Henry Ford created the ultimate geek history museum complex of the Industrial Revolution in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.
Collectively called "The Henry Ford" the history museum complex is comprised of the large indoor Henry Ford Museum, and the outdoor Greenfield Village. The museum complex also has an IMAX movie theatre and offers the Ford Rouge Factory Tour.
Ford collects the history of the common man
In the Chicago Tribune in 1916 Henry Ford was quoted as saying that "history is more or less bunk." Ford qualified that remark by saying he was referring to written history which talked about wars and politicians, but the history taught in school did not record the history of the common man.
By the late 1920s, Henry Ford had become the primary collector of Americana in the world. Ford started with collecting antiques and household goods, but he later moved on to collecting historic structures with the creation of Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford also began collecting materials for a museum with a theme of practical technology.
The Edison Institute opened in 1929 as a private site for educational purposes only, based on Henry Ford's desire to preserve items of historical significance and portray the Industrial Revolution. The Edison Institute Museum, now known as The Henry Ford Museum, is a traditional museum reflecting Henry Ford's love of farm tools, home appliances, furniture and industrial machines. There are also large exhibits of automotive and locomotive technology.
Next door to the Henry Ford Museum is Greenfield Village, a vast array of famous homes and buildings that Henry Ford moved from their original location and reconstructed there. One of the most interesting analogies I have heard describing Greenfield Village is that Henry Ford collected buildings like some people collect stamps.
The original purpose for Greenfield Village, from Henry Ford's point of view, was for educational purposes. He felt the best way for the country's youth to learn by experiencing things first-hand. Many of the first buildings at Greenfield Village were from the life of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Ford named it Greenfield Village, after his wife's hometown.
Greenfield Village started with a loving restoration of Ford's boyhood home. When workmen recovered broken bits of his mother's dishes, Ford had her china reproduced and placed on the shelves just as it had been when he was growing up. He built a replica of the workbench where he had repaired watches as a boy, scoured antique shops to find furniture he remembered from his youth, and filled dresser drawers with shawls like those his mother had worn.
Edison's laboratory from Menlo Park
One of the many buildings there from the life and time of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison is a reconstruction of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory complex from New Jersey. The building along with several boxcars of soil surrounding it, were moved from New Jersey to Greenfield Village in Michigan.
The buildings were laid out according to exact foundation measurements from the original site. The exhibit was furnished with original item or faithful duplicates placed in the lab as they would be found in the original setting. Each structure has several people throughout them to tell the story and answer questions. One story that was told inside Edison's lab was how the several boxcars of soil that surrounded the Menlo Park site in New Jersey was transported as well to Michigan, not only to give the area the proper look and feel, but also to sift through the soil for artifacts from the original building that were in the soil. For for all that you can say bad about Edison's life, you simply can not deny his genius. With the way the lab is configured you can see a mind at work, and an attention to detail.
In 1929 the lab was opened with a dedication ceremony attended by Edison himself. Henry Ford decided on October 21, 1929, as the dedication date for his new museum and village, on the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Edison’s first successful experiment with a suitable approach to manufacturing an incandescent lamp.
Ford asked Edison to recreate the experiment where they had produced the first successful Edison light bulb. Edison, more than 80 years old at the time of the dedication, had to sit for much of the ceremony. The chair that Edison sat it when the exhibit was dedicated in 1929 has been nailed to the floor, never to be moved, and never to be sat in again. If you look closely in the attached photo, you can see the area around the chair has attached to the chair and was removed as part of the chair when improvements were made to the interior flooring many years after the original dedication in 1929.
The Menlo Park lab 1929 dedication site where Edison sat became a holy ground. It is a shrine in every sense of the word, a sacred place dedicated to a specific figure of respect with numerous objects associated with the figure being worshiped. Edison died in 1931 two years after it opened to the public.
Understanding the life of Thomas Edison
You hear stories about Edison being totally obsessed by his work, to the point of ignoring his family. It makes you wonder if that was the key to the success of many famous people. Edison was not the easiest man to work with, but listening to the story of his Menlo Park lab you really get the feeling of a work hard, play hard mentality. His workers were his family. His laboratory was like a giant frat house. For those who have no idea what that means, go watch the movie Animal House. It appears that while the crew at his lab worked hard as they were pushed by Edison to produce, they had their times when they were like a big fraternity of guys. it seems a bit crazy that a man that was hard of hearing enjoyed music, he had an organ in his Menlo Park lab to entertain the workers when they took a break. I get the impression that Edison enjoyed being the father figure in his frat house atmosphere.
The folks at the Greenfield Village really get you into the what it was like to be in the lab when Edison was there. It is like going back in time over 100 years, you can get a feel for what Edison did, and how he lived. For for all that you can say bad about Edison's life, you simply can not deny his genius. With the way the lab is configured you can see a mind at work, and an attention to detail.
Edison encouraged Ford to follow his dream
In the relationship between Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, I see much more personality in Ford, than I do with Edison. But I also see that father figure in the Ford and Edison relationship. Henry Ford was an engineer working for Edison Electric, but his dream was to produce automobiles. Edison encouraged Ford to pursue his dreams, and he did, eventually creating Ford Motor Company, one of the most successful automobile companies of all time.
Edison was not necessarily mean to anyone in particular, that was his demeanor, a very shrewd character. The tour guides told the story of Edison visiting the lab at Dearborn, Michigan, after Ford had it moved and rebuilt. It sounded like Henry Ford was very proud of what he had done, and perhaps Edison was not as impressed.
Reflections on The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village
I really try to understand technology history, not just quote Wikipedia articles and urban legends. I visited The Thomas Edison Depot Museum in Port Huron, Michigan in the area where Edison lived as a boy, and visited the Henry Ford Museum and the Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, where his Menlo Park Complex was rebuild, to really understand as much as I can first hand about Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
Henry Ford was lifelong friends with one of the most famous geeks of the twentieth century, Thomas Alva Edison. I knew that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were lifelong friends before I visited Greenfield Village. What I did not realize before that was just how deeply Ford worshiped Edison. As I viewed the many exhibits and listed to the guides describe the inventions of Edison, it became clear to me that the Greenfield Village is a shrine to Thomas Edison.
I loved Greenfield Village and would not hesitate to go back. I was not as excited about the Henry Ford museum, but that is my personal bias, having just visited many automotive museums in Indiana and Michigan in recent years, going through a museum that was heavy into automobiles was not as impressive to me as it may be for someone who has not been to as many museums.
There is not doubt that Henry Ford worshiped Thomas Edison. Even with Henry Ford's somewhat skewed and bias vision of history, Ford is to be commended for coming up with the concept of Greenfield Village. It is truly amazing. The Henry Ford does a a good job of taking us back in time, to give us a feel for life in the 19th century. The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village is the ultimate geek history complex of the Industrial Revolution.
Follow this link to check out the Driving America Exhibit Henry Ford Museum