- Historic Sites
What happened when the richest man in America decided to collect one of everything
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
It is no accident, surely, that the Model T’s imminent doom coincided with the birth of the idea of Greenfield Village. That he eventually would build a museum for his enormous collection was an idea Ford had had in mind for some time. He even had toyed with the idea for re-creating some sort of old New England village on history-rich property he owned in Sudbury, Massachusetts. In 1926, however, he decided otherwise. Sudbury was too far away for what the Motor King now needed. The “saner and sweeter” life it was supposed to re-create he now wanted close by. A large vacant field lay adjacent to the experimental laboratory, not far from the new Ford Airport. No history attached to the place whatever. There, nonetheless, Ford decided to erect a completely imaginary, Ford-crafted American village. By early 1927, Edward Cutler, a company draftsman—Ford avoided experts like the plague—was laying out the ground plan using the colonial New England village as the prototype.
Now Ford’s army found itself with a new collecting assignment. This one, however, was subtle and exacting. Ford agents were to keep an eye out for old buildings—homes, mills, shops, depots—which, when suitably deployed on Ford’s property, would show not only, in Ford’s words, “how our forefathers lived” but also “the force and courage they had. ” There were obvious Ford prohibitions to observe. There was to be no bank, no lawyer’s office, no rich man’s palace. It was not they who had made America great; Ford was strongly inclined to think they had been working in the opposite direction. There were personal predilections to heed. Despite Ford’s philistine pose in public, he had a keen eye for Greek-revival architecture; its clean, white classical lines, he believed, best expressed the republican spirit of America. The style would abound in the village. Knowing Mr. Ford’s biography would help considerably too. His engineering career had begun with a boyhood passion for clocks and watches. Three jewelry stores eventually would wind up in the village. In Ford’s early manhood when he was trying to avoid farming—an occupation he detested—he had eked out a rural living sawing his trees into lumber. Two old-time “up-and-down” sawmills would also find their way to Dearborn.
Around the time the last Model T rolled off the great assembly line, Ford brought his first building to the village—a seventy-five-year-old general store, the true social center of every old American hamlet. The owner was happy to exchange it for the spanking new brick emporium which Ford agreed to erect in its place. A later acquisition was a mournfully decrepit stagecoach inn—the Motor King was particularly partial to horse-and-buggy relics—which had been standing in Clinton, Michigan, since 1831, the first stop on the rough frontier road from Detroit to Chicago. After gently displacing the dotty old lady who lived in one room of the inn, Ford’s crew dismantled the sagging ruin, shipped it to Dearborn, and restored it to its original, sparkling white, neoclassical self. Outfitting the taproom, parlor, kitchen, and bedrooms with appropriate period furnishings was, of course, no trouble whatever to the man who collected everything. It stood next to the store on the embryonic village green.
The Motor King intended his museum cum village to be a mighty memorial to Thomas Edison, the only man living whom Ford himself held in awe. Within the greater memorial Ford decided in March, 1928, to erect a more specific one to the Wizard of Menlo Park, a place Edison had abandoned back in 1887. At immense cost in time, labor, money, and meticulous research, Ford restored from bare, pillaged ruins in New Jersey the entire Menlo Park compound, including the laboratory, the glass house, the machine shop, the white picket fence, and even the boardinghouse just across the street where Edison’s hard-driven aides took time out to sleep. When Ford proudly showed Edison his handiwork—a masterpiece of restoration—the octogenarian inventor remarked: “Why Henry’s even got the damn New Jersey clay here.” He had, too—carloads of the red stuff, along with the stump of an old hickory tree that had once grown near the laboratory. In 1929 Ford also acquired for his nascent village the Smiths Creek Depot of the Grand Trunk railway because young Edison had worked in it as a telegrapher after being tossed out there by a railway conductor for starting a fire in the baggage car. Even the official dedication of the Edison Institute was timed as a tribute to Edison. The institute’s first public act was to host the nationally broadcast celebration of the electric light’s fiftieth birthday. At the glittering banquet in Ford’s half-built museum the grand old man broke down and cried.
Ford’s collection had grown with astonishing speed, but the village was destined to grow slowly. Each year the Motor King would add two or three buildings, rarely more. With tender affection he gathered up shops and homes that paid homage to the men he admired—to unsung blacksmiths, machinists, and frontier farmers; to Luther Burbank and Charles Steinmetz, to McGuffey and the Wright brothers, and also to George Matthew Adams, Ford’s favorite newspaper columnist. Ford was never quite willing to separate his own past and America’s past, although he kept his own family homestead apart from the village almost until his death. Whatever Greenf ield Village would mean to his countrymen, for Ford himself it was his own vanished youth restored, his own private time machine.