Yet Another Journal

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» Tuesday, October 25, 2011
The Big Stroll
I can't remember how old I was the first time I heard about the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. It may have been on one of the Evening/PM Magazine shows, or some documentary on television. All I do know is that I said "I want to go there someday."

Today we took care of half of that.

We left a bit late to skip Detroit rush hour, and ended up arriving at "The Henry Ford" (which is what they call it) about ten. We parked on the museum side, unfortunately, so had to cross through the entire building, with its tantalizing tidbits of exhibits, to get to the Greenfield Village portion. The entire complex is a paean to American life, Henry Ford style; in fact, as you approach the village complex, a statue of the boss greets you.

Greenfield Village is like Sturbridge, or Plymouth, or Mystic, or any other recreated village in that you walk around to different historical buildings, manned either by docents dressed in a tourguide uniform or in the costume of the period of the house. It is more like Strawbery Banke in that all the homes are not from the same era. However, these homes and buildings are not native to the area, as those at Strawbery Banke. Instead, Henry Ford bought up historic buildings and moved them to this little parklike area with paved streets and curbstones, peppered with the occasional restroom or a food stand, dotted with benches for sore feet. It's like Disneyland in a way as it is girded by a railroad track and you can get rides on old-fashioned steam trains which have several stations around the complex. For history buffs like me, it is Disneyland.

The buildings range from those of the famous—Thomas Edison is very prominently featured—to those of the ordinary—a two-room cabin with a tacked-on kitchen taken from a little town near Savannah. They have been having Hallowe'en weekends for a couple of weeks now, so the place is decorated prettily for autumn with pumpkins and cornstalks, with some Hallowe'en touches near the Wright Brothers' home. I can't possibly tell you everything in order, especially since we interrupted our walk through the village some time after noon to have lunch at the cafeteria, but I'll hit the highlights.

• Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, New Jersey, complex, moved here piece by piece. This is where he and his team of workers invented the long-lasting light bulb, the phonograph, and so many other items. There are several buildings, but of course the laboratory is the showpiece. There are duplicates of his inventions inside, besides the phonograph, the electric pen (an early duplication invention made obsolete by the typewriter and carbon paper), the automatic vote tally, and, strung all over the laboratory, reproductions of Edison's light bulbs, which they have hand-blown. This was particularly memorable because the woman they had working as a docent was an unabashed Edison fan and just rattled on story after story after story about Edison, including the one about the chair that is nailed in the middle of the floor of the workshop upstairs.

Henry Ford and Edison were good friends; they even had homes in Fort Myers together. Ford had the Menlo Park lab installed in Greenfield Village before Edison's death, and, on the 50th anniversary of the light bulb, he had Edison there at Greenfield, in the lab, with notables like President Hoover, Marie Curie, Will Rogers, etc. Edison was in his 80s at that time and asked to sit down, so a workshop chair was brought over for him to sit on. After the crowd left, Ford commemorated the occasion by nailing the chair to the floor where Edison sat in it in tribute to him. And so that's where it sits [chair appears in this pic]!

There is also a reproduction of Edison's dynamo plant and Edison's Fort Myers factory (a smaller building that shows that he wanted to work even when he was relaxing).

• The Wright Cycle Shop. As the park ranger in Dayton pointed out on Sunday, the Wrights had several cycle shops, and this was just one of them. However, it's the cycle shop for most aviation buffs because this is where they worked on the Wright Flyer and the problems of aerodynamics. This bicycle shop has the airplane shed out back.

Next door is the Wright family home, which was actually donated to the museum while Orville Wright (Wilbur died in 1912) was still alive. He used to come to the museum to make sure the house looked exactly as it did in 1903, complete with his own childhood books and the carved staircase newel post and rails and bannisters he made from cherrywood. The house was the usual Victorian wallpaper/carpeting, but very cozy. We spent some time here talking with the young docent, who asked us how we started visiting historical sites, and we recommended places for her to go!

• Henry Ford's birth home. It was still in the family after his sister died, but had been empty for about fifteen years. It was moved to Greenfield and reproduced from Henry's memories. He was very thorough about the whole thing: for instance, he couldn't quite remember the china pattern they had when he was a child. So he had a garbage pit dug up to find the fragments of the china. Again, a very Victorian home, but cozy. Nearby is the barn, which is surrounded by a field which appears to be kept farmed during the year. Right now it is lined with corn stooks and dotted with pumpkins.

There is also a reproduction of his first Model T factory, before the assembly line. The docent said it would take about a day to assemble one car. This building holds the last Model T which was produced in 1927.

• A reproduction of George Washington Carver's birth cabin. This had a particularly nice touch: each of the fifty states were asked to supply a board to panel the interior of the cabin, and each sent a native piece of wood: red maple from Rhode Island, live oak from Georgia, pine from Maine, etc. It was actually a larger cabin than the one next door to it, the birth place of William McGuffey, of the famous McGuffey readers. His cabin was about the size of the living room we have back at the hotel! Next door to the McGuffey cabin is the McGuffey school, also a log cabin and crowded with benches and desks.

• The Firestone farm—Ford was also good friends with Harvey Firestone of tire fame. We actually didn't make it out to the farm, although I got a nice picture, with its lovely patterned roof. We did ride by it on the train and saw several flocks of Merino sheep (grey rather than white); they also have shorthorn cattle and other heritage breeds.

• Robert Frost's home. This was a home he lived in while he was in residence at the University of Michigan, and the house was actually fixed up in the style of the original owners in the 19th century, although a recording of Frost reciting "The Road Less Traveled" is playing in the home.

• Noah Webster's home, with a very large exhibit of Webster's books (he didn't just do a dictionary!) upstairs. I was surprised by the bright color of the front parlor, a vivid green. The docent said they did find notes that Webster ordered the room painted "apple green." She also noted that most folks had wallpaper back then, because it was cheaper than paint (!!!), so Webster was quite well off to have painted rooms.

• The Logan County courthouse. This was brought from Illinois and was where Abraham Lincoln would have practiced law during his years as a a circuit judge. Ford was so reverent of this building that he even had the plaster of the ceiling broken up, numbered, and then reinstalled. It was so awesome sitting in a building Lincoln had worked in.

• Charles Steinmetz' cabin. This was a tiny place, with only a porch lined with windows and a sleeping room with a hammock. Steinmetz was handicapped with a spinal curvature and was only in less pain sleeping in a hammock, not a bed.

The oldest building on the property is out on the furthest boundary, a windmill from Cape Cod built in the 17th century. One home over from the windmill is the Plympton house, which is a colonial dating from the early 1700s, but the bricks in the chimney, from an older house, date from the 1600s!

We enjoyed visits to some other neat shops. One was a millinery shop having belonged to a widow and her daughters, full of actual vintage hats in glass cases and reproduction hats on stands. They also sold men's clothing supplies (suspenders, buttons, etc.) and children's hats. Another was the tintype shop. The tintype artist had, when photographs became popular, given up his art to work in the Ford factory. He was finally the last tintype artist living, and when Ford found out, he installed him at Greenfield, doing tintypes of guests, including famous folk like Walt Disney. We walked through the Smith's Creek Depot, a railroad station that was on the route Thomas Edison traveled when he was a "news butcher" as a kid. They don't know that Edison ever stepped into the station, but he could have. Surprisingly, to me, anyway, the station master kept his home in the station itself. I don't think I'd ever seen that before, although it makes sense.

One home mentioned Stephen Foster, but did not say it was Foster's home. This contained a small exhibit of American music, with displays of instruments, and plaques about how music was used at social gatherings like singing schools and band concerts for people to get together (and young folks to court!). The Georgia home previously mentioned belonged to the Mattoxes, an African-American family. A grape arbor where the family ate and cooled off in the hot summer months was meticulously replanted there, and a chicken coop out back held the same number of hens and one rooster as the Mattoxes owned. The house is notable for being decorated in Depression-era magazine pages, and the ceiling is lined with brown corrugated cardboard. We chatted with three ladies eating their noon meal in the Daggett farmhouse, which is 19th century, and also two ladies quilting in the kitchen of the Susquehanna Plantation, dressed in Civil War-era memorabilia. One of the ladies was from Atlanta.

We visited a wagon shop, a jewelry shop where they also sold watches and silver serving pieces, the Sarah Jordan boarding house where Edison's workmen stayed—the owner and her daughter and the long-suffering Irish servant on one side of the house, the men on the other, two tiny brick slave cabins (and these being solid they were better than most quarters than those enslaved had), and an entire stone English cottage, barn, tower, and blacksmith's forge imported from the Cotswolds. This last was lovely, with vines crawling up the side of the cottage, and a bursting full English cottage garden to its left. We were entertained by the chipmunks that were scampering about under the plants.

There was also a doctor's office; he was a homeopathic doctor, and had some plants I had never heard of as part of his pharmeocopia. We visited the General Store at the same time as some kids working on a school assignment; the docent was giving them gentle hints about which items in the store had been manufactured in the city. We peeked in the little house of John Chapman, who was Henry Ford's favorite teacher. In fact, we thought we got almost every place except for a machine shop and the farm, and now that I am looking at the map, we missed the saw mill, the potter's shop, the glassblower, the printing office, the carding mill, a weaving shop, a gristmill, and another school! Oh, well. We can't get back in without buying another ticket. I saw what I really wanted to see, too: the Wrights and the Edison stuff.

As I said, we took a ride in a Model T, a fun, top-down, brisk ride. It had started out chilly this morning, but was clearing up as we took the ride. The driver told us about the car as we drove, and I made a little film of it (interrupted by a dead battery) as we rode. Later we rode the train around the perimeter, which includes the oxbow of a part of the river separated from its main course by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Henry Ford Academy (a charter high school). The doors were open at the school and we waved to a bunch of the kids as we went by!

We were out of there right at closing time, and expected a nice 40-minute ride home via I-94 and I-75. Instead, the dippy GPS routed us through an alternate road that was fine until it became uncontrolled access with traffic lights every other block. Two out of three lanes on part of the road were closed even though no work was being done on it, and traffic crawled. It took us an hour to get back. Bleah.

I was so disappointed: I brought back a cup of milk from the breakfast buffet this morning to enjoy with my supper (leftovers and some pretzels and things from the evening hot snack). Well, it was frozen solid because the little fridge is set so high! In fact, here it is 10 p.m. and it's just thawed!

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