Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Save Our History - Part Two

It has come to my attention that an open-air museum - Billie Creek Village in Rockville, Indiana, which has numerous 100+ year old buildings on its grounds - is up for sale and may close permanently after the 2011 season. I learned of this from one of the blogs that I follow, Front Porch Indiana
During discussions under the comments section it was suggested that it would be nice to have someone with a ton of money purchase the place and keep it maintained instead of spending money on "ghastly ginormous houses, private jumbo airliners, and the like."
Wouldn't that be something?
It did happen before...not just once but twice!
Did you know almost a hundred years ago two very rich visionaries - Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller -  preserved history, most of which otherwise would have been lost?
Yes, it's true. I'd like to give a little bit on these two giants of the early 20th century and how they began their historical preservation journey.
Henry Ford's first preservation project was more out of wistfulness than anything else - it was to restore his own family farm, the house in which he was born and raised. This home, built in 1861 by his father William, was a simple two-story clapboard farmhouse on the dividing line of Springwells and Dearborn Townships in Michigan. In 1919, highway officials decided to extend Greenfield Road south; unfortunately, the homestead was directly in the proposed road's path. The family's decision to move - thus save - the house and the outbuildings prompted Ford's of restoration. It was decided to bring back the old homestead to the way they remembered it as it was in 1876 - the year Henry's mother passed away.  He obtained every piece of original furniture, pictures, and equipment that could be found. He had his men searching high and low for every artifact that matched the memories of the Ford family as well and soon found many more items than necessary. Mr. Ford kept them all, and then some.
The news of Mr. Ford's restoration project and his penchant for collecting Americana of the previous century got out, and, in 1923, he was asked to restore The Wayside Inn in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, built in 1686. Ford bought the inn and 2600 acres of the land surrounding to not only restore the historic structure, but to preserve the setting in which the inn was located.
Closer to home, Ford, in 1924, purchased and restored the 1836 Botsford Tavern, located outside of Detroit. Henry Ford had first seen the tavern while courting his future wife, Clara, in a horse and buggy in the 1880's. 
It was only a scant year or two after that Henry began formulating his plans for a restoration project that went far beyond anyone's wildest imagination; a complete village of restored homes and businesses representing everyday life in the America of the 18th and 19th century where he could show how American ingenuity of the past transformed the world into the modern age.
Of course, you all know it as Greenfield Village!
Right around the same time that Henry Ford was busily saving Americana from disappearing, there was a town in Virginia that, for the most part, time had seemingly passed by. Williamsburg, as it appeared as late as the early 20th century, still retained many of its original structures from over a hundred years earlier. There was one man, a visionary named Dr. William Goodwin, that saw an opportunity to do what most other towns and cities could not - restore Williamsburg back to its original historical appearance from when it was the capitol city of Virginia in the mid-to-late 18th century. And why not? Most of the original structures were still standing, though many had been modified and updated from their original form. Of course, this would take bundles of cash, of which Goodwin did not have nearly enough. To gather interest he stated, "The best way to look at history is through windows. There are windows here, and there were others, which might be restored, through which unparalleled vistas open into the nation's past." (from the book Williamsburg Before and After by George Humphrey Yetter).
The author continued to state (in part) that Goodwin sought out backers of his project for he truly felt that Williamsburg was one colonial city left whose restoration was feasible because it hadn't been swallowed up by burgeoning urban growth. Knowing of Ford's Wayside Inn restoration, he appealed to Henry Ford's family for support. He wrote a letter to Ford's son, Edsel, stating: "Other men have bought rare books and preserved historic houses. No man yet has had the vision and courage to buy and to preserve a Colonial village, and Williamsburg is the one remaining Colonial village which any man could buy. Unfortunately, you and your father are at present the chief contributors to the destruction of this city. With new concrete roads...passing through the city, garages, and gas tanks are fast spoiling the whole appearance of the old streets and the old city, and most of the cars which stop at the garages and gas tanks are Ford cars.
It would be the most unique and spectacular gift to American history and to the preservation of American traditions that could be made by any American."
The very short reply from the Fords said, in part, that "(Ford) was unable to interest himself in the matter mentioned."
You think, after a letter such as Goodwin's?
Well, anyhow, Goodwin continued searching for monetary support and soon found it through various organizations such as The Colonial Dames of America. And it was because of the donations that he was able to restore a few of the buildings. But, only a few. He wanted the whole town of Williamsburg restored.
It was during a speech he gave while in New York that turned the course of history, for John D. Rockefeller was in the audience and Goodwin invited him to visit Williamsburg. The Rockefeller family did visit the city and was given an enthusiastic tour of not only what had already been restored but of the possibilities of what a full restoration could do and mean.
Again, according to Williamsburg Before and After, Rockefeller said "The opportunity to restore an entire colonial community and keep it from incongruous surroundings was irresistible."
Goodwin was then authorized to engage an architect to preliminary drawings showing the town's restored appearance.
Welcome back Colonial Williamsburg!

Under the 'comments' section of the Front Porch Indiana blog's post I wrote: It has been a dream of mine to buy an open-air museum/village and to turn it into a true and total living history "locale" - a place where visitors, and even the presenters, would feel like they literally time-traveled."
One response was, "It's been for sale for some time. The couple who own it are a lovely couple but not exactly in the prime of their lives. If it doesn't sell, I don't look for it to be open after this festival."
And still another wrote (and this is repeated from the top as well): "Imagine how much good any of those billionaires could do, and instead they mostly spend money on ghastly ginormous houses, private jumbo airliners, and the like."
This same person also commented: "Maybe if it doesn't sell. a group of volunteers could form to do that."
Grand ideas. Can we make them come to pass?
Either way, a historical village - fabricated or not - such as Billie Creek Village should be saved for future generations to enjoy and learn.
If I only had the money...well, this is what I'd do:
It Takes A Village



Richard Cottrell said...

I am sad that wonderful passes like this are fast leaving us. I do understand as it is very expensive to keep them up and people of this generation just don't seem to care about much of anything unless it has a battery in it. What's to become of all the worlds national treasures? Thanks for sharing, I wish I had a buyer for you. Richard from My Old Historic House.

Sarah Jane said...

This is extremely sad for me to read. I was not able to make it to the Civil War reenactment at Billie Creek Village this summer and was looking forward very much to going next year. The thought that it may not be open is extremely sad for me. Billie Creek Village is such a beautiful place and such an ideal location for a reenactment. There is something for everyone there. It was the first reenactment I ever went to back in 1998 and will always hold a very special place in my heart as the event that started my interest in 1860's history. I really do hope someone can buy it who is concerned about maintaining it and keeping it open for the public and for events like the Civil War weekend they host every summer.

Christine said...

Ken, as soon as I win the lottery I'll hire you as the curator!

Interstingly enough it was another wealthy man that helped start Billie Creek Village. Eli Lilly funded the farmhouse relocation some 40 years ago. Of course, he also was instrumental (and still is) in Conner Prairie. Sadly, the legacy of annual funding goes to Conner Prairie and Billie Creek was left out of the will.

I keep thinking if some of us "poor" folks could buy it and actually live on the property maybe we could make a go of it?

I don't know what the answer is.

Great post.

An Historical Lady said...

Yea! What a great post Ken! I sure share your disdain of "ginormous' mc mansions so prevalent in today's society!

I see so many living history sites in New England struggling to maintain the standards they one had and attract more visitors. Why don't the young people seem to care anymore about their history?

I sure hope Billie Creek Village can be saved...

Historical Ken said...

I don't necessarily believe that young people don't care about history. Rather, I feel it has more to do with the lack of funding for museums to continue in the manner they once did as well as the lack of income for too many people, including young folks. They have college to pay for, and along with college comes books. It used to end there. Now, however, they must have a lap top computer with all the latest updates as well for their studies. In many cases this is a requirement.
Spend spend spend...
It's my prayer that This, too Shall Pass.

Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

What a shame about Billie Creek Village. I've been to Colonial Williamsburg and it was wonderful. I've yet to visit Greenfield Village, but hope to make it one day. Maybe the federal government should undertake the restoration of these open air museums, like Teddy Roosevelt did with the National Parks. I wouldn't mind if my tax money went to things like that rather than some of the things they do with it now. Yes, if only like-minded people had the billions like Rockefellar and Ford did back in the day...


Historical Ken said...

If only the Govt. cared about such things anymore...
If you ever come to Michigan let me know and I'll give you and yours a tour of Greenfield Village!