmills, factories, and a wood chemical plant.

In the early years of cars, the vehicles made had bodies made out of wood. The Henry Ford Museum states that Ford wanted to secure timber supplies in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This is how Iron Mountain became the center of Ford’s logging and manufacturing operations in northern Michigan.

Electronically Driven Saw Mills - Cut 16879 - black and white image of the interior view of Henry Ford's sawmill, Michigan Iron, Land and Lumber Company, which is equipped with Allis-Chalmers products, Iron Mountain, Michigan, 1922. (Photo by Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

After buying over 300,000 acres of land, Ford tried to be careful about reducing and reusing waste from these factories. The wood scraps from the Kingsford location were eventually converted into charcoal briquettes.

These charcoal briquettes were made up of collected, dried, and burned in retorts. Then after resulting in char, the debris was mixed with starch, compressed, and made into useable charcoal briquettes. The Henry Ford Museum says workers in a briquette manufacturing facility in the area would mix charred hardwood chips with starch and would make nearly 100 tons of charcoal briquettes daily.

By 1951, the Ford charcoal briquette division was purchased by investors who renamed the Ford charcoal to Kingsford Charcoal in honor of Ford’s cousin-in-law.

Eventually, Ford sold the charcoal briquettes to the public, but initially just at Ford dealerships. These dealers sold branded barbecue accessories and charcoal across the United States. The charcoal then made its way to hardware, sporting goods, and department stores nationwide. These small charcoal grills would be marketed for $1, $2, and $3.

Nowadays, Kingsford Charcoal is now available in many flavors. From cumin chili to apple wood, there are many options to choose from, depending on what you plan on grilling up.

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