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|
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.
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
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!|
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|
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!
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|
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|
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.|
|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)|
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|
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|
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|
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.|
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.|
|The saved-from-demolition Noah Webster home|
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!|
~ 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|
|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.
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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.
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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