Nostalgia and Innovation: Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan

Henry Ford

We spent four weeks wandering in Michigan in 2003 but never made it close to Detroit.  In particular, we wanted to see Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village.  We expected a rural village similar to Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village.  We finally made it in 2019 and found a reflection of Ford’s nostalgia for his youth. He thought history books focused too much on kings and generals and failed to show the lives of ordinary people.  However, he also honored innovators.

Now an independent non-profit organization, “The Henry Ford” has three parts.  We chose to see the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation on another visit.  This time we spent a day at Greenfield Village and a day when the weather was poor at the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, the subject of my next post.

Ford, an avid collector of Americana, rescued his birthplace when it was threatened by road construction in 1919.  He restored it to the place he remembered when he was 13.  He then added his one-room school and planned to have a working Colonial village.  He added an inn where he and his wife attended dances.

While the idea of a “working village” remained in his mind, his choice of exhibits evolved emphasizing important technological innovations in American history.  Ford set the village dedication date as October 21, 1929, the fiftieth anniversary of his friend and mentor Thomas Edison’s successful development of a commercially viable electric light.

He moved Edison’s facilities from Menlo Park, New Jersey and Fort Myers, Florida to Michigan.  He not only moved the laboratories, he moved the soil under them.  Ford said he wanted the public to be able “to walk where Edison walked.”

As Edison was still working, a new laboratory was built for him in Fort Myers.  On seeing his restored Menlo Park laboratory, Edison remarked that Ford got it ninety-nine percent right.  What was wrong, Ford asked.  It was never this clean, Edison replied.

Greenfield Village covers 80 acres.  In addition to shops and public buildings one might have found in any village, there is the Wright Cycle Shop [with the soil that was originally under it] where the brothers built their airplane.  The village has Luther Burbank’s birthplace and garden office[creator of the Idaho potato], the house where Henry Heinz began his food business, the Harvey Firestone farm [practical rubber tires], Noah Webster’s home [his dictionary standardized American English], Robert Frost’s home[the poet], William Holmes McGuffey’s birthplace and school [his books educated late 19th century children], George Washington Carver’s cabin [he revolutionized agriculture in the south], and Charles Steinmetz’ cabin [developer of alternating current].

We did slow down our normal road-trip pace but still had only a day.  It wasn’t enough time, but we enjoyed what we could do.  We did, however, have one exceptional experience.  In Edison’s lab, a docent made a recording for some school children on an original Edison phonograph while we watched and listened.  We were told the limited supply of aluminum foil sheets used to record cost three thousand dollars a box.  They don’t do it often.  Our home is near Edison’s winter home and laboratory and we have seen early phonographs before.  But this was our only time to see a recording made and to listen to it played back.

Recording “Mary had a little lamb” on an original Edison phonograph. Edison recited the same verse when he demonstrated the product.

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Date of our visit: 21 May 19

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Alie loves flowers.

The Hendrie Gates, RBG

Shortly after we were married, Alie said she was pleased when I would bring her flowers but would rather I did not.  She didn’t like arranging or caring for them.  As time passed, it became clear she had a black thumb.  Once when a nephew visited, he handed her a plant and said “here, kill this.”

Nonetheless Alie loves flowers.  Wherever we travel, she stops to look at them.  If at all possible, she photographs them or asks me to photograph them.

Then she uses the photographs as backgrounds on her computer.  Remarkably, she remembers where most of the photographs were taken.  That astounds me.

While she will stop anywhere to look at a flower, we went out of our way to see these.  The first are from the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio.  The second group is from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario.

Alie does not take responsibility for the choices I made for this post.

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Dates of our visit: 19 May 19 and 24 May 19

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Sgt. Alvin C. York’s home: Pall Mall Tennessee

Younger readers and those from other countries might not recognize the name, but Sergeant Alvin Cullum York was probably the most famous American war hero to come out of World War I.  More important, he used his fame as a tool to improve the lives of others for the rest of his life.

York was born 13 December 1877 in the Wolf River Valley, where Daniel Boone spent time in 1769.   York’s grandfather was killed there by a Confederate guerrilla, Champ Ferguson who killed over 100 civilians and Union soldiers.  Ferguson was eventually hung for war crimes.

Wolf Valley might have been called a holler in Tennessee.  A “holler” is a small valley in the Appalachian Mountains, home to “hillbillies,” the rural and often uneducated poor.  They were so cut off from the rest of the world in the early 20th century, some still spoke an Elizabethan English dialect.

After the early death of his father, York became known as a “drunkard and brawler” until his conversion to Christianity on New Year’s Day 1915.  He was drafted at age 38 as a conscientious objector in 1917.  He said he was not afraid to fight but objected to killing.  While at home on leave in 1918, he prayed on a mountain top for two days and came to the conclusion it was his duty to God and country to fight.

1840 Wolf River Methodist Church

He arrived later in France as a private.  Promoted to corporal, he was on a patrol on 8 October 1918 that went behind German lines to silence a machine gun position.  The group captured a large group of Germans and then came under heavy fire.  Six of the seventeen Americans were killed and three wounded. As the ranking person remaining, York took charge.  Using his mountain-trained hunting skills, he flanked the German position killing at least 19 before his rifle ran out of ammunition.  Using his pistol, he subsequently killed six attacking German soldiers.  The German officer commanding the machine gun position emptied his pistol firing at York and surrendered.  York and the seven survivors from his patrol  returned with their wounded to American lines with four German officers and 128 others as prisoners.  He was promoted to Sergeant, given the Distinguished Service Cross and later the Congressional Medal of Honor and French Legion of Honor as well as medals from Italy and Montenegro.

When he returned home after the war, he married a local girl, Gracie.  The Nashville Rotary Club raised funds to buy York and his wife a home and 400-acre farm in Pall Mall near where he was born.  Expanded to a nationwide effort, the property was paid off in 1922.  York raised a family, corn, wheat, hogs, and Hereford cattle on the farm and lived there until his death in 1964.

York’s real mission in life became providing rural youth the opportunities his family lacked when they were young.  He helped build roads, bridges and schools.  He made fund-raising tours across the country to establish the York Agricultural Institute in 1926, the first full-time school in East Tennessee.  At one point, he mortgaged his home twice to keep the school running.  It was ultimately taken over and run by the State of Tennessee as a public high school.  A Congressman and an astronaut are among its graduates.

Using royalties from the movie Sergeant York, the highest grossing film of 1941, York then built the York Bible School for the people of Wolf Valley to provide Bible and occupational studies.  However, it never had as many students as the York Institute, declined as York’s health failed, and finally closed after fifteen years.

Sgt. York established a Bible school using royalties from the Academy Award winning movie.

Graves of Sgt. and Mrs. York

He chose to be buried in Wolf River Cemetery near his home rather than in Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

The York home was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

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Date of our visit:  16 May 19

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International Towing Museum and Hall of Fame: Chattanooga, Tennessee

We will visit almost anything.  This time when we stopped in Chattanooga for the night, I decided to take a look at a tow truck museum I had seen advertised.

The museum was established in 1986 and is now located in a building approximately three and a half miles from where the industry’s first wrecker was made at the Ernest Holmes Company.

In 1900, there were around 100 automobile manufacturers in the U.S. but almost all cars were hand-made.  Production really took off with the introduction of the assembly line by Ford in 1914.  Edward Holmes repaired cars and built the first wrecker in 1916.  He improved it and patented the new system, built on the back of a 1913 Cadillac automobile. in 1917.  Early tow rigs were put on luxury car frames because they had powerful engines.

Other notable contributors to the industry were Oscar Hubbard and the Manley Division of the American Chain and Cable Company.  Some Manley equipment is thought to have been built as early as 1915 but there is no conclusive evidence.

One truck, the “world’s fastest wrecker,” caught our eye.  It was timed on the NASCAR speedway in Talladega, Alabama August 1, 1979.  Stock car racer Eddie Martin drove a Holmes 5-ton winch and boom mounted on a standard Chevy Silverado chassis around the track an average of 109.33 miles an hour, probably exceeding 130 mph on the straight-aways.  We were amused that the sign said he was forced to quit after one run “due to his tires beginning to melt.”

The “world’s fastest wrecker” timed at 109.33 mph at the Alabama Speedway.

Probably mostly of interest to those in the business, “International Towing Hall of Fame” was indeed international and includes women as evidenced by these two photos.

Sculpture by Cessna Decosimo near the “Wall of the Fallen.”

However, we were astounded to be told on average, one tow truck operator is injured on the job every six days, more than police and fire combined. Those that died are commemorated in the Wall of the Fallen in front of the building, and a Survivors Fund was established to help their spouses and children.

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Date of our visit: 16 May 19

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Providence Canyon State Park, Georgia

Driving north toward Columbus, Georgia, we spotted a sign for Providence Canyon State Park.  I recalled a blogger had called it “the Grand Canyon of Georgia,” so I turned toward Lumpkin, GA and headed for it.

Southern Utah and northern Arizona are among our favorite places, and we have visited them often.  Providence Canyon would probably fit in an arroyo out there, but it was still a nice stop along the way.

Georgia has maintained the state park very well.  It was pretty, had trails to walk on and nice picnic facilities.  Nearby was an early 19th century Methodist church still in use with a cemetery populated by early pioneers.

To fully appreciate the Canyon, one needs to take the mile-long trail into the bottom.  Alie was not up to the hike, and I was ready to move on, so we did not do that.  But we did enjoy the views that had been cut through the foliage along the trail which follows the rim.

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Date of our visit: 14 May 19

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Blogger inspired trip to Cedar Key, Florida

Cedar Key 2004

Cedar Key is not on the road to anywhere.  We had been there, but when another blogger wrote about it, we were inspired to go back.

The island is on Florida’s big bend [Alie calls it Florida’s arm pit with no disrespect intended].  Cedar Key is the southernmost village on the Shellfish Trail, a state promotion of that town, Shell Mound, Yankeetown, Town of Suwannee, Jena and Steinhatchee, all places where one can buy fresh shrimp, crabs, scallops, oysters and clams.  After a 1995 ban on gill net mullet fishing hit locals hard, cultivated clams saved Cedar Key fishermen’s livelihood.

Downtown is only about three blocks long.  It once was the Terminus of the Florida
Railroad.  In 1900, oysters were shipped out by the train load.  But the seemingly limitless supply of oysters was indeed limited.  Over-fishing led to the collapse of the industry.

After the wood pier out from the rail line terminus burned three times, they replaced it with a concrete fishing pier – for today’s main industry, tourism.

A realtor I met on the street said that with around 700 inhabitants, it can’t get much bigger; the island is full. That is the appeal.  There aren’t any chain hotels or restaurants on the island.  That too is the appeal.

Arriving in late afternoon, we first drove down Second Street, their “main street,” and then out Dock Street at the edge of the water.  Parking in a space reserved for boat trailers until two p.m., we walked the length of the street looking at shops and restaurant menus.  One bore the hand lettered sign “Beer is cheaper than gas; drink, don’t drive.”

We settled on the outdoor deck of 83 West where I had an outstanding piece of Redfish and Alie’s chicken salad wrap was accompanied by the best homemade potato chips we have ever encountered.

But the meal was only secondary to the “floor show” — passing flocks of pelicans, ibis and other birds.

The restaurant deck was near a boat ramp where we saw bird dog boats come and go.  Bird dog boats are local boats with a low transom at the back to haul shellfish on board, a large hose to rinse the catch down; an awning overhead to protect the crew from the sun and an engine in the front to avoid tangling lines and nets.  The captain navigates the shallow waters from the front.  They are very fast in order to get the catch back to refrigerated containers on shore.  They can haul up to 50,000 clams at a time.

Another boat came in loaded with five people.  As it approached, I assumed it to be a tour boat  But when it came to the dock, it unloaded a cameraman, a sound-man and a woman holding a clipboard and papers.  They proceeded to film the crew carrying a heavy container up the dock and then had them do it again so they could film it from another angle.  My guess is they were making a promotional film.

Standing on the balcony of our room at the end of the day, we watched a nearby pod of dolphins doing their own fishing.

Cedar Key is not on the road to anywhere, and we loved it.

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Date of our visit:  13 May 19

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Charming Curaçao.

1974 Queen Juliana Bridge, the highest bridge in the Caribbean

Only forty miles from Venezuelan turmoil, Curaçao seems to be in another world.  Indeed, it  and seems to be in another world from most other Caribbean islands [except perhaps for the other ABC Islands, Aruba and Bonaire].

Spanish landed here in 1499.  Settlers began to arrive in 1634 from the Netherlands after that country achieved its independence from Spain.   Curaçao became an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 2010.  The Kingdom oversees defense and foreign policy and also manages the economy under an agreed upon debt-relief program.

With a population of just over 160,000, the 171.4 square mile country has experienced boom and bust times.  It is less reliant on tourism than other Caribbean islands.  Royal Dutch Shell came to the island in 1915 but sold its refinery and terminal in 1985. A Venezuelan lease on the property is up this year.  But the country also is a trading hub and financial center.  Schlumberger, the oil services company, is incorporated in Curaçao.  The country  is trying to attract technology companies.

Like Aruba and Bonaire [see last week’s post], there is great snorkeling and diving.  The weather is moderate.  They do have tropical storms but are outside the hurricane belt.  A really big storm can affect them, however.

As with many places, we only stopped for a day on a cruise.  Alie had been there before and wanted to stock up on Chocolate Curaçao, the liqueur which she uses in desserts.

We also visited an aloe vera farm.  We have had a plant at our home for decades and effectively use the fresh slimy interior on minor burns.  But signs at the farm treat aloe as a miracle cure reminiscent of “snake-oil” salesmen’s pitches.  I tried the juice.  The flavor still makes me shudder.

Factory to make aloe products.

Perhaps I feel a little guilty because I once worked for the U.S. foreign aid program and like to support struggling countries, but I admit I would really like to spend more time in Curaçao simply because they don’t seem to be struggling.  The restaurants and shops of downtown capitol Willemstad looked inviting.  The streets were walkable.  The people were uniformly pleasant.   There are plenty of hotels and direct flights from the U.S.

The Dutch certainly weren’t saints.  They traded in slaves until 1863 and are accused by some of facilitating sex-trafficking even today.  But they seem to have left their Caribbean possessions in better shape than the other European colonial powers.

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Date of our visit: 14 March 2019


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