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Before and After: Five Greenfield Village Building Makeovers

August 14, 2020 Archive Insight

As Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, I’ve worked on many Greenfield Village building makeovers since I started here in the late 1970s. Today I’m going to take you behind the scenes to five of my favorites.

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THF237357 / Historical Presenters outside Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village, circa 1982

The 1980s and 1990s were an exciting time here, as we upgraded many Village buildings that had long been unchanged. The history and presentations of many of them were inaccurate, like the presenter outfit and penny candy in this general store image of 1965.

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THF126771 / Historical Presenter and Visitors in the General Store, Greenfield Village, 1965 / Photographed by Philippe Halsman

We looked at sources that many historians used—probate records, census records, local newspapers, old photos (like this one of Firestone Farm). These helped us uncover more accurate stories about the people who had lived and worked in these buildings.


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THF115221 / Firestone Farmhouse at Its Original Site, Columbiana, Ohio, circa 1876, Robert, Harvey and Elmer with Grandmother Sally Anne Firestone

Eagle Tavern, constructed in the 1830s, was one of the first buildings we tackled. In 1927, Henry Ford found this by-then-dilapidated building (see photo) in Clinton, Michigan, brought it to Greenfield Village, and located it on the Village Green.


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THF237252 / Eagle Tavern at Its Original Site, Clinton, Michigan, 1925

Ford enlarged the back of the building to use as a student cafeteria for his Edison Institute schools. You can see the addition behind the carriages lined up for tours, which left from here when the Village first opened to the public in the 1930s.

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THF120768 / Horse-Drawn Carriages outside Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern), Greenfield Village, 1929-1950

When I started working at the museum in 1977, Clinton Inn was still a cafeteria, but for visitors. Here’s a photo of visitors lunching there back in 1958.


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THF123749 / Visitors Lunching at the Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern), Greenfield Village, 1958

The so-called “colonial kitchen” was also used for fireplace cooking classes as part of the museum’s Adult Education Program. I took several of these classes back then—but, alas, I don’t seem to be in this particular photograph!


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THF112256 / Colonial Cooking Class Held at Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern) in Greenfield Village, 1978

In 1981, I joined a new Food Committee, to better align our food offerings with our overall interpretation. We proposed turning this historic building into a sit-down restaurant with period food and drink. Our idea was accepted, and we got to work.


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THF54290 / Server at Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village, October 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian

Delving into historical research, we settled on the year 1850 for interpreting the building’s role as a roadside way-station and community hangout (like this 1855 print). In 1850, the place was called Eagle Tavern, run by a farmer named Calvin Wood.

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THF120729 / Mail Coaches Changing Horses at a New England Tavern, 1855

To find out what and how people ate at that time, I looked at travelers’ accounts, etiquette books, and historic cookbooks. The chefs tested historic recipes. We sampled them to create each seasonal menu—like this, one of our first “Bills of Fare.”

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THF123845 / Menu from Eagle Tavern, Greenfield Village, 1982, "Bill of Fare"

Eagle Tavern opened in April 1982, with staff dressed in some of the Village’s first-ever historically accurate clothing. This photo, taken when our dream of establishing a historic restaurant became a reality, still fills me with pride! (You can find more content related to Eagle Tavern on The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation episode page and YouTube clip.)

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THF237355 / Historical Presenters outside Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village, 1983

When I started at The Henry Ford in Summer 1977, the far end of Greenfield Village was undergoing a big change. The 18th-century Connecticut home of antiques collector Mary Dana Wells had just arrived and was being rebuilt using hand construction methods.

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THF133332 / Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, circa 1978

The building was initially called the Saltbox House (an antiquarian’s term referencing its shape, as seen in this photo before the home was moved). Indeed, the early focus here was on interpreting the architecture and Mrs. Wells’ rare antique furniture.

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THF236282 / Daggett Farm House--Earlier Site, Exterior--Item 33

Now that you’ve seen the colonial “saltbox” shape of the exterior, here’s an interior shot of Mrs. Wells’ antiques when she lived there.

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THF236130 / Daggett Farm House at Its Earlier Site, Union, Connecticut, 1951-1977

In 1981, I joined an interdepartmental task force to enliven Village buildings. At the Saltbox House, we decided to highlight colonial-era household activities. The house soon came alive with the sights and sounds of cooking, cleaning, and spinning wool.

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THF136883 / Activities Inside the Connecticut Salt Box House (now Daggett Farmhouse) in Greenfield Village, 1989

Meanwhile, our research revealed that a family named the Daggetts had lived there during the 1760s, the period of our interpretation. From Samuel Daggett’s rare account book, we could reconstruct what the Daggett family did at their farm during that time.

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THF54170 / Presenter Working at Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, October 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian

Over time, the interpretation at the house moved from simple demonstrations of domestic activities to a more accurate recreation of the lives and livelihood of the Daggett family. Eventually, the house was renamed the Daggett Farmhouse.

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THF16439 / Presenter Working at Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, April 2006

I think of Firestone Farm as our greatest building makeover and I was involved with it from the beginning. In 1983, the museum was first offered Harvey Firestone’s boyhood home, located in Columbiana, Ohio. Here’s a 1965 photo of it on its original site.

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THF115233 / Firestone Farmhouse at Its Original Site, Columbiana, Ohio, 1965

Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone became friends, business associates, and members of a small group called the “Vagabonds,” who traveled around and went camping together. Ford often visited the Firestone family homestead in Columbiana, Ohio.

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THF124714 / Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford at Firestone Farm, Columbiana, Ohio, 1918

Curator of Agriculture Peter Cousins (shown on the right here) proposed that this farmhouse become the nucleus for a year-round, authentically recreated “living history” farm. He was instrumental in thoroughly documenting the farmhouse and barn.

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THF138464 / Construction at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, May 1985

Meticulous research went into furnishing the farmhouse rooms. This dim black-and-white photo of a corner of the parlor from 1898 provided important clues to how this room looked when Harvey’s parents, Benjamin and Catherine Firestone, ran the farm.

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THF242498 / Firestone Farm--Original Site--Interior--Parlor--Item 8

Based upon that photo, other photos of parlors of the period, and actual furnishings from that era, here is how that corner of the parlor was reconstructed when the farmhouse was reconstructed in Greenfield Village.

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THF53032 / Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian

My task was researching the cooking and other domestic activities and supplying the appropriate equipment for the kitchen and pantry. Here’s a glimpse at what that kitchen came to look like later, with presenters getting the midday meal on the table.

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THF53126 / Presenters Working at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian

In June 1985, Firestone Farm was officially “reborn” in Greenfield Village. Here’s a photo of the dedication, with President Gerald Ford speaking. (You can find more content about Firestone Farm on The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation’s episode page and YouTube clip.)

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THF242136 / Firestone Farm--Dedication--Item 32

New research in the early 1990s revealed that this rural Georgia home in Greenfield Village had housed several generations of the Mattox family—an African American family who, through determination and hard work, owned and maintained their home and land.

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THF68734 / Mattox Family Home

Reopened in 1991, the Mattox House depicts the 1930s era, when Amos (shown here, ca. 1910) and Grace Mattox—descended from enslaved African Americans—raised their two children. Life was hard but the family proudly affirmed that there was “always enough.”

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THF135142 / Portrait of Amos Mattox

My primary job here was to furnish the kitchen and prepare the space for cooking programs. I used many of the great oral histories that the project team had initially collected, gleaning information about the Mattox family’s cooking and eating habits.

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THF53399 / Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian

In 1992, Rosa Parks visited the Mattox House, furnished like similar homes at the time with newspapers covering the front room walls to insulate against cool Georgia nights and winters. (You can find more content about the Mattox Family Home on our The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation episode page.)

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THF123775 / Rosa Parks Visiting Mattox House in Greenfield Village, 1992

My several years of experience with historical research, artifacts, and interpretation came in handy when, in 1990, I became the lead curator on a makeover of the general store on the Village Green.

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THF54366 / J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village, October 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian

Henry Ford originally wanted a general store to complete the buildings he had envisioned for his Village Green. He found the perfect store in Waterford, Michigan (as shown here), purchased it, brought it to Greenfield Village, and had it rebuilt in 1927.

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THF126117 / J.R. Jones General Store (Just Before the Move to Greenfield Village), Original Site, Waterford, Michigan, 1926

Ford then sent agents out to obtain historic store stock. One of the items they sent back was a storefront sign with the name Elias A. Brown. Elias Brown had run a store in New York, not Michigan—leading to a lot of confusion for visitors over the years.

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THF138605 / Elias A. Brown General Store in Greenfield Village, October 1958

We began researching the store’s history in Waterford and found that it had changed proprietors nine times! We decided that James R. Jones, the 1880s storekeeper (pictured here), was our best choice to interpret. His name replaced Elias Brown’s out front.

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THF277166 / Portrait of J.R. Jones, circa 1890 / back

Further research led us to specific customers, the choices of goods people might have purchased, and the role of general stores in local communities—as seen by this “community bulletin board” we later created in the store from local announcements and ads.

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THF53768 / J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian

Wanting the store interior to look like a real working store—filled with lots of duplicate and like-new items—we used both real artifacts and accurate reproductions. By the time we were done, the store was stocked with some 5000 items!

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THF53774 / J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian

The J.R. Jones Store opened in 1994, shown here with our first vintage baseball team, the Lah-de-Dahs—named after a team from Waterford back in the 1880s. When visitors walk inside the store today, they’re still blown away by the store’s interior! (Check out more content about the J.R. Jones General Store on our website and a YouTube clip from The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.)

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THF136301 / "Lah-De-Dahs" Baseball Team in Greenfield Village, Spring 1994

Well, this just touches upon the makeover stories of a few buildings in Greenfield Village. We continue to uncover new research and new stories. I hope you enjoyed this brief virtual visit to Greenfield Village and plan to make a real visit soon!

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THF16450 / Presenters Working at Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, April 2006


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

by Donna R. Braden, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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