Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Preserving History: Making the Past Come To Life

"Preservation owes a lot to Henry Ford. But in the process of making people aware of the value of the past, he made a number of mistakes. One that modern experts find most objectionable was his uprooting of buildings from their original sites, thereby stripping them of their historical context, all in the name of historical preservation."
(The above came from a Detroit Free Press newspaper article from, I believe, the early 1980's.)

I've heard this argument countless times during discussions. I've also read newspaper and magazine editorials concerning this practice. And it never ceases to amaze me that some can't see the forest for the trees.
The Halfway School House from 1872. Restored and preserved in the middle of the city of Eastpointe, sitting only a few yards from where it originally stood
Case in point are the many small localized historic structures dotting the maps that still remain on (or very close to) their original site, such as my own hometown's 1872 school house. We've had many, many public activities held inside the school house, much of it in such a way as to give public awareness that this important historical remnant of Eastpointe's 19th century past still exists right in their own back yard (so to speak). But, aside from the locals, few of the public ever return afterwards, and far less will travel to any great length just to see it. This is not necessarily the fault of the historical society in which the school house belongs; rather, it's because of its location. Eastpointe is far from being a historical destination point, and there are no other sites from the past of note for people to visit and see to go along with it. I'm sure if this city were filled with other historic structures (similar to the Michigan villages of Romeo or Richmond - both less than an hour's drive from Eastpointe), the draw would be far greater. But the building as it now stands is not going to be a magnet for history buffs.
So, is it reasonable to ask that if historical structures stand alone or are located in remote regions, who will travel to see them? And if only a few patronize such historic places, how then will they be maintained with such little income?
(This is not to say, however, that local communities shouldn't preserve the past. Read on to see my point). 

My second case in point centers on one of my very favorite buildings inside Greenfield Village: the Firestone Farm.
The Firestone Farm is now a working farm where the year 1882 comes to life for the public. It's like a step back in time.
Though it was built originally in Columbiana, Ohio in 1828 (and remodeled in 1882), the Firestone family lived here throughout the first half of the 20th century. It was in 1965 that it was decided to restore and open it for tours to the public as a museum. But because of the farm's remote location, it failed to attract many visitors.
In 1983, Harvey Firestone's two surviving sons, both then in their 70's, gave the house, barn, and furnishings (along with a sizable endowment for maintenance) to Greenfield Village as a way of keeping the accomplishments and memory of their father alive. And ever since the reconstruction took place in 1985, literally millions of visitors have entered this once off-the-beaten-path historical home and have learned, through sight, sound, smell, and even touch (for it is a living history home now, and even has items in the sitting room that are hands-on for visitors) about mid-western farm life in the late 19th century, including indoor and out door chores for both the men and the women.

The ladies of the Firestone Farm cook the dinner for the family.
Let's go back to Mr. Ford and the original discussion of uprooting buildings from their original sites, thereby stripping them of their historical context, all in the name of historical preservation; I don't believe many are aware that Ford had actually saved numerous buildings from certain demolition. One in particular, the home of Noah Webster, was already in the process of being demolished when Ford put a halt to the wrecking ball, had the old home dismantled and then shipped from its original Connecticut location all the way to Dearborn, Michigan, where now our children' children's children, and their children's children children, may be able to see this home where the original owner wrote his first dictionary.

The saved-from-demolition Noah Webster home
Another dilapidated old eyesore, the Logan County Courthouse - where future President Abraham Lincoln had practiced law in the 1840's - was all but ignored and forgotten by the residents of Lincoln (formerly Postville), Illinois. As the Free Press article states: (The courthouse) never aroused much local interest. But once word got out that Henry Ford was looking at it, the local population suddenly decided they owned a historic gem and demanded to keep it. 
Ford actually gave the town the opportunity to keep it but they could not raise the funds to properly restore it. Ford had little choice; he also knew where it would continue to receive the proper care, and he knew that wasn't going to happen in the town of Lincoln.
The curator of the Lincoln collection for the state (of Illinois), James Hickey, approves of Ford's action. "I have no doubt the building would have been lost had Ford not removed it."
And now the "pre-presidential" occupation of Abraham Lincoln is not only remembered and passed on, but told in one of the actual buildings where it happened!
Inside the Logan County Courthouse: Now, this is the place to hear the stories of Abraham Lincoln's lawyer accounts!

The Eagle Tavern and the Susquehanna Plantation were both close to being razed before Ford rescued them, thereby preserving pieces of American history that would have been lost.
And not just American history of some famous person, but a bit about everyday life of the average citizen of the mid-19th century.
The was how the Eagle Tavern looked before Henry Ford preserved and restored it... 
...and thank God he did! What a gem!!
Something else to think on...
of the multiple structures that were part of the demonstration  Thomas Edison gave on New Year's Eve 1879 to show the world his electric light, only one remains, for all others have been torn down: the Sarah Jordan Boarding House.
Yep - it's in Greenfield Village, preserved for all the world to see for generations to come.
The same can be said for the two Wright House buildings - the home and the Cycle Shop: both would have certainly been raised and/or forgotten about if Ford hadn't removed and restored them from Dayton, Ohio to his Village.

Then there were a few gifts - yes, gifts - that were given to the Institute:
~ besides the Firestone farm mentioned above, there is the 1740 Daggett Farmhouse, where the owner, Mrs. Dana Wells, just wanted to see the house she purchased and lovingly restored and cared for preserved for future generations.
~ The Smith's Creek Depot, the place where Thomas Edison, as a young boy, was thrown off the train for setting the baggage car on fire during one of his experiments. In 1929 the Grand Trunk Railroad presented the depot to Ford for his new Village.
(from left) a school house, Logan County Courthouse, and Doc Howard's Office - three buildings from the 19th century that are now preserved for generations to come and learn
 ~ Dr. Howard's Office, showing the medical practices of a mid-19th century doctor, and the Ackley Covered Bridge, giving many people their only chance of experiencing traveling over such a common site 150 years ago by horse and carriage.

But Ford's Greenfield Village, the first of its kind in North America (according to the New World Encyclopedia) is not the only game around. At around the same time as Ford was building his museum, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia was also being restored and rebuilt. Of course, most of the buildings here were already in place, but many had to be rebuilt from written descriptions or old photographs, while others, updated over the years (one even became a gas station!), had to be restored back to their original colonial style. And now Colonial Williamsburg is a thriving view of America during the time of the founding generation.
Then there is Old Salem Village in North Carolina, depicting 18th century life, and  Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, present early 19th century life. We also have Connor Prairie in Indiana, which does mid-19th century, Crossroads Village in Flint, Michigan shows mid-to-late 19th century, and Charlton Park - also in Michigan - is late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are numerous other open-air museums around the country where ancient structures have found new locations and, thus, new life.
A very authentic-looking 19th century scene at Crossroads Village
I would like to take a moment here and speak a bit on Crossroads Village. This is where one can get a true feel for how life looked during the latter part of the 19th century. The lay out of the Village is as good as it gets, including wood-plank walk ways, dirt roads (not a curb in sight!), and lots of trees and grass.
However, many of their presentations need work. This is not necessarily the fault of the presenters, by the way, and I'm not saying they have bad presenters. I just feel that they have not been trained properly. When a visitor walks inside the Firestone or Daggett homes at Greenfield Village they will get the overwhelming feeling that they have stepped through a portal through time, for the presenters are working at making the homes come alive by actively doing household work - inside and out - of the period.
Although the Crossroads presenters who work at the gristmill or the train conductors near the station do a very fine job indeed, there is no such quality from many of those who man the homes at Crossroads.

A beautiful scene right out of the past.
Instead they are just presenters, sitting doing needlework while wearing pseudo "Victorian" clothing, and usually reciting some of the same old same old heard over the years, not unlike the old myths of history continuously repeated at your local historical society gatherings ("People only lived to be 45 back then." "People were shorter back then." etc).
It's walking around outdoors where Crossroads really shines, for, as stated above, the lay out is very authentic.

A wonderful old-time scene from Crossroads Village
In order for true preservation to happen inside the homes of Crossroads, they need to work closer with the presenters and train them to cook on the stoves and allow them to do some living history. In this way they can actually make the houses come alive. For this to occur their researchers will need to delve deeper into historical fact of social history. The village also needs to include a few horses in the mix and maybe add a few more farm animals.
How cool would it be to take a horse & carriage ride through the dirt roads of Crossroads Village?
I realize that in order to do some of this the entrance fee may have to go up a bit, but what a difference it could/would make to this beautiful historical place!
The 1850 Mason Tavern in Crossroads Village

You see, though it may seem that I am knocking Crossroads Village, I actually am not. I love this place! It's just that I love history so much, and when I see such a fine opportunity to represent and preserve history as Crossroads has, I just want to grab it with both hands and run with it! It's because of this 'feel' of walking around in the midst of this very authentic looking village that I hope one day they will learn how to present history in a better and more historically accurate manner. (Just look to your gristmill operators and train conductors to see how well it can be done!)
Attending Church in 1862
That being said, Henry Ford, through restoring the every day homes, inadvertently helped to spurn and popularize the local restoration movement. And following the way Greenfield Village presents can help any localized Historic House Museum come alive - for people to research and learn how to present in such a way as to draw the visitors in, similar to what they do at the Village's Firestone Farm or what the Crocker House Museum has done in Mt. Clemens (Michigan). I personally enjoy heading out to the different local historic houses and noting the pride it gives to the community. At the very least, many of them tell a local story that might otherwise be forgotten.
There are those who feel that localized preservation, however, should not occur due to financial reasons - "a competition for (government) resources." In other words, the larger museums want the money and feel the so-called 'lesser' historic house museums are taking too much of what they shouldn't have. To that I say what an injustice to future generations because of some seemingly pompous attitudes of any who feel they have more rights in preserving the past.

Preservation has come a long way since the days when Henry Ford was laughed at for buying up old blacksmith shops, school houses, farm tools, machines, and everyday citizen's homes to move to his museum. When he began this venture, few believed that old buildings were worth saving unless they belonged to someone famous like Mount Vernon or Monticello. Or that collecting the furniture and tools of everyday life had any value.
I say, Thank God for Henry Ford's curious and refreshing hobby in collecting Americana, for, in my opinion, if it wasn't for the uprooting of buildings from their original sites, thereby stripping them of their historical context, there would be little historical preservation to be had, thereby losing so much (too much) of our American History.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On a bit of a side note, I'd like to add that I believe that those who practice the art of living history by way of reenacting or in a more first person atmosphere (including presenters at museums), those who learn and perform period crafts (such as spinning, tatting, quilting, plowing behind horses, etc.), musicians and singers who perform period music authentically, and those that study the everyday lives of people from eras before our time are, in no small manner, also preserving history.
The one thing, however, we must make sure of when it comes to history is that we do not allow our modern biases and modern beliefs to interfere with our historical presentations. Too many tend to place their 21st century thoughts, ideas, and values onto people and actions from earlier eras in our history, and will give a more biased, politically correct, or even (way too often) a Hollywood version of the past, not caring a fig for truth.
As I've said many times before...RESEARCH!! Look at the entire spectrum, the environment in which our ancestors not only lived in but grew up in.
The answers are there, waiting to be found.

Until next time, see you in time.

 ~   ~


Civil Folks said...

Great post Ken.


Jen said...

Fantastic post. I couldn't agree with you more on either topic—so many of these places are so far out of the way or, worse, in danger of being lost forever; how can anyone be so silly as to say, "Save it in its original location or not at all!" It's rather ridiculous. It is so much better to save these places, even if they must be moved—and Ford did a superb, marvellous job with Greenfield Village. It and Williamsburg (the two open-air museums I'm most familiar with) are national and international historic gems.

And yes on the re-enactors, too. I'm tired of the political correctness and even moral libertinism displayed as "historic". Again: silly!

Great post. I tweeted it to The Henry Ford, too.

Shelley said...

Great points made here Ken! It's nice to see all the buildings in one place because like you indicated, if it's just a stand alone building, what other reasons will draw you to it unless there were other preserved historic structures nearby. - Shelley