The Henry Ford: The Museum I’d Have if I was Absurdly Wealthy

Day 3 of our See All the Great Lakes Road Trip started on the shores of Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio.  We were up and packed early, and soon crossed over to our home for the next week – Michigan.


Our first stop was historical in nature, River Raisin National Battlefield.

This was a crossroads of the War of 1812.  A brief battle in 1812 saw the British (Canadian) militia sent back toward their own lands.  The British and their Indian allies returned in force in January of the following year, routing half the American forces and forcing the other half to surrender.  The aftermath was worse, the British withdrew after taking heavy losses, and their Native-American allies moved in and massacred the wounded American soldiers.   For the rest of the war, cries of “Remember the Raisin!” inspired the American troops of the Old Northwest in their battles against the British and Native-Americans.

Today, the battlefield is a small national park property.  It features a nice little visitor’s center and a short hike around the battlefield with a few interpretive signs.


From there, it was about a half hour drive to our main stop for the day – The Henry Ford in Dearfield, Michigan.  Despite not having the word “museum” in the title (this is apparently the new hip thing in the museum industry), this is, in fact, a museum.  Actually it’s two museums – the inside part (“The Henry Ford”) and the outside part (“Greenfield Village”).  How did these museums come to be?  Well, Henry Ford (founder of the Ford Motor Company for those of you who just arrived in modern society after 150 years of absence) ended up with an obscene amount of money from his brilliant use of the assembly line to mass produce motor vehicles.  At the same time, he was worried that the small town America of his youth was slipping away.  The solution?  Build his own open air museum dedicated to small town America.  Henry Ford was not a man to do things halfway, so his newly christened open air museum Greenfield Village would use real buildings trucked in from all over the country, from one of the earliest remaining homes of the early colonial period (1630s) to the one room schoolhouse where he used to get punished on a regular basis for being a rambunctious kid.  You know you’re rich when you buy your old school and add it to your personal museum village!

Being a world-renowned innovator, he opted not just to gather old buildings, but also to celebrate some of the giants of American innovation by bringing in buildings tied to great advances in technology.  Ford moved the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, Edison’s original buildings from his Menlo Park facility, the original home of the Heinz guy who started the ketchup company, and more.  He even had the slave quarters where George Washington Carver was born reconstructed in the village… overseen by George Washington Carver himself.

What resulting is an amazing wonderland of history, impossible to duplicate.  This would be our first stop in Deerfield.

In we go.
In we go.

As we walked in, some wonderful lady offered us a pair of bracelets that allowed us to go on the “rides”, as some of her companions for the day had cancelled on her.  We realized later that our kids were young enough to not need the bracelets, so that allowed the whole family to enjoy!  We opted to enjoy one right away, the steam engine that circles the whole village.  The engine, named the Edison, is a real working steam engine that runs a three mile loop through Greenfield Village.  The Pres is at the height of his train phase, so he was thrilled beyond belief to go on a choo-choo.

It also offered a great first look at the whole village, which let us plan out our day better.


Our train ride over, we watched them “give the train a drink” (The Pres’s words), then set out to find Edison’s Menlo Park lab.  We’d been to Edison National Historic Park (featuring Edison’s Orange lab, which came after Menlo Park), so this New Jersey connection grabbed us as the best thing to see in the park.  Along the way, we passed the original Wright Brother’s bike shop (having been in a later one in Dayton the summer before), the Heinz family home, and other lovely old buildings whose importance I didn’t catch.

Arriving at Edison’s labs, we made sure to explore all the buildings.  It wasn’t much different than what we saw in Jersey (actually, alot smaller), but was definitely worth seeing.

After this, we decided to head toward another “ride”, the horse drawn carriages.  The Pres was pretty thrilled about this, he likes horses almost as much as trains.  Along the way, we passed a set of original slave quarters (preserved this long because they were, unusually, made of stone) and the replica of George Washington Carver’s cabin that he was born in.

We also hit a highlight of the tour for me, the one room schoolhouse where Henry Ford went as a child.  Again, the height of success is buying your old school to include in your open air history museum.  This man knew how to show off.

Then it was on the horse ride.



The rain had started while we waited for the horse, but I hadn’t gone on the ride that I’d wanted to yet… a ride in a real Model T.  Luckily, the line was out of the rain, and the car had a hood.  Oddly we rode in a real Model T, but not an antique.  The one we rode in was one of eight built by Ford for the 100th Anniversary of the car.  It was originally supposed to be part of a big run for collectors, but when the Feds ruled that it would have to meet modern safety and environmental standards, that was the end of that.  In the end, they only build a few using the original molds and assembly techniques, at a cost of a cool half a million dollars each.  I will never ride in a more expensive car.

At this point, The Pres was wiped out.  We decided to head for the indoors and find a place to eat lunch and rest for a bit.  Getting inside, we learned that the most reasonably priced place to eat was actually inside The Henry Ford itself, so we headed into the museum.  Henry Ford was a collector, of everything from locomotives to rare historical artifacts, and this museum showcases the best of the lot.  We worked our way through the collection of trains, which totally revived The Pres for a while.

We then cut through the car section to get to the cheapest food in the place… a restored early diner located square in the middle of the museum.  The menu wasn’t very large, but it was awesome to eat in a diner fully restored to it’s late 1940s appearances.

Rested up after our meal, it was my turn to pick the destination, and I wanted to see Ford’s historical artifacts.  Two in particular I’d read about before and had to see – George Washington’s chest and camp bed that he used during the War for Independence, and the chair that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in at Ford’s Theater when he was shot.  How these ended up in a private collection, I have no idea, but thank goodness it was in a publicly displayed and well cared for collection.


The museum did not stop collecting when Mr. Ford passed on.  They’ve continued to gather newer items to their collection.  Sadly, we missed the presidential cars collection (including the vehicle JFK was in when he was shot), but there was no way we were missing the Rosa Parks bus.  That’s right, they acquired and restored the bus that Rosa Parks was on when she refused to move, setting off the Montgomery Bus Boycott and changing history.


The lady on the right is in the seat that Rosa Parks refused to give up.

The Pres was tired at this point, and it was time to go.  On the way out, we walked passed a giant piece of construction machinery, which The Pres and Tree Rider climbed up into the cockpit of.

We also passed one of the first Oscar Meyer Wienermobiles.  The boys were puzzled and fascinated by it.

Everyone loaded up the car (my car, not the Weinermobile) and fell asleep within minutes.  Meanwhile, I navigated the mean streets (by which I mean, gridlocked) of Detroit, decided to take an alternate route, and drove about three hours North, through Flint, to Bay City, Michigan.  Here, we set up our tent within a short distance of Lake Huron, got some food, and then set out to see the lake, our second Great Lake of the trip!


As is appropriate for this blog, we couldn’t drive up to the lake, but instead had to hike through marshlands to get down to the beach.  It was a nice little hike, but I wouldn’t drive from New Jersey just to do it!

Once there, we were greeted by… signs warning of a toxic algae bloom.  Seriously, two days in a row for that too!

The views, however, were more pristine than those the previous day in Ohio.  We hung out on the beach for a while, which we had to ourselves, then it was back to the campsite to brush our teeth and get some sleep.  At this point, we first start realizing just how late the sun goes down in Michigan…. and we were only 1/3 of the way up her north to south!

The babies went to sleep pretty easily that night, and then it was time to rest up for our next big adventure the next day.

Next on our journey…

We cross Michigan east to west, arriving at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.  There, we discover we’re shut out of the campgrounds, which are closed due to a powerful freak thunderstorm two days before.  Luckily, we can still enjoy the scenic drive, including hiking on bluffs towering hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet above beautiful, toxic algae free, crystal clear Lake Michigan.  Later, my wife snags a noisy by scenic tent spot in Petosky, Michigan, where we could throw a rock into gorgeous Lake Michigan from our tent, and enjoy a stunning sunset!

Day #4 – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore




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