November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
I spent the summer of 1964, between my junior and senior years in hish school, doing yardwork for various neighbors in the village of Bronxville, New York. I was neither a diligent gardener nor a skilled one, but late one Sunday afternoon I found that my haphazard exertions over the past two days had earned me forty dollars. The next day my friend Paul Chrystal drove me into Yonkers, where I gave the forty dollars to a man who in turn handed me the keys and registration to his ten-year-old Pontiac. The car was half the size of the apartment I now inhabit; it carried on its snout an Indian head that glowed orange at night, and it was powered by a patient, slow-breathing straight-eight engine. It ran quietly and smoothly and required nothing except the gasoline that at that time went for twenty-seven cents a gallon.
I was never especially fond of my Pontiac, and it certainly never occurred to me that there was anything remarkable about the way I got it. Nobody ever thinks he’s living in an epoch, but I was: I had been pushing my lawn mower through an extraordinary cusp of American history, a time when a lazy adolescent could earn enough in a weekend to buy a serviceable automobile.
Last winter a splendid exhibition called “The Automobile in American Life” not only made me think about my Pontiac for the first time in years but suggested both the spaciousness and the passing of the era I hadn’t known was one. The exhibit was born in some controversy when, a few years back, the curators of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, decided to thin out their huge exhibit of automobiles row on row and fender to fender, and instead put the cars in a cultural context.
Some people protested; that immense mute marshaling was what Henry Ford had wanted. But the new installation has been accomplished with great imagination and verve, and there are still plenty of cars to look at.
The curators chose several ways in which the car has made its immeasurable impact on American life, and they have given each a special area: “Designing the Automobile,” for instance, and “The Car as Symbol.” But perhaps the most stirring of the exhibits is “Automotive Landscape,” where the cars are joined by the vernacular architecture that grew up around them. Here is Lamy’s Diner, brought from Marlboro, Massachusetts, and so perfectly refurbished that when Clovis Lamy, the man who built it in 1946, saw it a few months ago, he wept. Across the way are a trim, square, cream and scarlet Texaco station from the 1930s and beside it a dispiriting 1930s tourist cabin authentically equipped right down to plastic ants picking their way across a comb. Nearby is a McDonald’s sign from 1960; the panel on the side says OVER 200 MILLION SOLD (five miles away on Michigan Avenue, a McDonald’s advertises 75 billion sold), and the yellow neon of the arch sparkles on the deep blue hood of the ’56 Chevy Bel Air beneath it.
That reflection triggered my memories of the Pontiac, and seeing all those humdrum fixtures of my teens assembled in a room that also contained steam engines and biplanes and Conestoga wagons and other things that propelled people in their eras gave me a strong sense of the closing of the one my Pontiac represented. I remembered sitting in the big old car one afternoon and chuckling with my friends over the mild pathos of the fact that Honda, which produced adequate motorcycles, was going to try to sell Japanese automobiles in America.
This may sound like quite a lot to draw from a scribble of neon, but all that shining machinery ignites strong associations in people. At one point a man studying a 1960s ad for a Ford Fairlane declared with enough vehemence to make passersby stop and stare, “God, I loved that car! I’ve never loved a car like I loved that one!”
Despite those who felt this exhibition ran counter to its founder’s intentions, I think it would have pleased Henry Ford. He would have certainly approved of the sort of obsessiveness that put the ants on the comb.
Ford collected the way he built cars: on a stupendous, unparalleled scale. Bevond the automobiles in the museum are the railroad locomotives that started Americans gadding about in the first place, and beyond them, every imaginable piece of agricultural equipment. Then there are washing machines, dynamos, radios, airplanes, horsecars, clocks, superb Federal furniture, violins, glassware…And that’s just indoors. Outside is Greenfield Village, where Ford kept his collection of buildings.
His titanic hobby began with an irony. In 1919 the torrent of traffic he had helped unleash forced the city of Dearborn to do some street widening and in the process to condemn the farm on which Henry had been born fifty-six years earlier. When Ford heard about this, he moved the building away from the encroaching road. Then he decided he wanted it restored and then—any collector will recognize the fatal progression—that he wanted to fill it with authentic furnishings from his youth. All this was done, of course, and when it was over, Ford was a collector. His sense of his own past grew and merged with his sense of the nation’s past (indeed, few people have a more legitimate claim to so grandiose a personal vision), and he began gathering everything that would reveal the workings of that past.
His communications with an English agent named Herbert Morton suggest the way you could go about things if you were Henry Ford. Would it be possible, he asked Morton, to put together a complete collection of steam engines from the very beginning? Yes, said Morton; steam apparatus had a long life, and enough still existed, but “the cost … would be enormous.” Ford thought that over. “Well, I’ll tell you—I’ll spend ten million dollars.” He got his engines.
We want to have something of everything,” said Ford in 1926. We shall reproduce the life of the country in its every age.” By now he was planning a village as well as a museum, and the life it would reproduce would be very much life as Henry Ford viewed it. There would be no bank in his town, and no law office, because bankers and lawyers only made trouble. There would be several jewelry stores, because he had worked in them as a boy, and there would be the Detroit Illuminating Company, because it had been as supervisor there that he met Thomas Edison in 1896.
Ford admired Edison above all people, and Greenfield Village would in large part be a tribute to him. Ford transplanted not only the Menlo Park laboratory where Edison had perfected his electric light but also the New Jersey clay on which it stood and the boardinghouse where Edison’s assistants had lived. He also admired the Wright brothers, and so he brought the cycle shop where they had conducted their tremendous experiments, and their Dayton, Ohio, home. Ford ordered that the very mortar that had bound together its stone foundation be reground and reconstituted to serve again.
Because the changes that had overtaken America had come at such a pace, Ford was able to have the men who had wrought them on hand to advise him: Orville made sure the proper furniture went in its proper places in the Wright parlor, and Thomas Edison journeyed out on October 21, 1929, the fiftieth anniversary of his light, to dedicate what Henry Ford had built.
Ford lived another eighteen years, and his museum grew ever more full and fascinating. To it came Noah Webster’s New Haven home and the courthouse from Logan County, Illinois, where the young Abraham Lincoln practiced law, a tidewater Maryland plantation, the Ohio farm where Harvey Firestone was born, and the lunch wagon where Ford used to grab a sandwich when he had the night shift at Detroit Illuminating.
Some of the exhibits are amusing, and a few are heartbreaking. When Edsel Ford, Henry’s only son, died in 1943 after being tormented for years by his increasingly irrational father, Henry built as a monument a copy of the garage shop where father and son had once worked amicably together.
It’s all as idiosyncratic as it sounds, and yet it succeeds in fulfilling its creator’s design. Going through the museum and Greenfield Village is to walk through Henry Ford’s mind, which is a very interesting place, but along with that and with all the personal associations the collection can trigger—my Pontiac, my fellow visitor’s Fairlane—there really are gathered here the strands of the nation’s past.
Once, stopping at a house he was planning to move, where he had spent much time as a boy, Ford made a discovery. “I found some marbles, put a few in the palm of my hand, and as I applied pressure, they disintegrated. Life, change, had gone on.” It is not the least accomplishment of the man who once claimed he had invented modern times to have retrieved for us the past he did so much to annihilate.