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On Oct. 21, 1929, Henry Ford opened a historical attraction in his hometown of Dearborn unlike any other in the world. He built a museum that celebrated the industry of the 20th century, showcasing the innovations that changed the face of America. Outside the museum, he built a lasting shrine to the 19th century of his youth that took a romantic view of the past. Along the way, he did a fair bit of propagandizing too, turning a blind eye to the worst excesses of both centuries.
And yet, he bestowed upon the city of his birth a rich and fascinating legacy, including an institution that has earned its place among the top industrial and design museums in the world, and a “village” that is made of replicas and original buildings moved there from around the country.
The Henry Ford Museum covers 12 acres, including the building’s 9-acre Great Hall. Here you’ll find paeans to the motorcar, shrines to the steam engine, and praise of mobility and speed. Not only does the museum house the world’s oldest surviving steam engine (244 years old) but it holds entire powerhouses that have been moved there to give an idea of the machinery required to generate electricity. And it’s here that you can see what early locomotives like Stephenson’s 1829 Rocket looked like, and how they compare to one of the largest engines ever built as the museum houses an actual 600-ton Allegheny steam locomotive.
Though many of the exhibits definitely cater to those enamored of mechanical know-how, other items have broader appeal. For instance, the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat attracts general attention. Also notable are some slightly more ghoulish relics: the car in which John F. Kennedy was killed, and the rocking chair in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Other exhibits are more whimsical, such as the somewhat campy celebration of Buckminster Fuller’s architectural atrocity, the Dymaxion House.
As for Greenfield Village, the sprawling, 81-acre tribute to the America of Henry Ford’s youth, it is a unique collection of scores of historic buildings that reach back into the American past, from Henry Ford’s old Bagley Avenue workshop to the Midwest’s only fully functioning “roundhouse” for storing and repairing locomotives.
With so much history crowded together in one place, strange juxtapositions and disconnects abound. The village is a great beatitude to the individual craftsmanship of 19th century America, yet it was mass production and Fordism that standardized such craftsmanship out of existence. The New England Martha Mary chapel is mere yards from the banks of the faux-Mississippi Southern Suwanee Lagoon. The Noah Webster home sits next to the Robert Frost home, though Webster was more than 100 years Frost’s senior. The village, Henry Ford’s monument to an idealized America, is arguably a simulacrum of something that never was. In short, it’s enough to send a French deconstructionist into a swoon.
Though the Henry Ford (as it is now known) has endeavored to keep in step with the times by offering an IMAX theater, tours of the Rouge factory, and a state-of-the-art research center, it’s arguable that the activities that stand out most are the quaintest, such as historic baseball games or the antique auto shows.
And, in an interesting coincidence, “America’s Greatest History Attraction” will soon be celebrating some history entirely its own. On Oct. 21, 2004, what began as the Edison Institute will turn 75 years old.
Michael Jackman is a copy editor and writer for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.