The Man and His Times (Give or Take)

As part of our Final Four trip, I wanted to make sure we saw one of the two don’t-miss attractions in Detroit for the history buff: the Henry Ford Museum (the other is the Motown Museum, and given our short stay and not actually being in the city, I never really considered it. Different story if we had won on Saturday).

UConn lost, but everyone's a wiener at the Henry Ford Museum!

UConn lost, but everyone's a wiener at the Henry Ford Museum!

We stayed in Dearborn, home of Ford the company and the museum. The building is massive, and the diversity of attractions made me think of a few of the different Smithsonian buildings combined. Samantha said maybe Smithsonian lite, and I had to grant her point. But when you think that the museum started with the money and vision of just one guy – pretty impressive.

Of course, that one guy had his quirks. On the one hand, he was ahead of his time in trying to use soybeans as an industrial product. On the other, he ran an anti-Semitic paper. He just about doubled the average salary of his workers, but it was to get them to buy more stuff, not to be an altruist. He snooped on workers who lived in the company town and used thugs against strikers. He vehemently opposed World War I. Ford was a kitchen/garage tinkerer who became one of the most influential men in modern times. (And if you want to know more, you can buy one or both of my Henry Ford bios at!)

A prototype of Bucky Fuller's round, aluminum-and-plex-glass house: very tiny bathroon, but at least there's no plexiglass.

A prototype of Bucky Fuller's round, aluminum-and-plexiglass Dymaxion house: very tiny bathroon, but at least there's no plexiglass.

Selling the house - gotta love that vintage advertising!

Selling the house - gotta love that vintage advertising!

So, the museum: it’s weighted toward America’s industrial/  technological  history. Lots of mechanized farm equipment. Lots on the development of steam engines, with examples of some of the more massive ones from the 19th century. Exhibits on early aviation and railroads. And of course, lots of cars and info on their cultural impact. You can see Ford’s first car and the limo Kennedy rode in when he was assassinated, among many others. But the museum also gets into pop culture (a recreation of a 1938 living room featuring a radio playing Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds) and the history of the struggle for freedom and equal rights. Learn about the suffragists beaten for protesting in front of the White House and step into the bus Rosa Parks rode when she famously took that forbidden seat.

The museum is part of a larger complex that includes the River Rouge factory, where parts for many a Model T were made and where the Model A was produced. Some of the original buildings at the complex have been demolished, but others are still in operation, and tours are available (we skipped it). Next to the museum is Greenfield Village, which I did want to see, but it hadn’t opened yet for the season. In Greenfield Village, Ford recreated moments in history. He brought in the actual laboratory once used by his good buddy, Tom Edison, and the village also has a working 1880s farm, among other slices of times-gone-by.

Whaddaya know - a Pontiac GTO in a Ford museum

Whaddaya know - a Pontiac GTO in a Ford museum

Judging from what I know about Ford and what I saw in the museum, you won’t find too much revisionist history anywhere on the site. I was surprised about the Parks and suffragists material, though I guess each is “safe” in a way now, and certainly doesn’t reflect negatively on Ford or his legacy. I did notice, in what is I’m sure a result of the old friendship, that Edison’s DC power activities get big play; Nikola Tesla, who perfected AC generation and transmission, gets one brief mention. So, as in any recounting of history, everything is subjective. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be accurate or informative. And for me, anything that gets folks thinking about history is a good thing. Would I have made a trip to Detroit just for the museum? Nah. But if you’re in the area, it’s worth a visit.


~ by mburgan on April 6, 2009.

2 Responses to “The Man and His Times (Give or Take)”

  1. Hi! I’m the Community Manager of We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about Detroit and we think that this post is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from your blog (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at erin[at]
    Thanks! 🙂

  2. Why, thank you. I will get in touch with you offline.

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