Boys and collections just seem to go together. Baseball cards. Superhero figures. Interesting rocks. And just like any other young man, Henry Ford built his own collection. Only Ford wasn’t young. And his hoard included the presidential limousine that John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated.
Henry Ford’s collection began with the simple motive of preserving objects that documented American innovation and genius. What followed from Ford’s hobby eventually became the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. It seems that with enough connections — and a big enough bank account — an avid collector can amass an array of artifacts that could leave the docents at the Smithsonian institution drooling.
Housed within a building patterned after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the Henry Ford Museum includes the automobile baron’s personal memorabilia, a collection that recounts the American story and that has been designated a national historic landmark. An astonishing 12 acres of display space present approximately 26 million objects and documents if you take into account Greenfield Village, an adjoining outdoor historical museum also furnished by Henry Ford.
Behind the museum’s doors are such notable icons as the chair in which Abraham Lincoln sat when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth; the world’s oldest steam engine; the Montgomery, Alabama, bus that carried Rosa Parks on the day she refused to give up her seat; Thomas Edison’s complete Menlo Park Laboratory; and John F. Kennedy’s presidential limousine. Some artifacts rank as far less consequential, if no less fun. A case in point: the wacky red-and-yellow Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.
It’s no great surprise that a large portion of the Henry Ford Museum is dedicated to the American automobile. In 2012 a new arrangement of Ford’s vehicle collection, titled “Driving America,” organizes the museum’s car collection around its effect on American culture. Eighty thousand square feet of exhibit space showcase impressive vehicles like the 1865 Roper, the oldest surviving American car; the 1896 Quadricycle, Ford’s first automobile; Ford’s original 1901 Model-T; the 1967 Ford Mark IV race car, the first all-American car to win at Le Mans; and a series of presidential vehicles from Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan.
Multi-media displays fill the spaces between the automotive superstars, each putting in plain words the cars’ back stories. Touch-screen panels explain the workings of vehicle power trains. Digital photographs recount memorable automobile ads and popular road-tripping songs over the generations. And still another display helps visitors learn how to speak like a CB radio operator. The interactive exhibits also give visitors a chance to include personal memories they’ve built around the cars in their lives.
And beyond the automobiles themselves are exhibits that explore the ways in which automobiles transformed the American landscape, ranging from a 1946 diner, Lamy’s, originally located in Marlboro, Massachusetts, to a 1960 neon Mcdonald’s sign advertising hamburgers for 15 cents and old AAA road maps.
Other fascinating themed areas at the Henry Ford Museum include “Heroes of the Sky” highlighting dozens of historic airplanes — Byrd’s arctic Fokker, a Sikorsky helicopter, and early commercial and barnstorming planes — and “Made in America,” focusing largely on American manufacturing innovation.
Greenfield Village, adjacent to the museum complex, further encapsulates Ford’s infatuation with history and the world’s innovators. More than 80 genuine 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century homes were transported by Henry Ford from throughout the United states and Europe to bring history to life in suburban Detroit. among the highlights in greenfield Village are the Wright Brothers’ original bicycle shop, the Menlo Park laboratory where Thomas Edison succeeded in inventing the light bulb, an authentic English Cotswold cottage, and the residences of Noah Webster and Robert Frost.
It only seems fitting that the Henry Ford’s most recent addition is a strictly automotive-themed attraction. The Ford Rouge Factory, a complex which at its peak included 93 buildings, nearly 16 million square feet of floor space and 120 miles of conveyors, was added to the museum’s list of attractions in 2010. Visitors view the production of Ford’s most popular truck, the F-150, through the magic of virtual reality and a working assembly plant walking tour.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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