Aside from the fact that his personal fortune was in the billions, or that he was a pluperfect genius at business and culture-changing innovation and even a fair to middlin’ fiddle player, the late Henry Ford and I have a great deal in common. It was the auto-industry icon, remember, who once proclaimed, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”
Mr. Ford, you took the words right out of my mouth.
It should be noted that this assessment came from a man who did more than anyone this side of the Smithsonian to preserve American history and bring it to life. For him, the story of the nation’s growth was embedded in the entrepreneurial and social achievements, large and small, that affected and improved the nation’s lifestyle. A lifelong pack rat, he collected examples of that progress, first haphazardly storing them away in one of the Ford Motor Co.’s vacated tractor-assembly buildings. Then there was his lifelong appreciation of architecture and historic places, pushing him to seek out entire structures he felt should be displayed and maintained for the ages.
That, simply put, is what the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and the adjacent 200-acre Greenfield Village, a unique indoor-outdoor tribute to days gone by, are all about.
Today, thanks to Ford’s keen foresight, visitors can walk along the picturesque Greenfield Village streets, giving room to passing Model Ts. They can step into the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop to see where manned flight was born. They can stroll through a replica of the Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory of Ford’s mentor and old friend Thomas Edison, where electrical marvels like the light bulb and phonograph took shape.
In most cases, the structures are originals, dismantled board by board, brick by brick, moved to Ford’s village and painstakingly reassembled. Same with Ford’s boyhood home, the first school he attended, author Noah Webster’s fully furnished home and the Logan County, Ill., courthouse where President Abraham Lincoln once practiced law.
For information on The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, visit www.thehenryford.org. To learn more about a newer innovation by the Ford Motor Co., click here.
There’s the old farmhouse and barn where Harvey Firestone spent his boyhood days, and there are also slave homes that were transported from Georgia. You can have a bite to eat at the 175-year-old Eagle Tavern that was once a Clinton, Mich., stagecoach stop, mail a postcard from an 1825 vintage post office, then take the kids for a ride on a carousel built in 1913. And that’s just for starters. There are more than 80 historic buildings in the village.
Meanwhile, in the 12-acre Ford Museum, visitors — more than 1.5 million annually — are greeted by Americana at its finest. The Ford, as it is affectionately called, is not simply a monument to the man who built it. Rather, it is a collection that revisits myriad milestones in the country’s cultural and industrial advancement. There are exhibits large and small, from the 21-ton Allegheny steam locomotive and the 1939 DC-3 plane that revolutionized air travel to collections of fashion and farm tools from various eras. The transportation evolution can be traced from bicycles, stagecoaches and Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle to a 1930 Bugatti Royale and the bullet-shaped Goldenrod, a 32-foot-long racer that set a land-speed world record in 1965.
Among the maze of thought-provoking artifacts is the car that President John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. There are limos that were assigned to Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, even the horse-drawn carriage that transported Teddy Roosevelt.
One can walk through the Montgomery, Ala., city bus where civil rights icon Rosa Parks sat on that December day in 1955, refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Visitors can hear a moving recording of her voice as she reflects on the historic event. On down the way is the rocking chair Lincoln sat in at Ford’s Theater on the night he was shot by John Wilkes Booth.
Want a close-up look at the plane Rear Adm. Richard Byrd flew over the South Pole or a view of a sample of Paul Revere’s engravings? The nonprofit Ford has them. And so much more.
Of the 26 million artifacts Ford and his curators have gathered — ranging from antique glassware to the founder’s huge collection of clocks and musical instruments — only 5 percent are on display at any given time.
This, then, is American history as it should be learned: hands-on, storytelling and family-friendly.
There will be no written test following your visit. Wear comfortable shoes.