As we digitize the collections of The Henry Ford, we try to find and tell complete stories—for example, we don’t just digitize the race car, but also trophies it won, and photos from some of its most famous races. Because of our broad collecting approach and the resultant depth of our collections, we uncover these stories all the time.
Sometimes fate and/or current events help us out. Though The Henry Ford is an independent institution, we do maintain a warm relationship with Ford Motor Company and often work together on projects. Recently we discovered a series of items in our collection that played a big role in Ford Motor Company’s history, both nearly 90 years ago and again just six years ago.
The items include a number of paintings, magazine advertisement proofs created from those (and other) paintings, and correspondence that formed an impressive ad campaign. The campaign itself consisted of 16 ads that ran in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines in 1924 and 1925. The ads, two-page spreads that contained both visually arresting artwork and a significant amount of text, explained the backstory of the Ford company at a time when, as Marc Greuther, Chief Curator and Curator of Industry and Design at The Henry Ford, states, the company was at “a certain kind of pinnacle” with their signature product, the Model T, but “the product is slipping.”
As fascinating as it is, this ad campaign might have disappeared into relative obscurity if it hadn’t been rediscovered by Ford Motor Company’s new President and CEO, Alan Mulally, in 2007. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Mulally said, “I was looking for a compelling vision, a comprehensive statement to deliver that strategy.” This ad campaign from the previous century provided just the fundamental sense of purpose that Mulally was after, and allowed him to create a new strategic vision that was embraced across Ford Motor Company.
As we discussed this backstory with Ford Motor Company, both organizations were extremely interested in highlighting the ad campaign. Marc Greuther conducted a one-on-one interview with Alan Mulally about the impact the earlier campaign had on today’s Ford Motor Company (you can view clips from that interview here and here). As discussions continued between our institutions, the Ford Motor Company Fund generously provided a grant to conserve and reframe some of the materials, as well as create videos covering the conservation process and interviews. We made plans to highlight some of the newly conserved paintings within our Driving America exhibit. The new exhibit was officially unveiled on June 24, with Alan Mulally and other luminaries (including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who checked in at the Museum on Foursquare) in attendance.
The interactive kiosk within this section of the exhibit was updated to include new video clips featuring Marc Greuther’s interview with Alan Mulally, as well as additional analysis of the campaign by Marc. It also now features an electronic collections set containing all of the paintings, ad proofs, and correspondence connected to the campaign, as well as other related materials.
In case you’ve ever wondered what it takes to pull this kind of historical story together, in both physical and digital formats, here are some of the groups that played a role:
Archivists from The Henry Ford combed the stacks, locating the ads and other materials related to the campaign
Registrars, archivists, and curators from The Henry Ford researched all of the materials as well as the backstory
Ford Motor Company provided access to Alan Mulally, Dean Weber (Manager of the Ford Archives), and other key corporate resources, both for interviews and project planning
The Ford Motor Company Fund provided a grant which underwrote conservation and reframing of some of the materials, as well as creation of videos covering the conservation process and interviews
Conservators, both at The Henry Ford and outside the institution, examined and conserved the artifacts
Curators at The Henry Ford planned the story, materials, and text for the new exhibit
Photographers and imaging specialists from The Henry Ford photographed and scanned of all the material
Digitization staff at The Henry Ford made sure all artifacts related to the campaign appeared online and on the interactive kiosk within this exhibit section
Museum and exhibits staff at The Henry Ford worked with contractors to update the Driving America exhibit with the new material
Events staff at The Henry Ford worked with Ford Motor Company to ensure the official unveiling went without a hitch
Ford Motor Company created a website to share photos, videos, and a press release relating to this project
And it continues to build… Staff at The Henry Ford have already fielded one loan request for some of the paintings and advertisements not used in Driving America (you can see them through October 2013 in the Michigan Modern exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.)
It certainly took a lot of time, effort, and funding to put this all together, but we hope you’ll agree that the resulting exhibit in Driving America within the Museum—as well as the digital assets, available to anyone around the world—are worth it. Let us know what you think.
Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford, is always trying to integrate the physical and the digital.
It’s always a thrill when we get to meet descendants of people connected with our Greenfield Village buildings. A few weeks ago, we hosted five descendants of Dr. Howard, whose Tekonsha, Mich., office is located out in the Village next to the Logan County Court House.
These five knowledgeable and enthusiastic members of the family came from North Dakota, California, and as far away as Australia! The group drove here together from North Dakota, visiting other family sites along the way—including, of course, the original site of Dr. Howard’s office in Tekonsha (near Marshall).
Dr. Howard’s office was brought to Greenfield Village to represent the office of a country doctor. It is particularly unique because virtually everything in the building is original and dates to the time of his practice.
Interior shots of Dr. Howard’s office in 1956, just before the building was moved to Greenfield Village.
Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard (1823-1883) was known to have a keen mind, an earthy sense of humor, and a colorful personality.
From the time he started his practice in the early 1850s until his death in 1883, Dr. Howard used a combination of methods to cure sick patients. These included herbal remedies that he concocted himself and more conventional medicines he had learned about while attending Cleveland Medical College and the University of Michigan for a few years. When he wasn’t in his office in Tekonsha, he was “out tending to patients” in the local area.
When Dr. Howard’s descendants came here a few weeks ago, they were hoping to unearth clues to this long-ago history that would build upon their previous research into family stories and genealogy. They spent a lot of time out in the building, talking to staff and visitors and taking loads of pictures. Then they combed through our archival collections that contained materials about their family and about the office.
We were delighted that they were also willing to let us interview them so they could tell us more about their family history—filling in gaps in our own knowledge, revealing new insights, and truly putting new life back into the Dr. Howard story.
Thanks, Corey, Dawn, Sue, Angela, and Fiona, for reminding us that people all over the world continue to have deep personal connections to our buildings in Greenfield Village. It was a pleasure meeting you and we hope you come back to visit again soon.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
What began as an experimental partnership has turned into a much anticipated local tradition. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and The Henry Ford are teaming up once again in honor of our country’s birthday with its 21st annual Salute to America celebration, July 3-6 from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. each night. The pageantry of the evening will be a sheer delight marked by rich Americana music, a spectacular display of fireworks, and the thunderous sounds of cannon fire at the conclusion.
The decision to embark on a partnership for The Henry Ford and the DSO in 1992 was greeted with great enthusiasm, and marked the first time Greenfield Village presented an event of this scale.
“For the first decade of this program, the stage was set in front of Town Hall and seating was on and around the Village Green. It was a great venue but was limited in space,” explained Jim Johnson, Senior Manager of Creative Programs at The Henry Ford.
In 2003 Greenfield Village underwent major restoration including the reconfiguration of buildings around the Village Green. The event planners realized a change in location was needed to accommodate the growing attendance and popularity of the event. In 2004 the program was moved to the Walnut Grove historic district in Greenfield Village where it continues to be hosted to this day, accommodating up to 8,500 attendees and offering ample room to spread out and hillside seating perfect for outdoor concert viewers.
“A great deal of planning goes into the execution of an event this large, but The Henry Ford and the DSO work well together,” explained Johnson. “We meet after each event, talk about any ideas for the next year’s program, then we meet again in mid-winter and begin to put together the upcoming program for July. Once set-up begins in the days before the event each team on both sides steps in and takes care of what is needed.”
The First Michigan Colonial Drum and Fife Corps will once again set the tone for the affair greeting guests with their melodic 18th century music reminiscent of early America while marching through Greenfield Village. The Corps has a long history with The Henry Ford with their debut performance at Greenfield Village in 1975. In addition, 19th and early 20th century games and activities will be offered for children of all ages through Greenfield Village’s Games on the Green program including a visit from members of Greenfield Village’s historic base ball team. Attendees are invited to pack a picnic or they may want to leave their baskets at home and indulge in a selection of the finest foods offered by The Henry Ford’s award-winning chefs, which will be available for purchase. Just before the DSO joins the stage, a prelude concert will be performed by the River Raisin Ragtime Revue.
The DSO begins its performance at 8:30 p.m. each night, and internationally renowned conductor, and DSO Music Director, Leonard Slatkin will lead the symphony this year in all four concerts. This is Slatkin’s fifth season with the DSO and the second time he has performed at Greenfield Village.
“I have conducted many patriotic programs and not only in the United States. Greenfield Village lays claim to an authentic representation of early life and these concerts reflect the heritage of our country,” Slatkin said of the event. In regard to the selection of arrangements for the full length concert, the Maestro said,” …the thrust of the music is American, and although some of the pieces are not exactly patriotic in nature they reflect the diversity of our culture.”
This year the DSO will be saluting John Williams -- one of the most recognized American composers of the modern age, best known for his film scores. “His contribution to America’s cultural life is priceless, and quite new for all of us are the extracts from his score ‘Lincoln’,” said Slatkin.
The concert will include about a dozen different selections with an intermission, and will conclude with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and a fireworks display. When asked how this overture written to commemorate Russia’s feat over Napoleon’s army became adopted as an American patriotic score, Slatkin said, “This tradition began with the Boston Pops in the 1950’s. Of course it has nothing to do with America but the cannons and fireworks made it seem celebratory. I wish someone would write, perhaps, the ‘1776’ Overture.”
Perhaps this year’s event will be an inspiration to the Maestro himself to compose such an overture.
For the 2013 Motor Muster, weve got a lot of firsts to offer our members and visitors June 15-16. Were pleased to announce that this year we have the largest collection of manufacturer modified muscle cars EVER gathered in Greenfield Village for Motor Muster. How many, exactly? More than 900 classic cars, vintage trucks, motorcycles and bicycles, thats how many. Representing the 1930s through the 1970s, the classic era of the automobile has never been better represented in Greenfield Village.
Joining us this year is the Daytona-Superbird Auto Club. Visiting Michigan for their annual national meet-up, these dealer showroom show-stoppers will join us both Saturday and Sunday. These classic aero-cars, like the Plymouth Road Runner Superbird, Dodge Charger Daytona, and the Ford Torino Talladega, are a welcomed addition to our muster.
Its not just muscle cars and classic cruisers on display this weekend. Military vehicles from World War II to Vietnam will be on display near Cotswold Cottage throughout the weekend. You can also learn why Detroit was known as the Arsenal of Democracy, during a presentation from John Lind, director of the Detroit Arsenal of Democracy Museum, on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
On top of all this, Motor Muster will be the place to get your first look at our latest book, Driving America: The Henry Ford Automotive Collection, the first major book to be published on the cars of The Henry Ford's collection. We'll be talking more about the book here on the blog this summer, but this weekend is your first chance for a peek at what we've been up to.
With more than 300 never-before-published images of historically significant vehicles, the book sheds light on the uniquely shared American dreams that drive us all. The book includes a forward from Jay Leno, an introduction by Edsel Ford II, and four insightful essays from Patricia Mooradian, our president, the book's photographer Mark Harmer, Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford and Bob Casey, automotive historian and retired curator of transportation at The Henry Ford.
Both Bob and Matt will be signing copies of the book at 2 p.m. on Saturday inside the Greenfield Village store.
Later that evening you can catch Matt once again during a special racing presentation at 6 p.m. Matt will talk about the world of drag, midget and stock car racing of the 1930s-1950s as we continue to work on bringing Racing in America to Henry Ford Museum.
Do you have a favorite aero-car memory? What was your favorite car of the weekend? Whatever it is, we want to know! Make sure to share your Motor Muster experiences by tagging your Tweets with #GVMotorMuster.
Motor Muster takes over Greenfield Village June 15-16. Motor Muster is free with Greenfield Village admission. Join us Saturday for a special late night (9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.). Check out our Motor Muster event page for detailed program information.
Over the years, the number of locomotives began to grow. In 1979 the Edison Institute obtained a 1927 Plymouth Gasoline-Mechanical locomotive. The locomotive, built by the Fate-Root-Heath Company of Plymouth, Ohio, had been used to shuttle coal cars at the Mistersky Power Station in Detroit (The Mistersky plant was run by the City of Detroit Power and Light Department until 2010 when it was sold to DTE). It was to be used at Greenfield Village shuttling locomotives and rolling stock.
In 1993 the Edison Institute added a fourth engine to the Perimeter Railroad program. This 1942, 50-ton diesel electric locomotive was manufactured by General Electric in Erie, Penn. It was first used at the United States Naval Ammunition Depot in Charleston, S.C., to shuttle ammunition to the Navy ships during World War II.
The Edison Institute obtained the G.E. locomotive from the Luria Brothers & Co in Ecorse, Mich., where it was being used to switch scrap cars. It was to be used in Greenfield Village to shuttle cars and fill in for the steam locomotives when necessary.
The Detroit & Mackinac Railway Caboose
This Detroit & Mackinac caboose, originally built circa 1912, was probably in service until 1964 when caboose service was ended by that railroad. After its railway service ended, this caboose was displayed in Tawas City Park for five years. The caboose was then taken back to the D & M shops were it was restored and made a prominent display in their own museum.
In 1979 D & M donated the caboose, three other cars and a 1914 Baldwin locomotive to The Henry Ford.
This Greenfield Village Water Tower is a 39,000-gallon replacement for the original 14,000-gallon water tower. The original water tower was a gift from the New York Central System and was installed in the mid 1950s.
When the D & M caboose (currently undergoing restoration in the Roundhouse) first arrived at Greenfield Village, it was used as an operational member of the Perimeter Railroad program. When in use it was attached behind the regular passenger cars and for a special price guests could ride in the enclosed car and purchase snacks to eat along the way.
The Greenfield Village Water Tower
Between the Smiths Creek Depot and the Roundhouse stands an impressive red structure (Figure 9). That structure is the Greenfield Village Water Tower.
The original water tower for Greenfield Village's railroads was a 1943 gift (Accession 43.36.1) to Henry Ford from the New York Central System. The water tower had been used inside Michigan Central Railroad’s Bay City Junction repair facility in Detroit. The 14,000-gallon water tower was installed in the same location as our current tower sometime in the mid 1950s. Since there was no operational railroad until 1971, it was not functional but part of the Smiths Creek exhibit.
An Oct. 12, 1971, memo indicates the water tower was to be inspected, caulked and repaired as needed for “Perimeter Railroad” operation.
The Michigan Central tower was used for train operations until 1993 when it had become deteriorated to the point it was no longer practical to maintain it. In 1993 a new 39,000 gallon water tower was purchased. The new tower was supplied in kit form from the Rosenwach Tank Company of Long Island City, N.Y.
This water column, across from Firestone Station, is one of two supplied water by the Greenfield Village Water Tower.
The old tower was disassembled and the new one was constructed on the same foundation. This tower is still used today to supply water directly to our steam locomotives or through two water columns. The water tower is supplied by city water that is conditioned by two large softener units in the basement of the Smiths Creek Station.
The Firestone Water Column
Water Columns were used to supply water to steam locomotives in areas where space is too limited to have a water tower. This unit (Accession: 2002.171.1) was made by The American Valve and Meter Company of Cincinnati, Ohio. The Firestone water column and one outside the DT&M roundhouse (accession: 93.204.1) are connected to the water tower by pipe. The one pictured is representative of columns produced by American Valve and Meter between 1925 and 1955.
Don LaCombe is Supervisor of the Transportation and Crafts Program at The Henry Ford
The “Boys of Summer” will soon take the field for another season of historic base ball in Greenfield Village (and yes, base ball is two words here - in the time period we represent, base ball was spelled with two words unlike today). This Saturday is the home opener (the Lah-De-Dahs are hosting the Wyandotte Stars Base Ball Club) and marks the 20th season of the historic base ball program at The Henry Ford.
The program began on a very small scale in 1993 with a hand full of employees volunteering to make up a club of nine. The idea and concept of a historic base ball program came while researching the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village. In the early 1990s, the J.R. Jones General Store received a major re-installation, overhaul of maintenance and repair needs, as well as new and updated presentation priorities. While searching through the Waterford, Mich., area newspapers, where the General Store originated, references were made to the Lah-De-Dahs base ball club from the area.
The first season of the re-created Lah-De-Dahs saw the club wearing reproduced white base ball shirts with a red script “L.” Players wore nondescript white painter’s pants as the period clothing department made matching knickers style bottoms. Little is known about the uniform of the Lah-De-Dahs, but a small color clue was provided in the Pontiac Bill Poster newspaper on Sept. 14, 1887:
As the contest went on, slowly but surely dawned upon the minds of all the truth that a fine uniform does not constitute a fine pitcher, nor La-de-dahs in their mammas’ red stockings make swift, unerring fielders.
Only a few matches were played that first season with an amalgamation of rules from various “understandings” at the time. A couple of matches played in one of the Firestone Farm’s harvested wheat field wherein the Lah-De-Dahs club played the Firestone Farm hands before whatever crowd gathered along the farm lane. A couple other games were played on the Activities Field (Walnut Grove) with outside clubs coming in to play.
Over the course of the next two seasons, complete reproduction uniforms were hand made for 25 players that made up the Lah-De-Dah roster. By 2002, the home schedule consisted of no more than a dozen games, playing only on select Saturdays throughout the summer. Games were only scheduled when visiting opponents could be recruited to make the trip to Dearborn. The addition of the Dodworth Saxhorn Band on a few of those dates combined with the wonderful pastoral setting of Walnut Grove made for some very memorable experiences.
The popularity of the historic base ball program increased with Greenfield Village visitors each year. The request for a more consistent base ball schedule with more games also intensified as an emerging Lah-De-Dahs fan-base grew.
The colossal Greenfield Village restoration in 2003 heightened the stakes of programming and the historic base ball program stepped up to the plate so to speak. Mr. and Mrs. Edsel Ford provided financial support that made it possible to plan and deliver an entire summer of base ball. The Henry Ford was able to expand the program in three areas; daily offerings of period base ball, the formal nine inning game played by the rules of 1867 on both Saturday and Sunday every weekend of summer season, and the development and expansion of the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball, based on the original and first-ever World Tournament of Base Ball hosted by the Detroit Base Ball Club that took place in Detroit in August of 1867.
With the start of the 2004 season, the 12-game schedule was expanded to 30 games. In order to insure an opponent for the now beloved Lah-De-Dahs, a new Greenfield Village club was created. A simple name was chosen from among those who had originally played in the tournament in Detroit, the National Base Ball Club. Striking dark-blue-and-gold shield front uniforms were purchased along with a new set of the familiar red-and-white uniforms of the Lah-De-Dahs. The roster was also expanded to 42 players.
Greenfield Village’s daily program now includes Town Ball or Massachusetts Rules. This important program element allows Greenfield Village the capacity to offer a base ball experience on weekdays in the summer season. The chaotic rules of the early version of base ball, the soft ball, and minimal equipment needs made this a perfect choice for a game to be played on the Village Green. A dedicated staff now teaches and plays Town Ball with families throughout the day on weekdays all summer long.
Other key investments include a uniquely designed sound system on the primary base ball field, Walnut Grove. The system, installed on the outside of several strategically placed permanent garbage cans, allows the umpire and scorekeeper, by way of invisible cordless microphones, to present essentially a 19th century version of a play-by-play account of the game. The specially trained core of umpires and scorekeepers now are able to combine theatrical and interpretive techniques in the calling of each game. The play-by-play, live music and unpredictable nature of gloveless play makes for a very entertaining afternoon.
To further enhance our guests’ experiences, food opportunities were added to the field using contextual temporary structures in keeping with the rural/pastoral feel of the field. A huge hit with the visitors and fans has been the introduction of historically inspired base ball trading cards of the volunteer players. Throughout the entire game day, fans of all ages, but especially children, approach the historic base ball players wanting autographs on their base ball cards and/or programs.
This is considered baseball's first official rule book. Author Henry Chadwick was a sports journalist and leading promoter of the game. (Object ID: 2003.12.1)
Although Greenfield Village now has two official clubs, the Lah-De-Dahs and the Nationals, many veteran staff and visitors associate the Lah-De-Dahs as the “home” club of The Henry Ford. With great matches, excellent sportsmanship and many close games going to either club, the fan base has evolved to embrace both clubs with equal partisanship.
The base ball clubs of Greenfield Village play every Saturday and Sunday from June 8 to Aug. 18, with the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball Aug.10-11. As an American innovation, base ball is touchstone to our past, present and the future. With this program we represent a time prior to professional players when amateurs played for recreation and innocent amusement. For the love of the game - HUZZAH!
Brian James Egen is Executive Producer at The Henry Ford
On this day 117 years ago, Henry Ford took a very special test drive. He took his Quadricyle out for a spin for the very first time. Henry sold his first car for $200. What did the money go toward? Building his second car.
Learn more about Henry the engineer on our special website dedicated to our founder and ultimate maker.
In 1974 construction of the Main Street and Suwanee Stations was completed and operational for the season. Main Street was a covered platform intended to provide train access for guests near Greenfield Village’s entrance (Main Street, which was the road leading from the Greenfield Village entrance in that period is what we now call State Street). The third stop near Riverfront Street was a covered platform that facilitated guest access to the new Suwanee Park. Probably because of its close proximity to the new stations, the Smiths Creek Station was no longer used as a train stop.
A fourth train platform near “Gate 14” (or Windmill Gate) was removed from the plan just as overall Greenfield Village construction started.
As a part of the original planning for the perimeter railroad, a facility for maintaining and storing the locomotives was included. This building had been strongly recommended in a report generated by the consulting firm that was contracted to provide a risk assessment and analysis for the new railroad. Interestingly, the main issue in the report was preventing guest access to the locomotive during the off-season as well as maintenance issues.
The Train Shed was built in 1974 and located by the Village entrance gate. In 2000 train maintenance was shifted to the DT&M Roundhouse and the building now houses the Antique Vehicles Garage.
The Train Maintenance building was completed in October of 1974 and for the first time an on-site facility was available for maintenance work and winter storage of the locomotives. From 1974 to 1982, all train maintenance and repair was handled or directed by the Edison Institute Plumbing Shop Supervisor, Ralph Schumberger (a licensed plumber and boiler engineer).
In 1982, John Scott, a recognized train maintenance expert (who had been working with the Illinois Railroad Museum) was hired to exclusively supervise maintenance of Greenfield Village’s locomotives and rolling stock.
The train crew at this facility tackled more than normal maintenance. Two of the early restoration projects Scott and his crew handled were the reconversion of the two locomotives to coal; the Edison in 1986 and the Torch Lake in 1987.
In early 1990 a study was made to establish if the Torch Lake cab was in fact the one installed by C&H in their 1909/10 rebuild. This investigation included Tom Fisher, from Train Operations, going to Michigan Technical University to review the drawings from C&H (Union Oil had bought up all property rights for the C&H and had donated all the records to Michigan Technical University). The research concluded that it was the 1910 cab. A replacement cab, of the same configuration, was ordered from an outside supplier. At the same time a new smoke stack was built in the shop and the water tank was modified to reflect the 1909/10 configuration.
The new cab was a disappointment. Substandard material was used in the construction and serious deterioration began to appear within a few years. In 2001 Train Operations began making drawings for a new cab. In 2006 a major reconstruction of the cab began at the Roundhouse. Train Operations personnel, with Bill Town and Kirk Brosch of the Carpenter Shop, began rebuilding the cab with appropriate materials. The now-new cab was installed in 2007 and remains in service.
Through the years other aesthetic and functional changes were made to the locomotives and rolling stock to improve their reliability and authenticity. One of the original passenger cars was sold after finding that the company that had rebuilt the car but had left a section of badly deteriorated wood frame underneath some newly added structure.
The adding of the new train stations was not without incident. When the Main Street Station was first completed a trial run was made to check clearances and step-up height. As the locomotive pulled into the station, it was quickly discovered that there was insufficient clearance as pieces of the platform deck began flying across the station.
Gate 14 (now Orange Gate) was finally constructed. The new Susquehanna Station was constructed in that area to provide more convenient guest access to the historic homes on Maple Lane (In 1974 Maple Lane was known as South Dearborn Road), historic base ball games and other events at Walnut Grove.
In 1998, the Riverfront Street (Suwanee Park) Station was being converted to 11th and 12th grade classrooms for the new Henry Ford Academy and was no longer used as a train stop. The train stops for the Perimeter Railroad were now Main Street Station, Susquehanna Station and Smiths Creek Station.
Don LaCombe is Supervisor of Transportation and Crafts Programs
Susana Allen Hunter (Object ID 2007.71.15, THF37810)
Since joining The Henry Ford in 2010, I had been hearing about the wonderful collection of quilts made by Susana Allen Hunter. I had seen photos of the exhibition that The Henry Ford mounted in 2008 and had glimpsed the quilts in storage. But, I was not quite prepared for the true beauty and historical value of the collection until I got to see the quilts displayed.
The Henry Ford recently loaned part of its collection to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) for its exhibition, “The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter.” On May 9, I attended the opening with Marc Greuther, chief curator, and Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life. Was I ever impressed! These quilts are a stunning representation of artistry and the daily life of an African American woman living in the difficult conditions of rural Alabama as late as the 1970s.
In collaboration with the GRAM, we loaned 22 quilts from the collection, along with personal objects that belonged to Susana. Our textile conservator, Fran Faile, worked with GRAM staff to ensure that these significant pieces were handled and installed according to museum standards.
Jeanie Miller had secured the initial collection and then painstakingly researched its rich history. She worked with GRAM curatorial and education staff and shared not only her knowledge, but her passion for this extraordinary collection. She understood its value, and the way it captures rich stories of a distinctive time and place. Such stories are elusive and very difficult to collect and preserve. In this collection, The Henry Ford holds a remarkable piece of African American and women’s history.
During the process of acquiring the collection, Jeanie had developed a strong relationship with Tommie Hunter, grandson of Susana, who had lived with her as a young boy and with whom Susana lived in her later years. After Jeanie’s masterful presentation at the GRAM exhibition opening on the quilts and the related materials she has collected, she conducted a question and answer session with Tommie, his wife, Susie, and the audience. What a delight.The personal nature of the memories and tales of Susana Hunter’s quilting had the audience’s rapt attention.
The opening was great fun - food, wine, and people to share the excitement of the evening. But the sense of pride I felt to be associated with an institution that had the foresight to acquire and preserve such a remarkable piece of American history will stay with me always.