Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Preserving History: The Beginning of Greenfield Village - Making the Past Come To Life

Updated October 2018

"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. Love him or hate him (and there are plenty of both out there), he has done such a service to history - American history - and I deeply appreciate it, for his accomplishments in this have fead my historical thirst like nothing else.

Now, before we get deeper into the preservations that Mr. Ford had done, let's look back at the roots of the formation of Greenfield Village:
The year was 1914, and Clara Ford, wife of Henry, watched children play one day as they made their way home from school. A childhood rhyme suddenly came to her, and she said it aloud: 'Hear the children gaily shout, "Half past four and school is out!" '
An original McGuffey Reader
Henry and Clara both thought the rhyme came from one of the William McGuffey Eclectic Readers, first published in 1836. After a futile search to find which Reader it came from, and through it all amassing a rather large and complete collection of the 145 different editions, he found he had a penchant for collecting. He already had a rather large collection of clocks and watches, which he loved to tinker with as a child. And, he had accumulated objects of his hero, Thomas Edison. So the McGuffey Readers were just another extension of what was quickly becoming his passion.
It was around this WWI era that, in part, due to his strong pacifism during that "Great War," a number of newspaper articles were published expressing Mr. Ford's anti-war sentiment, called him an anarchist, among other things, and quoted him as saying, "History is more or less bunk..." which has been repeated often ever since. What most folks don't know is that this "bunk " comment was stated for reasons other than what the press said. It is here that I quote from the book, A Home For Our Heritage by Geoffery C. Upward: "...what (Ford) meant and explained many times in later years was that written history reflected little of people's day-to-day existence. 'History as it is taught in the schools deals largely with...wars, major political controversies, territorial extensions and the like. When I went to our American history books to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land, I discovered that the historians knew nothing about harrows. Yet our country depended more on harrows than on guns or great speeches. I thought a history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk and I think so yet."
It was shortly after the war, in 1919, that Ford found that his birthplace home was in danger due to a major road expansion through the property of his family's farm. The house lay directly in the path of the road. Ford and family decided to prevent this awful occurrence by moving his house and barns out of harms way. But, they didn't stop there. They also restored the old homestead back to the way they remembered it being in 1876 - the year Henry's mother passed away. They searched high and low for every artifact that matched their memories and soon found many more items than necessary. Mr. Ford kept them all, and then some.
Not long before his death, Ford had his birth home removed to his Greenfield Village, where it still sits as an honor to the man who put the world on wheels.
The Ford home in its original location...

And how it looks restored today...just as it did over 150 years ago.
The out-of-state preservation of the Wayside 
Inn, by Henry Ford. Built in 1686, it became 
an inn in 1716.
According to numerous sources, the idea for preservation and the displaying of the everyday items he had (and continued to acquire) came sometime in the mid-1920's. But, before he could put that idea into a reality, 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.
He also purchased and restored the 1846 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. Ford and his soon-to-be-wife were regulars at the Saturday night dances and became good friends with the owner. In fact, according to the Detroit News (from 1925): Mr. Ford was always a favorite and no matter how big a crowd or how many guests, there was always a stall for Henry's horse. The "young Ford boy" was granted another honor by Mr. Botsford, and that was permission for him and his sweetheart to place their wraps in the parlor, a place reserved only for the intimate friends of the proprietor's family.
This "young Ford boy" purchased the inn in 1924 and did extensive restoration, doubling the size of the ballroom, adding to the kitchen, and sprucing up the other rooms, all the while restoring them as close as he could to their original splendor. He, too, held grand parties and balls here, but seemingly all but forgot about the old building once the planning of his Greenfield Village commenced.
The 16 Mile House / Botsford Inn - restored in the mid-1920s by Henry Ford
Throughout the 1940's the Botsford was rarely used.
However, the restoration bug had bitten Mr. Ford, and it awakened a passion for social history in him like nothing ever had before.
One little known fact was that the city of Williamsburg, Virginia offered to have Ford purchase the more than a dozen colonial era buildings on the original sites in hopes of a financial backing to turn the original capital of Virginia into a living history extravaganza.
Ford declined. He had a better idea.
Once the decision had been made to build a museum like no other, he felt the land upon which he stored his antique collection would be the perfect spot to build this unique American village, and by October of 1927 construction had begun under chief architect Edward Cutler and the watchful eye of Henry Ford himself. The two men planned the lay out of the village together early in 1927, copying the traditional early American plans of a village green surrounded by a church, town hall, and other buildings.
The following pictures were taken in 1926 (top) and early 1929 (bottom) - photographer not listed - on what will eventually become the Porches and Parlors section of the Village:
(top): This road should be familiar for those who know Greenfield Village fairly well. Within a few years from when this photo was taken the homes of Chapman, Adams, Webster, and Giddings, as well as the British Cotswold Stone Cottage would be placed on the left, and the Edison home, the Susquehanna plantation, and the Plympton house would be placed on the right.

The same road a couple years later. The building of Greenfield Village commences - - if you look close you can see the office of Luther Burbank off to the right. It's still there, in the same location.
The Eagle Tavern (then christened the Clinton Inn by Ford) has the distinction of being the second structure brought to be restored here, only following the JR Jones General Store (christened by Ford as the Waterford Country Store).
The Eagle Tavern was close to being razed before Ford rescued it, thereby preserving pieces of American history that would have been lost.
This old tavern was an eyesore to everyone who saw it...except for Henry Ford, who saw early American travel and felt that, even though it didn't belong to anyone famous, it was still important because it showed everyday life of the average traveling citizen of the mid-19th century.
This was how the Eagle Tavern (aka The Clinton Inn) looked before Henry Ford preserved and restored to its 19th century glory... 
...and thank God he did! What a gem!!

Another preservation point I'd like to make centers on one of the most important buildings inside Greenfield Village, the Menlo Park Laboratory. In fact, the opening of Greenfield Village centered around the structure up and beyond all else.
Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and an original Edison helper from the 1870s, Francis Jehl, supervised the reconstruction of the Menlo Park laboratory inside Henry Ford's yet still unopened historic Greenfield Village. This was, perhaps, one of the most important projects in all of modern historical preservation, for it was nearly fifty years earlier when Edison perfected and showed off his working incandescent light right here in this building, and Henry Ford spared no expense in reconstructing the laboratory.
This photometer was used by Edison to measure and compare the amount of light produced by light bulbs versus candles
You must understand, Thomas Edison was Henry Ford's life-long hero and, as adults, were very close friends. So when Mr. Ford formed the idea for his magnificent museum he knew he wanted to pay tribute to this greatest of all inventors. What better way to do this than to restore the "factory" where so many of his greatest inventions took place?
In March of 1928, Ford began the restoration process. He wanted to reconstruct the Menlo Park complex as it was during the period when Edison and his skilled helpers worked at inventing "the future" - 1876 to 1886 - and he wanted it correct in every minute detail.
To give a quick bit of history of the lay out of this laboratory, the first floor was used for mainly testing the products as well as measuring and processing. A small cubby was also used for Edison's original office.
It was on the 2nd floor that the real excitement took place, for it was here that Edison's workers had separate work stations for specific projects, oftentimes working throughout the night on experiments.
Edison had a pipe organ installed for entertainment during their few breaks. The men - Edison included - would take turns picking out a tune on the organ while everyone else sang.
Can you hear the men singing "Old Dog Trey" or "Rose of Alabamy" while the organ played in the background? I bet the sounds could be heard clear over at the boarding house!
It was unfortunate that the original site was nearly completely dismantled not too many years after Edison's move to West Orange, New Jersey in 1887 by neighboring farmers. In fact, it was only a year after Edison had removed himself cows began to wander amongst the buildings of the complex, and a chicken farmer even allowed his flock to make the laboratory their home! Soon after, many local residents began using the quickly dilapidating building's boards to repair their own deteriorating barns and hen houses. A severe storm blew what was left of the building over in 1913.
Luckily, with Mr. Edison's help, many of the original boards were found, including some that were in storage, while others were regained through purchase of the sheds and other farm buildings mentioned above.
Through the aid of photographs and of the memories of those who worked there, Ford was also able to locate or find exact replicas of the furniture, tools, and other artifacts that once played an important role inside the lab.
Edison & Ford inspect the ruins where the original laboratory once stood in Menlo Park, New Jersey
Excavators dug through the original ground and not only found thousands of pieces of Edison's trash and other original "relics" from the lab that had been thrown out (which were gathered and shipped to Dearborn), but they could also see how the original buildings were positioned.
Once they were aligned in Greenfield Village in the same directional orientation as they were in New Jersey (including carloads of New Jersey clay from the original grounds!), the buildings became the focal point on what would be called "the greatest and most significant single preservation effort in America."
After the restoration was completed (with Francis Jehl's help), Mr. Ford asked Edison what he thought of the reconstruction. Mr. Edison replied that it was 99% correct. Wondering about that 1% that wasn't right, Ford questioned Edison what was not correct.
"It was never this clean!" Mr. Edison told him.
Here is the entire Menlo Park complex, situated exactly as it was in New Jersey. The brick building out in front was the office. Ford even brought tons of New Jersey clay for the structures to sit upon!
As you can see, the chair Edison sat
 upon is truly nailed to the floor!
Although the laboratory is not 100% original, it was close enough to perfect for Edison and his former helpers. Many of the items, the bottles and such, that are now upon the shelves are the very same that Edison had in the laboratory in the late 1870's and early 1880's. The idea that it was in this building (in all reality, it really was in this buildingwhen you think about it) that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light, the phonograph, the stock ticker, a forerunner of the telephone, and over 400 other items, is enough to send chills down one's back  upon entering the complex.
Though the public were able to witness the first working electric light on December 31st, 1879, the actual anniversary took place a couple months earlier, on October 21, for that's when his light actually worked to Edison's satisfaction. And so it was exactly fifty years later from that very same October 21 date, in 1929, in this very same building, when Edison reenacted the lighting of the first incandescent light. Henry Ford and President Hoover were right there in the room with him while this event was nationally broadcast on radio. After the glorious moment took place, Ford ordered his men to have the chair upon which Edison sat for the reenactment to be nailed to the floor as is.
To celebrate the invention and the inventor's importance to our modern times, Ford named his new museum The Edison Institute.
Menlo Park truly was an invention factory - Edison didn't necessarily invent everything himself; he surrounded himself with the right workers such as Francis Jehl and others who had the right amount of curiosity and know-how. And together, just like the unsung workers in Ford's automobile factory 30 years into the future, came up with the inventions that changed the world.

Something else to think on...
of the multiple structures that were part of the demonstration Thomas Edison gave on that New Year's Eve in 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.
"(Edison) led me to one of the windows to the south end of the second floor and pointed past the office building to a drab-colored frame house with green shutters, a short distance down Christie .
'Go over there,' he told me, 'and talk to Mrs. Jordan.'
Can you see Mrs. Jordan's house in the distance? Yes, this photo was taken from the 2nd floor of the Menlo Park laboratory
I picked up my satchel and made my way down stairs and out the front door. It was nearing the time when Christian folks had supper and went to bed.
There was a path leading to the side gate in the rear of the office building. Beyond it stretched Christie Street, running past the picket fence on the east side of the compound.
Sarah Jordan's Boarding House, in the same way Edison's worker's viewed it from the laboratory
The boarding house
I crossed the street diagonally and...I turned in at the far gate and set foot for the first time on the porch of the Jordan boarding house, which was to become my home for more than a year.
In a few moments I was introducing myself to a slight, frail little woman who was the proprietress. 
As the boarding house must've looked when young
Francis walk from Menlo Park Lab

The "far gate" that Francis walked through to see Mrs. Jordan.
Business was not yet brisk and she was glad to see a new lodger. She escorted me up the narrow winding stairs and into a large room at the front of the home. Although I did not know it at the time, I came later to the conclusion that the room she gave me was the best she had. It looked over the porch and had an additional window on the far side, making three windows in all. The furnishings were plain but ample - large clean bed, commode with wash bowl and water pitcher, bureau and a few chairs. Board and room, I learned, were to cost five or six dollars a week.
This is the room I suspect was the one Mr. Jehl describes here, for it matches his description closely (he only mentions one bed and no roommates)
I accepted the room at once and after unpacking my satchel by candle light and hanging up my clothes, went downstairs and took a seat in the dining room where two or three men were already at the table. By that time darkness had fallen and a coal oil lamp furnished the light for our supper.
Perhaps a brief explanation about the plan of Mrs. Jordan's boarding house might not be out of place here. It comprised two separate apartments, each unit in itself. One was shut apart from the other and  the communicating doors were usually kept locked. In one half lived Mrs. Jordan and her daughter, and the other was given over to the boarders. 
"Aunt Sally's" (as the boarders affectionately called her) family sitting room
This is where the boarders gathered for relaxation
Occasionally the door between the two front rooms downstairs was unlocked and that on the family side was made available to lodgers or visitors as a sitting room. The influx of lodgers taxed the capacity of the little dwelling and it was necessary to use the original sitting room as an overflow dining room to make possible a second dining table at meal time.
The whistle, calling the mechanics and workmen to their tasks in the machine shop, blew at seven o'clock in the morning. Those working in the laboratory with Mr. Edison did not follow its summons for they were likely to remain long after hours; but no matter how late they worked the night before, they usually rose early in the morning to be on hand for breakfast. The first who got to the table had the choice helpings and sometimes could squeeze in a second helping before the late comers arrived.
Supper was a bountiful meal with meat, vegetables, and fruit framing the main dishes. The big meal of the day - dinner - was at noon when soup, potatoes, and the pies, for which Mrs. Jordan was noted, were served.
This is where the men would eat
After the meal we sat for a time in the living room while Mrs. Jordan and her little ten-year-old daughter did the dishes in the kitchen just beyond.
Mr. Edison used to walk down the street past the house when he returned home after the long hours at the laboratory. Frequently at night after I retired in my room I heard his footsteps on the walk as he trotted homeward. On such occasions as he passed the house during the day, he stopped to chat with Mrs. Jordan, or with those of us who happened to be loafing on the stoop when the weather was nice."
Original photo taken sometime between 1879 and 1882 (The year Jehl left for Europe). That's Francis on the far right, Edison in the white shirt on the right, and Mrs. Jordan 2nd from left
Though it was not dark when I took this photograph, this is very similar to what Francis Jehl saw when he stepped forth from the (Sarah Jordan) boarding house. Yes, that's the Menlo Park complex you see there, and it now sits the same distance as it once did when Mr. Jehl worked there back in 1879.
No expense spared to preserve history.

According to the book 'A Home For Our Heritage':
"The public, notified by...articles in the nation's periodicals, knew well that Henry Ford had something going on behind his brick walls. The few curious passersby a day grew to about 400 a day early in the 1930's. By the late spring of 1933, however, a curious public had swelled to nearly 1000. To turn this many people away simply amounted to bad public relations. ...The following recommendations were made...: To operate Greenfield Village in a manner that will permit the visitor to feel as if he or she had been transported back a few years...it should be arranged that they are not herded through in groups with a guide having a set 'lingo' which becomes monotonous and detracts from the true atmosphere of the historic town. Visitors should be charged admission, adults 25 cents, children 10 cents."
The book speaks on how there should be craftsmen in the respective shops, an old-time hotel keeper at the Clinton Inn, articles and crafts made right there in the village for sale, and food available for the patrons to eat.
It seems, however, that plans to eventually open the Village up to the public were in mind at least a year earlier for, in the summer of 1932, construction began on the Village gates, a visiting room, and public restrooms.
The following year, the "gatehouse" (as it was called) was ready to accept its first patron to pass through into the streets of the past.
On June 22, 1933, the first public visitors entered what would eventually become "America's Greatest History Attraction," welcoming over a million customers a year by the end of the century.

And now let's look into other Greenfield Village preservations of what could have been lost to history, including 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!
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.
The Wright Brother's home...and their Cycle Shop, where they built the world's first lighter-than-air flying machine, may also have been lost to history if it were not for Henry Ford.

Henry Ford, through restoring the every day homes, inadvertently helped to spurn and popularize the local restoration movement. And preservation has come a long way since the days when 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.

Much of the information about Greenfield Village came from the following:
The Benson Ford Research Center
The book, Menlo Park Reminiscences by Francis Jehl
The book A Home For Our Heritage by Geoffery C. Upward
Greenfield Village/Menlo Park presenters
And the various Greenfield Village guide books I have collected over the years
















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3 comments:

Civil Folks said...

Great post Ken.

Frank

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