Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Henry Ford Country

If you wonder what became of the old-fashioned, uncomplicated, back-porch America, it still flourishes here in Henry Ford's old hometown. Mom, apple pie, and the Model T are celebrated daily at Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum , perhaps the densest, finest collection of Americana anywhere.

Dearborn, a 15-minute drive down the expressway from Detroit, is nothing if it's not Ford country. Henry Ford was born in the area, Ford's worldwide headquarters are here, and Ford owns and operates the village, museum, and nearby Dearborn Inn. It is a sign of sagging auto-industry fortunes (Ford and the others reported quarterly losses of $1 billion the other day) that both the village and museum have had to raise their rates from $4.75 to $8 for adults, from $2.25 to $4 for children ($7 for adults, $3.50 for kids in winter), but one can make the investment pay off by spending a full day in this bygone land.

About these ads

The museum is an eight-acre skylighted hall given over to transportation, power, light, and communication, agriculture and domestic arts, a sprawling hangar of a building that requires more walking than O'Hare Airport but yields one historic delight after the other. I started in the auto exhibit, which has 180 models from 1865 to 1957, much more than just Fords. There is a 1930 Bugatti Royale with an ivory finish and enormous wheels, one of the largest and most luxurious autos that Ettore Bugatti, the great Italian carmaker who practiced his craft in France, ever turned out.

''What kind of car does he drive?'' was once a familiar American cry, before fuel prices rose and autos took on a sameness in design. As for Walter P. Chrysler, he drove (or was driven in) a 1932 Imperial limousine with white canvas top and red body to match the color of a Ming vase he owned. J. P. Morgan's 1926 Rolls-Royce is there too, its door swung open to reveal the interior's tufted opulence.

An entire line of Fords is on display; I was most taken by a 1939 model, the last Ford with a rumble seat; a 1949 Ford, the company's first postwar creation, a sleek and white-walled beauty (it won the Fashion Academy Award in 1949) that has a period-piece look to it, and '56 Thunderbird which got me to thinking of Adlai, Elvis, and Don Larsen's no-hitter. To qualify as an historic artifact, a piece must be 20 years old; so it won't be long, a museum official said, before the Ford Mustang and the Studebaker Avanti take their hallowed places.

Planes also occupied Henry Ford's imagination, and my favorite example of this - all but dwarfed in an impressive aviation collection - is a Ford Flivver, a tiny comical craft he hoped would do for flying what the Model T had done for the auto-buying public. This 1926 single-passenger, 85 m.p.h. eggbeater never, as it were, got off the ground, undone by a series of accidents. Although Ford produced the Trimotor, the first commercially successful all-metal aircraft, until 1936 (there is a ski-tipped model on display that carried Admiral Byrd to the South Pole), the inventor's fascination with flying machines slowly ebbed. And his nearby airport, which in 1931 helped inspire the construction of the Dearborn Inn, one of the first such airport-hotel juxtapositions, was turned into a Ford test track.

Under the same spreading roof are period kitchens from the late 1700s to the 1930s, antique typewriters, telephone switchboards, heating stoves, bicycles, locomotives, radios, and TV sets. All of this is good preparation for the adjoining Greenfield Village, 210 acres of 19th-century America that Mr. Ford dedicated to Thomas Edison in 1929 on the 50th anniversary of Mr. Edison's invention of the incandescent light.

Henry Ford so admired, even revered, Thomas Edison that he had the entire Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory and compound transplanted to Dearborn, down to peripheral objects that seem trivial today. On the lawn in front of the Edison wood-frame buildings, for example, are glass cases holding empty bottles, pieces of wire, even an old tree stump recovered from the Menlo Park compound. On the second floor of the historic lab Mr. Ford had the chair nailed to the floor on the very spot where Edison produced the electric light in 1879. Not far away stands the brick Smith's Creek, Mich., train station where, so history says, the young Edison had his ear pulled and was thrown off a train by a disapproving conductor.

On Michigan Avenue is the Wright Cycle Company, the Dayton, Ohio, shop where the Wright Brothers fixed bikes and planned their assault on the heavens at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903. Next door is the yellow frame Wright family home, and across the street stands the H. J. Heinz house, uprooted from Pittsburgh, where the 57-variety foodmaker produced his first bottled item: horseradish.

About these ads

Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, Stephen Foster, Abraham Lincoln are also remembered in the grassy, tree-shaded plot of accumulated history. So is William Holmes McGuffey, of McGuffey Reader fame, whose 1780 log-cabin birthplace and traditional one-room school stand across a fence from the Edison compound and up the street from Noah Webster's handsome four-chimneyed house. Upstairs in the Webster house are the first edition of his American Dictionary and copies of his Blue Backed Speller. It's almost enough to make you want to go back to school again. In the rumble seat of a '39 Ford, of course.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.