What happened when the richest man in America decided to collect one of everything
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
The whole curious enterprise puzzled Americans in the 1920’s. Here was mighty Henry Ford, the man who said history was “more or less bunk,” collecting on a titanic scale every jot and tittle of the American past that he and his emissaries could lay hands on—four-poster beds, banjo clocks, cigar-store Indians, old boots, gas lamps, rusty old threshers, and wooden flails. Here was the near legendary “Motor King,” who once told the press that he wanted only to “live in the Now,” conducting visitors to his family homestead in Dearborn and showing them, with a soft gleam in his eyes, how he had restored it to the way it had looked in 1876 when he was a thirteen-year-old schoolboy. Here was the “father of mass production” collecting old stagecoach stops, rude machine shops, antique bicycles, and Conestoga wagons. “It is,” said The New York Times , “as if Stalin went in for collecting old ledgers and stock-tickers.”
From his impregnable industrial fortress at Dearborn the Motor King, entranced by his mission, kept on collecting. A Ford engineer in England gathered up for his boss huge abandoned steam pumps dating back to the eighteenth century. A New England antiquary brought him old gristmills and broken-down lathes. Thirty-five thousand Ford dealers, under instructions from the “Dictator of Dearborn,” scoured the countryside, unpaid, in search of Staffordshire china, antiquated stoves, and ante-bellum mousetraps. Old buildings, too, fell into the net and duly got shipped off to Dearborn: a Michigan log cabin, an 1850’s firehouse, an old general store, an Illinois courthouse frequented by the young Lincoln.
The old tools and machinery became the core of a stupendous museum; the old buildings, reassembled, became a stunning 260-acre historic American town—“Greenfield Village,” Ford called it. On October 21, 1929, when the entire world celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Edison’s invention of the incandescent light, the eighty-two-year-old inventor sat down in his old Menlo Park laboratory and re-enacted the epoch-making moment when he had at long last tried the filament that worked. The Menlo Park laboratory, however, was no longer in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was in Ford’s brand-new old American village in Dearborn, looking exactly as it had looked, every last chemical jar in place, on October 21, 1879. The chair which the aged inventor had sat on during the ceremony Henry Ford ordered nailed to the floor; he considered the re-enactment a historic event in itself. It marked the opening of his combination village and museum, known collectively then and now as the Edison Institute.
“You know,” the Motor King confided to an aide at the time, “it will take people fifty years to appreciate this place.” The half-century mark has come and gone, but Ford’s reconstruction of the American past in Dearborn is still more than a little puzzling. Irony and paradox are everywhere. In 1929 Ford had called his re-creation “The Early American Village,” but it is surely like no American village that ever was or could have been. Turn down a muddy, unpaved street past the serene New England-style village green and the time-machine illusion is perfect. The past is present, captivating and ineffably moving, especially so on an icy winter morning when Greenfield Village is almost deserted and an old hay wagon drawn by a farm horse rattles by on some ghostly mission.
Turn down the main residential street, however, and what does one make of an early American village whose residents—judging by the houses they once lived in—include William McGuffey, Luther Burbank, Noah Webster, a Georgia slave driver named Mattox, and Henry Ford’s favorite schoolteacher? This is a record of something, but it is hard to say of what—beyond the certain fact that it meant much to the Motor King.
In Greenfield Village the American past and Henry Ford seem to have gotten wonderfully intermixed. The old-time jewelry store, beautifully preserved and stocked, once employed young Ford to clean and repair its customers’ clocks. The typical 1880’s machine shop—every lathe driven by a single overhead shaft—supplied a steam generator for Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Company, Station “A,” where Ford worked for years as chief engineer; a replica of the station stands proudly in the village. Ford is nearly everywhere. The prosperous white painted farmhouse is the Ford family farm. The rude back-yard shop nearby is the place where Ford in 1896 built his first horseless carriage, the “quadricycle.” The late-nineteenth-century hamburger stand in the village had Ford as a customer when he worked late at the Detroit Edison plant. There are eerie moments walking through Greenfield Village (which is named after Mrs. Ford’s hometown in Michigan) when the visitor feels he has strolled not into the American past but into an autobiography, and that the village itself is a vast, three-dimensional reconstruction of one man’s mind. In the village Ford’s own life even defines what constitutes the past. The oldest industrial building in Greenfield Village is a replica of the first factory of the Ford Motor Company, founded in 1903. So, for Henry Ford, that was the year which divided the American past from the American future, and of course, Ford was largely correct.