A ride through U.S. history


"History is more or less bunk." - Henry Ford

DEARBORN, Mich. - Not long after Henry Ford uttered those famous words to a Chicago newspaper in 1916, the automotive pioneer began moving historic homes and buildings from around the country to a field near his massive Rouge River factory.

From Connecticut, he transported the home where Noah Webster completed the first American dictionary. From Ohio, he reassembled the boyhood home of the Wright brothers and the bicycle shop where Orville and Wilbur built the first successful powered aircraft. And from a farm two miles away, Ford relocated the white clapboard house where he was born and reared.

After years of collecting Americana, Ford created the historical community of Greenfield Village as an outdoor learning laboratory for students at his Edison Institute School, which opened in 1929.

Nearly 75 years later, Greenfield Village still stands as a tribute to American inventiveness and to a man who had the foresight to preserve the homes and buildings from which ordinary people changed the world.

With the village, and a museum named in his honor, Ford's goal was "to illustrate the values of independence, resourcefulness and ingenuity he felt contributed to America's heritage and welfare," according to An American Invention, The Story of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.

Ford opened the complex to the public in summer 1933.

Today Ford, who loved the pastoral, 19th-century ambience of Greenfield Village, would probably be surprised to find it modernized with paved roads, sidewalks, street lamps, state-of-the-art fiber optics, and indoor heating.

Borrowing ideas from popular theme parks, the village has transformed its collection of 83 historic structures into seven distinct districts. The change is part of a $200 million project to convert Ford's historical venture, including the adjacent Henry Ford Museum, into the top U.S. historical destination.

As part of that transformation, the Henry Ford Museum, an expansive collection of industrial artifacts, Americana and famous cars, is undergoing a $40 million renovation. And to better market the attractions, the complex was renamed The Henry Ford this year.

"We're looking to be the benchmark historical attraction in America," says Patricia E. Mooradian, chief operating officer for The Henry Ford. "We're the only outdoor attraction in the country covering 300 years of American history."

According to Mooradian, the village and museum were renamed The Henry Ford because of his name recognition and because they represented the multi-venue complex, which includes a state-of-the-art IMAX theater and the Benson Ford Research Center. Next year, tours of the Ford Rouge Plant will be added.

Overall, the historical complex attracts about 1.6 million visitors a year, Mooradian says, and the goal is to increase that to 2 million or more annually.

"The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village - The Henry Ford - is one of the best museums in the country, with a national and international reputation," says Ed Able, president of the American Association of Museums. "What you see going on there is a museum making known who and what they are. They're using the technology available today as a tool for learning."

After nearly nine months of construction, a refurbished Greenfield Village reopened in June. The $60 million project included renovation of the village's antiquated network of pipes and electrical lines because the infrastructure was crumbling.

"We had to face everything a real city would face in terms of system failures: water main breaks, electrical outages, broken storm sewers," says Christian Overland, director of Greenfield Village.

Other improvements include a new entrance and signs, 1,000 trees, historic lampposts that were cast from original molds and a replica of the Burnside Bridge over Antietam Creek.

Also new is Mrs. Fisher's Southern Cooking, a restaurant named after Abby Fisher, a former slave from Mobile, Ala. The restaurant serves popular dishes of the late 19th-century South, based on recipes from What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.

The village's old entrance, a Colonial-style gatehouse built in the early 1930s, has been transformed to an expansive brick plaza, modeled after Portsmouth, New Hampshire's market square in the 1790s.

Where visitors once walked among buildings such as Noah Webster's house and Thomas A. Edison's reconstructed New Jersey laboratories in which he invented the light bulb and the phonograph, they now stroll through distinct districts with historical themes. Webster's home is located in Porches and Parlors, a neighborhood of American homes and settings that includes a home of poet Robert Frost; the birthplace of William McGuffey, creator of one of the most popular reading series for children; and an 1840s plantation house from St. Mary's County, Md.

Creating the themed districts meant the relocation of 10 historic structures - nine buildings and a statue of Edison, Mooradian says.

The intent was to unify buildings and to better tell America's story over the past 300 years, she says. Working Farms, for instance, illustrates rural 19th-century America with horse-drawn wagons, livestock and fields of grain and fruit.

Industrial America can be explored in Railroad Junction, a neighborhood of railroad-related buildings, including the Smiths Creek Depot, where Edison sold newspapers and candy as a boy.

Another district focuses on Henry Ford, and visitors can follow his journey from his boyhood home to his former schoolhouse to his workshop, a re-creation of the brick shed where he built his first motorized vehicle.

In another small brick building that is a memorial to Ford's only son, Edsel, an audio-video presentation tells the story of the founding of the Ford Motor Co. The tour continues through a replica of the first Ford factory and ends with a ride through the village in a Model T.

The complex plans to open another exhibit called Heroes of the Sky. With 15 historic planes, including a replica of the Wright brothers flyer, the exhibit traces the first 40 years of flight through the stories of America's pioneering aviators.

"Heroes of the Sky will literally allow our visitors to fly back in time to some of the most exciting chapters of the early years in the airline and aviation industry," says Jo Haas, director of the Henry Ford Museum.

"In part, they can become a wingwalker at the county fair, see just how far the Wright brothers flew on their first flight, or step inside the news story covering Amelia Earhart's amazing accomplishments."

If Henry Ford were alive, he might wince at the altered landscape of his Greenfield Village, but the educational intent of his museum remains the same.

"This entire project has been in keeping with the soul and the founding intentions of the institution," says Steven K. Hamp, president of The Henry Ford.

"We have an obligation to Henry Ford to maintain his original vision and an obligation to the future to care for what he created and enable our great American legacy to continue."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad