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.
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Date of our visit: 21 May 19