You might think that memories from growing up in Detroit would be tinged with gray and scented with diesel fumes and burned rubber, but you’d be wrong. Some of my favorite childhood memories from Detroit include:
- eating blintzes my grandfather brought from Eastern Market
- the downtown Hudson’s building at Christmas
- the Fisher Building at night
- picnicking on Belle Isle
- the nymph fountain at Cranbrook Institute
- Old Main at Wayne State University
- crossing the Ambassador Bridge to Canada
- listening to baseball games on the radio with my grandma. (She’d yell a falsetto “Wheeeee!” whenever the Tigers did something brilliant or lucky.)
- eating stuffed grape leaves and baklava in Greektown
- trick-or-treating with hordes of kids in neighborhoods densely packed with houses
And finally, the mother of all childhood memories: Greenfield Village.
Since you are probably NOT from Detroit (and if you are, PLEASE share your favorite memories–Detroit needs all the luv it can get), Greenfield Village is, properly called, The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Together they are the largest “indoor-outdoor” museum complex in America.
But really, “The Henry Ford” is a vast and motley collection of Americana, mostly from the turn of the last century-ish. As Ford himself put it: “the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used.”
But really, it’s Ford’s personal love child. When you are a stinking-rich guy (“He was the Bill Gates of his day,” someone said.) who also likes to collect things, you end up with a lotta stuff. In Ford’s case, enough stuff for a really big museum.
The Henry Ford Museum is the indoor stuff; Greenfield Village is the outdoor stuff–Ford’s collection of houses, farms, shops, and artisans, who do all manner of milling, weaving, pottery, and glassmaking. Whenever Ford saw a house he liked or something belonging to a buddy, like Thomas Edison, he’d move it to his museum. The place looks like a turn-of-the-century village, except that it represents an eclectic span of time and geography.
Near Robert Frost’s home from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a plantation from Maryland;
Luther Burbank’s California office is down the street from the Cotswold Cottage—a romantic limestone farmhouse from 17th century England, which was taken apart, stone by stone, and reassembled in Henry’s village.
You can tool around the village in a Model T or in one of the last Model AA omnibuses in existence; you can ride in a horse-drawn cart or one of the steam locomotives that are maintained in the DT&M Roundhouse. If you walk, which you probably will, you’ll have to dodge horses and Model Ts when you cross the street.
All this is kid magic. I remember standing in the tiny kitchen of the Cotswold Cottage looking through the wavy glass panes and absorbing the dark, smoky life in that place. I remember waiting in what seemed like a huge town square waiting for the Sir John Bennett clock to hit the quarter-hour when the the burly figures of Gog and Magog would hit the bells with their hammers. (It’s not the square, and it’s actually really tiny.)
I’ve been waiting for my granddaughter to be the age when I first visited Greenfield Village. Now she’s six, so during the two weeks I was parked at my son’s house–before the crowds and heat of summer–we went to Greenfield Village.
It was different than I remembered. It was better. And it was the same.
It actually seemed bigger with the atmosphere of a real New England village. The horses clopped, and the Model Ts putt-putted. People in period costumes explained the myth and history of the various houses and periods. And other very well-informed interpretive folks just wandered around, engaging people in conversation. That’s how I learned what a Jacquard loom is and how it anticipates the punch-card computer. Toward the end of the day, we were tired enough and saturated enough with information that we began to dodge those chatty, knowledgeable folks.
We also stumbled across little skits and workshops such as the Huckleberry Finn monologue presented by a spry gray-haired guy who’d been doing the part for 30 years.
We wandered through Robert Frost’s house and Noah Webster’s and the plantation slaves’. It was like Halloween for my granddaughter, who ran from house to house, asking, “can I go in here? Can I go in here?” You can go in anywhere.
She rode the 1913 Herschell-Spillman Carousel and the 1931 Model AA bus. She saw how glass was blown and tin cups were made. She passed by a mill for lumber and one for grain.
We spent the entire day at Greenfield Village and still missed major parts. We didn’t even darken the doorstep of the museum, which would have taken a full day of its own.
If you are within 3 hours of the village, don’t miss it. Plan a day. Better yet, plan two—one for the village and one for the museum. The experience isn’t cheap, but it may well be priceless, as they say.
It was for me, watching my son and granddaughter, revisiting childhood memories on the one hand and creating them on the other.