My Turn: Ford's plans may take on another historical dimension

Last month, Detroit flashed a collective smile when Ford Motor Co. celebrated its grand plans to restore the once magnificent Michigan Central Station in Corktown.

It was a history-making event, befitting a corporate titan that figures to launch a new era within the confines of the sprawling 105-year-old structure.

The mega-project, which is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take some 4 years to complete, undoubtedly would make Henry Ford proud, bold and brilliant as expansion plans can be.

The founder of the giant automaker, of course, supplied the smarts behind a host of trailblazing projects, most of which have stood the test of time over the past century. His genius is particularly evident at Greenfield Village, the brainchild of a man forever etched in the minds of historians for debunking their passion.

It, of course, is supremely ironic that Ford would have anything to do with the creation of such a history repository. He, after all, was subjected to a
tidal wave of criticism from academicians for labeling history as pure “bunk.”

The quote has spawned many a debate over its relative worth, even though there can be no disputing that it was Ford – more than any other individual – who brought the automobile to the American public and within the means of the ordinary working stiff.

My father, who would have celebrated his 99th birthday this fall, was fixated on all things “Ford.” It undoubtedly arose from his days working at the massive Rouge Plant, where he once had a chance meeting with the auto magnate and his tough-talking enforcer Harry Bennett.

He was moved by the experience, and regaled in telling tales of Ford to his children and grandchildren, hoping we would gain a special appreciation for the man who brought “mass production, the assembly line, the $5 a day wage,” and other innovations to the auto industry. But, as my father once wrote, perhaps Ford’s greatest achievement was the creation of a slice of Americana that he left to this and future generations in the form of Greenfield Village.

The Village was conceived and built near the farm on which Ford grew up, and what started as an empty field, crossed by a well-rutted dirt road, is now one of the world’s great tourist attractions.

In building the complex, Ford reportedly “proved difficult,” insisting on doing it his own way, with no thought for expense, no consideration for imitations, and with perhaps just a bit too much spontaneity. He had the fortune and the stubborn will to prevail, and for this he is to be honored more than condemned. He was the ultimate self-made man of simple tastes, with little formal education, but unlimited ambition and disdain for those who crossed him.

Greenfield Village, on the other hand, has an appeal for everyone, but primarily for those who love America, cherish its history, and believe in the free enterprise system. It is a life-sized village with scores of historic buildings moved there from all over the country, representing a multitude of historical periods spanning various centuries.

You can see the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop, moved from Dayton, Ohio; a 1634 Cape Cod windmill; and the Illinois courthouse where Abraham Lincoln first practiced law. Lincoln’s tall hat and cane rest on a table there today, as if he had placed them there in a hurry to a court case.

Ford, it is said, learned to read by the standard schoolbook of his day, McGuffey’s Reader, so he moved the author’s birthplace, a one-room log cabin, to the Village.And then he acquired a fantastic collection of McGuffey Readers. He also set up the more elaborate home of Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, and placed it near the homes of scientists George Washington Carver, Luther Burbank, and Charles Steinmetz.

Inventor extraordinaire, Thomas Edison, occupies a place of honor in the Village. There, Ford recreated Edison’s whole Menlo Park scientific research complex, where the brilliant inventor and his team of technicians had produced the electric light, phonograph, mimeograph, telephone transmitter, and the radio tube. He even transplanted the trees and shrubs from around the buildings and hauled in seven railroad carloads of red New Jersey soil to give the place a familiar foundation.

Some purists have criticized Ford’s personal selection of exhibits as whimsical and others say that he collected too many items, creating a historical hodgepodge. Perhaps this is part of the charm of Greenfield Village, a place where one can almost taste the flavor of the past.

Edison reportedly visited the Village many times and was apparently delighted with the look of the new “Menlo Park.” But the first time Ford showed him the meticulously duplicated scene, he remarked, “Henry, it’s 99.9 percent perfect.”

“What?” Ford asked. “Do you mean there is something wrong?”

Quipped Edison, “We never kept the place this clean.”

Now, as a new “Ford” marks a possible turning point in its glorious history, may we all rejoice in the news of another milestone for the Motor City, one pivotal to the prospect of a decidedly brighter future.