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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

From Dayton to Dearborn

April 23, 2024

A rare collection of correspondence reflects the process of relocating the Wright brothers' buildings to Greenfield Village.

By Jennifer LaForce, Managing Editor, The Henry Ford Magazine

Both the Wright brothers’ cycle shop and family home in Greenfield Village are popular spots for the thousands of guests that visit The Henry Ford each year. During spring and summer, it’s not uncommon to see crowds surround the structures as they listen to presenters talk about Wilbur and Orville Wright, their bicycles and aircraft.


Letter from Orville Wright to Fred Black about Acquiring Wright Home for Greenfield Village, November 3, 1936 / THF714291

The Henry Ford recently acquired correspondence that helps bring to light how the buildings came to be in Greenfield Village in the late 1930s. It’s a collection of letters and other materials from former The Henry Ford staffers Fred Black and Fred Smith. Close liaisons to Henry Ford, Black and Smith are considered legendary in The Henry Ford’s early leadership, both acting in varying managing and director roles.

“This is the kind of thing you don’t expect to come out of the woodwork,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation. “Anything associated with Orville and Wilbur Wright would be of interest to us, but the fact that these were letters generated by our own staff as they were in the process of bringing these buildings here fills in a hole that was otherwise in our archive and institutional collections.”

The rare find, discovered as family managed the estate of the late Carol Schulman, Fred Smith’s daughter, is a three-ring binder of 70-plus items reflecting the relocation process of the Wright buildings from Dayton, Ohio, to Dearborn, Michigan, and the participation of Orville Wright in the reconstruction and interpretation efforts.


Drawing Made by Orville Wright of the Bookcase Which Stood in His Father's Room, circa 1937 / THF714295

“We now have an original hand-drawn sketch by Orville on paper that says ‘From the desk of Orville Wright,’ but the type appears upside down. He must have been in a hurry,” quipped Anderson. The sketch is of a bookcase that sat in the office of Bishop Milton Wright, Orville’s father, in their family home. “It’s cool to see him drawing from his own personal memory, which I feel gives these buildings more credibility — the fact that somebody who was there was actually part of the process of bringing it here,” added Anderson.

While it’s unclear why this institutional correspondence was with the Smith family — Anderson said recordkeeping was a bit porous in those days — The Henry Ford couldn’t be more pleased to have it back. Next step: Share it with the public. “My hope is to pick out some of the best material and request that it be added to our Digital Collections,” said Anderson. “Here’s a great window into the process of how these two historically significant buildings came to be in Greenfield Village. That’s a question we get all the time.”

The Wright Stuff


After Henry Ford had the Wright brothers’ cycle shop and family home moved to Greenfield Village in the 1930s, he proceeded to furnish both structures with as many authentic items representing the period when brothers Orville and Wilbur lived and worked in them.

At the time, Ford had a good deal of help from a direct source — Orville Wright himself. Several items currently on display in the buildings in Greenfield Village were donated by Orville Wright, including a roll-top desk, three parlor rockers, two washstands, two bookcases, a chest of drawers, a Victorian office chair and a mantel clock. Wright also assisted in locating machine tools used by him and his brother Wilbur in their cycle shop, from a drill press and lathe to a band saw.

This post was adapted from an article in the Winter/Spring 2024 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.