The Henry Ford Museum, with its collections of airplanes, trains, and cars to furniture, farming and manufacturing equipment, and the history of justice in the United States, is too big to summarize adequately in the space of this blog.
The museum is a celebration of human spirit and ingenuity. While the majority of collections tell stories of progressive technological development, one section, “With Liberty and Justice For All” preserves some important artifacts describing the social struggles from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Artifacts and displays are reminders of events that had a direct and profound influence on the nation. These include the chair from Ford’s Theater in which Lincoln was shot and the limousine John F. Kennedy was riding in fateful day when he was assassinated in 1963 in Dallas.
The mission of any museum is to teach and remind. For many younger people, the exhibits represent important lessons in history—early technologies, defining social events, and a way of life that is unknown to them. For those of us with a few more years behind us, it is a reminder of the things we and our parents grew up using and seeing daily.
The focus of the Henry Ford Museum is the 20th Century in the United States. For the daily crowd of visitors—a good mix of young and old—means that you may hear “What is that?” and “I remember that!” at the same exhibit.
And the museum exhibits range from the massive (e.g., the Allegheny Locomotive; one of the largest ever built) to the sublime (e.g., the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile).
Selected Collections and Items
Like Greenfield Village, the Henry Ford Museum is too expansive to fully explore in a single day. For example, it would be possible for an automobile enthusiast to spend the entire day in the “Driving America” gallery. This level of detail is repeated throughout the various collections.
The museum touts the Driving America collection as the “world’s premier automobile exhibition.”
“Driving America” is organized into what the museum calls “focal areas” that span the American driving experience from racing, developmental, and family cars to drive-in theaters and highway diners. Clearly here, you can see the influence the automobile had on society, but also how society shaped the development and design of the automobile.
This is not a collection of Fords, but rather a full spectrum of both developmental and production automobiles from every manufacturer from around the world, including some of the most revered—or reviled—models produced: “revered” include the Corvette and Thunderbird; while “reviled” might include the Pinto, Corvair, or Edsel.
One car, seen at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, is the 1963 turbine powered Chrysler. Chrysler made 55 of these cars from 1962 through 1964, but only six remain. Interestingly, Chrysler would continue development of turbine engines (similar to a jet engine) for automotive applications, and this development would eventually lead to the engine used in the current Abrams M1 main battle tank initially developed by Chrysler Defense.
Adjacent to the automotive gallery is a special section set aside for presidential vehicles. Vehicles in this group were used by United States presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt’s carriage and to President Reagan’s limo.
The earliest vehicle is President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1902 Brougham horse-drawn carriage. Although there were automobiles available, Roosevelt preferred the carriage for formal and state occasions.
Other presidential automobiles on display are Franklin Roosevelt’s Sunshine Special and Dwight Eisenhower’s “Bubble Top” special. All presidential cars have been Lincoln automobiles.
The collection also includes the 1961 Lincoln convertible in which President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Note that the vehicle was reworked after the assassination with a hard top and other features to protect future Presidents.
The latest is President Reagan’s limo in which he was rushed to the hospital after he was shot by John Hinckley in 1981. This 1971 Lincoln is the last presidential vehicle on display. All future vehicles are destroyed by the Secret Service as a security measure.
This collection also includes many cultural phenomena of the “golden age of the automobile,” including drive-in movies, full-service gas stations, and roadside diners.
Time passes quickly touring museum automobile exhibits and it is soon time to take a break for lunch. The museum has several dining areas, but Lamy’s Diner is in the automotive collection. After Mr. Lamy was discharged from the Army in 1943, he purchased a new diner from the Worchester Lunch Car Company. It was 36 feet long and 15 feet wide. Lamy’s Diner originally opened in Marlborough, Massachusetts in May, 1946. After changing hands and being moved, the popularity of diners gradually waned. The Ford Museum obtained the diner in 1984, and after three years of restoration, opened it in the museum as the original Lamy’s diner.
We had lunch—meatloaf and mashed potatoes—at the counter. The diner atmosphere is authentic, right down to the original menu board with its many selections and 1946 prices. The current menu is not quite as extensive and reflects current prices, but it was still a good meal for a good value—the diner’s tradition.
Moving On – Railroads
Railroads had a major impact on the growth of the United States during Ford’s life, and the museum has an extensive collection of railroad engines, cars, and equipment. Replicas of Robert Stephenson’s Rocket (1829) and Dewitt Clinton’s 1931 steam engine represent the earliest days of reliable steam-powered locomotives.
The most impressive, or at least largest, engine is the 1941 Allegheny locomotive built by Lima Locomotive Works for the C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) railroad. The locomotive weighs 389 tons and pulled a 215-ton coal tender. This locomotive developed up to 6,900 horsepower operationally, and was capable of pulling more than 100 filled coal gondolas at a speed of 45 mph from the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia to its terminus in Portsmouth/Norfolk, Virginia.
(This engine was in service for 20 years and probably pulled some of the coal trains I personally saw crossing the farm in the 1950s. See I Grew Up on a Farm in Virginia.)
Moving Up – Aviation
The Ford Museum also recognizes the contributions of aviation and aviators during the first half of the 20th Century. The Exhibit is organized by inventors, explorers, entrepreneurs, barnstormers and record breakers. Ford was directly involved as an entrepreneur, establishing the Ford Aircraft Division that was reportedly the largest commercial aircraft producer in the United States during the late 1920s. A total of 199 Ford Trimotors were produced, primarily as passenger transports.
For the mechanically minded, there are several more impressive collections, including a large assortment of early farm equipment with several steam-powered tractors. Early designs for internal combustion engines can be found in the “Made In America” gallery, and there is an extensive display of manufacturing equipment, including a detailed presentation of early gun-making.
As mentioned earlier, the “With Liberty and Justice for All” gallery not only includes the Ford’s Theater chair in which Lincoln was assassinated, but also the bus that Rosa Parks boarded in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and refused to go to the back of the bus.
There is a time-line oriented display, showing progressive modernization of home furnishings and appliances. One area, identified as the “Your Place in Time” provides an opportunity for children to experience (and adults to re-experience!) building with Lincoln Logs® and Tinkertoys®.
Especially inventive is the opportunity to participate in building a Model T Ford. Participants, guided by staff, begin with a collection of parts. In less than an hour the team assembles an operational Model T. To complete the demonstration, the car is started and driven a few feet.
The Henry Ford Museum is a fun and fascinating walk through our more recent history. And you do not have to be too old to experience bits of nostalgia.
The Henry Ford Museum, with its collections of airplanes, trains, and cars to furniture, farming, and the history of justice in the United States, is a celebration of human spirit and ingenuity. The focus of the museum is the 20th Century in the United States. For the daily crowd of visitors—a good mix of young and old—means that you may hear “What is that?” and “I remember that!” at the same exhibit. This is the Henry Ford Museum – America’s Memory Lane,
Table of Contents Entry
Henry Ford Museum – America’s Memory Lane briefly describes the scope and collections of the museum.