Henry Ford did an amazing thing when he created Greenfield Village in Dearborn beginning in the early 1930’s. Mr. Ford was interested in preservation and decided to move onsite a number of historic buildings he had purchased throughout the country, organizing some around a village green and expanding on to streets to create a town. He obtained a courthouse, school, town hall, church, store and an inn. He bought homes of well known people and industrial buildings including a sawmill and gristmill. Some of the buildings were recreated to house such things as Thomas Edison’s lab. Today, the Village is organized into seven historic districts with a real working farm and craft shops like glassblowing, pottery and tin smith. The Village has a turn of the century feel with actual Model T Fords chugging up and down the roads and people dressed in period costumes. There is also a steam passenger train continuously circling the property. At 80 acres, the Village is large and seems to have something to interest almost anyone.
Taking a ride in one of these authentic Model T’s is a visit highlight. Piloted by a volunteer, we were given a tour of part of the Village. These vintage vehicles are on the go with visitors all throughout the day.
We began our visit in the Main Street District where we explored interesting buildings like the home where Wilbur and Oroville Wright lived in Dayton, Ohio. We timed our visit for the skit held on the porch featuring Wilbur and Oroville and their sister Katherine. In the skit, the brothers talk animatedly about their recent test flight at Kitty Hawk. In 1937, Mr. Ford obtained the home and a bicycle shop owned by the Wright brothers. It was in this bicycle shop the brothers developed their first aircraft. Ford placed the two buildings next to each other on Main Street.
Across from the Wright home is the Cohen Millinery where in the 1890’s Mrs. Elizabeth Cohen, a widow, offered fashionable headwear to support her family. Like many shopkeepers of the time period, she lived above the store.
Next door to the hat shop is the Heinz House where Henry Heinz bottled his horseradish sauce in the basement and then began producing pickles and relishes for neighbors and friends. Moving on down the street, one of my favorite buildings was the Logan County Courthouse built in 1840 and formerly from Lincoln, Illinois. The courthouse is significant because Abraham Lincoln tried cases here as a traveling lawyer. Visiting once or twice a year, he worked mostly on cases resolving neighbors’ disagreements over land, contracts and debts. It was pretty cool to stand in this building and imagine Lincoln litigating his cases. One of the great things about Greenfield Village is that most of the buildings are staffed with knowledgeable and friendly docents who can provide a lot of information, like here at this former courthouse.
Ford purchased the one room school that he attended as a boy from the ages of 7 to 10. At certain times class is held here for visitors. I thought it might be full of kids but it was all adults and we were quizzed by the instructor on Michigan history and politics. There were questions on when the state received its statehood and location of the capital. Since I had recently visited the state capitol in Lansing, I was able to answer some of the questions 😊. After class I talked to the volunteer instructor who said he recently retired from teaching history at a local high school and wanting to stay active, applied to volunteer at Greenfield Village. He said he was very happy to get the school as his assignment. If I lived nearby I think I would put in an application to volunteer here too!
At one end of the Village Green is the Martha Mary Chapel that Ford built at the Village in 1929. The architecture is inspired by New England’s colonial era churches popular in the 1700’s. The beautiful church is named for his mother Mary and mother-in-law Martha.
At the other end of the Green is the Town Hall where we attended a fun Gershwin musical.
Music could be found in other places besides the Town Hall. Throughout the day, the Village Singers performed old time songs at various places along Main Street and the Village Green.
If one got tired of viewing the buildings and exhibits there was fun and games in the offering. The whole family could try out stilt walking, hoop rolling, croquet, skittles (type of bowling), or graces (hoops caught on the tips of wands).
Henry Ford obtained Luther Burbank’s birthplace built in 1800. Luther was born here in 1849 in Massachusetts. For those that haven’t heard of him, he was a well known botanist who developed hundreds of new varieties of the plants, fruits and vegetables we enjoy today, like the Shasta Daisy, Santa Rosa plum, freestone peach and certain types of nectarines and berries. His first success was the Russet Burbank potato which became the most common one used in commercial production like in McDonald’s fries. I can think of one McDonald’s fan (Mark?) who should be thankful to Luther. Mr. Burbank spent much of his life in Santa Rosa, California where we have toured his home and farm to see examples of the plants he developed.
During our visit the Burbank home was being used as a corn husk doll center with corn husk bodies soaking in water and tables covered with cloth, yarn and ribbons to create dolls and outfits. Since I had never made a corn husk doll I decided to give it a try with some help from a sweet young male volunteer who turned out to be much better at fashioning a skirt, shirt and scarf for my doll than I was.
This is just a small part of what can be seen in Greenfield. I really enjoyed my visit and since there was so much to see and do I decided to spend another full day here. Stay tuned for my next blog on more exploring in the Village!