If, on every day of every year, you were to examine 1,000 of the 26 million artifacts at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, it would take you more than 71 years to get through them all. But you would not be finished. Each year, the collection adds thousands more items.

Henry Ford began collecting artifacts to tell the stories of technology and of everyday Americans, who were heroes to Ford—and who was considered to be an American folk hero himself. Ford, who grew up on a farm without electricity, idolized Thomas Edison, creator of the electric light bulb. Ford dedicated this project on October 21, 1929, the 50th anniversary of Edison’s first successful electric light bulb. This year, The Henry Ford celebrates its 90th anniversary.

But The Henry Ford is not merely a really, really big museum. It is a 250-acre history and activities complex. This place does not want to just capture lightning in a bottle; it wants to unleash the lightning and creativity in 1.7 million visitors a year.

With the will and the means, Henry Ford sometimes collected all the objects that might fill a building—and then collected the building itself. That is exactly what Ford did with Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey.

The complex has five attractions: the 90-acre indoor museum; the outdoor Greenfield Village with 83 historic structures, farms, rides and craft demonstrations; the Ford Rouge Factory Tour; a giant-screen theater and a research institute.

Besides the complex, events are held here year-round too—like festivals at Halloween, Christmas and other holidays; a Maker Faire for inventors; old-timers baseball games; Civil War re-enactments and even private weddings.

You’ll see, besides several other Edison buildings, Orville and Wilbur Wright’s bicycle workshop, sawmills, shops and the homes of Robert Frost and Noah Webster.

And:

  • The rocking chair in which Abraham Lincoln was shot
  • The car in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated
  • The bus in which Rosa Parks refused to move to the back
  • A 1.2 million-pound steam locomotive and tender
  • A camp bed for which it can really be said, “George Washington slept here”

You won’t believe this place until you see it. And maybe not even then.

Above image courtesy of The Henry Ford.

Author

Joe Grimm is co-author of “Coney Detroit” with Katherine Yung, which makes him one of the biggest hot dogs in Michigan. Grimm went to high school with Scott Lukas and prefers a coney dog made with a poppy seed bun. As a student, Joe Grimm biked from the Detroit area to Mackinac Island for more bicycling on one of the only places in the United States that does not allow cars. Today, one of his favorite overnight Mackinac resting places is the Island House Hotel.

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