Exploring the origins of Greenfield Village

Building Village Road in Greenfield Village - July 1929

In explaining Mr. Ford’s interest in the past, I think that in every person, after they reach a certain age, they begin to reminisce…in Mr. Ford’s case, he was able to carry it further than the average person.

- Ernest Liebold, secretary to Henry Ford, in the book Reminiscences

In the beginning of the 20th century, the American elite were collecting European and English paintings, sculptures and decorative arts…but as cities began to grow and rural areas grew more and more scarce, those same people began to long for fine American furniture, glassware, porcelain, rare books and more.

That is, except for a handful of people like Henry Ford.

Henry Ford 1919

To him, humble machines were an expression of the “genius of the American people” and a reflection of American progress. He believed that everyday objects told what wasn’t recorded in written histories and reflected a way of life that was quickly slipping away.

As early as 1912, Ford was collecting “relics” that represented American industrial progress, such as wagons and threshing machines – but it was this progress that prompted him to his first restoration and renovation of a building.

In 1919, a road improvement project in Ford’s hometown of Springwells Township, Michigan (now the city of Dearborn), meant his birthplace would need to be either moved 200 yards from its original location – or destroyed.

Ford Home - Original Site circa 1880

Ford’s childhood home at its original site in Springwells Township, Michigan, circa 1880. (From the collections of The Henry Ford)

Ford decided to move the house and restore it to the way it looked at the time of his mother’s death in 1876, when he was 13 years old. Ford personally took charge of the birthplace restoration, meticulously recreating the details of the house down to the original or similar furnishings.

For example, Ford remembered sitting by a Starlight stove in the dining room as a child. After 18 months of searching, he discovered the exact make and model on a porch in Stockbridge, Michigan, which he purchased for $25 and loaded into his car for the journey back to Dearborn. And when he couldn’t find the precise pattern of dishes his mother had used, he had the original site of his birthplace excavated and had replicas made from the pottery shards found.

Ford dedicated the restoration of his childhood home to his mother’s memory and her teachings, particularly noting her love of family, her belief in the value of hard work, in learning “not from the school books but from life,” and her belief in trusting one’s intuition. His mother had encouraged his early tinkering and youthful inventions, and he felt sure she had set him on his unique path in life.

Mary Litogot Ford, circa 1855

Henry Ford’s mother, Mary Litogot Ford, circa 1855. (From the collections of The Henry Ford)

When the restoration of his childhood home was completed, people were awestruck by its authenticity. It seemed remarkable to him, and others, how a recreated environment could catapult one into another time and place.

Henry Ford Birth home

Henry Ford’s birthplace, as it now stands in Greenfield Village.

This was the beginning of Ford’s interest in preservation of historic buildings, and after several other restorations of buildings at their original sites, he began looking to create a village that would represent the early days of America up to the present. Working with Ford Motor Company draftsman and architect Edward L. Cutler, Ford began laying out plans for Greenfield Village.

Ford Airport, circa 1931

Ford Airport, with Henry Ford Museum and the land that was becoming Greenfield Village near the top, circa 1931.

It wasn’t meant to represent any specific place in the United States, or even serve as a particular town – Ford created Greenfield Village primarily from buildings that he had purchased and moved to the site, organizing them around a village green with a courthouse, a town hall, a church, a store, an inn and a school. He placed homes along a road beyond the green. He brought industrial buildings, such as carding mills, sawmills and gristmills to the village and made them operate.

Today, Greenfield Village is organized into seven historic districts, with real working farms, a glassblowing shop, a pottery shop and more…so that, just like Henry Ford when he surveyed his preserved birthplace, you, too, can be transported to another place and time to learn about the ordinary and extraordinary people who shaped America.

Greenfield Village - exterior shot

(Editor’s note: Much of this information is excerpted from  Telling America’s Story: A History of The Henry Ford, which explores in-depth the origins and history of Greenfield Village, Henry Ford Museum and its artifacts.)

Have you been to Greenfield Village before? Which buildings and/or experiences are your favorite, and why?


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