Riding around in a sturdy Model T, you might first see Greenfield Village as some sort of historical accident.
Down the road from Henry Ford's humble birthplace is the boyhood home of Orville and Wilbur Wright. The bicycle shop where the brothers developed the first successful powered aircraft is next door. And around the corner: Thomas A. Edison's laboratories, a cluster of brick and clapboard buildings where the inventor created the incandescent light bulb and the phonograph.
"Were Henry Ford and the Wright brothers neighbors? No, of course not, but people ask me that question all the time," said guide Don Ludwig, a retired high school teacher who tools visitors around the village in restored Model Ts. "Greenfield Village isn't a real town."
Here in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, headquarters of the Ford Motor Co., visitors can find Henry Ford's tribute to American ingenuity: a museum of famed inventors' homes, workshops and factories — some replicas, some originals relocated from hundreds of miles away. Greenfield Village is a glimpse into the lives of Ford, the Wright brothers, Edison, dictionary creator Noah Webster, tire tycoon Harvey Firestone and others who changed the way we live.
Motoring along the village's tree-lined streets, it's hard to believe this pastoral setting isn't real — especially after a $60-million refurbishment completed last year. A replica of Maryland's Burnside Bridge by the Antietam battlefield was added, as were old-fashioned lampposts and a new entrance. A thousand trees were planted. Antiquated pipes, electrical lines and other elements of the infrastructure were replaced. The historic buildings, however, remain the stars.
My daughter Chelsea, 12 at the time, didn't quite get it during our visit last fall. Everything looked so authentic: a white-steepled church, a town hall, a post office, a courthouse, a one-room schoolhouse, a general store and a 19th century inn, all hugging a park typical of a New England village.
"My father brought me here when I was a little kid," Ludwig said, nodding to Chelsea as we made our way back to a scaled-down replica of the first Ford plant. "I know what you're thinking. 'How can this not be real?' It's not real, but it's not Disneyland either. It's like you're stepping back in time."
That was Ford's intention. He didn't create Greenfield Village — which, at 81 acres, is just slightly smaller than Disneyland — to attract tourists or to satisfy his ego. His life story wasn't fully told here until after his death in 1947. Instead, he sought to preserve the past, to maintain a connection to a simpler time.
America on display
In the 1920s, Ford was approached to purchase and restore Williamsburg, Virginia's historic colonial town. But he preferred projects closer to home, eventually marking a field near his massive Rouge River factory for an educational institution, a place where students would learn history by exploring artifact-filled buildings from the past. He chose structures associated with fellow inventors and his heroes — Abraham Lincoln and 19th century educator William Holmes McGuffey among them — as well as ordinary Americans. Part of the goal was to show the nation's transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society.
Greenfield Village opened as a school in 1929. Demand to see the buildings and an adjoining museum prompted Ford to open the complex to the public in the summer of 1933.
I visited Greenfield Village as a boy and was enthralled by the scope of history among its 83 buildings and the opportunity to walk among the homes of famous men. Greenfield Village was a Disneyland, a fantasy place. As an adult, I enjoyed the bucolic setting but found the presentation staid. I often left wondering about Greenfield Village's ultimate significance.
I returned a year ago with my children — Chelsea and her sister, Courtney, then 17 — after the village reopened following a nine-month refurbishment.
In years past, visitors wandered among a hodgepodge of buildings as diverse as horticulturalist Luther Burbank's Massachusetts birthplace and a re-creation of Edison's laboratories in Menlo Park, N.J. But 10 structures were relocated as part of the improvement project so that the buildings are grouped into seven themed districts.
Edison at Work constitutes one district. Others focus on railroading, farming and early American manufacturing. Burbank's home is found in Porches and Parlors, a neighborhood of American homes from as far back as the 1650s. The reorganization helped us make sense of the place. With its freshly paved streets and sidewalks, new signs and landscaping, Greenfield had a more polished appearance.
Ford's legacy was even more pronounced. A series of buildings called Henry Ford's Model T traced the innovator's life, from his humble beginnings to the founding of his company.
One of the most fascinating structures is Ford's boyhood home, a white clapboard farmhouse that originally stood about two miles away. Stepping past a white picket fence, a man tending sheep and trees weighted with red apples, we could almost believe we were visiting the Fords in 1876.
The house contains original furnishings and scrapbooks with black-and-white family photographs. A costumed Shirley Ruschke, a historical interpreter, pointed out the tool bench that Ford's parents built for him. Their son was more interested in tinkering with watches than doing farm chores, she said.
"I think the question most people have is this: How did Ford go from something like this to become the man behind the Model T, the car that changed the world?" Ruschke said. "You can see it here. He came from a very loving family. His father, of course, wanted him to become a farmer. But his family — especially his mother and his grandparents — were very supportive of his interests."
Farm to Ford Motor
His interests led him away from the farm at age 16 to the machine shops of Detroit. Across from the farmhouse, in a small brown-brick building that memorializes Ford's son, Edsel, we watched the short film "Henry Ford: Road to a Dream," which chronicled Ford's worldwide legacy.
Next door are a replica of the brick shed in which Ford built his first car and a blue, two-story wood-frame building that served as the first Ford Motor factory. As we walked along the latter's creaking floor, vintage film reels showed a montage about the first assembly line. On the opposite wall, a video showed a young reporter interviewing Ford about the 15 millionth Model T.
The walk through the Ford district culminated with a Model T ride, a highlight of our visit and something we did more than once. We were lucky to have drivers passionate about history, and we never tired of their stories — or the car horn, which sounded like a cow's muffled moo.
One of the Model T drivers shared a story about Edison's reaction to the re-creation of his Menlo Park complex, which sits around the corner from the Ford buildings. Although Edison was pleased at how well the laboratories and offices had been duplicated, the inventor expressed some misgivings about relocating artifacts from New Jersey.
"Ford contacted the railroad company and had them take empty railroad cars and scoop up New Jersey soil and bring it to Greenfield Village," our Model T driver, Bob McGuigan, said. "Now, when you walk through that picket fence, you're in New Jersey."
We learned attention to detail and perseverance also were key for the Wright brothers, who financed their dream of a mechanical airplane by selling and repairing bicycles. On the afternoon we visited, actors performed a brief play on the wraparound Victorian porch of the Wright brothers' boyhood home, relocated from Dayton, Ohio.
The two-story, red-brick shop, where they earned their money and conducted research, stands next door. But my daughters found the inventors' workshops less interesting than their 19th century homes, so we spent much of our afternoon walking through the Porches and Parlors district.
Their favorite was Noah Webster's stately home, relocated here from New Haven, Conn. The author and educator published the first American dictionary while he lived in the two-story Colonial with his wife and children. He was in his 70s and had spent 25 years compiling the dictionary — another story of perseverance.
Across from Webster's house, underneath a canopy of red and orange maple leaves, the Depression-era farmhouse of Amos and Grace Mattox had always puzzled me. They aren't the only African Americans represented in the village; the slave quarters from a Georgia plantation are next door. But how did this house, its walls plastered with newspapers and its ceiling covered with cardboard, fit in among the homes of Webster, Burbank and others?
"I think Mr. Ford was interested in their remarkable story of endurance," said Regina Johnson, a Greenfield historical interpreter and a student at Wayne State University in Detroit. "The family had lived in the home for three generations. The family owned the home and 500 acres just after the Civil War, a time when many blacks were sharecroppers. They didn't own land, even though they were free people of color. The family saved enough money to buy land. It was quite an accomplishment."
A taste of the time
We took a break for lunch at the Eagle Tavern, built in 1831 in Clinton, Mich., as a home away from home for weary travelers on the road between Detroit and Chicago. Flickering candles and windows provided the only illumination at our long, communal table. The menu reflected meals of the era: vegetable and egg pie, corn chowder, corn cake with vegetable stew.
I chose an unusual but savory entree: noodles with sausage and pumpkin. It looked like pasta with a light orange marinara. The sauce was a bit peppery, and the pumpkin flavor was subtle. The less adventurous at our table chose corn chowder and roasted turkey with stuffing.
For dessert, we tried Indian pudding, a concoction of oatmeal, molasses, raisins and ginger. We loved the taste — overwhelmingly molasses — but found the texture runny, not at all like pudding as we know it.
Before we left, we took a ride on the Greenfield Village Railroad, boarding at the Smiths Creek Depot, the same Michigan railroad station where Thomas Edison sold newspapers as a boy. The train chugged along the perimeter of the village, blowing its whistle as it approached stops. Seeing the sweep and scope of Greenfield Village from the train, I had a new appreciation for this place, for Ford's efforts in preserving relics of the famous and the ordinary, all pieces of Americana through and through.
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From LAX, nonstop service to Detroit is available on Northwest and Spirit, direct service (stop, no change of plane) on Southwest and connecting service on Delta, American, United, America West, Continental, US Airways and Southwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $236.
Greenfield Village, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124; (800) 835-5237 or (313) 982-6001, https://www.thehenryford.org . Greenfield Village is part of a complex called the Henry Ford. The village is open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, April-December. General admission is $20; seniors 62 and older, $19; children 5-12, $14; children 4 and younger, free.
TO LEARN MORE:
Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, 211 W. Fort St., Suite 1000, Detroit, MI 48226; (800) 338-7648 or (313) 202-1800, https://www.visitdetroit.com .
Travel Michigan, 300 N. Washington Square, Lansing, MI 48913; (888) 784-7328, www.travel.michigan.org.