Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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A Half Century in the Making, the Journey from Yuletides to Holiday Nights

What we know and love today as Holiday Nights did not spontaneously appear in 2000 when we first opened Greenfield Village on December evenings for an immersive holiday experience. Holiday Nights has evolved and grown based on many experiences and inspirations from decades of village “Christmases past.” and the work of many talented people.

The ability to transport our guests to a different time and place is most powerful after dark as the modern world that constantly pushes closer to our borders can be temporarily pushed away. When all is said and done, Greenfield Village provides the most perfect “set” in which to bring the past alive. With over 300 years of history represented, the possibilities are endless; a world where Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life can seamlessly collide. A place where a small town from the distant past comes to life for several hours on December evenings, bringing forth the magic of the holiday season.

Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village is a classic example of “if you build it, they will come.” What began with conservative hopes for several hundred people in attendance has continually grown year after year.

thf112439Information Booklet, "Christmas at Greenfield Village 1964." THF112439

The holiday experience in Greenfield Village has a long history. As early as the mid-1960s, Village buildings were decorated both inside and out for the holiday season. Historic Christmas recipes were prepared in the village kitchens in fireplaces and wood burning stoves. Early on, all the guest experiences were limited to daytime and varied from guided tours, to full access, to tour on your own. Decorations were very elaborate, and included many collection items, but were not always based on sound historical research. Every building got a bit of Christmas, whether it would have been celebrated or not. During this period, attendance was vigorous, especially on December weekends.

THF144738Guests at Clinton Inn (Eagle Tavern) During "Yuletide Evening in the Village," 1975. THF144738

By the mid-1970s, new evening holiday experiences, called Yuletide Evenings, were introduced. Guests had the choice of a formal dinner in either the newly constructed Heritage Hall (now the Michigan Café) or the Clinton Inn (now the Eagle Tavern).The experience included horse drawn wagon, or if conditions allowed, sleigh rides into the Village, and depending on which package was purchased, a tour of 4 different decorated historic buildings, either before or after dinner. By the early 1980s, the Clinton Inn became Eagle Tavern, and the evening program changed to become an immersive 1850 dining experience much like the program offered today. Eventually, the Village tour portion of the evening was discontinued, offering a dinner only experience.  

In the early 1990s, a concerted effort had been made for some years to reinvigorate the daytime program. By paying attention to historical accuracy, but at the same time, broadening the scope and allowing for a wider interpretation of how Americans began to celebrate Christmas in the 19th century, more engaging programs were offered.  Hundreds of artifacts were chosen to fit out the dining rooms, parlors, and where appropriate, Christmas trees. Additional research was also done to lift-up the historic cooking programs and infuse a “living history” approach to the historic structures with the addition of period clothing. All this further supported the stories of the diversity of the American Christmas celebration. This work laid the foundation for the core content of Holiday Nights that we rely on today.

By the late 1990s, for a variety of reasons, the daytime visitation  to the Greenfield Village Holiday Program had begun to decline while the evening program attendance remained strong. Based on the inspiration and fond memories of the wonderful candle and lantern lit buildings decorated for the holidays, a new program was proposed to re-create that opportunity through the Educational Programs class offerings. Though on a very small scale that served less than 100 people, this program reminded us of what could be possible and got the creative process rolling.

THF144736Brochure, "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF144736

The Twelve Nights of Christmas, what would later be called Holiday Nights, debuted for the Christmas season of 2000. The daytime “Holiday” program remained in place, and the evening program was basically an evening version. This early version was very quiet, and very dark, as none of the village restoration had taken place yet. Most of the activities were based inside the buildings. Despite the slow start, the potential was fully realized, and creative and physical growth began. With the village closed for the holiday season of 2002  for the renovation, there was time to regroup, brainstorm, and make plans. The new and improved version for the “new” village in 2003 saw expanded outdoor activities, more music, and an ice rink that featured an artificial ice surface. Even with enhanced programming elements, the program was still not really filling the space as it could.

THF133593Musicians Performing at "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF133593

During these early years, it was apparent to the village programs team that to achieve the level of experience we were aspiring to, the event would need to be broken down into production areas, and each would need its own level of care and attention to detail. Decorating the village, designing and deploying the lighting, planning the historic food demonstrations, food sales and retail, staffing and training, musical and dramatic program casting and rehearsing, dressing an army of staff, firewood, lanterns, and communicating the entire thing, all was captured and pulled together with the Holiday Nights manual. This work became the go-to document for what needed to be done when and where, once preparation for the evening program began. This tool also became invaluable in planning and producing subsequent years of the program. So, as ideas came forth as to how to expand and improve the Holiday Nights guest experience, the program manual format made it possible to incorporate the new elements and move the experience forward.

A very memorable off site staff mini-retreat to a local book store cafe in 2004 laid the foundation for the program we know today. Building on the sound historical content of our village holiday celebration, our success with Holiday Nights thus far, along with a commitment from the institution, we created and refined the combination of guest experiences that today, makes Holiday Nights truly one of the nation’s greatest holiday experiences. The fireworks finale, the end of the evening procession and sing-a-long, a visit from Santa, a real ice skating rink, immersive food and drink stalls in the center of the Village, a greens market, storytellers, over 100 staff in period dress as well as a wide variety of additional dining experiences and top quality live music, has put Holiday Nights on the map over 20 seasons.


The program continues to grow and evolve. For my part, it’s been a privilege and source of pride to see how far we have come and how we have come together to achieve such greatness. I look forward to the road ahead and what the next 20 years may bring.

Inspired by the evolution of Holiday Nights? See it for yourself - limited tickets for 2019 remain.


Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford and Director of Greenfield Village.

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Recently, I stopped by the building block “wonderland” that is Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO® Bricks, a temporary exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

I watched children (and also adults) busily absorbed in designing their own Lego creation - choosing from 200,000 Lego bricks placed within the exhibit as a hands-on activity for visitors. Some kids were likely inspired by the impressive Lego models of famous skyscrapers and other buildings displayed there. Many kids immediately dove into the “bottomless pit” of Lego bricks, jazzed by the opportunity to build something wonderful from their own imaginations.

And children DO love to build things--whether they create imaginary worlds or smaller versions of the real one. Construction toys are quite literally and figuratively “the building blocks of childhood.” Playing with them builds physical and intellectual skills--and encourages creativity. Toy bricks, logs and girders are the stuff of playtime joy!

Over the last 150 years, entrepreneurs have introduced innovative construction toys that have delighted generations of children. Which is your favorite?

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District School Building Block Set, 1876-1886. THF300131. (Gift of Mrs. Clemens August Haass)

After the Civil War, the Charles M. Crandall Company’s building blocks were all the rage. Like Lego bricks, they could be easily and securely linked together in a “thousand and one” ways. By 1879, Crandall offered 28 sets of interlocking blocks and jointed figures.

This “District School” set was a miniature version of a common childhood experience of the era: the one-room rural school. Crandall advertised that children would “laugh over this group of teachers and scholars” as they built the school and arranged the figures. The “District School” had playful appeal, combining entertainment with education--children could learn their alphabet while having fun.

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Tinkertoys, 1914-1925. THF97403

Tombstone cutter Charles Pajeau noticed how much fun his children had sticking pencils into empty thread spools and assembling them into imaginative forms. So, he designed a shorter wooden spool with one hole drilled in the center and a series of holes along the edge. Kids could now build at angles and connect multiple dowels at once. Tinkertoys were born! In 1914, Pajeau started a company to produce and market the toy.

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Erector Set, 1915. THF95319

As toy marketer A.C. Gilbert rode the train from New Haven to New York on business, he watched as workers erected an electrical system along the railroad line using steel girders that had been riveted together. This inspired Gilbert to design a construction set for older boys with metal girders, panels, wheels, gears, and pulleys. His marketing spoke directly to boys, encouraging them to build.

Boys used their Erector sets to build small versions of steam engines, Ferris wheels, zeppelins, bridges, elevators, trucks, cranes, and other devices. The toy not only delighted boys--it also appealed to their parents, who appreciated the way Erector sets could introduce their kids to careers in engineering. The company even offered “degrees” from its “Engineering Institute.”

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Lincoln Logs, about 1960. THF6627 (Gift of Steven K. Hamp)

John Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs. Introduced in 1916, these sturdy, miniature logs had interlocking notches. Lincoln Logs were named after Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin.

After World War II, Lincoln Logs got another boost as they became an iconic Baby Boomer toy. In the 1950s, nostalgia for the American West and the frontier had kids crafting log buildings with their Lincoln Log sets. With their nostalgic connection to America’s past, Lincoln Logs were marketed as “America’s national toy.”

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Lego Building Set, 1976-1983. THF59

Legos, developed in Denmark during the 1950s, first appeared in the United States in 1962. With their small interlocking studs and tubes, Lego plastic bricks held together well - yet could easily be pulled apart. Lego bricks offered “no limits on what you can build.” Two Lego blocks could be joined in 24 different ways. Six blocks--over 100 million ways.

Lego bricks can be assembled and connected to create buildings, vehicles, and even human figures. Though the design and purposes of individual pieces have evolved over the years, each Lego brick--whether made in the 1950s or the present--remains compatible in some way with existing pieces.

Duplo bricks - larger sized versions made for preschoolers - debuted in 1969. They were easier for tiny hands to maneuver.

Over the years, Lego has created Lego sets with a variety of themes, including space, pirates, castles, robots, and the Wild West. They have licensed themes from popular cartoons, films, and video games--like Batman, Harry Potter, and Star Wars.

With their endless creative possibilities, Lego bricks have staying power--and fans worldwide. In 2000, Legos were named “Toy of the Century” by Fortune magazine and the British Association of Toy Retailers.

As a kid, I loved to design and build houses. Growing up, my siblings and I had Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and an Erector set. I rather envied my friend--she had Block City, pre-Lego plastic bricks with architectural details like doors and windows (which Lincoln Logs lacked). My grandmother (who sewed a lot) kept a box full of empty spools and some wood scraps for us to build with--we created imaginary “towns” all over her living room floor. She never seemed to mind.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

1967 Ford Mark IV Race Car
The Mark IV gave Ford the second of four consecutive Le Mans victories, starting in 1966. Ferrari had dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning 8 of 12 races from 1954 through 1965. THF90733

This was the first all-American car and team to win the Le Mans 24-hour race. For decades, Europeans had dominated sports-car racing in cars with small, fast-turning, highly efficient engines. Americans typically used big, slower-turning, less-efficient V-8 engines. This car’s sophisticated chassis used aerospace techniques, and its shape was refined in a wind tunnel. But its big engine was based on Ford’s V-8 used for stock-car racing.

Close-up View of the Ford Mark IV Le Mans Engine
Close-up View of the Ford Mark IV Le Mans Engine, June 1967. THF119457

It was Ford vs. Ferrari in this race, with Ford ultimately coming out on top. The second-place Ferrari was more complicated and temperamental than the first-place Ford. It had a V-12 engine with fuel injection and twin distributors. The Ford (pictured above) had a V-8 engine with two four-barrel carburetors.

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Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt Popping Cork of Victory Champagne at the 24 Heures du Mans (24 Hours of Le Mans) Race, June 1967. THF127985

Two of America’s great race drivers, A.J. Foyt, right, and Dan Gurney, teamed up to win the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans in this car. Gurney’s post-race celebration included racing’s first-ever champagne spray.

Close-up View of the Ford Mark IV Le Mans Race Car Hull Honeycomb Construction
Close-up View of the Ford Mark IV Le Mans Race Car Hull Honeycomb Construction, 1967 / detail. THF87021

Holes cut in the chassis show its aircraft-style construction of aluminum honeycomb. The concept was to make it strong and lightweight.

Want to learn even more? See the Mark IV for yourself in Driving America inside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. 

This fall we welcomed Rich Sheridan, CEO (and Chief Storyteller) of Menlo Innovations, to The Henry Ford as an Entrepreneur in Residence. Rich is our second EIR to join us in 2019, following Melvin Parsons, founder of We The People Growers Association in Ypsilanti. Hear more about Melvin's story below.


Thanks to a grant, the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship has allowed The Henry Ford to provide the next generation of entrepreneurs with hands-on learning opportunities. This initiative includes the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, a public speaker series featuring influencers in entrepreneurship, workshops and the expansion of youth programming that leverages the institution’s Archive of American Innovation to create a deep and engaging understanding of invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship from a young age. 

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Photo courtesy of Menlo Innovations.

Learn more about Rich, his background, and his passion for cultivating joy.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your company, Menlo Innovations.
I am a #PureMichigan kid. I grew up in Mount Clemens, Mich., just north of Detroit and attended Chippewa Valley High School where I started learning to program computers on a teletype in 1971.  I then went to Ann Arbor and received a bachelor of science in computer science and a master of science in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. After graduation in 1982, I decided I loved Ann Arbor too much to leave and have been there ever since. I married my high school sweetheart, Carol, and we raised our three daughters (Megan, Lauren and Sarah) in a house we’ve been working on since we bought it in 1983. We have two granddaughters now and two more (twins!) on the way.

I co-founded Menlo Innovations in 2001 with James Goebel. We are a contract software design and development firm in downtown Ann Arbor with a mission to “end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.” Our goal since our founding is to return joy to technology … for the people who use the software our team creates, for the people who pay us to design and build it, and for the people who do the work.

Our team has done lots of work in the automotive industry, the healthcare industry, logistics, retail, in just about every technology and platform available.

Do you have a specific memory about your first visit to The Henry Ford?
Growing up in Clinton Township (near Mount Clemens), there was a program offered every summer that I believe they called Summer Recreation. Most of the activities were at the elementary school I attended. They also offered field trips and once a summer they took us to Greenfield Village. I loved it every time I went. My specific memories include rock candy (!), the steam engine train, the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, the horse-drawn carriages, the Model-T fleet, the blacksmith shop, the glassblowing, and of course, the Menlo Park lab of Thomas Edison.

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Inside Menlo Laboratory.

What inspires your most about Thomas Edison and his Menlo Laboratory?

As a kid, I got goosebumps whenever I entered that lab. I’m not even sure if I knew what had actually happened there. I could sense the human energy that existed there, the camaraderie, the inventiveness, and the excitement of creating things that had a chance to change the world. I loved the fact that there was a “lab” that was wide open and filled with such fascinating equipment, above a machine shop. My favorites toys as a kid were Erector sets, electrical experimentation kits, LEGO blocks, chemistry sets, and a microscope. In my mind’s eye, I saw all of this at work in this lab and this was a place that adults worked! I wanted that in my own work life.

What have you been working on with The Henry Ford as our EIR? What excites you most about your time here?
The Henry Ford wants to ensure they offer practical relevance to the problems we face in our world today. Businesses and engineers at those businesses have the opportunity to create great impact. The adults running those firms and working there need inspiration (just like we kids did). Businesses today need creativity, imagination, invention and innovation more now than ever. What better place to inspire and begin such a journey than The Henry Ford.

My project is to help the amazing team at The Henry Ford imagine an innovation space that businesses can use to bring their teams, their ideas, and perhaps even their customers to play, explore, invent and ideate. The space itself will be right in the middle of the museum. Thus, teams who use that space will be able to use the museum as a sort of lab for creating, drawing important lessons from the past and they ideate about the future. As William Pretzer said in his book Working at Inventing, “Henry Ford’s goal was to create a museum that would not only record the past but would shape the future as well. It would use the past to encourage visitors, especially the young, to aspire great achievements of their own.” It certainly worked for me!

Why is it important to put joy into your work every day?
I have to admit, my desire to create Menlo Innovations was a selfish one. I wanted to create a workplace I wanted to come to every day, with energy, enthusiasm and inspiration. The beautiful thing is that this kind of environment is contagious. We actually get over 3,000 visitors every year who come from all over the world just to see how we do what we do. They can feel the energy of the place and we end up talking about the “business value of joy.” The visitors often ask, “Why is joy so important?” I present them with a rhetorical question: “Imagine half of my team had joy and the other half didn’t? Which half would you want working on your project?” Everyone chooses the joyful half (of course!). I then ask them why?

“They’d be more productive.”

“They’d care more about the outcome.”

“They’d produce higher quality.”

“They’d be easier to work with.”

There is, in fact, tangible business value to joy. We know this. Thomas Edison knew this. Henry Ford knew this. Now it’s time for the rest of the world to get on board.

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“Classic American Cars Series: 1966 Mustang” ornament, 1992.
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“Holiday Barbie” ornament, 1993.
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In 1973, Hallmark Cards, Inc. decided to venture into the world of producing Christmas ornaments. That year, the company introduced a small line of “Keepsake Ornaments,” consisting of six rather traditional glass ball ornaments and 12 handcrafted yarn figures.

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“Star Wars: Yoda” ornament, 1997.
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Since then, the company has kept its finger on the pulse of popular tastes, interests, and values. Whether you’re a devoted Hallmark ornament fan or you’re not quite sure why others are, you have to admit that this entrepreneurial company has revolutionized Christmas decorating.

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“Spotlight on SNOOPY Series: Joe Cool” ornament, 1998.
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The Henry Ford recently acquired a collection of thousands of Hallmark ornaments from Indiana Hallmark retailer, The Party Shop, spanning the years 1973 to 2009. Besides being fun, artistic, and just plain charming, there are several other reasons we are excited about the addition of these ornaments to our collection.

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“Here Comes Santa Series: Santa’s Motorcar” ornament, 1979.
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J. C. Hall, a Visionary Founder

Founded in 1910 by Joyce Clyde (J. C.) Hall, Hallmark did not start with ornaments, but with cards. J. C. Hall (born 8/29/1891) grew up in small-town David City and Norfolk, Nebraska, where at a young age he sold perfume to neighbors and clerked in his older brothers’ bookstore. When he was 16, the three brothers pooled their money and opened the Norfolk Post Card Company. But the market for postcards in Norfolk was limited.

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“Yesteryears: Train” ornament, 1976.
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As story has it, in 1910, J. C. dropped out of high school, crammed two shoeboxes full of postcards, and boarded a train for Kansas City, Missouri. He called on drugstores, bookstores, and gift shop owners, wholesaling products that were created and manufactured by others. As business picked up, he ventured to outlying railroad towns. He and his brother Rollie were soon able to open a specialty store in downtown Kansas City, selling postcards, gifts, books, and stationery. Unfortunately, their inventory was wiped out by a fire in 1915. But they were able to float a loan and bought an engraving firm, which set the stage for the creation of their first original Hallmark card designs. In 1921, brother William joined them and in 1923 the three brothers formed Hall Brothers.

Building a Brand

To establish Hallmark as a recognizable brand, it was J.C. Hall’s idea to begin placing ads in women’s magazines. In 1928, J. C. Hall came up with the brand name “Hallmark” because it both incorporated the family name and was an allusion to goldsmiths’ “hallmark,” a mark of quality. The company began to sell its greeting cards nationally. In 1944, Hallmark’s sales and marketing executive Ed Goodman came up with the tag line, “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best” (using three important company values: caring, quality, and “the best”). In 1954, the company changed its name to Hallmark Cards, Inc.

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Traditional glass ball ornament, “Charmers,” 1974.
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J. C. Hall stepped down as president in 1966, and his son Donald J. Hall became the new president and CEO. Under Donald, Hallmark grew and expanded its quality products to a global market. Ornaments were introduced in 1973. The Hallmark Gold Crown Store program was formalized in 1986, with a network of independently owned and operated retailers to build on the strength of the Hallmark brand and its products. The company acquired complementary companies during the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with Crayola in 1984.

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“Bright Christmas Dreams” ornament, 1987.
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Taking Risks and Embracing Innovation

Since its beginnings, Hallmark has been known for taking risks and being innovative. In 1917, Hallmark “invented” modern gift wrap by printing its own wrapping paper. The company also patented the “Eye-Vision” greeting card display racks, beginning the idea of displaying greeting cards on public view rather than hiding them in drawers.

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“Muhammad Ali” ornament, 1999.
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“Rockin’ With Santa” ornament (mechanical)

Hallmark has continually embraced innovation in the design, technology, and marketing of its ornaments. These include: the use of artists to create original designs; unique translations of cultural celebrities, phenomena, and design trends; groundbreaking experiments in applying sound, light, and other special effects; and sparking the phenomenon of ornament collecting through the creation of a collectors’ club and development of several-year-long ornament series.

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“Baby’s First Christmas” ornament, 1990.
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A Mission-Driven Company

Hallmark Cards, Inc. has built an extremely successful business around the core mission of reinforcing stability and connectedness within a rapidly changing world. The company believes that their products and services must enrich people’s lives; that creativity and quality—in their products, services and all that they do—are essential to their success; and that innovation in all areas of their business is essential to attaining and sustaining leadership.

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“Gifts for the Grinch” ornament, 2000.
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“See ‘n Say” ornament, 2007 (mechanical).
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Being Customer-Focused

There is a reason why the most popular ornaments over time have moved from traditional glass balls to “figural ornaments”—that is, ornaments designed to represent something, from Christmas motifs to popular toys to characters in movies, TV shows, and children’s books. Many consumers tell Hallmark that they view the company’s Keepsake Ornaments as more than just holiday decorations. They help them relive special memories, remember special people and events, and express their own unique interests and personalities.

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“Dad” with video camera ornament, 1996. THF177014

Connected to an Entrepreneurial Family

One of the company’s greatest innovations was establishing an international chain of independent Hallmark stores to encourage sales, customer loyalty, and reinforce their brand. The Henry Ford’s collection of ornaments was once displayed at one of these stores—The Party Shop, a 12,000 square foot Hallmark store in Warsaw, Indiana. The family who owned and operated the Party Shop and the Hallmark Ornament Museum displayed within it epitomizes an entrepreneurial family who embraced Hallmark’s mission.

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Dorothy Snyder and her son David in front of the Hallmark Ornament Museum inside their Hallmark Store

Norman and Dorothy Snyder bought The Party Shop in Warsaw, Indiana in 1978. They were looking for a career change and thought that owning a Hallmark store would both be enjoyable and align with their own values. During the 1980s, the Snyders bought or added several stores, both locally and in surrounding small communities. They and their two children, David and Dana, managed these stores.

In 1989, the family moved The Party Shop from downtown Warsaw out to a 4,400 square foot store in a shopping center on the outskirts of town. They kept outgrowing their space until, in 1996, they moved into their final location—a 12,000 square foot store in that shopping center, about three times the size of most Hallmark stores! It was then that they opened the Hallmark Ornament Museum, aided by the donation of an earlier collection amassed by a friend of their son David. They stopped adding to the collection in 2009, because they just couldn’t justify adding more cases—the space was needed for the retail operation.

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“Cell-ebrate” ornament, 2007.
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A visionary founder; a successful brand; risk-taking and innovation; a mission-driven company; customer focus; and connections with an entrepreneurial family—these are the qualities that mark our new Hallmark ornament collection. So, they may be cute; they may be funny; they may seem overly sentimental at times. They also make a perfect acquisition for The Henry Ford.

Watch for a growing number of these ornaments to appear in Digital Collections on our website and be sure to check them out in person at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation during the holiday season.

Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator & Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She was aided in this blog post by Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life and fellow collaborator on “all things Hallmark.”

The Henry Ford acquired the Vegetable Building from Detroit's Central Farmers Market in 2003, saving it from demolition. Like the farmers markets of today, the Detroit Central Farmers Market was a gathering place – a commercial center, a hub of entrepreneurship and a community space where family, friends, and neighbors congregated and socialized. 

This farmers market can become a destination again, a resource for exploring America's agricultural past, present, and future. We need your help to make this happen. #PledgeYourPassion by making a gift this Giving Tuesday

Vegetable Building at Detroit Central Farmers Market, circa 1888.
Vegetable Building at Detroit Central Farmers Market, circa 1888. THF200604 

Learn more about the remarkable history of this important structure.  

The City of Detroit invested in a new permanent market building - this expansive vegetable hall - in 1860. Located at the east end of Michigan Avenue, just east of Woodward at Campus Martius, it was roughly four blocks square, extending from Woodward to Randolph. The major building in the market was the expansive vegetable building. Market gardeners, florists, orchardists, and nurserymen sold their produce from rented stalls between 1861 and 1893.  

The growth of Central Market reflects Detroit’s growth as a city. Much of Detroit’s early history revolved around its importance as a port and strategic location in the Great Lakes. During the 19th century, Detroit’s manufacturing base and its population grew rapidly, more than doubling every 10 years from just 2,222 people in 1830 to 45,619 in 1860. The Central Market was the first Detroit market not located by the docks, reflecting the city’s transition from a port town to a city. Farmers were now coming to Detroit to sell to city residents, rather than to ship produce to eastern cities.

1884 Sanborn insurance map of Central Market
This certified 1884 Sanborn insurance map shows the Central Market area, including the Vegetable Building and other shops. 

The Central Farmers Market began in 1843 as a simple shed built off the rear of the old City Hall building. Problems with traffic congestion caused by the market, along with the desire to make the prominent square more presentable, led newly elected Mayor Christian H. Buhl to pledge to build a new covered market building. The city hired local architect John Schaffer to develop plans. Schaffer’s design called for a “structure to be comprised of forty-eight iron columns supporting a wooden roof, [measuring] 70 by 242 feet from outside to outside.” The construction contract was awarded in June to Joel Gray at a cost of $5,312. In late September of 1860, the Detroit Free Press wrote: 

“The new market building in the rear of the City Hall is nearly competed and promises to be a fine structure. It covers the whole of the space occupied as a vegetable market, and consists of an open shed, the roof of which is supported on iron columns and a well-finished framework. The roof is of slate and cost about $1,500. It is designed in time to make a tile floor and erect fountains. The building will accommodate all the business of the market and will constitute an ornament as well as a great convenience to that important branch of city commerce.”

Carved wooden ornamentation on the Detroit Central Farmers Market building
Carved wooden ornamentation enhanced the appearance of the market building. THF113542 

In its first year, the market earned the city $1,127 in rent, covering 20% of the construction costs in one year. The building thrived as the vegetable market through the 1880s. The emergence of the Eastern Market, and the continuing desire to open the street to traffic, led the Common Council to decide to close the Central Market in 1892. In 1893 the Parks and Boulevards Commission, which operated Belle Isle, received approval to move the building to Belle Isle for use as a horse and vehicle shelter. The building was re-erected on Belle Isle in 1894. 

In later years it was converted to a riding stable – the sides were bricked in, the roof was altered to add clerestory windows to let in light, and an office and wash area was constructed in the south end. After the riding stable closed in 1963, the building was used to keep the horses of the Detroit Mounted Police, and then later used for storage. It was considered for demolition since the early 1970s. Over the summer of 2003, the building was dismantled and the parts from the original market building were preserved for re-erection in Greenfield Village.

Detroit Central Market building converted to a riding stable and moved to Belle Isle
After the market building was moved to Belle Isle, it was converted to a riding stable. It had been vacant for more than 20 years at the time of this photo. THF113549 

The Detroit Central Farmers Market vegetable building is a rare and important building. Because of fires and development pressures, wooden commercial buildings, particularly timber-framed buildings, rarely survive to the present in urban settings. This may be the only 19th century timber-frame market building surviving in the United States. Its move to Belle Isle saved it from demolition.

Historic view of the Detroit Central Farmers Market, taken in the late 1880s.
Historic view of the Detroit Central Farmers Market, taken in the late 1880s. THF96803 

The building is architecturally significant. It is an excellent expression of prevailing architectural tastes, as demonstrated by the Free Press review. It captures the rapidly changing world of building construction of the mid-19th century. The building represents the pinnacle of the timber framer’s craft; it is elegantly shaped and ornamented in a way that makes the frame itself the visual keystone of the design. It was built shortly before timber frame construction was eclipsed by the new balloon frame construction, which used dimensional lumber and nailed joints. The cast iron columns that support the timber-framed roof represent the newest in manufactured construction materials. Cast iron was the favorite material of the modern builder in the mid-19th century. It was easy to form into a variety of shapes, and ideal for adding ornamentation to buildings at a moderate cost. The columns in the market building have been formed to represent two different materials – the lower section resembles an elaborately carved stone column, while the upper section looks like the timber frame structure that it supports.

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Elegant joinery, supplemented by elaborated carvings, enhances the appearance of the timber frame. THF113530

Cast-iron columns on the Detroit Central Farmers Market building made to resemble stone below the capital and wood above the capital.
The cast-iron columns were made to resemble stone below the capital and wood above the capital. THF113505


The building captures the exuberance and optimism of the city of Detroit as it grew in its first wave from a frontier fort and outpost, to an important city. A “useful and beautiful” market building in the city’s central square was important to this image of this growing city – as evidenced by the fact that it took only nine months from Mayor Buhl’s inaugural address of January 11, 1860 promising a new market building, to its substantial completion. Few buildings survive from this first era of growth in the city of Detroit.  

For 30 years customers engaged with vendors at the Vegetable Building in Detroit's Central Market. For 110 years the building served the public in a variety of ways on Belle Isle. Your donation will help The Henry Ford rebuild this structure in the heart of Greenfield Village. There it will inspire future generations to learn about their food sources. Make history and #PledgeYourPassion this Giving Tuesday

Jim McCabe is Collections Manager at The Henry Ford.

 

Giving Tuesday

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Big and Little Bird reinforce the concept of contrasting sizes in this 1973 Playskool puzzle. THF97463

No television show has influenced how we think about children’s learning and thought processes as much as Sesame Street. For 50 years, this innovative TV show has continually broken barriers in its portrayal of diverse human interactions and relationships, its clever integration of Jim Henson’s wildly creative Muppets, and its rapid-fire approach to teaching basic educational concepts.

The idea for Sesame Street began back in 1966 at a dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney, a TV publicist turned documentary producer, and her husband Tim. In attendance was Lloyd Morrisett, who was both Vice President of the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation and an experimental psychologist interested in children’s education. At the dinner, Morrisett described his three-year-old daughter’s fascination with television—which included not only tuning in to Saturday morning cartoons, but also watching the pre-programming test patterns on the screen and reciting every commercial jingle by heart. Talk turned to the potential of television as a medium for educating young children. Could the seemingly addictive quality of TV be harnessed to both entertain and instruct?

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This monster with the insatiable appetite—especially for cookies—has, under adult pressure, increasingly shown an awareness for healthy eating habits. THF97460

Cooney quickly developed a proposal entitled, “The Potential Use of Television in Preschool Education.” Her goal was groundbreaking at the time—to test the premise that TV could help level the playing field in education, preparing less advantaged three- to five-year-olds for school by teaching basic academic skills, self-esteem, and positive socialization. In March 1968, Cooney and Morrisett announced the formation of the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) and set out to create an educational TV show that would both appeal to young children and help them get a jump on learning. With an eight-million-dollar startup grant from private foundations and government agencies (including the rather skeptical Department of Education), Cooney was able to test ideas for the type of show she had in mind.

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The colorful, fast-paced Batman TV show, which premiered in January 1966, provided one of many inspirations for Joan Ganz Cooney in creating
Sesame Street. THF6651

Cooney’s reference points included the rapid-fire pacing of the hip new adult-oriented TV show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The campy breakout TV show Batman also provided a model, with its fast-paced action as well as its bright, bold colors and even its use of cartoon balloons. Cooney drew additional inspiration from short TV commercials, with their simple melodies in bright major keys. She did not get inspiration from most children’s TV shows, which she thought were dull, slow-paced, and seemed more oriented to adults than kids—with the possible exception of the kid-friendly Captain Kangaroo.

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This 1970s Fisher-Price music box plays the song, “The People in Your Neighborhood,” while the
Sesame Street scene moves horizontally across the “TV screen.” THF135804

Cooney soon realized that, while she had plenty of vision, she needed help in writing, directing, and producing the show. For this, she called on several veterans from Captain Kangaroo—most significantly Jon Stone, who played such a significant leadership role in shaping Sesame Street that he took over as executive producer for the next 20-odd years. Other talented and dedicated scriptwriters, composers, and directors also joined the team, while psychologists and educators lent their support from the beginning.

Cooney and her collaborators initially created a show that included brief skits, musical numbers, cartoons, and live-action video footage—all basically teaching school-readiness concepts. The idea of portraying a diverse group of people living and working together in a community was intentional, providing a hopeful real-life model for an integrated society, which encouraged respect, mutual tolerance, and cross-cultural friendship. The live action scenes were interspersed with pre-taped “commercials”—that is, short “bits” about letters and numbers presented either as animated segments or featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets. The live-action segments were purposely kept separate from the pre-taped “commercials,” as researchers felt that combining these “reality” and “fantasy” elements would confuse children.

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Having the sweetly quizzical Big Bird live in a nest near, and interact with, the live actors on
Sesame Street became a key to the show’s success. THF97451

Initial testing, however, revealed that children thought the live-action scenes were boring, the dialog tedious and lengthy. On the other hand, they found the short “commercials” to be catchy and memorable. Pushing back on the researchers’ advice, Cooney and Stone brought in Jim Henson as a full-time producer, while his Muppet creations Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch joined the live-action human cast. The resulting interaction between humans and Muppets—seamless and convincing—provided the missing alchemy. The foundation was laid for Sesame Street as we know it today.

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Ongoing episodes about ultra-serious Bert and fun-loving Ernie reinforce to children that vastly different personalities can still be good friends. THF92308

The first episode of Sesame Street premiered on November 10, 1969 and the show aired weekdays on the new Public Broadcasting System (PBS) network. It was immediately hailed as a groundbreaking blend of learning and fun, despite some criticism about its high entertainment quotient, its threat to teachers for undermining early school lessons, and—in Mississippi—its initial banning because of its integrated cast. Time magazine featured popular Sesame Street character Big Bird on its November 23, 1970 cover, next to the headline, “Sesame Street: TV’s Gift to Children.” This issue devoted nine pages to the show’s impact and importance, calling it “the best children’s show in TV history.”

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Puppeteer Kevin Clash breathed new energy and vitality into Elmo in the 1980s, but this furry red Muppet became a breakout star in 1996, when comedienne Rosie O’Donnell featured both Clash and this doll on her TV show. THF176791

As Sesame Street has continually changed and grown with the times, its popularity and impact have endured. Comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, whose remarks on her own TV show helped transform Elmo from a minor character to a superstar, described the show’s unique contributions this way:

"From the beginning Sesame Street encouraged imagination and playfulness. It always felt like a show to me about freedom, and it has always spoken to children in a pure and truthful way. Children are children, rich or poor, and there is a language of truth that is innate to these tiny, undeveloped beings that they can hear. Sesame Street had respect for its audience and respect for itself. They never cut any corners and they stuck to their democratic ideals."

Innovative, groundbreaking, and radical when it was introduced, Sesame Street has become nothing short of an American institution.

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

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1907 White Model G Steam Touring Car. THF91139

Millionaire industrialist John D. Rockefeller bought a White steamer. So did “Wild West” showman Buffalo Bill Cody. President William H. Taft included one in the first presidential car fleet. These men, born before the Civil War, might have felt more comfortable with steam than with newer technologies such as internal combustion. But buyers were moving to gasoline-powered cars. White followed, making its last steamer in 1911.

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THF103745

This 1908 advertisement never mentions that the White was powered by steam.

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THF103748

Starting a steam car was complex—just try to follow these instructions. It took at least 10 minutes to get up a “head of steam.” Many owners had chauffeurs to handle the task.

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THF106558

Famous Western showman Buffalo Bill parades beside a White. Buyers of the expensive steamers tended to be older and wealthier than the average American.

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1865 Roper Steam Carriage. THF91158

Smoke-belching steam locomotives were familiar sights to Americans in the 1860s. But a small steam carriage running under its own power—without horses!—was so startling that people paid to see it driven around a track. It was a curiosity, not transportation. By the time its inventor, Sylvester Roper, died in 1896, the next generation of innovators was trying to transform horseless carriages from curiosities into practical vehicles.

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THF88410

A handbill promoting an 1865 steam buggy exhibition proclaimed steamers “the most wonderful invention of modern times.”

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THF88409

Massachusetts machinist Sylvester Roper built at least seven steam carriages and two steam motorcycles. They weren’t considered practical vehicles but became popular attractions at circuses and fairs. The driver is probably W.W. Austin, who exhibited Ropers.

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THF85123

Print of a Roper steam carriage exhibited at a circus, about 1863.

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Roper’s death was front-page news in Boston, where he lived and worked. He had a heart attack at age 73 while riding one of his steam motorcycles.

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1899 Locomobile Runabout. THF90342

The bicycle boom of the 1890s had liberated riders from the limited routes and schedules of trains and trolleys—and people wanted more. When the automobile arrived, cyclists were ready to embrace its promised freedom. The Locomobile combines railroad and bicycle technology. It’s powered by a compact version of a steam locomotive engine, and the steel-tube frame, wire wheels, pneumatic tires, and chain drive come from bicycles.

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THF121652         

Locomobile proudly identified the New York Fire Department as a customer in this 1901 advertisement.

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THF88385

Like other motor vehicles, steam cars had a limited range, in this case restricted by the amount of water and fuel they carried. Fuels such as kerosene were used to boil the water and create steam. This cutaway reveals a water tank, boiler, two-cylinder steam engine, and fuel supply under the seat.

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THF206435

Makers of steam cars hoped that people’s familiarity with steam and love of bicycle-enabled freedom would translate into sales of steam-powered automobiles.