Henry Ford Museum: Rich History of a Great Inventor

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Henry Ford
Visitors to Greenfield Village can ride in Model T Fords. Jackie Sheckler Finch photos

Henry Ford Museum Honors More than Cars

By Jackie Sheckler Finch
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

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A glass vial contains the dying breath of famed inventor Thomas Edison.

A glass vial with the dying breath of famed inventor Thomas Edison.

The maroon chair, still bloodstained, where President Lincoln was assassinated at the Ford Theater.

A folding camp bed that General George Washington actually slept in during the Revolutionary War.

Henry Ford was a collector. As one of the world’s first billionaires, Ford had the money to collect whatever struck his fancy. Instead of expensive works of art or precious gems, however, Ford liked to save pieces of everyday life from the past.

“The reason why a lot of these things still exist is Henry Ford,” said Kaitlin Scharra Eraqi, former supervisor of museum programs at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan. “Here we present 300 years of history with a wide range of things.”

Ford Collected Everyday Items

A quote from Ford explains why he was so interested in his unusual collection: “When I went to our American history books to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land, I discovered that the historians knew nothing about harrows,” Henry Ford said.

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Henry Ford collected everyday objects to record history, such as kerosene lamps, wood stoves and kitchen water pumps.

“Yet our country has depended more on harrows than on guns or speeches. I thought that a history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk and I think so yet.”

Born July 30, 1863, in Dearborn, Henry Ford was the oldest of six children of first-generation Irish farmers William and Mary Ford. Not rich, but far from poor, the Fords had a secure home life.

By all rights, Henry Ford probably should have been a farmer. But at 16 and against the wishes of his father, Ford left the farm for Detroit, where he found work as a mechanic’s apprentice.

Edison Illuminating Co.

Ford advanced steadily and became chief engineer at the Edison Illuminating Co.  At 24, Ford married Clara Bryant, a friend of his sister’s.

He called his wife “the Believer” because she encouraged his plans to build a horseless carriage from their earliest days together.

In his spare time, Ford tinkered with creating a motorized vehicle. Part of his legacy is that Ford created a mass-produced automobile that was affordable for many common folks.

He may have contributed more than any other individual – besides his friend and mentor Thomas Edison – to the reality of the modern world.

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Visitors to Greenfield Village can ride in Model T Fords.

Ford Innovations

Ford also developed an obsessive collection of historical memorabilia and commonplace items like toasters, farm machinery, kerosene lamps, and steam engines. In 1919, the city of Dearborn decided to widen some streets. Ford’s beloved boyhood home stood directly in the path of development.

It seemed ironic that the old Ford home was about to be destroyed due to the rush of traffic that Ford helped create.

But Ford found an ideal solution. He moved the entire house and it became the beginning of his Greenfield Village that today contains nearly 100 historic structures. By 1920, Ford had decided to start a museum that would emphasize industrial history and thereby “give people a true picture of the development of the country.”

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Teddy Roosevelt’s 1902 Brougham.

The best way to create this picture, Henry Ford decided, was to have two parts. An exhibit hall would display inventions and artifacts that recorded man’s technological and cultural progress.

An adjacent outdoor village of residential, commercial, and industrial architecture would show how those objects were made and used.

He named the entire complex The Edison Institute, in honor of the man who encouraged Ford when he was developing his automobile and who embodied, the carmaker believed, practical genius.

Henry Ford greatly admired Edison, who routinely came pretty close to his goal of creating one major invention every six months and a minor one every 10 days. Edison patented 1,097 inventions.

Historic Groundbreaking

On Sept. 27, 1928, Edison pushed a small garden spade once owned by botanist Luther Burbank into a block of hardening concrete that would become the cornerstone for Ford’s new museum.  In 1946, Henry Ford died at the Fair Lane family estate in Dearborn during a terrible storm that knocked out lights. That night, without heat, light or phone service, Ford suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.

It is ironic that one of the most modern men of his day – and a good friend to the electric light inventor Edison – left the world by the flicker of a candle. Henry Ford died by candlelight and firelight, the same way he was born.

In the best of all possible worlds, it would be nice to spend one day in The Ford Museum and another at Greenfield Village. There is plenty to see at both.

Presidential Vehicles

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The 1972 Lincoln where President Reagan ducked after being shot.

Among the most popular museum exhibits is the one on Presidential Vehicles. It features the Theodore Roosevelt horse-drawn Brougham, Franklin D. Roosevelt Sunshine Special, Dwight D. Eisenhower Bubbletop, and 1961 Lincoln where JFK was riding when he was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

The Reagan presidential limousine is where Reagan took refuge on March 1, 1981, to escape would-be assassin John Hinckley’s gunfire. Going into service under President Nixon, the limo is also the car in which President Ford was riding when an attempt was made on his life.

This is the last presidential limo that will be preserved. All presidential cars are now destroyed by the Secret Service for security reasons.

Rosa Parks Bus

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The bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat is displayed at the Ford Museum

One of the museum’s most recent vehicle acquisitions is the bus Rosa Parks rode on the day she refused to give up her seat.

Even years after the 1955 incident shook the country, Montgomery, Alabama, had no clue about the significance of that little bus.

City transit officials took it out of service in 1971 and sold it to a man who threw the seats down a ravine to make more room for his tools. When the vehicle quit running, wild animals eventually moved in and the bus was used for target practice.

Finally, someone realized its historic value and put it on the auction block. The 36-passenger bus was sold in 2001 for $492,000 to the Ford Museum.

The Smithsonian had already decided where it would put it but was outbid by Ford. The museum spent another $318,00 restoring the bus to the way it looked on the day Parks boarded it.

Visitors are invited to sit in the seat where Parks sparked the modern Civil Rights movement. Parks died in Detroit on Oct. 24, 2005. She and her husband Raymond had moved to Detroit in 1957.

For more information: The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, about 10 miles outside Detroit, at (313) 982-6001, www.thehenryford.org.