Collecting American Innovation

For most folks, a collection takes up a small amount of space (but always a lot of time). A shoebox of baseball cards; a photo album of stickers; a book shelf of salt & pepper shakers. Brad Pitt collects real estate–because he can, and for investments.

Henry Ford also collected houses, except he brought them all to the same (pseudo) neighborhood. Stay with me, people.

It’s eccentric, heroic, perhaps egocentric to own other people’s homes. But he did it with a purpose. The magnate of the Ford Motor Company was fascinated with innovation, and he studied it with passion. The homes he bought–and had deconstructed, moved, and rebuilt in Dearborn MI–were all homes of people who shaped America and often the world. Their creations, sometimes small at first, ultimately had massive impact. And Ford wanted the public to have access to this greatness, learning, and inspiration all in one place. Enter Greenfield Village. 

In addition to the Village, The Henry Ford is a 12-acre museum–in one building–dedicated to American history. Technology, people, and items which ushered change. From the phone to the railroad (with multiple train cars); from Rosa Parks‘ bus to a KKK robe; from cars to the industry they inspired with roadside hotels including a neon Holiday Inn sign.

The Henry Ford - Rosa Parks Bus

The bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Photos courtesy of Flickr.

The theme for everything Ford collected: look to the past to advance the future.

The Homes of Greenfield Village

If you’re going to collect houses, whose do you get? Here are the ones that caught my fancy; there are more than 30.

  • Burbank, who bred the Idaho potato–the world’s most cultivated tater
  • Robert Frost, his house has a recording of the man himself reading the Road Less Traveled. Sigh.
  • Webster, who wrote America’s first dictionary in 1828 with 70,000 words

As it turns out, not all plantations look like Tara from Gone With the Wind. Now, I already knew this, because Hollywood, shockingly, isn’t factual; but being from Georgia, I’ve seen a fair share of plantations and they DO have columns and ARE grand. So when I saw the modest Susquehanna Plantation I had to find out what was going on. This was what we would call a ranch-style home in today’s lingo. Well, this one was from Maryland, where they grew tobacco, not cotton, and cotton was king. So by Maryland standards, these folks were doing well, but it’s all relative. A good lesson: all slave-owners were not mega-wealthy.

Watch Out for that Windmill*

Farris Windmill at Greenfield Village

Photo courtesy of Flickr

It’s the oldest windmill in the U.S. and the executives gave it to Henry for his birthday one year because they didn’t know what else to get the man who has everything. Blah, blah, blah. That’s not the best part.

It’s on the (gorgeous) stones because the propellers (right term?) are so long that someone could get decapitated if the mill sat on the ground! Re-reading, I seem a little too excited about decapitation. I’m not (she says defensively), I just think it’s incredible that this was a legitimate concern of daily life when all you wanted was cornmeal.

Another fascinating fact: the entire top–the peaked portion–rotates so you can aim the mill into the wind. The long wooden arm holds it steady and also works as the turning gizmo, pushed by one ox or a gaggle of men.

*If you’re a child of the 70’s (specifically my brother or Mandi) and the subhead made you think of George of the Jungle, this is for you, and you’re welcome.

I Don’t Care What the Meal is Called, I’m Hungry!

Ford wanted us to learn American history. His intentions may have been about farm life at the Dagget Farm House, I got into feminism. Tomato, tomahto.

  • Breakfast – a pickled egg, something quick on your way out the door to tend to the animals
  • Dinner – the midday meal, and it was the largest, taking all morning to prepare (wood-burning stove). And they took their time eating it, resting, avoiding the heat of the day, and letting the animals rest, too.
  • Supper – the night meal, which consisted of leftovers from dinner
  • Lunch – enters the vernacular for the midday meal when people start leaving the house for work and take food with them.
  • I don’t know when “supper” became “dinner”–or maybe they’re interchangeable, or vary by region. Do you know? Please comment.

The ladies at the farmhouse also talked about their undergarments–at my prodding. Perhaps I should explain. They wear kerchief-like fabric around their collarbones, tucked into the top of an already modest dress. I asked if it was for sun protection or modesty. Both, but mostly modesty. Then the dishing really started. Stays actually give back support for lifting–think of the cast iron pots. They also emphasize hips, which are rather helpful in childbirth.

Would You Like Paper or Paper?

General Store at Greenfield Village

Photo courtesy of Flickr

We’ve all seen the movies where folks walk around with packages in brown paper and white string. Some of you may have lived that experience, and like my Dad walked to school backwards, uphill, both ways. Well, that packaging was free down at the General Store. But then the factories invented…bags, of different sizes. And if you wanted one, you had to pay for it: one, even two cents a bag. So if you carried a bag, you were living large.

Who You Callin’ a Grease Monkey?

Everything in the Machinist’s shop ran on the line shaft. It was powered by steam (what wasn’t?) and via belts, powered every other machine. Well, the line shaft needed to be cleaned: dust and muck would gather on this next-to-the-ceiling equipment. Enter the young apprentices who climbed ladders, poles, whatever, to access the shaft to clean it. Dangling up there, they were called grease monkeys.

Then someone had a smart idea to put a piece of cardboard on the shaft and let it rotate with the pure mechanics of the machine. It worked, and the apprentices could take that off their job description under “other duties as assigned.” Watch the first few seconds of the video to see the simple genius. And yes, Greenfield Village has an entire machinist shop. Why wouldn’t there be one?

There is soooo much more to share about Greenfield Village, but I have to leave something for you to experience for yourself.

The Henry Ford

That’s what it’s called, I didn’t forget to put the word “museum” on the end.

This glorious museum will not get due justice in my blog. It was 5:00 by the time I entered its (air conditioned) doors and I was spent. Poor planning on my part. I had protein and water and rested, but I just couldn’t focus. So, go yourself and enjoy.

  • There really are planes, trains, and automobiles. Multiples. Of all of these. Inside a building. Shazzam.
  • There’s the history of electrical power with generators and steam engines and gadgets and gizmos. They’re enormous. And there are many.
  • There are dollhouses and displays of (human size) American decor through the ages.
  • There are tractors and a collection of chandeliers.
  • There’s the Weinermobile.

It’s a gluttony of Americana and American progress. It’s stunning, enlightening, fun! Click the pic to advance the slideshow.

Photos courtesy of Flickr

Planning Your Visit

Let’s be honest, Detroit isn’t high on most travel wish lists (sorry, Visit Detroit Tourism Bureau). But these museums, combined with the Ford Factory Tour and Motown, should put it on your list (you’re welcome, Visit Detroit Tourism Bureau). You have to fly through Detroit anyway to get to Northern Michigan, which is delightful, relaxing, and energizing all at the same time.

A bit of advice: plan for two days with the fine folks at Ford. I did not, and thankfully the museum was open until 9:00 that night. Unfortunately, my brain was not.

  • Day One: The factory and museum
  • Day Two: Greenfield (all day)
  • Day Three: Motown and moving on


Disclosure: Thank you to Visit Detroit for the complimentary tickets to both Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford.

BTW, none of the pics are mine because no photos are allowed at the Ford Factory and then I was going to a museum, so I didn’t bring my camera. Silly Paula.

Leave Your Response

* Name, Email, Comment are Required

This is ad number one.


These links may be helpful with logistics for your trip. I may not have used them, but we all want to promote our sites!