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September 12, 2006

Living History

Yesterday my friend Lynn took me to Greenfield Village, a living history museum created by Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. Lynn is a member, so she goes there all the time and was able to get me in for free. Greenfield Village is a pretty amazing place. Henry Ford actually moved historic structures there from all over the country (and even a few from England), to preserve elements of the American (and I guess English) past. Restored Model Ts rove the streets. Many of the homes and other buildings belonged to his friends, including Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and the Wright Brothers. There is also a home that was once owned by Robert Frost in Ann Arbor, when he was Poet-in-Residence at the University of Michigan. Henry Ford's childhood home is there, as is the one-room schoolhouse he attended in Dearborn.

I learned a lot yesterday. For example, the Firestone farm is kept as a working farm. Its cash crop is merino wool (which is sold as yarn at the gift shop), and they raise other crops and animals for subsistence. Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory was the world's first research and development lab. The boardinghouse across the street (also at Greenfield Village) was one of the first homes to have electric lighting. Streamers strung across the ceiling of a dry goods shop indicated that the store sold "unmentionables" (underwear?). The local post office was also the town's gossip center. One of my favorite homes was that owned by former slaves in Georgia who papered their walls with magazine pages.

What struck me the most, however, was the grandiosity of the whole operation. Henry Ford must have thought pretty highly of himself in order to create a museum of his childhood and of his own and his friends' accomplishments. By creating this museum, Ford became the arbiter of history; he determined which structures and ways of life would be preserved for posterity and which would be allowed to be forgotten. He determined not only who Americans would remember as their cultural and intellectual forbears, but how we would remember them. He also played God in the lives of his workers, building little villages for them and engineering every aspect of their social and professional lives. I can't help thinking that, if I were an Americanist (or a psychologist, for that matter), Henry Ford would make a fascinating dissertation topic.

Posted by eklanche at September 12, 2006 10:26 AM

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