Sunday, July 15, 2012


Preservation owes a lot to Henry Ford. But in the process of making people aware of the value of the past, he made a number of mistakes. One that modern experts find most objectionable was his uprooting of buildings from their original sites, thereby stripping them of their historical context, all in the name of historical preservation.
(The above came from a Detroit Free Press newspaper article from, I believe, the early 1980's.)

I've heard this argument countless times during discussions. I've also read newspaper and magazine editorials concerning this practice. And it never ceases to amaze me that some can't see the forest for the trees.
Case in point are the many small localized historic structures dotting the maps that still remain on (or very close to) their original site, such as my own hometown's 1872 school house. We've had many, many public activities held inside the school house, much of it in such a way as to give public awareness that this important historical remnant of Eastpointe's 19th century past still exists right in their own back yard (so to speak). But few of the public ever return afterwards, and far less will travel to any great length just to see it. This is not necessarily the fault of the historical society in which the school house belongs; rather, it's because of its location. Eastpointe is far from being a historical destination point, and there are no other historically marked sites from the past of note for people to visit and see to go along with the old restored building. I'm sure if this city were filled with other historic structures (similar to the villages of Romeo or Richmond - both less than an hour's drive from Eastpointe), the draw would be far greater. However, as beautiful as the school house is, the building as it now stands is not going to be a magnet for history buffs.
The Halfway School House from 1872. Restored and preserved in the middle of the city of Eastpointe, sitting only a few yards from where it originally stood. It's unfortunate it doesn't receive more visitors

Except for a very few exceptions, the same is true for buildings of famous people.
So, is it reasonable to ask that if historical structures stand alone or are located in remote regions, who will travel to see them? And if only a few patronize such historic places, how then will they be maintained with such little income?

My second case in point centers on one of my very favorite buildings inside Greenfield Village: the Firestone Farm.
Built in Columbiana, Ohio in 1828 (and remodeled in 1882), the Firestone family lived here from the year it was built until throughout the first half of the 20th century. It was in 1965 that the decision was made to restore and open it for tours to the public as a museum. But because of the farm's remote location, it failed to attract many visitors.
In 1983, Harvey Firestone's two surviving sons, both then in their 70's, gave the house, barn, and furnishings (along with a sizable endowment for maintenance) to Greenfield Village as a way of keeping the accomplishments and memory of their father alive. And ever since the removal from Columbiana and the reconstruction inside Greenfield Village took place in 1985, literally millions of visitors have entered this once off-the-beaten-path historical home and have learned, through sight, sound, smell, and even touch, about mid-western farm life in the late 19th century, for it is a living history home now, and even has items in the sitting room that are hands-on for visitors.
The Firestone Farm is now a working farm where the year 1882 comes to life for the public. It's like a step back in time.
Let's go back to Mr. Ford and the original discussion of uprooting buildings from their original sites, thereby stripping them of their historical context, all in the name of historical preservation; I don't believe many are aware that Ford had actually saved numerous buildings from certain demolition. One in particular, the home of Noah Webster, was already in the process of being demolished when Ford put a halt to the wrecking ball, had the old home dismantled and then shipped from its original Connecticut location all the way to Dearborn, Michigan, where now our children' children's children, and their children's children children, may be able to see this home where the original owner wrote his first dictionary.
The saved-from-demolition Noah Webster home
Another dilapidated old eyesore, the Logan County Courthouse, where future president Abraham Lincoln had practiced law in the 1840's, was all but ignored and forgotten by the residents of Lincoln (formerly Postville), Illinois. As the Free Press article states: (The courthouse) never aroused much local interest. But once word got out that Henry Ford was looking at it, the local population suddenly decided they owned a historic gem and demanded to keep it. 
Ford actually gave the town the opportunity to keep it but they could not raise the funds to properly restore it. Ford had little choice; he also knew where it would continue to receive the proper care, and he knew that wasn't going to happen in the town of Lincoln.
The curator of the Lincoln collection for the state (of Illinois), James Hickey, approves of Ford's action. "I have no doubt the building would have been lost had Ford not removed it."
And now the "pre-presidential" occupation of Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer is not only remembered and passed on, but is presented in one of the actual buildings where it originally took place!
Inside the Logan County Courthouse: Now, this is the place to hear the stories of Abraham Lincoln's lawyer accounts!
There is little doubt that the Wright Brothers Cycle Shop would have met the same awful fate as most buildings from the 19th century, for when Mr. Ford found it, it had been all but forgotten. Can you imagine tearing down the actual building that the very first successful heavier-than-air motorized aeroplane was built?
And Ford also preserved the Wright Home as well with, I might add, Orville's blessings.
The Eagle Tavern and the Susquehanna Plantation were both close to being razed before Ford rescued them, thereby preserving pieces of American history that would have been lost.
The tavern and plantation do not necessarily represent the history of some famous person, but, rather, they show a bit about everyday life of the average American citizen of the mid-19th century. All the more reason why these buildings should have been saved and preserved. We are lucky to have them.
The was how the Eagle Tavern looked before Henry Ford preserved and restored it... 
...and thank God he did! What a gem!!
Susquehanna especially proved to be not what Ford was originally told (that it was from the 1600's) and, as reported in the local paper: historians became suspicious of claims that the house dated from the late 1600s. In the 1980s, a group from St. Mary's County told museum officials that there were only two buildings from before 1700 standing in Maryland -- one in Anne Arundel County and one on the Eastern Shore.
This alerted the staff at Greenfield Village that something was amiss.
Soon the staff realized there were major flaws in the story of Susquehanna. After doing tree-ring dating on the beams of the house and doing archaeological work on the home's Maryland site, it was determined the house wasn't so old. It likely dates to the 1830s.
The Village staff knew they had to make changes, and the historians of Greenfield Village un-earthed the true history of the Susquehanna House, and this is how it is now presented for the throngs of visitors. (Please click the above link for more detailed information about Susquehanna).
Plowing and planting the fields an the Susquehanna house
Here is something else to think on...
of the multiple structures that were part of Thomas Edison's demonstration on New Year's Eve 1879 to show the world his electric light, only one remains, for all others have been torn down: the Sarah Jordan Boarding House.
Yep - it's in Greenfield Village, standing proudly as it did over a hundred and thirty years ago for all the world to see for generations to come.
The only survivor of the original buildings first to be lit by Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb sits for all to see
Then there were a few gifts - yes, gifts - that were given to the Institute:
~ besides the Firestones giving Greenfield Village their ancestral farm mentioned above, there is the 1740 Daggett Farmhouse. The owner, Mrs. Dana Wells, just wanted to see the house she purchased and lovingly restored and cared for preserved for future generations.
~ The Smith's Creek Depot, the place where Thomas Edison, as a young boy, was thrown off the train for setting the baggage car on fire during one of his experiments. In 1929 the Grand Trunk Railroad presented the depot to Ford for his new Village.
(from left) a school house, Logan County Courthouse, and Doc Howard's Office - three buildings from the 19th century that are now preserved for generations to come and learn
 ~ Dr. Howard's Office, showing the medical practices of a mid-19th century doctor, and the Ackley Covered Bridge, giving many people their only chance to experience what it was like to walk through - or take a horse and carriage ride though - such a common site of 150 years ago.
A serene scene near the Ackley Covered Bridge
It must be stated here that the curators, historians, and presenters at Greenfield Village all do a remarkable job in accurately bringing the past to life. Since the 1980's they have meticulously researched all details of life as it was, and the presenters were taught to show of life once lived - the impression one gets upon entering the historical structures is second to none. Forget about the modern curbs and sidewalks - it's what's inside that matters.
Everyday life in Colonial America is shown in the Daggett House
By the way, Greenfield Village, the first of its kind in North America (according to the New World Encyclopedia) is not the only game around: Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts formed a similar idea as Greenfield Village, except they present life as it was in the early part of the 19th century instead of encompassing many eras through time. There is also Connor Prairie in Indiana, which does mid-19th century, Crossroads Village in Flint, Michigan shows mid-to-late 19th century, and Charlton Park - also in Michigan - is late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each one of these above-mentioned open-air museums transported building from other locations to become part of a greater historical collection. And there are numerous other open-air museums around the country where ancient structures have found new life in a new location.
A very authentic-looking 19th century scene at Crossroads Village
Preservation has come a long way since the days when Henry Ford was laughed at for buying up old blacksmith shops, school houses, and everyday citizen's homes to move to his museum. When he began this venture, few believed that old buildings were worth saving unless they belonged to someone famous like Mount Vernon or Monticello. Or that collecting the furniture and tools of everyday life had any value.
And Ford did make mistakes (read about the Susquehanna Plantation or the Stephen Foster Memorial for grand examples of this!), but that's all been researched and corrected to the best of their knowledge. As a historian, I say Thank God for Henry Ford and his curious and refreshing hobby in collecting Americana, for, in my opinion, if it wasn't for the uprooting of buildings from their original sites, thereby stripping them of their historical context, there would be little historical preservation to be had, thereby losing so much (too much) of our American History.

(If you cannot visit Greenfield Village in person, you can cyber-visit it right HERE. Enjoy!)

(You may also enjoy reading about the Behind the Scenes activity that Greenfield Village employs. Click HERE)