Or: Reassembling early 20th Century America
Where can you walk into the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop (from Dayton, Ohio), and five minutes later tour the homes of Noah Webster (from New Haven Connecticut), and Robert Frost (from Ann Arbor, Michigan), where each is the authentic, original structure? In fact, Greenfield Village is home to nearly 100 historical buildings that have been moved from their original locations—in some cases from as far away as Europe.
While there are buildings and technologies that date back to the 17th century, the focus of the village is on the first half of the 20th Century and reflects the influence of technology on Ford’s life, and his influence on life in the United States.
The park is organized into seven districts, each with its own character or theme. The districts include the Henry Ford Model T, Edison at Work, Porches and Parlors, Walnut Grove, Main Street, Railroad Junction, and Liberty Craftworks.
Getting Around in Greenfield Village
While a walking tour ensures seeing all the village has to offer, several modes of transport are available, and riding them is part of the experience. First, a steam (or early diesel) train makes several stops along its continuous three-mile route around the village. The $5.00 train ticket is good for the whole day, making the train a fun and functional way to get around. There is also a Ford Model AA bus that makes regular stops throughout the village ($.50 per ride). Finally, there is the horse-drawn omnibus that is available to members with a “Ride Pass” upgrade.
With more than 100 buildings and other structures, there is far too much to describe here. Several high points on the walking tour included the Ford Family Home, the original Wright Brothers bicycle shop and family home, and Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Machine Shop.
Henry Ford Model T District
While there is no specific route to follow, after passing through the entrance there is the opportunity to board the train, or to continue to the Ford Home.
A one-mile route travels through all parts of the village. The total distance walked is likely to be closer to two-plus miles with detours and side excursions to tour buildings or search for details mentioned in brochures or on associated signage.
This area captures the history of the Ford family, Henry Ford’s early years and progresses through his personal history up through, and beyond the production of the Fifteen Millionth Model T—on display at the Bagley Avenue Workshop. The Model T was in production (with progressive improvements) from 1908 through 1927.
First is the Ford Family home. The actual structure that belonged to the Ford family has been moved to the Village. Guides provide not only a tour of the house, but a detailed history of Henry Ford’s early years leading to the development of the his automobiles.
As an active member of early 20th Century technology development, Henry Ford only naturally began to establish relationships with other like-minded individuals, including Edison and the Wright Brothers.
Around the bend is the Ford Motor Company building. It is here that a $5.00 ride in an authentic Model T begins—for me, a “bucket list” item.
It was afternoon by the time I got in a long line that snaked through waiting area. Seven cars were providing rides, and each ride was five to six minutes long, so the crowd moved along predictably. When I finally reached my car, I sat in the front and off the two of us went. My driver was very pleasant, and I immediately started asking questions. He went through all of the controls—there are three foot pedals plus a hand throttle control on the steering column. The left pedal is the clutch/gear shift from low (all the way down), neutral (half way up) and high gear (all the way up); the middle pedal was for reverse; and the right pedal was the brake. For me, the experience was well worth the $5.00.
Edison at Work
Leaving the Ford area the theme transitions to “Edison at Work.” Edison and Ford became good friends, and Ford followed his work closely. In the Village you will find either recreations or transplanted structures including Edison’s Meno Park Complex and his Fort Myers, Florida laboratory. Elsewhere in the park, there is also a reduced scale example of Edison’s Illuminating Company Station A (a power generating plant). (For more on Edison, see my earlier article.)
Porches and Parlors and Walnut Grove
The Ackley covered bridge provides the transition to the “Porches and Parlors” and “Walnut Grove” districts of early Americana. With its emphasis on homes of famous and influential Americans, this might be considered the “residential” part of the village, but it also includes Farris Windmill for grinding grain.
Homes of familiar names found in these districts include Noah Webster (dictionary), Robert Frost, Luther Burbank, William Holmes McGuffy (early education), and George Washington Carver. Most of these are the original buildings that have been moved to the village. There are also several cottages from Europe. Most of these buildings are open and are well interpreted by guides, informative signage, or audio recordings.
A few steps farther along, the scene quickly changes to “Main Street” that recreates a typical small town business center with the stores, offices, and services including the court house, post office, general store, and doctor’s office.
Included in this area is the Wright Brother’s bicycle (and aircraft) work shop. Bicycles were a key mode of transportation in the early 1900s, and the Wright’s shop was equivalent to an active automotive dealership and service department today. It is not hard to envision customers stopping by for a new tire or chain, or to discuss a new bike. Their business was sufficiently successful for them to invest time and materials in designing and building a flying machine.
Main Street also offers several shops and opportunities for snacks or dining. There is also an operational carousel, moved from Washington state and lovingly reassembled in the village.
The walk from Main Street on the way to Railroad Junction passes Edison’s Illuminating Company Station A power generating plant. This is a one-quarter scale model of one of Edison’s original power generating plants.
At the edge of town, like in so many small turn-of-the-(19th)-century towns across the railroad was an important business link to the rest of the country. The centerpiece of “Railroad Junction” is the active six-bay locomotive roundhouse with its functioning engine turntable. The three left hand bays of the building house the three early 1900s locomotives that power the trains around the village. This Detroit, Toledo and Michigan roundhouse and turntable were moved to the village from the Marshall, Michigan.
The turntable is a marvel of engineering. It is possible for one average person or a couple of youngsters to turn the precisely balanced, multi-ton, unpowered turntable with ease.
Railroad Junction also has a collection of other railroad equipment and rail yard buildings, including the water tank and coaling tower, needed for steam engine operations.
Just down the road from the roundhouse is the Liberty Craftworks district. Here there is an extensive assembly of early American crafts, from wool carding and weaving, to lumber mills and a grist mill. Each structure, like the others in the village has been meticulously disassembled and moved from some distant location, and reassembled in the village. The Weaving Shop demonstrated several different 19th Century looms, including a Jacquard loom, an apparent forerunner of punch-card computer programming. The patterns for designs were stored on sets of punched cards attached to the looms that enabled production of consistently accurate and intricate designs.
One particularly interesting bit of history in the Craftworks area is the Loranger Gristmill. Ford purchased the 19th Century water-powered mill in 1928 in Monroe, Michigan. It was moved to the village without disassembly, but the village had no creek or natural source of water power. Ford added a steam engine and boiler to provide the needed power. In 2003, the steam engine was removed and the mill was relocated to a newly created creek—adding even more history and authenticity to the structure.
With nearly 100 historic buildings and structures, many of them the original structures moved to Greenfield Village from across the country, or from other parts of the world, it is impossible to see, do, and experience everything the village has to offer in one day.
Still, the biggest draw for me was the fact that I would have had to spend years to visit all of the homes and sites that have been gathered together at Greenfield Village. It may not have every historic place that would draw my attention, but it certainly provides a broad cross section of 20th century American technology, literature and culture.
One observation about the village: I grew up near Williamsburg, Virginia—and spent many hours exploring the restored buildings and streets. The historic area, however, abuts an active commercial and shopping village near William and Mary College, and at least one or two streets with active automobile traffic cross historic Duke of Gloucester Street, i.e., automobiles, tour buses, and local delivery trucks may occasionally visually mix with horse drawn carriages and ox carts.
While the Williamsburg setting does not significantly detract from the visitor experience, in Greenfield Village, each building, vehicle, etc., fits into the historical era of the village. All transportation, when the village is open, is via time-appropriate modes—steam trains, Ford Model T cars, vintage Ford buses, and horse-drawn carriages. I did not see one anachronistic vehicle in the village.
Another observation: when you walk into a home or shop, be prepared to hear a detailed description and interpretation of the site. In the case of the Ford Home, the guides immediately initiate the history presentation of the house and the Ford family that takes about 30 minutes. While this presentation is informative, entertaining, and important to understand the motivation and accomplishments (and failures) of Henry Ford, it is lengthy.
This pattern of detail is repeated at many other sites. I would have preferred, in most places, for the guide to have greeted us, maybe pointed out one or two key bits of history, and then allow us to ask questions or otherwise indicate our desire to hear more—or not.
Greenfield Village is part of The Henry Ford complex in Dearborn, Michigan. For more information, go to: http://www.thehenryford.org/
Greenfield Village is for the early 20th Century what Williamsburg, Virginia is for the 17th Century—it is a living museum of the United States as the country matures into a thriving industrial nation and the associated blossoming of our unique culture. Where else can you tour Henry Ford’s family home, walk through the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop, and ride in an authentic Model T Ford all in the same afternoon? Perhaps the biggest draw for me was the fact that I would have had to spend years to visit all of the homes and sites that have been gathered together at Greenfield village, and it certainly provides a cross section of 20th century Americana technology, literature and culture.
Table of Contents Entry
Only in Greenfield Village – The Ford Village Experience: Perhaps the biggest draw for me was the fact that I would have had to spend years to visit all of the homes and sites that have been gathered together at Greenfield Village. The village provides a cross section of 20th century American technology, literature and culture.