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Henry Ford Museum: Much more than automobiles

Henry Ford Museum: Much more than automobiles

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It is difficult to comprehend the breadth of what is inside the Henry Ford Museum on the outskirts of downtown Detroit in Dearborn, Michigan.

While most museums have a specific focus, such as art, this institution’s focus is to concentrate on any aspect of American history that is part of the fabric of our nation. But this museum then displays the actual “piece” of history, and does not just tell the story.

For example, a Ford Mustang exhibit traces the history of the Mustang automobile, not through photos, but by presenting the original 1962 Mustang prototype created before the first car rolled off the assembly line two years later.

The 1961 Lincoln Continental Presidential Limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was riding during that unforgettable moment in our history in 1963, when he was assassinated, is here. Behind it, as if in a presidential motorcade, is the car Ronald Reagan was getting into when he was shot in 1981.

Also in the parade of other presidential automobiles, which are lined up one behind the other, are those cars that transported Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The last car in the procession.is a 1902 Brougham, the horse-drawn carriage used on special occasions by Theodore Roosevelt.

But only 20% of the museum is oriented toward automobiles. The museum has many other exhibits, which when their comprehensive impact on American life is considered, are mind boggling.

The bus Rosa Parks was riding in when she refused to move to the back in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, is here, and you can sit in her seat. Subsequently, she became known as "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement.”

Also here is the bed and camping equipment that George Washington used as commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War when encamped on the field with his troops. So is the chair that President Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot in Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C.

Other displays are fascinating just for what they represent in American ingenuity. Early train passenger cars, which were actually six-person stagecoach carriages adapted to wheels, are displayed next to the largest locomotive ever built.

The little-known and only remaining Dymaxion House (a combination of the words dynamic, maximum and tension), designed by Buckminster Fuller (architect of the Geodesic Dome), had the objective to provide construction jobs and efficient homes for Americans after World War II. The circular, UFO-appearing aluminum home is jammed with environmentally efficient innovations. It was heated and cooled by natural means, made its own power, was earthquake-proof, and was made of materials that required no maintenance. The walls could be easily altered, so reducing the size of the bedrooms to make the living room bigger for a party was easy. Nonetheless, it never caught on with the public.

Other displays include the largest steam engine ever manufactured, an exhibit of the evolution of the American kitchen that evolves as you walk around the perimeter of the circular display, an exhibit of wedding dresses over the past 150 years, historical tractors, and samples of the first roadside cabins Americans experienced when driving Historic Route 66.

Outside the main museum, but still part of it, Greenfield Village consists of over 80 acres with several actual buildings where American ingenuity took place. The home in which Orville and Wilbur Wright grew up, and the separate shop where the two brothers built the component parts for the first airplane, are here. So is the Menlo Park research laboratory where Thomas Edison first experimented with the light bulb. It was among the first buildings to be lit by electric lights.

Other Greenfield Village buildings include a working farm, buildings that house early American craftsmen demonstrating their skills, a roundtable built to maintain early steam locomotives and a collection of different architectural styles of American homes.

Notable homes in the village are those of Noah Webster, Robert Frost and Thomas Edison.

Of course, Greenfield Village would not be complete without the tiny white-sided farmhouse in which Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863. Ford grew up in the house and moved out at age 16 to find work in Detroit. He restored the farmhouse in 1919 and moved it to Greenfield Village in 1944.

There is one part of the Henry Ford Museum that seldom garners attention. Established in 1997 and within the walls of the museum is the Henry Ford Academy, a college prep high school (grades 9-12) that prepares students “for the future through strong academics, a college-going culture, career exploration, and real-world experiences that focus on innovation and creativity.”

Perhaps the most unusual display relates to Thomas Edison, who was Ford’s role model. As a young man, Ford took a job at the Edison Illuminating Company, working his way up to chief engineer, and Edison encouraged Ford when he was building his first car.

The two men became friends and went on camping trips together, so it is perhaps no surprise that Ford wanted something to remember Edison by after he passed away in 1931. As the legend goes, Ford asked Thomas Edison’s son Charles to sit by the dying inventor’s bedside and hold a test tube next to his father’s mouth to catch his final breath. The vial is on display.

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