Greenfield Village is Henry Ford’s tribute to the rural America of his youth, mixed in with tributes to a number of people and places that he particularly admired. The 90 acre “village” contains many historic homes, factories and working farms, plus opportunities to hear stories of the lives of Ford and many others and to ride in historic Model T’s, Ford buses or rail cars.
The homage to Ford himself is divided across four buildings:
- The fully renovated farmhouse in which Henry grew up, decorated as closely as possible to how it was when he was young, with one notable exception—the addition of an organ which was not in the house when he lived there but was placed there in honor to his mother;
- The Henry Ford Theater, which shows a short movie of his youth and days before the building of the River Rouge Factory (the new version of which is discussed in a separate post). It discussed his distain of farm work, his initial fascination with machinery his rapid rise to Chief Engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company, his early experiments with gasoline engines and the founding and early years of the Ford Motor Company;
- The Bagley Avenue Workshop, where he did much of his early work and where a version of his first experiment in developing a gasoline engine (which was actually built in the kitchen of his and his wife’s home). Staff demonstrated a replica of the so-called Kitchen Sink Engine) and explained how this led to his 1896 creation of his “quadricycle) and, 10 year later, is first car.
- The initial Ford Motor Company Factory which portrayed one of the workstations in which a half dozen teams of 12 skilled workers apiece, hand-assembled 15 Model T cars per day. A presenter explained how Ford, who accumulated a fortune of $2 billion (twice Bill Gates’ wealth in current dollars) once accounted for half of all the cars on earth. And this was despite the fact that he was only one of more than 300 auto manufacturers in Detroit alone. It discussed his decision to price his cars at a mere $250 (compared with $800 or more for most competitors’ cars allowed him to dominate the market) and how his stubborn insistence that black Model T’s were the only cars that people would ever need, resulted in a huge loss of share to GM, which not only offered multiple models and colors, but also financing—which Ford also refused to do. It discussed how his son Edsel died before Henry ever gave him a chance to assume significant responsibility and how Edsel’s son Henry II eventually took over from his grandfather. And, while standing in in front of the last Model T ever produced, we learned of his recognition that the only way he could maintain his advantage was by creating a totally vertically integrated manufacturing facility (which shipped its own iron ore and coal, made its own steel glass and rubber and by restructuring work in a way that it could be done by thousands of less-skilled employees working on an assembly line. And, how he recruited all the workers he needed by paying the unheard of salary of $5 per day and by educating immigrant and illiterate employees in English, reading and the skills and attributes required for assembly line work.
The Village also contained multi-building tributes two other early century innovators who Ford admired and befriended.
- Wilber and Orville Wright’s Akron-based home and the bicycle shop in which they initially came up with the idea for and built the components of the plane that would be assembled and flown in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (which had the open spaces and the wind that was required for the flight). Presenters discussed their inspiration for creating a plane, some of the challenges they faced and how they addressed these challenges, including by drawing on their experience with bicycles. (And it explained how Wilber guided the reconstructions and furnishing and contributed some of his own mementos.)
- Thomas Edison with reconstructed models of Edison’s home, Fort Myers, FL laboratory and especially his Menlo Park, New Jersey complex with its office, laboratory, workshop and electricity generating station. Presenters explained is many, many experiment with different filaments (all of which rapidly burned out or melted) and his surprising success with a carbonized cotton threat enclosed in a vacuum glass globe. They also discussed the intense competition for coveted jobs in the Edison laboratory, the importance he placed in multi-disciplinary interests and collaboration and the comradity among them, especially among the 16 key men who lived and ate together in the boarding house that was also rebuilt. Although Ford’s friend Edison did not initially participate in design of the buildings, he was apparently amazed by its accuracy. His visit to the building was commemorated by a reenactment of the initial demonstration of the first working bulb in which Edison sat in the same chair in which he initially watched it—a chair than is now nailed into exactly the place it was in the original lab.
The village also contained original furnished homes (moved from their original locations) or reconstructions of the homes of many other famous and not-so-famous men and women that Ford admired. Each home either had staff members who portrayed or discussed these people or, in some cases, recording that explained the people and their houses. These houses included those of:
- H.J. Heinz, with explanations of how the first products (including his first product, horseradish) were all sold out of bins and only later packaged and bottles. It described how Heinz (in contrast with many of his early competitors) actively supported the Food and Drug Administration and the Pure Food and Drug Act and the importance of his branding program that emphasized his products’ quality and purity.
- Noah Webster, which discussed not only the multiple version of his iconic 1828 dictionary (that sought to create a single, standardized version of American—in contrast with British—English), but also his early and lucrative career where he wrote books on subjects including religion, medicine, politics, language and textbooks that advocated his rather stern view of discipline.
- Robert Frost, with recordings of some of his poems;
- George Washington Carver (or in his case, the slave quarters in which he lived) which discussed his pioneering work in peanut cultivation, crop rotation and sustainable agriculture.
- William Holmes McGuffy (both his birthplace and his schoolhouse) which discussed his famous McGuffy Reader;
- Luther Burbank, the horticulturist who created the Russet Potato and dozens of other vegetables, fruits and flowers; and the not-so-famous
- Charles Steinmetz, who was Ford’s favorite teacher.
There were also moved or reproduced examples of many other late 19th-century style homes, including a plantation home, slave quarters, a farmhouse of a subsistence farmer, a home of a prosperous merchant and even a Cotswold cottage.
The village also contains a number of:
- Retail and craft stores, such as a millinery shop, pottery shop, glass shop, general store, a tintype photo gallery and exterior of an elaborate watch store;
- Factories and workshops, such as a sawmill and a large machine shop filled with lathes, industrial hammers and many other steam and electricity-powered tools;
- Working farms and agricultural facilities such as a cider mill, soybean lab and the oldest operating windmill in the U.S.
- Other icons of late 19th century rural and small town life including a town hall, carousel, waterwheel, community church, covered bridge and a toll house.
And since we were in the village, how could we resist the $5 per person cost of a Model T ride around the village by a driver that was happy to explain the working of the 22 mile per gallon vehicle which also had acetylene gas lights, an electric starter (available only from the 1919 model) and a rudimentary automatic transmission, that included a gear for reverse.