Historic Presenters in Greenfield Village: Ready to Welcome a New Season
“Was Henry Ford’s father unhappy that Henry didn’t become a farmer? Did they get along?”
A few years back, my friend Regina stood in the Ford Home and asked that question to the uniformed presenter. We were on a homeschooling field trip with our children.
As many times as I’d been to Greenfield Village, I’d never considered that kind of relationship question. I had a tendency to be fascinated with the stuff – the artifacts, the décor, the period clothing, etc. I was a little surprised with the question, but even more surprised by the detail of presenter’s reply. It was a weekday, and the home wasn’t very busy, so this gentleman graciously took the time to share with us some really interesting insights and stories. That question charged my curiosity to look beyond what I was seeing, and the presenter’s deep knowledge and ability to weave a story transformed how I experienced The Henry Ford.
So, who are these presenters?
To begin with, they aren’t only the people wearing period attire. In addition to those clad in the clothes of the past, uniformed presenters drive Model Ts, carriages and other historic transportation; they operate the carousel and work throughout the village, museum and Ford Rouge Factory Tour in a multitude of capacities. They are the working storytellers who help make the artifacts and objects at The Henry Ford come alive – a key element to turning a visit into an inspirational experience.
“Presenters are an all part-time staff of highly committed, highly educated people,” Jim Van Bochove, The Henry Ford’s director of workforce development told me. They may be college students, teachers, retired professionals or someone who comes to the position with a different background or interest that fits the role. “It’s a unique position, and some people are willing to travel quite a distance to dedicate their time to being a presenter here.” He also said the presenter staff is extremely loyal, and there’s not a lot of turnover. (I’d sure say so. There's a presenter who has been with The Henry Ford for 55 years.)
New presenters and all staff for that matter – service, administrative, volunteer, intern, and executive – start their career at The Henry Ford with a daylong program called Traditions, Vision and Values. It’s a busy season for the training as Greenfield Village’s April 15 opening day approaches.
“It’s up to the all of our colleagues here to deliver The Henry Ford experience to our guests,” Jim said. The TVV training, as they call it, is where they learn about the history, culture and vision of the institution. I caught some of it, and it was a pretty lively time – appropriate for working at such a dynamic place.
This group is enjoying an early March TVV program. Some of the participants are assigned as presenters in one of the seven districts in Greenfield Village such as Working Farms or Edison at Work.
Above, Tim Johnson and Meg Anderson from The Henry Ford’s workforce development department engage new staff. You can see that Henry Ford himself remains an important part of the training.
After this training, presenters go through a day of hospitality training. Then they attend two days of basic presenter training to learn storytelling techniques, engage in role playing, make presentations on newly learned material, and benefit from the constructive comments from other new and experienced presenters.
After the general training, presenters move on to hands-on instruction by their managers, supervisors and site leaders depending on where they will be assigned. Kathie Flack, training and event logistics manager, explained to me that by assigning presenters to specific districts, they have more of an opportunity to really become experts in their area.
Since most new presenters this time of year are gearing up for work assignments in Greenfield Village, they might be instructed on how to start and maintain a fire or cook using a wood burning stove. They may attend Model T driving school or learn to milk a cow, harness a horse, operate a plow, or make candles or pumpkin ale. During this time, they’ll also get some of the details regarding the logistics of working at their assigned venue.
At the William Ford barn, I looked on as an experienced presenter and carriage driver instructed a new presenter in harnessing a horse. It looked pretty complicated to me, but Ryan Spencer, manager of Firestone Farm, assured me that after some practice, it only takes one person five minutes to collar, harness and hitch a team of two horses to a carriage.
Before she can drive visitors, she’ll have to pass certification which includes 50 hours of guided training and passing a driving test with 100-percent.
“It’s pretty involved,” Ryan said. “The driver has to be prepared, and the team has to be confident with the driver. She also has to be able to get out of uncomfortable situations and to anticipate certain others.”
In addition to all the horse-related training necessary, new drivers have to pass a tour test and a written test – also with a perfect score.
The new presenter (on the right) spent the day at Firestone Farm learning about chores in the house and barn. In the photo above, he’s examining the grooves from the pit saw used to cut the white oak into lumber when the Firestone’s built the barn in about 1830. He will most likely be horse trained next winter season. “There’s a lot of other work to learn at the farm first,” Ryan said.
In addition to the specific presenter training, there’s getting dressed for the job. The clothing studio outfits all workers who encounter guests at The Henry Ford – whether it is in a uniform or period-specific gear.
This presenter stands for a final fitting of a new custom ensemble as a seamstress inspects. Tracy Donohue, the manager of the clothing studio said they make most all elements of period attire, with the exception of a few foundational garments such as corsets. Uniforms are also purchased in pieces, but all are tailored for each wearer.
The studio works with curators and available historic resources to fit presenters with the most accurate period clothing. There are often multiple fittings. Tracy said that depending on the detail and the pattern challenges, there might be as many as 80 hours of work put in making one dress.
I have to say, the studio storage warehouse is a pretty spectacular place – with aisles and aisles of period clothing, historically accurate fabrics and accessories, and the fantastic costumes for special events like the Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village and Holiday Nights.
Tracy told me the studio has a very comprehensive cataloging system since it inventories close to 50,000 items.
Once presenters are trained, outfitted and equipped with the key elements of the stories they’ll tell, and after they gain a little experience, they can really dig in to learn more by visiting the reading room at the Benson Ford Research Center.
The green binders above are filled with detailed information and interesting facts specific to the buildings and artifacts; community and domestic life, and customs and historic practices of the time periods represented in Greenfield Village.
Presenters (and visitors for that matter) may also access some primary source materials associated with each building, including its move to Greenfield Village. The photo on the right is of the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop in its original location, before Henry Ford had it moved to the village from 1127 West Third St. in Dayton, Ohio, in 1937.
It’s no doubt the people who become presenters at The Henry Ford are there because they want to be there. They’re eager to delve into more of the details and history and share it because they understand Henry Ford’s original vision and want to inspire visitors to learn from the traditions of the past to make a better future.
I love this photo I took a couple years ago. This presenter was pleased (and relieved) with her successful first experience making grape preserves.
The Henry Ford staff, Greenfield Village, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford