Among the things I got for Christmas was a Membership to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Mine is a "Companion" membership, which means I get in free and I can bring a different companion each time.

I've had some time off over the Holidays, so I've been enjoying the gift to its fullest. My 9 y/o son Jean-Luc and I spent most of the day there Friday, then my girlfriend Sharon (my benefactor for the membership) and I spent portions of the past two days there walking and being tourists. She lives in Dearborn MI, and grew up there as well, so the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village are under-appreciated by her. Or perhaps I should say "were" under-appreciated by her until today...

Henry Ford built the Ford Museum as a place where people could be inspired, and learn about the past. The Ford museum is full of artifacts that Ford thought significant: the chair Lincoln sat in at Ford's theater, a wide range of vehicles including planes, trains, automobiles, bicycles and motorcycles, house wares spanning the past 200 years at least. A recent Wall Street Journal article explained that the museum was the result of the Chicago Tribune branding Ford an un-educated and stupid man. Ford sued for libel, the Tribune's lawyers tore him up on the stand, and though Ford's attorney's prevailed Ford himself decided to build his own museum, and fill it with things he felt were important, as if to say "Up yours! Un-educated and simple my ***...."

The end result is a museum full of Americana, and spanning several centuries.

Greenfield Village is more of the same, sort of. What the museum is to small items such as cars and trains, the Village is to large items such as historic buildings, mills (sawmills and a windmill and a textile mill), as well as common buildings. Ford purchased such buildings as the Wright Brothers' childhood home and bicycle shop, Edison's lab at Menlo Park (and the boarding house where the workers lived), the farm where Harvey Firestone grew up, a covered bridge, a 200 year old tavern on the Detroit-Chicago road, steam trains and rolling stock and a train station.... All these buildings and artifacts were dis-assembled and brought to the Village, where they were re-assembled so that people could tour them.

The most recent addition to the artifacts is a mix of restored and newly-built Model T Fords, giving visitors a ride around the grounds. Perfectly fitting, as it was the commercial success of the Model T that made the Museum and the Village possible....

I won't bore you with every detail, instead I'll try for a broad overview of the Village (sort of from a child's view), since I've already posted about the Ford Museum more than once in the past couple years.

I'd never been to the Village before, so Friday Jean-Luc and I visited. Oh my.... A Ford Model A bus from the early 1930s will take visitors around the whole place for $.50, so we did that first to see what we could see. A courthouse where Lincoln practiced law, Luther Burbank's home, a smaller-scale replica of the original Ford factory (the real place burned down before he could buy it), a windmill from Connecticut, a covered bridge from Pennsylvania, a re-constructed roundhouse for maintaining the steam trains at the Village, a glass blowing business.

Our Model A bus ride done, we started through the exhibits that appealed to us the most.

The first one was the Model T rides. My Dad has a pair of restored Model Ts that he drives about 7,000 miles a year, so I wanted to ride the newly-constructed ones to see if I could tell any difference.

Verdict: I couldn't tell the brand-new Model T from the originals I've ridden in. Neat!!

While riding around, I asked the driver about driving one. Dad tells me every Spring I should learn how to drive his, and he'll teach me, but then Autumn comes around and we haven't. Our driver asked if I ride a motorcycle, and I said yes. He said it'd be easy for me to learn to drive the T then, as the throttle is the right hand, and the brake is the right foot, just like a bike.

He had my attention at that point, as Dad had never explained it like that. My Dad doesn't ride motorcycles.. Our driver went on: "Left hand stalk on the column is spark advance, left pedal is low range, let it up and you're in High. Middle pedal is reverse. Henry built these to replace horses, so learning to drive one is easy."

Then the final touch: "You're a member, right? We teach people to drive Model Ts, we put on a class for members. Watch for the announcement in your member newsletter, come on up, and we'll have you driving one in just a day or so."


Our driver explains that he's a retired Ford employee, got bored staying home after a year, so now he shows visitors around the Village in the Ts. Just loves this job, and though he wasn't a T fan when he started, he is now. He's actually thinking of buying one of his own.

He suggests we ought to get over to the Armington & Sims Machine Works. The machinists there will walk the kids through making a brass candlestick, all hands on, and the kids love it... So off we go to the machine shop.

The Armington & Sims Machine Works is a circa 1900 machine shop. A large coke-fired stationary engine powers line shafts, and then belts from the line shafts power lathes and mills and drill presses and such. All is recognizable if you've spent any time around machines, but the scale is a bit off. The stuff is all pretty big....

The machinist is a kindly old gray-haired man in a red shop apron, and he walks Jean-Luc through the process. Jig a chunk of round stock in the lathe, turn it down with this lever, ease up if it chatters, now the cut-off tool.... In about 5 minutes Jean-Luc has a miniature candlestick holder, which he gets to take with him. He's also given a certificate saying he's spent time on a 1917 Brown and Sharp turret lathe.

Then we watch the glass blowers make artistic vases and cups and such, for sale in the gift shop.

We have lunch in the Eagle Tavern, where it's January of 1850 and dining is communal, i.e., when they have 8 people ready to sit down they all get a table together. I like that, being thrust in with strangers is something I enjoy. It forces you to socialize, to mind your manners, and leads to interesting conversations if you're good at being friendly.

At the Eagle Tavern there's also an 1850 politician passing through, and when we tell him we're from Ohio he explains why Michigan lost the recent Ohio-Michigan war: Ohio has been a state since 1803, while Michigan is still a territory.

For those unaware, the war was a boundary dispute. There was only one casualty of the war, and it was settled with Michigan getting the Upper Peninsula from Wisconsin and Ohio getting Toledo. Over 150 years later, I'm not sure who got the better deal.... Nobody is.

The Eagle Tavern serves mostly "historic" food, plus a small children's menu. I savor the corned beef with horseradish sauce for dipping, while Jean-Luc complains that his macaroni and cheese isn't like the store-bought item. We both wolf down the pumpkin muffins and the rolls with a bit of jelly.

After lunch, we visit the roundhouse. The locomotives are being worked on, and we watch from a walkway above. There's also a locomotive on permanent display over a pit, you can go under the locomotive and see the rods and gears and such from underneath. They're even more complex from that angle than from the side. Jean-Luc won't go directly under the locomotive with me, he says he thinks the beam holding it up is too small.

A guide tells us that for a real treat, we should come back at 3:30 PM, when kids can turn the 42-ton roundtable. By themselves.... He asks Jean-Luc if he's feeling strong today, does he feel he can move 42 tons, does he even know how many pounds that is?

They talk a bit, and Jean-Luc decides he wants to turn the routable. We kill some time by going into miscellaneous buildings and absorbing what we can. There's so much, and we're getting tired, but 3:30 PM finds us back at the Roundhouse, waiting in line with other kids.

Then our turn, Jean-Luc and I and another kid head out with a little old man as our guide. The three of us grab a lever at the end of the roundtable, and the old mans whispers to me that I won't really need to push. Let the kids do it all, he tells me, so I do.

And they do it! Jean-Luc and this stranger totaling perhaps 200 pounds, get the roundtable rolling around slowly and steadily. The old man tells us we can let go, so we do, and walk behind the lever. As the roundtable comes into position at the next set of tracks, the old man has us grab the lever to stop it. This is a fantastic physics experiment about momentum and conservation of energy... We grab the lever, dig our heels into the gravel, and for about 10' each of us is leaving twin furrows in the stones. It's like pictures I've seen of barefoot water skiers, but in really slow motion..... We do eventually manage to get it stopped exactly where it needs to be.

Then our time is up for the day and we have to be going. We say goodbye, pocket our goodies, and head south to Ohio and home.

Neat place! I can only guess how much nicer it might be on a warm day....


Postscript 1:
Membership also allows access to the Benson Ford Research Center, a library of automobile information and other historical information. I'm sure I'll spend some time in there in the coming year.

Postscript 2:
If I should ever find myself retired and bored and living in Dearborn Michigan, I think I'd apply for a job at the Ford complex myself. It would be a joy to bring history to life for both children and adults, to play the part of teacher as a after-work job.