If you’re a history buff, Greenfield Village is somewhat confusing. Like several other places I’ve passed through during my travels, there is a layering going on; reality, history, fantasy, re-creation, reconstruction, restoration all blend together with no discernable boundaries.
I’ve come to call these amalgamated spaces. The 1890s-vintage building pictured above caught Henry Ford’s eye like so many other shops, barns, school houses, and churches—so he bought it and just plopped it down in his Village. It’s the the Cohen Millinery shop and it was moved from 444 Baker Street in Detroit; an urban structure that has been, for lack of a better term, ruralized.
You have to look carefully, and in some cases ask the staff (the guidebook is unclear) which are which. Henry Ford was essentially a hoarder of settings and environments, and much of Greenfield Village is like a playground where he deposited (and sometimes shuffled around) buildings he had accumulated, along with some he had built anew. Some of these structures and settings were personally important—his childhood home, or school, or church—and some were ideologically valuable to Ford, like Edison’s laboratory.
Or the Wright Brothers home and bicycle shop. As with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford was enamored of any American (man) whom he considered a.) self-made and b.) an innovator or entrepreneur. In other words, his heroes were those who reminded him of his own conception of himself; hardworking, industrious, intelligent, and something of a maverick.
Even structures merely adjacent to Edison’s legacy were crated up and moved to the Village. More than a dozen employees at Menlo Park, unmarried men, lived in this boarding house. As such it was one of the first three residential structures in the country to be wired for electricity in 1879. The Henry Ford Official Guidebook proudly states that the house was reconstructed at the same distance from the Menlo Park laboratory complex re-creation as it had sat at the actual location in New Jersey.
This is something I saw repeatedly at Greenfield Village, and it’s the kind of creative chicanery Disney does at their parks; the “real fake,” in which inconsequential details are replicated with great attention to complete a presentation or environment that is, on the whole, inauthentic. For example, again to reference Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom, Disney spared no expense in importing slate from a quarry near Williamsburg, Virginia. There are also rocks from the Potomac River and from a quarry some six miles away from where General George Washington crossed the Delaware. Does anyone notice? Probably not, but Disney does things like this anyway, to establish a “real fake.”
And then there are bizarre amalgams which defy any attempt at categorization. This building touts the year 1886 on its facade, but was constructed at Greenfield Village in 1944, it’s home to a Jumbo dynamo which Edison had originally installed at the company’s first commercial lighting station in Manhattan in 1882, and is called “Station A” (from which it takes its architectural inspiration) yet includes equipment from both A and B. The Henry Ford Official Guidebook calls the structure “something of a hybrid” which I’m not sure is an understatement or an overstatement.
Here is one of the studio workshops of the Liberty Craftworks area. The Weaving Shop is a converted 1840s cotton gin mill which was brought from Georgia and reconstructed at the Village. Ford’s desire to transport buildings from locations far and wide and then arrange them as he saw fit despite their disparate origins gives Greenfield Village a complete lack of context—or perhaps it’s a hyper-contextuality; it’s just “American History-ness.”
A pleasant experiential aspect of the Village is the presence of Henry Ford museum staff wandering around in period costumes, presenting themselves in character. This is something that became very popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and has roots in earlier historical displays at World’s Fairs. Many outdoor historical parks and museums today—of which Greenfield Village and Colonial Williamsburg are only the most visible—employ this practice.
Sometimes the role of the reenactors is very specific, and a vital part of educating the public about certain issues. The Susquehanna House from the Tidewater region of Maryland was probably built before 1820 and was moved by Henry Ford to Greenfield in 1942. Along with slave quarters elsewhere on the property, the house represents the Antebellum South at the Village. It was closed for some years while how to update its interpretation was considered. When it reopened in 1988, reenactors answered questions about the house and told the truth about the slaves who had once built it and worked the Maryland plantation it once sat on.
So spaces are mixed up all over the place, whether they be moved, re-created, or newly built. But time is also amalgamated at Greenfield Village. It’s odd enough that this building comes from the Cheapside thoroughfare in London, England; even odder still that the business occupied it from 1846 until 1929. The problem, of course, is that Henry Ford bought and collected and moved to the Village whatever he fancied. His lifelong fascination with clocks and watches led him to save the clockwork and much of the facade of the Sir John Bennett Shop. Otherwise it doesn’t belong on Main Street in Greenfield at all; not in place, and not in time. Put another way, something belongs in Greenfield Village only if Henry Ford thought it should. Jessie Swigger notes in History Is Bunk that
the design and appearance of the village reflected Ford’s personal understanding of what constituted historical authenticity. In some cases it was re-creating original buildings down to the last detail (as with the replica of Independence Hall facade); in others it was adherence to an idea of the past or historical generalities.
In the case of the Sir John Bennett Shop, Ford wanted it for the clockworks, but he insisted it not harm the scale of his Main Street. The building was originally five stories tall; Ford had his draftsman, Edward Cutler, chop it down to two.
Only a few yards to the left sits another building that only exists at the Village because of Ford’s interest in watches and clocks (he bought parts there when he was an engineer working for Edison). The Grimm Jewelry Store and other storefronts from Detroit represent industrialization and urbanism in the final years of the 1800s, yet here they are on a Main Street of a very small mid-nineteenth century farming community. It’s even odder that these city buildings are cleaved from their neighbors; there are no buildings on either side of any relocated storefront, so they feel not unlike massive tombs in a graveyard.
In the background we have a carousel (part of the 1974 Suwanee Park expansion) which is supposed to represent the late 1800s or perhaps the turn of the century. But based on the illustration and lettering styles, these broadsides look to be from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s.
Here’s a particularly ancient standout—a limestone cottage from Chedworth, Gloucestershire built in the early seventeenth century. That’s right, the 1600s. Ford bought it and had it reassembled at Greenfield because he felt it represented the lives of American ancestors before the settled in the New World, even though (as the Henry Ford Official Guidebook concedes) ”most Americans did not actually come from the Cotswold region.”
The “real fake” is embodied in the Menlo Park complex, along with both amalgamated place and time. The staff boast of the authenticity of the wood used to hew the floorboards, and the size of the various glass bottles on shelves, nothing that “The Wizard” himself approved of the re-creation. The chair in the center of the room, however, represents the opening ceremonies of 1929, not electric lighting’s creation fifty years prior. Edison sat in that very chair to reenact the illuminating of his incandescent bulb, and immediately after it was nailed to the floor.
Give Me Liberty and Give Me Lunch
But not everything is a jumble of time and place here. Sometimes they take the effort to really dial in and deliver a top-notch thematic experience. An absolute highlight of both my 2017 and 2018 visit to Greenfield Village was having lunch at the Eagle Tavern. Here time stands still in the mid-nineteenth century; there is no electric lighting, no gas heating, and no refrigeration. Food is prepared as it was in the 1850s.
The Tavern was moved to the Village from Clinton, Michigan (about fifty-some miles from Detroit) after Ford bought it in 1927. The structure dates to 1831–32. The thematic dining experience was added in 1982; curiously EPCOT Center opened at Walt Disney World that year, featuring themed fine dining in its World Showcase area from various countries.
The small details at Greenfield Village, such as this hand painted shingle sign, really make the experience. After all, what would be the point of contemporary printing if they’ve gone to the trouble to deny patrons electricity once inside?
Servers at the Eagle Tavern did their very best to stay in character, speaking with an odd but identifiable American regional accent, somewhat stilted diction, and occasional obscure vocabulary (the kind of word or phrase you can discern, but is not in common use today).
I don’t think I’ve ever had a fresher meal. Ever. Fricassee (a kind of flat noodle in a thick white sauce) of chicken with roast beef and gravy, potatoes, and fresh seasonal vegetables (all from the working farms on the Village property). Salt and pepper were not in shakers, but had been ground with a mortar and pestle. The butter was churned at the Village, and kept cool in an icebox. The butter and muffins were baked that day. And my favorite touch? True to the period, there were no straws in our drinks—they were instead straight, hollow pieces of macaroni.
A Model Experience
Probably the most unusual structure at the village is the 1/4 scale replica of the original Ford Motor factory on Mack Avenue in Detroit, which was added to Greenfield Village in 1945. Unlike Disney's use of forced perspective, this building is literally "shrunk" by a quarter. The factory sits right next to where visitors queue up to take a ride in its product.
I’ll admit it—riding in a restored, antique Ford was right at the top of my list for Greenfield Village, and I was able to do it both times I visited. It’s the closest thing, besides the Weiser Railroad, to an amusement park ride or theme park “attraction” on the property.
The Model T ride is extremely ironic, actually, because Henry Ford’s intention in the development of his Greenfield Village was to showcase American farm and small town life before industrialization—and more pointedly—before the proliferation of the automobile. Ford innovations were on display inside the main museum building of the Edison Institute from day one but cars were verboten on Village property itself until well after Ford’s death.
For the most part, as you’re being driven around, waving at other antique automobiles, busses, and trolleys (all from approximately the same era) it’s a cohesive experience. Despite the architectural leaps from Europe to the United States and spanning centuries of building styles, the caravan of automobiles making their way through Greenfield Village keep you grounded roughly in 1920s and 30s America.
And then I saw the soldiers.
A Civil War in the Twentieth Century
As it turns out, during my second visit to Greenfield this blend of time periods without clearly defined edges was further (and bizarrely) compounded by the annual Memorial Day Weekend Civil War Remembrance festivities. My colleague Greg and I lucked into this time-warp, as we had no idea it was going on the day we had scheduled to tour the Village.
I can't describe what it was like to walk along Union (called "Federals") and Confederate (known as "Rebels") troop encampments while restored Model T automobiles cruised by. My thoughts ran immediately to Disneyland, of course, where you can see the rocket ships of Tomorrowland from Main Street U.S.A.
But at least at that park there is a kind of fantastical disconnect. Here at Greenfield Village, the clashing time periods are presented in vivid detail—authenticities sparring for attention. The Civil War reenactors are perfect, right down to their brass buttons and razor-sharp bayonets. These men, women, and yes, even children stay in character as you converse with them while they cook food and boil coffee over open fires. Their tents are real, and so are all the trappings of hearth and home. So too are the antique Fords with the sounds and smells of their engines. The realism goes beyond mere patina; it's visceral and multi-sensory.
At first this historical soup struck me as a kind of temporal cognitive dissonance. But as the day wore on, it sort of washed over me. In a sense the Civil War and the Model Ts were just a more pronounced extension of Henry Ford's entire vision for Greenfield Village—imaginary, amalgamated spaces of amalgamated time.
Just like Walt Disney and Ward Kimball, Greg and I couldn't resist posing for an authentic tintype. Our wet-plate photographer, Robert Beech, suggested a pose of 'fisticuffs.' We had to hold the pose for a full eight seconds to expose the film. Our concessions to period authenticity included tucking in shirts and matting down hair. I also turned my t-shirt inside-out, as a tintype is actually a reverse image of the original pose, so the text would have been mirrored.
As we took turns holding the developed, dried tintype, I noted a strange sensation. The material reality of the chemicals, the glass; the unmistakable reality of the specks and dirts and imperfections in the print, all this presented a kind of time travel. Our fisticuffs photograph actually looked and felt like it had been taken in the 1890s. In a sense, it was.