Greenfield Village Post Office
A twenty minute drive from Detroit's Metro Airport, near three interstate highways, the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village is one of Michigan's premier tourist attractions. Predictably, it has a large transportation collection with a steamboat ride, locomotives, planes and, of course, cars. Like other American heritage centers, Greenfield Village has also developed the idea of a `living history' of everyday life.
Another great model! What is really needed is a sheet full of seagulls for the canneries and fish shack. If you have ever been to the Gulf Coast, you will know why. They are everywhere. In large flocks, very large flocks. It can be like being in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. ymp, John
Chip, You have no idea how much I'm enjoying these great pieces of art that you send me. I'm still a kid at 56. Just don't know where I'm gonna put 'em all but they sure are habit forming. Please don't stop. Thanks much, Dave
Greenfield Village History
Of the many sayings of Henry Ford, none has endured better than `History is bunk'. In an interview with Charles Wheeler of the Chicago Tribune on May 25th, 1916, Ford said: `History is more or less bunk. It's tradition.' The comment caused no immediate stir, but almost a month later, a Ford company spokesman inaccurately told the Tribune that Ford employees, answering President Woodrow Wilson's call for the National Guard to be mustered due to the revolution in Mexico, would face the sack. Coming alongside Ford's recent opposition to Wilson's calls for military preparedness, the episode prompted a sweeping condemnation. A Tribune editorial attacked Ford `not merely as an ignorant idealist, but as an anarchistic enemy of the nation which protects him in his wealth'. Unwisely, Ford sued for libel and the subsequent court proceedings from May to August 1919 publicized his dictum to the world.
The Tribune's strategy was to prove Ford's ignorance rather than his anarchism and its counsel did so effectively, especially with regard to American history. Having failed to name immediately the date of American independence, Ford was reminded of his earlier dismissal of history. He replied 'I did not say it was bunk. It was bunk to me ... but I did not need it very bad.' Returning to the history of the American Revolution, the Tribune's lawyer asked: who was Benedict Arnold? Ford responded: 'I have forgotten just who he is. He is a writer, I think.' Ford's confusion of probably the most notorious traitor in his country's history with the engineering journalist Horace Arnold who had co-authored Ford Methods and the Ford Shops in 1915 seemed to substantiate the Tribune's allegations of ignorance. Under exam conditions, the New York Times concluded, Ford 'has not received a pass degree.' The outcome was harder on Ford than the newspaper. After ten hours deliberation, on August 14th, 1919, the jury of twelve Michigan farmers found the Tribune guilty of libel but fined it just six cents.
According to his close associate E.G. Liebold, it was on the way home from the Tribune debacle that Ford decided to create a museum to `give the people an idea of real history.' He had already started to restore his father's farm in Dearborn and he now began collecting Americana in earnest. In the mid-1920s, he constructed an educational complex near Sudbury, Massachusetts, centering on the Wayside Inn of Henry Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn, Around the refurbished and remodeled inn, Ford, the temperance advocate, had other buildings reconstructed. His most publicized acquisition was the schoolhouse supposedly attended by `Mary' of `Mary Had A Little Lamb' fame. Controversy broke out over the authenticity of the schoolgirl-with-lamb story, but Ford himself was probably more impressed by the fact that the rhyme was the first thing Thomas Edison ever recorded on the phonograph.
More ironic was the deal Ford struck with local authorities to move the main Boston to New York highway (Route 20) away from the inn so as to preserve the quiet of his rural community from the rush and noise of car traffic. But Ford saw no terrible contradiction in his actions. `We have both lost and gained in the movement of modern industry', he declared calmly in 1926. With an appreciation for both past values and present opportunities, he believed that humanity could both accept the gains and repair the losses.
In his home community of Dearborn, Michigan, Ford extended this idea of historical reconstruction by creating Greenfield Village. To supplement his collection of everyday objects and implements, he began to plan a new collection of buildings, particularly those associated with familiar events and famous people. Significantly, everyday objects from the recent past were to be fundamental to his collection -- a wooden milking pail with matching stool were as worthyshy of preservation as an ancient sword or a monarch's throne. Each building, he insisted -- be it a log-cabin, a general store, a schoolhouse, or a machine shop -- would contain appropriate furniture, household objects, and tools, all of which would work. The schools would have classes complete with lessons from the McGuffey Reader which Ford recalled from his own childhood.
Predictably, given Ford's hostility to militarism and his interest in technology, the people celebrated in his museum were not just the presidents and generals who had tended to dominate national commemoration until that time. Although Ford acquired the Logan Courthouse where the young Lincoln had pleaded cases, he also obtained the Wright Brothers' workshop, and most sacred of all in Ford's eyes, the original laboratory and out-buildings from Menlo Park, New Jersey, where Thomas Edison had pioneered electric lighting and the phonograph. Ford even brought several car loads of red clay from the original site to pack around the lab, a decision that eventually cost the shipper, the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1,400 in fines. The company had not treated the soil and was prosecuted by the US Department of Agriculture for dumping' the larvae of enough Japanese and Asiatic beetles to have done a great deal of havoc' to Michigan crops.
Something more metaphysical than beetle larvae lay beneath Ford's re-creation of Menlo Park. His reverence for Edison was based not just on the respect of one small-town Michigan lad for another: Ford had worked for the Detroit Edison Company in the mid-1890s and he never forgot how at a company dinner in August 1896, Edison had encouraged him to persevere with his efforts to build a gasoline powered car rather than an electric or steam driven vehicle. Thereafter, Ford regarded Edison as his mentor and initially the whole Dearborn development was called the Edison Institute. The dedication of the Institute was scheduled for October 21st, 1929, the fiftieth anniversary of Edison's successful demonstration of the electric light bulb. The ageing `Wizard of Menlo Park' together with his old assistant Francis Johl, re-enacted the experiment as part of the ceremony. Praising the fidelity of Ford's reconstructed buildings, Edison could find only one fault. A crestfallen Ford asked what it might be and Edison chuckled, 'It's too damned clean!'
In one of his notebooks, Ford wrote: `God needed Edison', a statement which, as historian David Nye has pointed out, sums up much of Ford's personal philosophy. In the late 1920's Ford collaborated on an inspirational self-help book entitled The Power That Wins in which he propounded the idea of a central guiding consciousness whose messages individuals received when they were in 'the right mental state to receive them'. He explained further that `As with a properly tuned antenna, thoughts seem to come to those ready to receive them.' Edison had been receptive to destiny's wave-band. Ford's image of the process of communication was actually more one of spiritual dispatch riders than of radio broadcasts. He described humans as 'central stations with myriads of entities going and coming all the time with messages.' Once accepted, such entities clustered around the soul and were carried from one incarnation to the next. Given Ford's conviction that Edison was one of the universal brain's preferred receivers, it is hardly surprising that he gathered the relics of the Wizard's past for future generations. Indeed, he allegedly pursued his logic to the end; the capstone of his collection was supposedly a small vial labeled `Edison's last breath!'
Greenfield Village represents more than just an early heritage center. While it may be read as a precursor of the post-modern in its re-presentation and com modification of the past, its origins lay in older cultural traditions of spiritualism and romanticism. The French historian Pierre Nora has remarked on the twentieth century's proliferation of lieux de memoire as a sign of the acceleration of history. `We speak so much of memory', he writes, `because there is so little of it left.' We have our sites of memory because we no longer have milieux de memoire, the real environments of memory which Nora associates with peasant cultures. Ford believed that his inventions -- the mass-produced car and a museum of everyday life -- would facilitate and sustain a sense of connection. At the end of what some have called the Fordist era, both may more accurately convey an overriding sense of rupture and of transience which technology mediates, perhaps in a sense medicates, but can never defy.
Peter Ling is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Nottingham and the author of America and the Automobile: Technology, Reform and Social Change (Manchester University Press, 1990).