Experiencing History Firsthand
The Henry Ford creates memories that last a lifetime
By Terry Troy
It’s a nexus of innovations, with adventure, discovery and fascination thrown in for good measure. A place where learning is not only fun, but second nature for young and old alike. Where memories are made, and experiences shared.
A trip to The Henry Ford in Michigan is less than four hours away, but, according to museum staff, its impact on your family will last a lifetime.
“I like to think of it as ‘hands on, minds on’ learning,” says Cynthia Jones, director of museum experiences at The Henry Ford. “It’s a perfect place where multiple generations of families can learn together and play together. But they are also able to share stories and create shared memories.”
The Henry Ford’s mission is to provide unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation with a purpose to inspire people to learn from these traditions.
The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation holds some of the most significant objects and documents that further represent America’s can-do spirit including Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, the Wright Brothers’ Home and Bicycle Shop, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House and one of Steve Jobs’ and Steve Wozniak’s 1976 Apple-1 computers.
“We also have an original certified copy of the Declaration of Independence,” notes Jones. “And other historically significant original draft documents like the 13th Amendment of the Constitution.
“On the lighter side, we also have letters to Henry Ford from bootleggers and moonshiners who were impressed with the power of the V8 engine.”
Which, if you know anything about automotive history, is how NASCAR was born.
While it’s named after its founder, The Henry Ford in Dearborn is not a museum solely dedicated to the Ford Motor Company. It is, in fact, an internationally recognized history destination. And it rivals many of the national museums in the nation’s capital.
It has five distinct venues, which include the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, which showcases American ideas and innovations; Greenfield Village, a grouping of authentic, historic structures and living farms; The Ford Rouge Factory Tour; the Benson Ford Research Center; and the Henry Ford Giant Screen Experience. It is also home to Henry Ford Academy, a public charter high school. The Henry Ford is visited by more than 1.77 million visitors each year.
At the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, you can explore the first 40 years of flight or browse through one of the world’s premier automotive collections.
“If you can name something that is car related, we probably have it,” says Jones. “And remember, it’s not just Ford related, but anything related to car culture.”
You’ll also walk past an array of presidential limousines including the one in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated and see an unparalleled collection of artifacts representing powerful change such as the bus on which Rosa Parks took a stand for Civil Rights, the camp bed George Washington used during his tour of Revolutionary War sites and the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was sitting the night he was shot.
At Greenfield Village, you’ll have a chance to explore 83 historic structures and four living history farms. Or take a ride in a classic Model T.
“My favorite building actually changes from season to season,” says Jones. “My favorite this year is the Firestone Farm. It’s actually a working farm. When you walk adjacent to the pastures, you are literally stepping back in time and experiencing it through our historically accurate presenters doing farm and house chores. So if you visit on a Monday, it’s wash day, so you’ll see them doing the wash. If you stop by at one in the afternoon, you’ll see them sit down for lunch, which they have cooked in the house. All of that history is playing out right in front of you.”
You can also see Henry Ford’s childhood home or Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory.
“And you see it as it actually existed,” says Jones. “All of the chemicals are on display. You can see the machine shops where they figured out how to make all the parts and pieces needed for inventions. You will also see the offices, where they figured out how to sell their inventions.”
This year, visitors to Greenfield Village will be able to browse through a new addition, the historic Detroit Central Market, which first opened in 1861.
“It was one of the oldest public markets in the country, which was scheduled for demolition. But the City of Detroit agreed to sell it to us in pieces,” says Jones. “It took a lot of time and money to rebuild it.”
Today, it has been returned to its grandeur as a gorgeous outdoor market structure, which really speaks to how people bought food back then, as well as how we buy food today, adds Jones. Under construction since 2019, the market marks the first permanent building addition to Greenfield Village since the Detroit, Toledo & Milwaukee Roundhouse in 2000.
The Henry Ford also hosts limited engagement expositions throughout the year. This summer, “Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume” runs from June 25 through the end of the year. With more than 70 beloved costumes, “Heroes & Villains” immerses visitors in the world of Disney, illustrating how our understanding of its iconic characters is shaped through the artistry and creativity of its costumes. It is the Midwest debut of this traveling exposition.
While it’s only a four-hour ride from Cincinnati, The Henry Ford is too large to whip through as a part of a day trip. Plan at least a full day and a half at the very least or two or more days ideally. The upside is that it is a lot closer than traveling to Washington to visit our national museums or the Smithsonian.
“I have been here 22 years, and I am still learning and seeing new things,” adds Jones.
There are plenty of hotels in Dearborn that run shuttles to both the museum and Greenfield Village. It’s also within a 20-minute ride of downtown Detroit if you prefer a more urban setting. As for food, there are plenty of options and a full range of dining experiences in both the museum and Greenfield Village.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our frozen custard,” says Jones. “It is a favorite of our members and visitors.
“There’s something to be said about the experience of walking through historic Greenfield Village on a warm sunny day in summer enjoying our frozen custard.”