Greenfield Village, Michigan: Henry Ford’s Historic Legacy

Last month, Linda and I spent eight days vacationing in Michigan. We went there with two goals in mind: first, to see October’s fall colors minus busloads of New England tourists; second, to visit Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Greenfield Village can best be described as the personal passion and indulgence of one man, and that would be Henry Ford, one of history’s greatest industrialists and one of its richest men.

We stayed at Ford’s Dearborn Inn, a short walk from Greenfield Village and “The Henry Ford,” a vast and incredible museum – the indoor manifestation of Henry Ford’s personal desire to preserve the past and a reflection of his young world and the ideals he held dear. Henry Ford and his favorite motorcar, the ubiquitous Model T Ford, were driving forces behind the great mobilization of America at the turn of the twentieth century. Ford quickly became one of the country’s richest and most famous men. With both the means and a personal vision, Ford spent millions to create a living legacy to both the technology of his day and the way of life which invention and industrialization were busily changing… forever.

Greenfield Village is a concentrated restoration/recreation of many of America’s finest times and places. Thomas Edison’s famous research laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, is faithfully recreated and, indeed, literally reassembled in the Village. The first viable electric light bulb was perfected in 1879…in this building!

Also present is the original bicycle shop brought from Dayton, Ohio, in which Orville and Wilbur Wright conceived and developed the first powered airplane. Their first successful heavier-than-air flight in 1903 ushered in the era of aviation.

A significant part of the Wright Brothers’ research into the controllability and sustainability of flight took place behind the storefront of the Wright Cycle Shop. Much of the activity and the equipment is beautifully displayed, here.

I was long skeptical, early-on, about the concept of Greenfield Village, visualizing it perhaps as a sort of historical Disneyland creation. Once there, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Henry Ford was maniacally dedicated to authenticity and to preserving as much of the original buildings and artifacts as humanly possible. The original buildings restored/recreated here were literally disassembled by teams of Ford workers on their original, distant sites, packed and crated, and shipped at great expense to Dearborn on the way to their final resting places at Greenfield Village. Greenfield represents Henry Ford’s fervent devotion to authentically preserving a way of life which, perhaps sorrowfully, he realized would be unalterably changed by the industrialization and modernization for which he, as much as anyone, was responsible.

Mr. Ford, it seems, realized early the undeniable fact that tangible property and historical sites, no matter how important, were doomed to succumb to “progress” unless privately owned, funded, and maintained. As Linda and I strolled from attraction to attraction and learned from the docents inside, I came to realize the wisdom in Ford’s contention. Yes, it would be wonderful if Edison’s famous research laboratory still sat beautifully preserved on its original site in Menlo Park, New Jersey; the same can be said of the Wright Cycle Shop in Dayton, Ohio. The odds against that being the case were always practically zero in a society which is ruled by money and which too often looks forward and, almost never, backward to absorb the lessons and wisdom inherent in historical perspective. To his great credit and our good fortune, Henry Ford understood and acted by leaving us the next best thing.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford: Kindred Spirits

The influence of Thomas Edison is seen throughout Greenfield Village. Like Edison, Henry Ford had little formal education. Ford also realized two facts at an
early age: one, that he could never be happy following his parents as farmers; two,
that he had both an interest in and an aptitude for things mechanical. In fact, as a young man, he went to work in Thomas Edison’s light bulb factory, becoming foreman in less than a year. Soon, Ford’s growing ambition to work on things strictly mechanical led him to begin pondering the possibility of building an automobile. Others had similar ideas, but no one else envisioned the automobile as anything other than a toy for the wealthy, let alone as a necessity for the average man. It was Ford’s vision and ingenuity which led him, quite literally, to “invent” both the notion and the process of mass production. His embodiment of that vision came with the Model T which was introduced in 1908. In a market where others sold their fancy automobiles for close to $2000, Ford was selling his down-to-earth, practical and reliable Model T for $650 – and you could get it in any color as long as it was black! Of course, the economics of the production line dictated a single color only at such a price, but Ford carried his analysis of production line realities far beyond the obvious. As one of the early practitioners of production line time-and-motion studies, Henry Ford had determined that black paint dried much more quickly than did other colors – a fact supported by scientific knowledge that explains the fact that black absorbs heat much more readily than lighter colors. One might counter that the difference would prove minimal, but one would be wrong given that multiple paint coats were applied. In fact, a light color such yellow or white would consume twelve times the total drying time in the Ford process than would black! I found that fact to be extremely interesting.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both placed a premium on ingenuity, common sense, empirical testing, and hard work as the primary ingredients of success. They also displayed an inherent distrust of venturing too far into scientific research and theoretical speculation. This alienation from advanced learning and engineering was to cause them both problems along the way, especially Edison who utterly failed in his massive bid to supply direct current electricity to the many minions who had bought his light bulbs before the turn of the nineteenth century. My next blog post will deal with that dramatic and extremely important story.

The marker adds: “Henry Ford greatly admired Thomas Edison.” It goes on to say that Edison sat for the sculpture during the last months of his life.

Another Edison site in Greenfield Village that re-kindled my interest as a retired electrical engineer was the reconstructed Edison “electric power station” which contains one of the original six DC (direct current) dynamos (electrical generators) used by Edison to power and illuminate several square blocks around Pearl Street in downtown New York in 1882. This Edison enterprise was the first “electric power station” in America. Despite its potential importance and the great hoopla surrounding its success in lighting a small section of downtown New York for several years, the enterprise along with Edison’s plans to corner the imminent American electrical market was doomed to spectacular failure.

As already mentioned, my next blog post will explore Thomas Edison’s losing battle in the electrical current wars waged between direct and alternating current to supply the nation’s immense power grid-to-be.

And I promise that no technical expertise will be necessary for you, the reader!

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