Michigan: Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An indoor-outdoor, ninety-three-acre complex that is a museum of U.S. history and technology. Greenfield Village is an outdoor, eighty-one-acre, developed exhibit space containing more than one hundred original homes, factories, and other buildings. Henry Ford Museum is an indoor, twelve-acre exhibit space that displays objects of invention in the fields of transportation, communication, agriculture, industry, domestic life, and the decorative arts. The front of the museum itself is modeled exactly after Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Both Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum were founded by Henry Ford in 1929 as the Edison Institute. The museum complex is an independent, nonprofit, educational institution.

Site Office

Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum

20900 Oakwood Boulevard

P.O. Box 1970

Dearborn, MI 48124-4088

ph.: (313) 271-1620; (313) 982-6150(recording)

fax: (313) 982-6250

Web site: www.hfmgv.org

It was typical of Henry Ford both as a man and as an industrialist to go against the grain of common thought and movement. His character was certainly well illustrated by the Ford Motor Company, which Ford founded, in the way that it revolutionized mass production of the automobile. It might be said, however, that nowhere was Ford’s uniqueness more apparent than in the museum he founded in 1929–Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum (corporately known as the Edison Institute). Ford’s purpose seemed simple, yet noble enough: “to give us a sense of unity with our people through the generations, and to convey the inspiration of American genius to our youth . . . ” Ford saw in the history of the American people a pioneer spirit and a can-do attitude that enabled Americans to accomplish anything to which they set their minds–no matter how unusual or unconventional. It was on this premise that Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum were founded. Ford would create more than just the traditional museum; he would create a link with the past that would embody the American spirit.

Henry Ford’s Vision

In 1926, three years before the opening of the complex, Ford envisioned a two-part museum: One part would show the artifacts of U.S. culture, housed in a mammoth building that would be more reminiscent of one of Ford’s factories than of a traditional museum; the other part would replicate a village (as true to an American small town as possible) that would strive to preserve the community aspect of the American past. Ford, as he was wont to do, had defined his goals clearly for this endeavor: “When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived; and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition.” Ford’s aim was not merely to show and tell history, but to bring it to life. This achievement is the distinction of Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum.

Henry Ford’s enthusiam as a collector of artifacts and a preserver of Americana did not develop overnight. Ford planned very carefully, almost from the beginning of his career, the way in which he could tell the story of the American people and of the American dream. Ford started his collection with his first car, the Quadricycle, built in 1896. He had to repurchase the car because, in the most honored of American business traditions, he had sold it initially for a profit in order to keep his business going; he never sentimentalized his first piece of work until he felt certain that he could afford to do so. It does seem of some interest, however, that although he sold the Quadricycle for two hundred dollars, he managed to buy it back for only sixty-five dollars in 1904.

In 1905, Ford began assembling artifacts from Thomas Alva Edison’s life and work; in 1914, he began collecting McGuffey Readers, and in 1919, he began building a monument, of sorts, to himself: the preservation of his own birthplace and old family home from Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1860. (Ironically, in 1944, this was the last building he moved to Greenfield Village before his death in 1947.) It was at this point that Ford began in earnest his crusade to bring Americana to Dearborn. By 1924, boxcars of antiques had begun to arrive there; he had arranged storage for them in one of his old tractor plants. In 1927, the very first old building arrived in Dearborn for reconstruction on the future acreage of Greenfield Village–a general store from Waterford, Michigan.

Ford’s Tribute to Edison

It was then that Ford decided to dedicate a part of Greenfield Village to the life and career of his old friend, Thomas Edison. He arranged to move and reconstruct a number of buildings from Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory compound. It was here that many of Edison’s greatest inventions, including the light bulb and the phonograph, were researched and developed. Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory itself may well have been his greatest invention; from it, the idea of an industrial research center was born. Until this time, inventions had often been developed under haphazard circumstances and solitary conditions. Edison’s technique for producing inventions could perhaps be compared to Henry Ford’s technique for producing automobiles: mass production in a technically streamlined, organizationally efficient manner, with the purpose of producing the most and the best in the shortest amount of time. Edison had once said that one of his dreams was to produce within Menlo Park one major invention every six months and one minor invention every ten days. At Menlo Park Edison perfected organized technical research, the forerunner of the research and development departments that are now commonplace in large manufacturing companies. Ford realized the significance of his friend’s accomplishments and sought to immortalize them by preserving the buildings in which they occurred.

Ford considered this project his most important preservation effort, and it involved Ford’s scrupulous care and attention to detail. Much of what had made up the Menlo Park of forty-odd years earlier was in ruins and needed to be painstakingly reconstructed. Ford was equal to this task, and called upon the aging Edison himself to help with the effort. Ford had tons of fragmented materials (boards, bricks, broken bottles, wires, dirt, even an old stump) sent by rail back to Dearborn where they could be pieced together somehow to form a historically correct representation of the Menlo Park laboratory. Ford succeeded, and by the time of the dedication of Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum on October 21, 1929–fifty years to the day after Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp–Edison was ready to inspect the reconstruction of his old compound. After a walk around, Edison pronounced it to be “99 percent perfect.” After a perplexed Henry Ford had asked what the problem was, Edison responded, “We never kept it this clean!”

Ford’s Relationship with Edison

Henry Ford’s association with Thomas Edison is well chronicled. It was no secret to anyone of Ford’s day or even to a modern day visitor to Greenfield Village that Edison’s life and work were much revered in Ford’s eyes. Ford saw in Edison the Horatio Alger model of the American way of life. It should not be about rank and privilege (as the way of life in Europe was often viewed), but about self-reliance and hard work. Still, in spite of Ford’s devotion to Edisonia, he was not without other heroes. There were other Americans whom Ford enshrined at Greenfield Village.

One of these Americans was Noah Webster. Webster is undoubtedly the most notable American lexicographer and philologist who ever lived, yet somehow he escaped much of the recognition that he deserved during his lifetime (1758-1843). The home in which Webster completed An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), and the one in which he lived for twenty years, was brought to Greenfield Village from New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1930’s. Ford had heard that plans to raze Webster’s home in New Haven were already being carried out when he dispatched a team to rescue it. The house stands now in Dearborn just as it stood in New Haven more than a century ago.

The Wright Brothers

Orville and Wilbur Wright are granted stature second only to Edison at Greenfield Village. In 1938, both the Wright family home and the Wright Cycle Shop were moved from their original sites in Dayton, Ohio, to Greenfield Village. Orville Wright himself assisted in the move, making every effort to ensure complete originality and authenticity of the interiors and exteriors of the structures. The Wrights belonged to the class of innovative, hard-working industrialists and inventors that Henry Ford believed to be the backbone of American industrial progress. They were perfect examples of the American work ethic that Ford wanted to showcase at Greenfield Village. As is the case with most of the buildings in Greenfield Village, the Wright brothers’ home and bicycle shop evoke not only a sense of the Wrights’ particular history, but also a more general sense of the period in which they lived.

The Village Green

Another part of Greenfield Village that evokes the America of yesteryear is the Village Green and the buildings on or near it. As Henry Ford intended that Greenfield Village be a living example of village life from a bygone era, something would be missing if there were no village green, the hub of the village. Around the green are buildings that formed the very fabric of the American village of the past: a chapel, an inn, a general store, a town hall, a courthouse, and a school. The chapel is the Martha-Mary Chapel, which is still a functional, nondenominational church; the inn is the Eagle Tavern, built in the 1830’s in Clinton, Michigan, to serve as a stopping point on the Detroit-Chicago road; the general store is a building that was originally erected in Waterford, Michigan, in 1854; the town hall is reminiscent of those of the early nineteenth century; the courthouse is the Logan County Courthouse (moved from Postville, Illinois), where Abraham Lincoln served as a lawyer in the 1840’s; and the school is the Scotch Settlement School, built in Dearborn in 1861. In 1871, Henry Ford began attending this school, which was originally located only about a mile and a half from his home.

The Henry Ford Museum

In 1928, construction began on the Henry Ford Museum itself. Here was the showcase of Henry Ford the collector, and what he put inside this museum reflects his perception of the genius of America’s technological history and the uniqueness of its culture. On September 27, 1928, a cornerstone was dedicated. Thomas Edison thrust a spade that had belonged to the late Luther Burbank (the famed nineteenth century horticulturist, whose birthplace stands in Greenfield Village) into the wet cement of the cornerstone. Edison then put his footprints in the cement and inscribed his name and the date. This action was meant to symbolize the unity between agriculture and industry, a major theme of the museum. Visitors today may see this stone, enclosed in glass, at the entrance to the museum.

The front section of the museum structure was meant to be a representation of the most American of buildings: Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Even the faults contained in Independence Hall are faithfully recreated in the front of the Henry Ford Museum. In this part of the museum, the American Decorative Arts Galleries are housed. These galleries display items that were used both decoratively and functionally on a daily basis by average Americans of the pre-Revolution era until the end of the nineteenth century. These items include furniture, ceramics, glass, pewter, silver, and textiles.

The rear section of the museum, its largest part, contains the eight-acre Mechanical Arts Hall. This section appears to have followed the functional style of architecture Ford used for his automobile plants. The style is probably no accident; Ford certainly could not have thought of a better way to illustrate a history of mechanized America, containing the tools and products of America’s laborers, than by housing them in a space that itself would be representative of mechanized America. The Mechanical Arts Hall contains collections of agriculture, home arts and crafts, industrial machinery, steam and electric power, lighting, communication, and transportation. It is in this area of the museum that period automobiles, trains, airplanes, bicycles, and buggies are displayed. Here is housed even the huge factory generator from Ford Motor Company’s famous Highland Park, Michigan, plant, the plant that was Ford’s main Model T producer and harbinger of mass production techniques.

Uniting these two sections of the museum is the Street of Early American Shops. In this area are twenty-two examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century American shops and stores with their appropriate wares inside.

Thus the complex illustrates Henry Ford’s grand idea of chronicling the U.S. place in the Industrial Revolution and of following the changes in the nation’s daily life over its comparatively brief existence. The museum itself is vast, yet accessible. It is also certainly a bit intimidating. It is possible that Henry Ford himself may have thought this sense of the daunting to be appropriate, since it is not unlike the experience of early America itself.

Opening of the Museum

On October 21, 1929, Henry Ford was ready to open the doors of his “time machine.” For a museum complex this important, Ford decided that no expense should be spared for the opening ceremonies, and that all effort should be made to commemorate the significance of the occasion. Ford drafted a guest list that included such notables as President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright, Eve Curie, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Will Rogers, Owen D. Young, and Charles M. Schwab. All of them attended and were treated to the first official Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum demonstration of living history.

Ford arranged for the Hoovers, the Edisons, and himself and his wife to be transported the last few miles to the dedication in a Civil War-era locomotive that was meant to be a duplicate of the train Edison had served on as a young newsboy in the 1860’s. The train pulled up to the same depot where, in 1862, Edison was ejected from a train by a conductor who was not sympathetic to Edison’s early scientific experiments. The young Edison had spilled phosphorous on the floor of the train, setting it on fire. Ford moved the train station from Smiths Creek, Michigan, to Greenfield Village, where it still stands today, in use as one of its depots on the Greenfield Village Railroad.

After an afternoon of riding in carriages along muddy streets for an inspection of the progress of the still incomplete museum and village, the guests gathered in the entrance galleries of the museum for a formal banquet. At first, the room the guests occupied was lit only by candles. Edison, however, in a reenactment of the event of fifty years earlier, would change all that. He was chauffeured back to the village by horse-drawn carriage to his old (but newly transplanted and restored) Menlo Park laboratory, where he lit the first electric lamp all over again. In the immediate presence of Hoover, Ford, and NBC radio newsman Graham McNamee, Edison threw the switch that dramatically lit the museum’s crystal chandeliers and the houses that stood in the village. McNamee broadcast the event, and Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum were inaugurated.

Henry Ford’s vision of Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum could not have been better realized. He dreamed of a place where one could walk about and see the way one’s predecessors had lived, what they had accomplished, and what they stood for. Ford was not interested in documenting a history of the nation’s leaders or privileged classes. Ford believed history needed to be viewed from the eyes of the common people. It was only through these eyes, Ford reasoned, that one could see how one’s ancestors really lived. Ford is often remembered for stating that “history is bunk.” He did say this, but his point is nearly always misconstrued. Ford believed that the “bunk” of history was in the study of wars, of dates, and of politicians; true history to him was the study of the daily lives of common people of bygone eras.

Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum wholly embrace this philosophy. There is little evidence at the complex of anything relating to diplomats, but there is certainly something about dairy farmers. Greenfield Village does contain many buildings associated with famous people, but most of those structures represent people who came from humble origins. The vast majority of the exhibits in both the village and museum are symbols of nameless, faceless America. In Ford’s eyes, this was America.

Perhaps it is this egalitarianism that makes the Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum complex one of the quintessential American museums: It shows the nation’s past as it really was and does it in a way that actually puts contemporary visitors there. There is no doubt that the land on which this complex stands has no real historical significance in itself; no battles were fought there, no treaties signed there. There is little doubt, however, that by the nature of what Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum are today, modern visitors gain precious insight into the historical significance of the America of yesterday.

For Further Information
  • Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum staff. The Greenfield Village Guidebook. Dearborn, Mich.: Edison Institute, 1977. The three books listed below offer very good cursory descriptions, with a somewhat touristy slant, of points of interest and their historical significance. All three books are illustrated.
  • Henry Ford Museum staff. An American Invention: The Story of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Dearborn, Mich.: The Museum and Village, 1999. A guide to the museum and village.
  • _______. Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum. New York: Crown, 1978.
  • _______. Greenfield Village: Preserving America’s Heritage. New York: Crown, 1972.
  • Wamsley, James S. American Ingenuity. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985. One of the better books describing both the history of the Edison Institute and the items in its museums. This book is handsomely illustrated and provides an excellent indicator of what the village and museum offer to visitors.
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