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A world of invention in Greenfield

Part museum, part theme park, Henry Ford's monument to American ingenuity gets a major overhaul.

September 26, 2004|Greg Tasker | Special to The Times

Dearborn, Mich. — Riding around in a sturdy Model T, you might first see Greenfield Village as some sort of historical accident.

Down the road from Henry Ford's humble birthplace is the boyhood home of Orville and Wilbur Wright. The bicycle shop where the brothers developed the first successful powered aircraft is next door. And around the corner: Thomas A. Edison's laboratories, a cluster of brick and clapboard buildings where the inventor created the incandescent light bulb and the phonograph.

"Were Henry Ford and the Wright brothers neighbors? No, of course not, but people ask me that question all the time," said guide Don Ludwig, a retired high school teacher who tools visitors around the village in restored Model Ts. "Greenfield Village isn't a real town."

Here in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, headquarters of the Ford Motor Co., visitors can find Henry Ford's tribute to American ingenuity: a museum of famed inventors' homes, workshops and factories -- some replicas, some originals relocated from hundreds of miles away. Greenfield Village is a glimpse into the lives of Ford, the Wright brothers, Edison, dictionary creator Noah Webster, tire tycoon Harvey Firestone and others who changed the way we live.

Motoring along the village's tree-lined streets, it's hard to believe this pastoral setting isn't real -- especially after a $60-million refurbishment completed last year. A replica of Maryland's Burnside Bridge by the Antietam battlefield was added, as were old-fashioned lampposts and a new entrance. A thousand trees were planted. Antiquated pipes, electrical lines and other elements of the infrastructure were replaced. The historic buildings, however, remain the stars.

My daughter Chelsea, 12 at the time, didn't quite get it during our visit last fall. Everything looked so authentic: a white-steepled church, a town hall, a post office, a courthouse, a one-room schoolhouse, a general store and a 19th century inn, all hugging a park typical of a New England village.

"My father brought me here when I was a little kid," Ludwig said, nodding to Chelsea as we made our way back to a scaled-down replica of the first Ford plant. "I know what you're thinking. 'How can this not be real?' It's not real, but it's not Disneyland either. It's like you're stepping back in time."

That was Ford's intention. He didn't create Greenfield Village -- which, at 81 acres, is just slightly smaller than Disneyland -- to attract tourists or to satisfy his ego. His life story wasn't fully told here until after his death in 1947. Instead, he sought to preserve the past, to maintain a connection to a simpler time.

America on display

In the 1920s, Ford was approached to purchase and restore Williamsburg, Virginia's historic colonial town. But he preferred projects closer to home, eventually marking a field near his massive Rouge River factory for an educational institution, a place where students would learn history by exploring artifact-filled buildings from the past. He chose structures associated with fellow inventors and his heroes -- Abraham Lincoln and 19th century educator William Holmes McGuffey among them -- as well as ordinary Americans. Part of the goal was to show the nation's transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society.

Greenfield Village opened as a school in 1929. Demand to see the buildings and an adjoining museum prompted Ford to open the complex to the public in the summer of 1933.

I visited Greenfield Village as a boy and was enthralled by the scope of history among its 83 buildings and the opportunity to walk among the homes of famous men. Greenfield Village was a Disneyland, a fantasy place. As an adult, I enjoyed the bucolic setting but found the presentation staid. I often left wondering about Greenfield Village's ultimate significance.

I returned a year ago with my children -- Chelsea and her sister, Courtney, then 17 -- after the village reopened following a nine-month refurbishment.

In years past, visitors wandered among a hodgepodge of buildings as diverse as horticulturalist Luther Burbank's Massachusetts birthplace and a re-creation of Edison's laboratories in Menlo Park, N.J. But 10 structures were relocated as part of the improvement project so that the buildings are grouped into seven themed districts.

Edison at Work constitutes one district. Others focus on railroading, farming and early American manufacturing. Burbank's home is found in Porches and Parlors, a neighborhood of American homes from as far back as the 1650s. The reorganization helped us make sense of the place. With its freshly paved streets and sidewalks, new signs and landscaping, Greenfield had a more polished appearance.

Ford's legacy was even more pronounced. A series of buildings called Henry Ford's Model T traced the innovator's life, from his humble beginnings to the founding of his company.

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