Cooking in the Ford Home. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
Cindy Melotti is currently master presenter and house lead at the Ford Home, which is often considered to be the intellectual center of Greenfield Village. I had the honor of working alongside her in the Ford Home and Daggett Farmhouse in 2012. Cindy captivates guests with her energetic and authentic storytelling, and I’m delighted to chat with her about 17 years of adventures at The Henry Ford.
What did you do before you worked at The Henry Ford? And why were you interested in working here?
I worked at Wyandotte Public Schools as an elementary school teacher for 35 years, mostly in the upper elementary grades. Not surprisingly, I taught language arts and social studies. It was interesting in that we didn't really use textbooks. We, like Henry Ford, thought history should not be just about memorizing generals, dates, and wars. So I taught my social studies classes in a more contextual way. We learned about people in the times that they lived, and how they lived, not just timelines and titles.
I had always wanted to work at The Henry Ford. After retiring from Wyandotte Public Schools and taking a couple years to think about it, I decided that I was going to try and get a job here. So I went to a job fair. I didn't even tell my husband and my family that I was going, because I was afraid I wouldn't be accepted. This was actually the first time I wrote a resume. And it was the first time I applied for a job since I got my teaching position, which was when Lyndon Baines Johnson was president! I was as scared as a 16-year-old sitting there waiting to be interviewed. Despite there not being any historical presenter positions open, [The Henry Ford staffer] Mike Moseley recognized that I had the potential to be a good presenter. Thankfully, I got an interview with Cathy Cwiek, our former manager of domestic life. I got the job and was in training within a week.
Do you have any highlights of your teaching career or adventurous experiences that you’d like to share?
Well, a person of my age very typically followed the dictates of society at that time. I always wanted to be a teacher. I was fortunate to be able to go to Wayne State University. My parents were a one-income family, and we didn’t have a whole lot of money. So I considered myself lucky that I got hired by the school district where I student taught. I worked there for 35 years.
The brightest highlights for me are the memories of the children and their families. Some I still associate with and frequently talk to. I am still delighted to find out that I had a really big impact on a former student’s life. Once I became friends with a woman whose best friend from college remembered me from the fourth grade. She said that her friend had broken her arm near the start of the year, so she wasn’t able to write. This student was already ashamed of her handwriting, as she had been previously criticized in another class. She was telling our mutual friend that she had been so tense about this issue. And she said that I saved her life by suggesting she use a typewriter!
After all this time, this former student was so encouraged by my advice, she was still talking about it as an adult to her best friend. To think that I made that much difference in this this child's life! It was so wonderful that this story got back to me.
And in another instance on Facebook, one woman made a comment to me: “I just wanted to let you know that you were the most important teacher I ever had.” Never would I have expected that. It's amazing. Now, it was hard work. It was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed myself, but I never really thought about the impact I had on people's whole lives.
But those are the kind of things when you asked about adventurous experiences, that was the adventure. I guess the adventure was working with people and hopefully making an impact on their lives and making their lives better—making them better to fit their lives.
And of course, there's part of that that goes into presenting at The Henry Ford too. Because every guest that you interact with, you want their experience to make a difference. You want them to be different and more open to our stories when they leave, than when they came in.
Which historic homes and what programs have you worked at?
When I started in 2005, everyone in domestic life started at Daggett Farm. You also worked in uniform at the Noah Webster Home, Hermitage Slave Quarters, and the Mattox [Family] Home. You had to work your way into the Susquehanna Plantation and the Adams [Family Home]. Well, I never quite got to do that before they made me the house lead at the Ford Home, which was I think was 2007–2008. I eventually presented at Susquehanna Plantation. As I became a master presenter, they could schedule me in any home, really. I always wanted to work at Adams House, and I never got in there before it was closed for renovation. I can work at Firestone Farmhouse. And I’ve worked at the Edison Homestead.
I’m trying to think of the clothes I have in my closet, which period clothes are hanging there? So, it's Daggett, Edison, Ford Home, and Firestone, which are the buildings where we dress in period clothing. And then I wore the field uniform at Webster, Hermitage, and Mattox. I have also worked on a number of programs with the Henry Ford Academy.
Preparing food at Daggett Farm. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
What is your favorite home to work in?
I've been house lead at the Ford Home for over 10 years, so that’s a contender. I’ll always love Daggett Farm, and I’ll always say, once a Daggetteer, always a Daggetteer. But I really can’t say what my favorite building is.
Now with the Ford Home, people think it's strange when I'm elsewhere in the village besides the Ford Home. I'm like a fence post almost. I put in a lot of work at that house when they made me the lead, and I’m seen here most often.
The Ford Home was categorized differently over the years. It was part of the Ford Motor Company group when I started as a presenter. And then it went to the domestic life group. So the story of the home needed a little extra attention by then. We needed to work on the stories, and make sure they were authentic and correct. So that's when Cathy Cwiek asked me to upgrade the presentation at the building.
For about three or four years, anyone who presented there, if they were asked a question that wasn't in the manual, we wrote it down and researched it. That's why the manual is now very thick. Because when guests go into the Ford Home, they're not just asking about Henry Ford growing up in the house. There are so many different aspects of that house that are asked about and you want to be able to answer. Ford Home certainly demands a lot of work. But as much as I love Daggett, I really cannot pick a favorite.
Front of Ford Home. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
What is the relevance of the Ford Home within the village? I’ve considered it to be the intellectual center. Do you see it this way as well?
Well as Cathy Cwiek said when I became the house lead, the Ford Home is the cornerstone of the village. We needed to tell a more full story. We really want to have the best stories told there. In one perspective, Henry Ford restored and saved his childhood home to memorialize his beloved mother. His home played a big role in eventually developing the village and the museum itself.
And then there’s the perspective that you have this space that when you sit in it, you must realize the brilliant ideas that bounced off those walls from a little boy who eventually used those ideas to change the world. And when you think of that, it's awe-inspiring. The key for every presenter in any home is that it isn't about the house—it's about the people who lived in it and their ideas.
Presenters only have so much time to try and tell these stories as guests go through the house. You just never know what's going to interest the guests as they come in. You must have your background and information ready for basically any question. Plus, in many cases, the Ford Home is the first house that our guests visit. As they enter the village, they either go to the left to Firestone Farm, or they go to the right to the Ford Home.
A good presentation can set the tone for every guest’s entire day, especially for those who have never been here before. They’re not always aware of the scope of our campus. They might say: I have an hour, what should I see? In many ways, we are the ambassadors for the whole village at that point, and we can set the tone for an international guest or someone from out of state. We can set the tone for their whole day. We want to make sure the tone is one of positiveness, curiosity, interest, and amazement of the stories we have to share.
I know you have a lot of favorite stories about what you most like about working here, but perhaps you can pick one right off the top of your head?
If I can pick out a little snapshot, it would be during Holiday Nights [in Greenfield Village] in the Ford Home. I was in the dining room in the back, and a three-generation family came in. They were in the parlor up front where we've got the tree up with music and lighting, and I'm listening to their 10-year-old boy who’s giving my presentation! And he is spot on!
When the family came through the house to me, I said to the boy: “wow, you really did a good job telling our story.” He said: “of course, I was here on a field trip this year.” I love to tell this story because despite this kid having access to all the bells and whistles of electronics and technology—this kid learned it from our field trip program. I’m proud to say we’re still reaching an audience and, yes, we have a future and a purpose. This little boy is telling the story, and his whole family is interested.
There are so many instances when I’m very happy to see guests leave the building with a look as if they’re saying: “wow, I need to think about this.” I try my best to encourage them to understand that, as much of what we thought was true in history, there are preconceptions that aren’t always true, and you need to think in terms of the time and the setting of the place to understand what was going on.
This leads me to my cheese straw story. Before it was closed for renovation, the Adams House made these cheese straws, which were a specific recipe for that house. They could not be made at the Ford Home. When they closed Adams, we were now able to make them at the Ford Home. I had heard how good these cheese straws were and I was excited. We made the first batch, and after they came out of the oven, we just kind of sat there and looked at them. They were these flat, long things. I thought they were going to turn out puffier. They didn't rise at all. We realized that they were named, not after a modern sipping straw, but after actual straw from a field. We were completely off the mark.
When we look back at history, we need to ask ourselves: if my modern perception doesn’t allow me to understand what a cheese straw was, how can I use my modern perception to say, understand our Civil War? How do we understand a single event back then when we’re looking through our modern eyes and not going further? We encourage that “aha” moment that opens your mind for the stories that are accurate, instead of stories based in preconceptions or fantasy.
Spinning wool at Daggett Farm. / Photo by Ken Giorlando
What skills have you picked up and learned how to do and demonstrate at the village?
Well, there are textile skills like carding, spinning, and dying wool that I’ve done at Daggett. I did do some weaving on the big old colonial loom when that was set up inside Daggett. But I only had a little experience on that because I was so short. I had to jump down to change the bottom pedals, so it would take me an awfully long time. But I did work successfully on the treadle wheel that you pump with your foot. That's very difficult to do, as I was spinning with linen. Linen is a whole different process compared to wool.
Also, during the first year I was here, we had candle dipping over in the Liberty Craftworks area, near where the Davidson-Gerson Gallery of Glass is now. We wore field uniforms. We were considering it to be a craft at the time, as opposed to it being part of a culture or time period. That was my first experience with it. Candle dipping was a lot cooler in period clothing and more fun to set up under the trees next to Daggett or the [William Holmes] McGuffey Birthplace, where the activity fit with the history of the building.
Screenshot of 1876 centennial program at the Ford Home for WDIV.
Along with this WDIV segment, and a previous video promoting Fall Flavor making an 1860s apple cake, you were most recently involved in a video celebrating the Fourth of July in 1876 outside the Ford Home recorded during the pandemic. Could you tell us how this came about?
Yes, it was 2020 during COVID, and we were unable to host Salute to America. Over the years, we had developed a Fourth of July program specifically for the 1876 centennial at the Ford Home. And I was asked if I could do a video presentation of this program. I didn’t know what the filming was for at the time. I thought it was for a kind of video that we do for in-house purposes.
We filmed this on June 16. We didn't open the village up until July 2. And I came in early to work to do the video. It was basically a sample of the program we would do for a Fourth of July holiday at the Ford Home—a few of the games and the food that we’d make. So it was fun.
It wasn't until after filming that I learned that this was not being used for our website. I learned that it was for a WDIV Fourth of July virtual celebration! It was a surprise for sure, but we are presenters. And just because there's a camera there doesn't change the energy and information you give. You know, it's what we do.
So WDIV aired this the following Friday night at 8 p.m., and they broadcast snippets of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra playing, along with my Ford Home centennial program. It was hosted by Tati Amare, who I met previously. Of course, they filmed theirs, and I filmed mine, and it was only on television that we met, so I couldn't say hello again. But they pieced it all together as a virtual presentation for the holiday on WDIV. I was honored to be a part of it.
So you’ve been in many pictures and videos. Can you think of any other fun or unusual stories regarding getting your picture taken?
When I was going through training in 2005, and we needed to sign the waiver to give permission for The Henry Ford to use our photographs, guess who said: “why would anybody want to take my picture?” Ironically, my picture has been in so many places. It’s been amazing. I knew within a month that I asked this that I had made a silly statement, because I realized that guests are taking our pictures all the time and sending them all over the world. Presenters are world travelers in that way.
I remember presenting at Edison Homestead one day during our noon meal, and an Asian guest came in and he wanted his picture taken with us. We handed him a cup to hold, to make it look like he was having a meal with us. A young couple also came in and they graciously took this photo of us. I turned to the gentleman and asked where our picture was going. And he said it was going to Beijing, China. Well, I didn't want the young couple to feel left out, so I asked where they were visiting from. The young man said Wyandotte, Michigan—and then he said that I had been his teacher! This is the experience of presenter. You can have a visitor from Beijing, China, and also someone that you knew years before in your classroom. Like, how does this happen?
Did you have any experiences at the Ford Home of guests reaffirming stories of Henry Ford’s life? Any other surprising interactions with guests?
When I first started working at the Ford Home around 2007, I used to get guests who had firsthand memories of the Fords, just little stories. People who had funny interactions with the Ford family, for instance, neighborhood kids who would be playing on the farm, when it was in its original location, and they’d get caught.
I remember there was an elderly man who would take walks in the village in the morning, and he told me once that he used to drive by the Ford Home every day on his way to work when it was located on Ford Road. And sometimes he’d see Henry Ford walking around. He’d be picking vegetables and fruits to put in baskets that would be placed on the porches of neighbors who didn’t have enough food. I heard stories like that all the time. But all of a sudden, kind of recently, I realized those guests are gone, that generation is gone.
So the guest in 2009 who was 78 years old when he told me this story about getting caught by Henry Ford—he said it was actually his brother's fault. He also told me about the time the Ford family was moving the house to the village, and he got on his bike and followed it down the road. I have a pile of stories that were told to me. You come to think that after hearing the same story over and over again, that there is truth to them, and that's exciting.
I have at least twice had guests tell me stories that I've read in my research, which is amazing. There’s the story of the Vagabonds—Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs—when they were driving around Kentucky or Tennessee. There were no roads, so they had to follow river beds and try to find open areas to drive. They were scouting and looking for forests and sources of wood, because they needed wood to build Model Ts. Henry Ford owned many forested areas for that purpose.
And to paraphrase a story, the Vagabonds were driving through the wilderness, and their car got stuck. A farmer came by and used his horse to get them out. As the story goes in the research that we have in our Ford Home manual, Henry Ford introduces himself to the farmer. Thomas Edison introduces himself to the farmer. Harvey Firestone was there, and he introduces himself. And then John Burroughs who has this long white beard, right? He says: “well, you know, if you want to believe those guys then you can believe I’m Santa Claus!” Now, there are other ways people have told this story, of course.
Back to the Ford Home, I’m presenting and there's a three-generation family who comes in and we're talking about the house and the history, and the man said: I have a Ford story. He said: “my great grandfather had one of the first Ford dealerships (around Kentucky or Tennessee) and my grandfather told me the story about how Ford and his friends got stuck in a riverbed and one of our local farmers with horses pulled them out.”
The guest went on to explain that it wasn't long after this incident happened that a Ford tractor was delivered to the dealership to be given to the farmer who had helped them out. Isn't that amazing? I was delighted then to tell him and his family about the Vagabonds introducing themselves to the farmer. So where else could you ever present where you hear a direct story from a family that you had read about in a book as part of your research? You know, what's not to like about that?
One of the most emotionally powerful days I ever worked in the Ford Home was on the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's death. In the museum, they took Lincoln’s chair out and put it up on a platform behind the cornerstone. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see it. However, there is a connection to Lincoln's death at the Ford Home. We have a photo in the sitting room of Barney Litogot, Henry Ford’s uncle on his mother, Mary Litogot’s, side. Barney was in the 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, part of the famed “Iron Brigade,” serving as an honor guard on the train carrying Lincoln to his final resting site in Springfield, Illinois.
I told Barney’s story to the guests who had already been to the museum and seen the chair. I really wish that I could have had a camera taking pictures of people’s expressions, because they were so moved, even crying. The museum exhibit, along with Barney’s story, was so emotional. It was just so special to be a part of that immediate tie-in to that event in our country's history, and I don't know that you could have felt too much closer. Presenting an artifact, a story, an emotion—that is what we do best.
I really love the story of Barney, and I’ve visited his burial site at Sandhill Cemetery on Telegraph Road near the I-75 ramp in Taylor, Michigan. And I always wave as I drive by and say: “hi, Barney”!
Yes, I do too! My husband doesn’t even think I’m weird anymore, he’s used to it! I always say hi to Barney. Speaking of the Litogots, the Litogot family had a reunion in the village a few years ago. They visited the Ford Home, and I got to talk to them for about 10–15 minutes. And they were talking about Uncle Barney as he was a true part of their family. It was really cool. You just never know who's going to walk through the door.
I've had fun remembering all these stories and experiences, and it's really hard to rank anything when you've been doing it for so long. But every experience and interaction deals with a relationship with guests and co-workers, and that's where the good stuff comes from. When you look over everything that goes on at The Henry Ford, it's a wonderful job, and it's why people get hooked.
Amy Nasir is Digital Marketing Specialist and former Historical Presenter in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
Guests of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village have been captivated by our various dramatic programs for decades at The Henry Ford. And Anthony Lucas’ performances as an historical actor have been essential in bringing our stories to life throughout many time periods and historical contexts. I had the honor of sitting down with Anthony, 2010 winner of The Henry Ford’s Steven Hamp Award, to chat about his 20 years of theatrical work at The Henry Ford.
You’ve been performing at The Henry Ford since the fall of 2000. What was your first project here?
I started as a replacement actor when another actor was out sick, and I performed in a program called “Gullah Tales” near the Hermitage Slave Quarters. After this, they called me back to do more performances.
How did you get into acting and what inspired you to act?
My interest to become an actor goes back to when I was five years old, believe it or not. I used to watch a gentleman named Bill Kennedy, a local TV host in Detroit who would show a lot of black-and-white Hollywood movies on Sunday afternoons. I would watch actors like James Cagney, and I said in my mind: “Wow, I want to do that!” I have a lot of favorite actors, but James Cagney was the first one because of his energy and his versatility. He could play a lot of different roles other than playing the bad guy. All the movies I watched on Bill Kennedy at the Movies were very entertaining, and they made a big impression upon me, including all the musicals and the films that starred Shirley Temple, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Bette Davis—the Golden Age of Hollywood.
What were your first theatrical roles and when did you perform them?
I really didn't get the opportunity to act until at the end of the 11th grade in high school. The following year, I did two plays. One was kind of a historical play dealing with Black history. It was called “In White America,” and it was a series of vignettes and monologues about civil rights and the Black struggle for freedom in the United States. And the other play was a kind of comedy farce called “Day of Absence.” The story took place in the South, and it dealt with what would happen if one day all the Black folks had suddenly disappeared. My performances took place in the early 1970s. We were coming right out of the sixties with the civil rights movement and the Black power movement. And so that was my start. I went on to study theater at Western Michigan University and performed in various shows with Detroit Repertory Theatre and Plowshares Theatre Company.
“Elijah: The Real McCoy” program in the museum. / Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
You’ve performed in several programs at The Henry Ford, which we’ll get into in a moment. But first, which one stands out as your favorite?
I love all the shows that I do, but one of my most favorite programs is “Elijah: The Real McCoy,” which I performed in both the village and museum. Elaine Kaiser, who has since retired [as Manager of Dramatic Programs at The Henry Ford], wrote it brilliantly. She wrote it for me to perform at Discovery Camp. Every show was very rewarding, and I just loved working with the kids during camp and seeing them at shows. The story starts with Elijah McCoy as a young kid, and the scenes travel through his achievements and struggles until he reaches his success as an inventor, and then into his old age. I loved to perform each stage of his life and see the kids’ reactions.
Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
Have there been any challenges you’ve encountered while performing?
Well, here’s a story that’s kind of funny. One summer in the village, I was very busy. While I was at Town Hall doing a couple of Elijah McCoy shows, I would need to change into a different period costume and get to Susquehanna Plantation to do “North Star Tales” as fast as I could. And then I would hurry up and go back to Town Hall, change, and do another Elijah McCoy. Thankfully, Elaine Kaiser loaned me her bike, so I could ride it between shows. So, it was quite exciting!
“How I Got Over” program at Susquehanna Plantation. / Photograph by Roy Ritchie
I’ve attended your performances at Susquehanna Plantation many times and have always been inspired when participating with other guests as we jumped from the porch steps yelling, “Freedom!” How long have you been performing at Susquehanna, and are there any other similar programs you perform in?
There were a few different shows we did at Susquehanna, and they go back to 2003, right after the renovation of the village. There is “How I Got Over,” “Tally’s Tales,” and a newer version called “North Star Tales,” which were all themed around the stories of slavery and endurance on the plantation. Last year in 2021, I narrated the North Star Gospel Chorale’s performance on the porch of Susquehanna as part of Salute to America: Summer Stroll. That was the first year, and it was really a great experience. We really enjoyed that. It's really a powerful show and I was happy to be a part of that. The Chorale also performed in the museum in February 2020, right before the pandemic, which was livestreamed on Facebook.
You are also a big part of the “Minds on Freedom” program in the museum. When did that start and how did it develop?
Yes, this program started in 2004, and it was a combination of two shows—a musical act, and then a dialogue part about the Civil Rights Movement. It was merged into one show called “Minds on Freedom,” which was performed in the museum around our Celebrate Black History program in February. There was also our special celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in June 2011, which I enjoyed being a part of. And during the National Day of Courage, celebrating Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday on February 4, 2013, I performed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Seen the Mountain Top” speech. That's always an honor any time I get a chance to express the words of Dr. King. He was a great man, a great orator, a great minister, and a great leader. And he gave his life for us to believe them. So any time you try to deliver his speeches, you’re never going to be like Dr. King. But I use my own approach and try my best to get the spirit across.
“Elijah: The Real McCoy” program in the museum. / Photographs by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
Many guests are familiar with your performances at our Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village and Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village events. How and when did these roles begin?
Oh, yeah, performing “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe goes way back with me, because it was one of the first dramatic readings I recited in high school. My mother coached me. I think if my mother had pursued acting, she may have been a pretty good actress. She helped me bring the story to life. Around 2003, Elaine Kaiser asked me to dramatize this short story for Hallowe’en from the point of view of a murderer descending into paranoia, haunted by the thumping sound of the murdered man’s heart. The program is different from Holiday Nights, because I have set times for shows. So I usually don't have a chance to interact with the audience in-between shows as much as I would like. Interacting with the audience afterwards whenever possible is a special part of being there. I'm not there just because I'm an actor to do shows. I'm there to be a part of The Henry Ford and to interact with the guests and help create that experience for them. It’s very special, unique, and moving to interact with the guests. So that's how I approach it.
I started performing at Holiday Nights just before I performed at the Hallowe’en event. Initially around 2003, I was working with a few other actors, and we were moving around the village doing a variety of poems and Christmas carols. And it was around 2004, I performed Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nick,” which we generally call “The Night Before Christmas.” I performed it as a solo act and was relocated outside of Town Hall and later to a warming fire. It’s developed into a very special event because of how guests react. There was one guy who proposed to his girlfriend at my warming fire. There are so many people with stories of their own, making Holiday Nights and the village a big part of their lives. Holiday Nights is a whole story in itself. I started adding an introduction to the performance rather than just solely dramatizing the poem. I started talking about Christmas in early America. And then I would ask guests about all the different holiday foods and dishes they like, and finally I would ask: Do you like Christmas cookies? I would then ask the big question: Do you have any with you tonight?
After this, guests started bringing me Christmas cookies every year. I come home with all sorts of cookies, sugar cookies, and chocolate chip cookies and all. Oh, yeah, it's funny. But it's great, though, because people come year after year and sometimes they tell me they used to bring their children and now they're all grown up. I'm like, wow, this is a reminder of how long I've been doing it. And it's so rewarding; sometimes I look out and see people that are moved. They get emotional and so it's wonderful. And the children are the best, they can just make you feel like a million bucks. In December 2020, I recited “The Night Before Christmas” for a video during the pandemic. That was a real different take on it because they had me come in and sit down and have a storybook in my hand. So I had to rework it so it could fit that format. And I like that too. It was very comfortable and warm. That was a real nice change of pace.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” program at Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village. / Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)
Do you have any other stories about interacting with guests you’d like to share?
Sure. I was performing Elijah McCoy at the Town Hall one day, and there is a point where I would walk up the steps of the stage. I was playing the elderly Elijah, and I asked for volunteers from the audience to help me up the steps. So, this one little girl came up to me and she said: your tie is crooked. And she starts straightening my tie. Sometimes you just have to roll with it. That was a beautiful moment.
Another time, there was this couple that followed my shows. They took pictures of me performing Elijah McCoy in the village and “Minds on Freedom” in the museum, and other performances. The wife put together a scrapbook of their photos, and it had all these pictures and a beautiful cover. They gave it to me as a gift. I was just so speechless, you know, that they took time to create it over several months, putting this book together. I was very moved by it.
Amy Nasir is Digital Marketing Specialist and former Historical Presenter in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
For years, The Henry Ford has been committed to providing unique learning resources and experiences for educators, drawing on lessons from our past to inspire the next generation. At the core of these learning resources is Model i, a unique learning framework which provides an interdisciplinary language and approach for teaching innovation learning based on the Actions of Innovation and Habits of an Innovator.
When Spencer Kiper, a middle school teacher in Bossier City, Louisiana, traveled to Dearborn in 2017 to receive The Henry Ford’s 2017 Teacher Innovator Award, Model i might have been in its infancy, but Kiper was hooked and put it into action in his classroom.
Designed to spark an innovative mindset, The Henry Ford’s Model i framework promotes something even more fundamental: a sense of what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. “Understanding the perspective of others, or the struggles or strifes of groups of people, that is something we don’t spend a great deal of time doing in education,” said Kiper, who was also the 2019 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year. “With Model i, this is the first thing you do. From the get-go, it inspires a very different kind of feel in the classroom.”
Connecting schools to The Henry Ford’s collections, Model i intrigued Kiper during his 2017 visit to The Henry Ford. He’d been looking for ways to fuel design-inspired thinking and problem-solving skills in his middle school STEM students—a framework that could generate fresh, insightful solutions and streamline coursework. At the time, Model i was in its early stages, much of its substance not yet finalized. That didn’t deter Kiper from dropping basic Model i concepts into his classroom.
“One of the biggest hurdles I face as a teacher is overcoming that ‘I can’t do this because I’m not creative’ mentality,” said Kiper, who believes Model i is a roadmap back to creativity that hasn’t been nurtured over time. “By starting with small problems, you allow students to ease their toe back into being creative and see little wins, little successes. And then you introduce them to the big problems. That’s a pretty big dividend.”
Spencer Kiper’s Destination Imagination team constructed a working cardboard arcade to compete against teams from around the world at a recent Destination Imagination global final.
According to Phil Grumm, senior manager of learning services and on-site programs at The Henry Ford, educators like Kiper have become pseudo co-authors of the ever-evolving framework. “When you put Model i into the hands of an expert teacher and superuser like Spencer, he finds his own connections and relevance, and deploys it in creative and innovative ways we never intended nor anticipated.”
For Kiper and his students, Model i was a natural fit with STEM on Screen, a film festival/mini invention convention Kiper had created to bring industry leaders to students to give real-world feedback on their world-enhancing innovations. It also found applications in his Campus 2 Campus Connection with Centenary College of Louisiana, which gave pre-med biology students the opportunity to strengthen empathy skills by mentoring Kiper’s STEM class. “Studying our artifacts and stories shows us that empathy is a critical habit for innovators to practice and develop to not only solve relevant problems but identify them in the first place,” said Grumm.
Kiper likes to praise Model i’s focus on de-stigmatizing failure and explaining why mistakes must be baked into every creative process. Embedding failure into learning also makes teachers better prepared to teach, which is why Kiper, who was recently named instructional technologist for Caddo Parish, Louisiana, readily employs Model i in his teacher education courses. “As an ideological concept, it can be placed in any sort of educational context and see success,” he said. “It’s a fun and engaging way of learning that’s going to stay with you for the long haul.”
In June of 2021, The Henry Ford launched the inHub website to provide educators around the world with access to The Henry Ford's innovation learning resources. Educators can sign up for a free inHub membership to receive unlimited access to all of The Henry Ford's learning resources, in addition to professional development opportunities. Become an inHub member for free today to get started.
In preparing for our temporary exhibit Light and Joy in the Holiday Season, The Henry Ford’s curators solicited artifacts, photographs, and stories from The Henry Ford’s staff, among others. Below is one of the stories that was shared for the New Year display case.
My personal, vegetarian version of hoppin’ john, a traditional Southern New Year’s Day meal, in 2013. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
Though I’ve now lived in metro Detroit for more than two decades, I spent my formative years in the South, growing up in Jacksonville, Florida—the largest city (in terms of square footage) in the contiguous United States, an area split by one of the few rivers in the country that flows north (the St. John’s), and the hometown of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Neither of my parents were born in Jacksonville. My dad grew up in Pennsylvania, and my mom on Lookout Mountain in the small town of Fort Payne, Alabama. During the Vietnam War, my dad was drafted into the military and sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, to utilize his newly minted bachelor’s degree in architecture to work on base buildings. At that time, my mom was living in Anniston with her sister and her sister’s husband, who was also involved in architecture on the base. My parents met, secretly eloped, moved briefly to Pennsylvania after my dad was discharged, then moved to Jacksonville for a job opportunity for my dad just after I was born.
Being as close to Georgia as you can be and still be in Florida, Jacksonville is definitely the South—the “Bold New City of the South,” as police cars and road signs proclaimed. And Southern foodways predominated, even as economies and cultural traditions slowly became more global. My mother was a fantastic cook who combined her Alabama farm roots with Jacksonville’s traditions—I grew up eating fried okra, grits, redeye gravy, barbecue, boiled peanuts, greens, banana pudding, scuppernongs and muscadines, sweet tea, and pecan pie, and didn’t realize these things weren’t universally beloved, valued, or available until I moved to Michigan.
Greens are a common food in the South. Here, collard greens are de-spined and washed for use in hoppin’ john, 2011. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
One thing I don’t remember ever not having on New Year’s Day was hoppin’ john. The traditional version of the dish is black-eyed peas cooked in broth with onions and a bit of ham or pork, served over rice, often with greens and cornbread on the side. (We Southerners like our carbs.) I don’t know when or where my mother picked up the idea of serving hoppin’ john on New Year’s Day—one of my cousins did not know what hoppin’ john was when I asked her this year, so I am guessing it did not originate in Alabama. She may have learned about it from friends in Jacksonville who followed the tradition.
The reason this humble staple is eaten on New Year’s Day is for good luck—the greens are the color of money, the peas represent coins, and some people even say the color of the cornbread relates to gold. Some long-time family friends from Jacksonville still refer to their annual plate of hoppin’ john as their “luck and money.” But beyond that, it’s a cheap, filling, and delicious meal.
As near as I can recollect, my mom made it fairly traditionally. She might have thrown a hambone into the peas for extra flavor—at least, before I became vegetarian. After I became vegetarian, she would cook a tray of bacon separate from the peas, so that the meat-eaters in the family (e.g., everyone but me) could crumble some over to get their pork fix, while I could eat meat-free, or crumble on some vegetarian bacon.
Soaking black-eyed peas to use in hoppin’ john, 2011. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
When I moved to Michigan, I wanted to continue the tradition with a meat-free version, but also wanted to simplify preparation—cooking peas, rice, and greens all separately, along with cornbread, is a lot of work for one person, especially given that it is most delicious when it all gets mashed together on the plate in the end anyway.
My family tended to like our hoppin’ john peas on the soupy side—something in keeping with the Southern tradition of “pot likker,” where you eat the flavorful broth that forms when you cook vegetables in seasoned water. I also took inspiration from another simple dish my mother made often—“bean soup.” This was just dried beans (pretty much any kind) cooked with onions in broth until they were tender and beginning to fall apart. It might sound dull, but cooked slowly for a couple of hours, and finished with a substantial amount of butter…. Yum. Once it was clear a soup was the simplest way to go, it was a pretty easy logical next step to add the greens right into the soup, removing the hassle of cooking them separately.
Cooking a big batch (for eating and for freezing for later) of my version of hoppin’ john, 2015. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
Below is the recipe (insomuch as I have one) I came up with.
Pick through the dried black-eyed peas carefully, discarding any brown ones and any stray pebbles. (In my experience, every bag of dried peas contains at least one rock. Though picking through them is tedious, it’s far better to find the pebble(s) with your fingers than your teeth.) Rinse the peas in a strainer, then add them to a large bowl and cover them with a lot of water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or foil and let the peas soak overnight. They will grow in size substantially, maybe double.
When you’re ready to make the soup the next day, drain the peas, discarding the soaking water, and rinse them again.
Chop the onions and sauté them in a stockpot in some of the butter until partially softened, then add veggie stock and the soaked peas. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the peas are nearly soft, stirring from time to time, usually one to two hours.
While the peas are cooking, de-spine, wash, and chop the collard greens into bite-sized pieces. When the peas are about half to three-quarters cooked, add the greens to the stockpot, and continue cooking until they are tender. Add additional butter to the soup to taste. (You could also add salt/pepper if desired, but usually the vegetable broth adds plenty of both.)
Cook the veggie bacon according to package directions. Serve up the soup, and crumble a strip or two of veggie bacon on each serving. Enjoy!
The finished product, vegetarian hoppin’ john soup, in 2011. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
Cornbread on the side is pretty much required. My mom made her own dry mix, which she combined with milk, eggs, and (if vegetarians weren’t present) bacon grease to bake, but since I don’t have her recipe, I just (somewhat shamefully) use the one off the back of the Quaker cornmeal package—though I use less sugar, replace the cow’s milk with plant-based milk, and replace the oil with melted butter—so I guess I’ve modified that as well.
I always make a double batch of hoppin’ john and cornbread and stash the remainder in the freezer to get me through the rest of the cold Michigan winter. It just gets better as you reheat it and the flavors continue to meld.
Snowy Michigan on New Year’s Day, 2014. Hoppin’ john freezes really well so it’s wise to make enough to get you through a Michigan winter. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
Vegetarian hoppin’ john (soup) might not be the most common tradition, especially in Detroit—but it’s a sign of the times that you can find a vegan version today at Detroit Vegan Soul. But the most satisfying version is the one you make yourself—and make your own.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Michele Michael, who discovered ceramics in 2010, likes to create utilitarian objects for the tabletop, loving the feel and meditative properties of the clay in her hands. She is always experimenting with new techniques and processes to make her housewares, like painting freehand with indigo and cobalt underglazes. / Photo by Michele Michael
Michele Michael and Patrick Moore understand the importance of ordinary days and have a renewed appreciation for the concept of time.
Today, Michael creates ceramics that reflect the natural beauty, quiet, and peacefulness that surround her in midcoast Maine. Mostly she creates utilitarian objects for the tabletop. She builds, fires, and glazes her wares—typically porcelain, sometimes stoneware—on the first floor of, or in season outside on the porch of, a light-drenched, barn-style studio that she shares with her husband, Moore, a woodworker.
Michael came to ceramics serendipitously back in 2010. At the time, she and Moore were leading a higher-octane lifestyle in New York City, where they owned a successful prop house together. Michael curated a large collection of tabletop items that she would rent out for photo shoots for magazines, cookbooks, and advertising. Moore built surfaces and other props for their business and also sets for film and music videos, often out of wood he salvaged from dumpsters at construction sites around the city.
On one fateful spring day, Michael ventured into a ceramics studio in their Brooklyn neighborhood (to see if they had any plates or bowls she might want to buy for her inventory), then on a whim signed up for a class that started that very week. It was kismet. Michael loved everything about her experience: the feel of the clay in her hands, the meditative process of forming it into her desired shapes, the warm and supportive community of fellow makers.
“In my career as a magazine editor, then photo stylist and business owner, I was constantly multitasking,” Michael said. “Right away, it felt so good to do something where I was fully in the moment, plus it was just nice to be using my hands to make something again.”
Here, Michele Michael created texture by rolling out the clay between two pieces of handwoven linen. / Photo by Michele Michael
Within just three years, Michael and Moore had sold their apartment and moved full-time to what had until then been a summer home in the small town of Dresden, Maine. By consigning their prop collection to another company similar to theirs, they could keep some of that income stream flowing while changing their way of life dramatically. They would build a studio where Michael could devote herself to her ceramics practice and Moore could do his woodworking.
Today, they are able to live a life they fantasized about away from the city: in sync with not only the natural world that nourishes them but also the creative curiosity that drives them. Michael creates her wares—mostly platters and vases—and then photographs and posts them to their retail website, called Elephant Ceramics, in batches several times a year. Moore’s one-of-a-kind cutting boards, which he makes out of birch, maple, black walnut, cherry, oak, and hickory he sources from a nearby mill, are also for sale on the site. Inventory sells out fast but isn’t replenished until months later, when they feel ready to create a new body of work.
Patrick Moore seeks out wood with unusual grain with which to make his cutting boards. As he cuts, planes, sands, and finishes each piece, his aim is to showcase and maximize the wood’s natural beauty. / Photo by Michele Michael
“We are constantly in a process of learning and trying new things,” said Michael. “I can’t imagine a life without making things. I think it’s in my DNA.”
In between these bursts of making, the two are able to slow down and enjoy ordinary pleasures: walks, birdwatching, gardening, cooking nourishing meals, kayaking on the river that borders their property—and following those ever-important whims. Moore might transform random lobster rope that washes up on the beaches into boat fenders and other nautical knots, weave sticks and saplings collected while pruning in the yard into vessels to be used as planters or compost bins, or teach himself to knit, inspired by a collection of old needles he picked up at a yard sale. Michael sometimes sets off on trips to faraway places and takes workshops—block printing in India, ceramics and cooking in Japan, and weaving in Mexico so far—or she might stay home and hook a chair cushion using yarn from her stash and strips of wool cut from old clothing.
As Michael shared, “Often my inspiration comes from an idea of something I’d like to have but cannot find. I think making things yourself helps you see the value in items that are handmade. You realize how much goes into something that is carefully thought-out and crafted. It also teaches you patience."
With our hands, we take agency over our lives. We connect with others, past and present, near and far, with a similar passion. We feel a sense of belonging, not only to one another but to the planet.
In 2017, at age 22, Sara Trail launched the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) to empower youth to advocate for social justice through textile making. Though she was notably young to found a nonprofit, she was not new to sewing. She took needle to cloth for the first time at age 4, under the guidance of her mother and grandmother, and quickly showed a propensity for it. Within a few years, she had gained mastery and could sew clothing, quilts, and upholstery. A wunderkind, by age 15, she had written a book for other kids, Sew with Sara, about how to sew and sell one’s work, and licensed her own pattern and fabric collections.
She was, for all intents and purposes, content with her sewing practice. “I liked the freedom and independence it gave me,” she recalled. “I liked the idea that I could make something that was going to last and that I could do something that a lot of other kids my age couldn’t do.”
And then her attitude—and self-expectation—changed profoundly in 2012, when Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in Florida, was shot by a white man for no apparent reason other than he thought Martin looked suspicious. “I went from wanting to learn skills, make gifts, master something to knowing I needed to take the skills my mentors had given me and use them for a purpose,” Trail said. She made a fabric portrait of Martin wearing the hoodie he had on the night he was shot, and that quilt became the seed of SJSA.
Sara Trail’s handmade quilt, Rest in Power, commemorates the life of murdered Black teenager Trayvon Martin and marks her first experience combining her lifelong interest in sewing with social activism. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy
Today, Trail describes the volunteer-run organization she founded as a 21st-century sewing circle that bridges social, racial, ethnic, generational, and geographic lines. The quilts begin in workshops in schools, community centers, and prisons across the United States. Participants, typically aged 12 and up, create art blocks to express their concerns, thoughts, and beliefs, gluing fabric in place if they are not inclined to sew.
The blocks are forwarded to volunteers around the world to finish the necessary stitching and join them together into a patchwork. Hundreds of SJSA quilts have gone on to be exhibited at quilt shows, museums, and galleries nationwide.
Trail often thinks back to the time in middle school when she was teaching sewing to kids in her neighborhood. “My class was $75 and my students were rich white kids. Low-income kids couldn’t pay that much to learn how to make something they may or may not have even liked in the end or end up using. Through conversations, especially with my parents, I realized what a privilege it was to make.”
She now seeks to pass on that privilege, an understanding of the power that resides in our hands, to make textiles—and to make change.
This block, made by SJSA participant Autumn Roberts during a workshop on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, is a statement about culture and tribe. Her artist statement: “…I created this as an image of what had happened at the DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline protest] camp. I shall be the change the reservation will wish to see. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy
“I want to make sewing accessible and equitable,” Trail said. “I want to make quilts that matter.”
Mary Aviles and son Mati in Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Complex.
Ten-plus-year member Mary Aviles finds inspiration in a frog, two brothers, and makers in the raw.
Drawn to the Herschell-Spillman Carousel in Greenfield Village, Mary loves hopping on the whimsical bow-tie-wearing frog. The carousel reminds her of stories shared with her children to spark their curiosity and quest for lifelong learning. She’s equally inspired each time she walks into Orville and Wilbur Wright’s family home in Greenfield Village, knowing that human progress is cumulative and many of our major leaps forward can be traced to specific moments in time. A repeat attendee at The Henry Ford’s annual Maker Faire® Detroit, she can’t wait to come back each year, because she sees great beauty in unfinished ideas and the limitless potential of creativity in the rough.
I worked for TechTown Detroit with entrepreneurs/ small businesses and continue to do so as a consultant with EarlyWorks. For me, The Henry Ford’s Model i framework is also an inspiration. TechTown architects use it as an approach to client relationship management, and I reference the framework consulting with EarlyWorks.
As a qualitative researcher specializing in structuring unstructured data, I am fascinated by how The Henry Ford has synthesized its collection of physical innovator assets to remain relevant in informing issues such as education, workforce and talent development—topics I, along with my clients, are immersed in every day.”
What’s your spark? Let us know what inspires you on your next visit and what takes you forward from your membership. Email us at email@example.com. Take it forward as a member—enjoy benefits like free parking, discounts on events and tours, exclusive member previews, and more.
This photograph was taken some time between 1905 and 1911. Why? The sign in the front window of the storefront adjacent to the Wright Cycle Shop shows an undertaker’s business run by L.G. Keller. City of Dayton business directories of this period show Mr. Keller in business at 1127 West Third Street during this span of time. Clearly shown is the C .Webbert Block sign on top of the building and the Wright Cycle sign as well. Bicycle production and sales had ceased by 1905, but until 1909, airplanes and airplane engines were being built and partially assembled here. / THF236870
In 1903, the building that houses the Wright Cycle Shop and the undertakers’ establishment of Fetters & Shank was collectively known as the C. Webbert Block. The building was moved to and restored in Greenfield Village in 1937. It’s a very faithful representation of the two-story, two-storefront building that stood at 1125-1127 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio, restored to appear as it did at the time of the Wright Brothers' first flight. There was one exception, though—the decoratively lettered sign that graced the top of the bracketed cornice spanning the front façade of the building was missing for over 100 years.
Charles Webbert, a relative by marriage to Charles Taylor, the Wright Brothers' mechanic, purchased the building in 1896. Mr. Webbert did an extensive addition to the front that created the double storefront we see in historic photographs. The Wright Brothers were his first tenants. Mr. Webbert was a plumbing supplier, a bicycle enthusiast, and, later, a great supporter of the brothers’ flying efforts. He was friends with Orville and Wilbur, and purchased and bartered both bicycles and bicycle repairs. Rent payments were dependent on what bicycle services were provided.
Between 1897 and 1916, the building saw a variety of uses by the Wright Brothers. Initially, the focus was on bicycles, including two lines of hand-built enameled finished bicycles, the Saint Clair and the Van Cleve. In the late 1890s, bicycles were a lucrative business and the proceeds from the Wrights' successful business became the funding source for everything that would eventually allow the Wright Brothers to fly.
Man Working at a Lathe in the Wright Cycle Shop, Dayton, Ohio, 1897 / THF236804
From 1899 until 1909, the building served as the brothers' first experimental laboratory and design studio, dedicated to creating that first flying machine. The first gliders, as well as the first Wright Flyer, were built in sections in the back machine shop, along with the gasoline engines that powered the first flight. For a time, the Wright Cycle Shop was one of the world’s first airplane factories. Following the sale of their first airplane to the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1908, Orville and Wilbur attracted the attention of New York investors and the Wright Company was formed in 1909. The airplane business quickly outgrew the space, and the assembly of airplanes consequently took place in a rented space in the Speedwell Motor Car Company while awaiting completion of a new factory building. The Wrights broke ground on this new facility on Home Road in Dayton in 1910.
After 1909, though manufacturing and final assembly moved elsewhere, the gasoline-powered engines continued to be machined and assembled in the Wright Cycle Shop. Both brothers also kept offices on the second floor, along with their company files and archives.
Following Wilbur’s death from typhoid fever in May of 1912, Orville took over as president of the company and ran the business alone. In 1915, he sold his interests and retired from the Wright Company. He continued to work on aviation design with his own firm but gave up the lease at the Cycle Shop in November of 1916, permanently moving to 15 North Broadway, a few blocks away.
Based on photographic evidence, the C. Webbert sign remained in place from 1897 until 1919, when significant structural changes took place. These included the addition of another bay and a third storefront, later to become 1123 West Third Street. Historic images show the building in its final iteration, as Henry Ford would have first seen it. By the time of the 1919 renovations, the building needed significant repairs, in part due to a huge flood that ravaged downtown Dayton and its neighborhoods in the spring of 1913. Water levels reached nearly to the second floor of the building. By this time, it’s very likely that the sign had deteriorated to the point where it was not practical to redesign it to fit with the new façade, and so it was likely removed.
This photograph of the vacant building taken in October of 1936 is part of a series taken after Henry Ford purchased the building from Charles Webber, in preparation for dismantling the building and shipping it to Dearborn, Michigan. Its reconstruction in Greenfield Village, without the C. Webbert sign, was completed in the Spring of 1938 with the dedication taking place on April 16, which would have been Wilbur Wright’s 71st birthday. / THF236872
Henry Ford purchased the building from Charles Webbert in 1936 with the understanding that it would be dismantled and moved to Dearborn, where it would be reconstructed in Greenfield Village. For reasons unknown, the sign was never added to the Wright Cycle Shop when it was restored in Greenfield Village in 1937. This is surprising, as it is such a significant architectural element. In 1991, another major restoration of the building took place in the Village, and again, the sign was not included in the project.
As they say, the third time’s the charm.
In 2018, research work began, focused on recreating the sign to more accurately represent the building’s appearance in 1903. In 2019, Mose Nowland, one of our talented conservation department volunteers, created detailed construction drawings based on high resolution scans of original photographs showing the sign still in place. Mose had only a few photographs, taken several years apart, to work with. True to form with his decades of experience, his finished drawings were works of art themselves, and brought to life the exquisite details included in what was the finial crest for the newly-designed façade of the building.
Mose Nowland poses with one of his detailed architectural drawings, which allowed the C. Webbert sign to come to life again after being missing for 100 years. / Photo by Jim Johnson
Using these wonderful drawings, combined with Mose’s sound advice and suggestions, Mike Zemney, one of our talented carpentry staff, began the construction of the sign. The sign was built in sections, with each decorative element individually hand-crafted, just as it would have been in 1897. Mike used a wide range of techniques and materials, with the ultimate goal of making the sign as weather-proof as possible, with a minimal amount of maintenance required. The sign is a combination of several kinds of water-resistant wood species, copper flashing, and cladding, all carefully sealed. The decorative elements are all three-dimensional, and the sign reaches nearly four feet high and over seven feet long, in perfect proportion to the height and width of the building.
Carpenter Mike Zemney with the nearly completed sign he built. In this photograph, the sign has been painted and dry fitted together, with final assembly, sealing, and final painting to take place once it was lifted up onto the building.
Using high-resolution versions of historic photographs, we carefully studied and analyzed these images to determine the color combination to use in painting the sign, along with the rest of the building. What appear to be different colors in some of the photos are actually shadows, as the photographs were taken a few years apart, at different times of the year, and at different times of the day. Based on our analysis, it appears that the building and the entire sign were monochromatic, painted all one color. This was not an uncommon practice for commercial and industrial buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The sign, therefore, was completely covered in many coats of a high-quality paint by Jeff Serwa, one of our dedicated painters.
There were great hopes of completing this project and having everything installed for the opening of Greenfield Village in April of 2020. As we all know, 2020 took a very different direction, and the actual installation of the sign was delayed.
However, I am very happy to announce that over 100 years later, the Wright Cycle Shop is now complete once again, proudly claiming its rightful place as part of the C. Webbert Block.
The sign is lifted onto the top of the building.
The sign is carefully installed and secured.
The C. Webbert Block sign atop Wright Cycle Shop in Greenfield Village.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to the staff and volunteers of The Henry Ford that made this project possible: Mose Nowland, Mary Fahey, Ben Kiehl, Dennis Morrison, Robert Smythe, Mike Zemney, and Jeff Serwa.
Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Grosse Pointe, Michigan, native Armani Williams is at the start of a promising career in auto racing. He competes in multiple professional truck and car racing series, and is honing his skills with an eye toward joining NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series—one of NASCAR’s three national series and among the highest professional racing series in the United States. This is an impressive goal for any young driver, but especially so for Mr. Williams, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism generally is characterized by difficulty in focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously. “Focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously” is also a pretty fair description of what a competitive driver does behind the wheel, which makes Williams’s achievements all the more impressive.
Helmet worn by Armani Williams, Scorpion EXO. / THF186734
Like most racing drivers, Armani Williams developed his love for motorsport as a young boy. That passion was fostered by toy cars, televised NASCAR races, and a memorable trip to see NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010. Eager to get behind the wheel himself, Williams began racing go-karts at age eight. He then advanced to Bandolero racing, a type of motorsport in which young drivers pilot scaled-down versions of stock cars capable of speeds better than 70 miles per hour.
Williams made his competition debut in Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) Pro Series pickup truck races in 2016. He set ARCA records by becoming the highest-finishing African American driver in a series race, and by posting the best finish for an African American driver in the ARCA Truck Pro Series championship.
Racing suit worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186736
NASCAR invited Armani Williams to compete in its Drive for Diversity combined tryouts in 2016 and 2017. Established in 2004, the Drive for Diversity program is intended to create a more inclusive culture in NASCAR on the track, in the pits, and in the stands. The program provides training and support to people of color and women pursuing careers as drivers, crew members, sponsors, or team owners.
In 2017, Williams made his debut in the Pinty’s Series, NASCAR’s Canadian stock car racing series. To date, he has earned eighteen wins and two championships in the Pinty’s Series. In 2018, Williams joined the K&N Pro Series East. This American NASCAR series serves as an important development pipeline, building and supplying new talent headed toward NASCAR’s upper levels. Williams earned his first K&N Pro Series top-ten finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he finished ninth on September 22, 2018. Williams earned another top-ten finish—this time in ARCA’s Menards Series for stock cars—on August 9, 2020, at Michigan International Speedway, his “hometown” track. By competing in the Pinty’s and K&N Pro racing series, Armani Williams became the first driver in any NASCAR series with openly-diagnosed autism.
Race 4 Autism car driven by Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Throughout his growing career, Armani Williams has used his platform in racing to raise autism awareness. He established his Armani Williams Race 4 Autism Foundation in 2015. He also covered one of his race cars with a special Race 4 Autism paint scheme featuring the jigsaw puzzle motif that is widely used as a symbol for autism spectrum disorder.
Racing shoes worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186733
Mr. Williams recently donated pieces of his equipment to The Henry Ford. They include a helmet, a racing suit, and a pair of shoes used by him while racing in the ARCA Truck Pro Series. We are delighted to add these artifacts to the museum’s racing collections, and we look forward to incorporating some of them into our newest exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America Presented by General Motors. We also look forward to following Armani Williams’s competitive driving career. He’s already made history—and he’s just getting started.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
The multisensory theater in Driven to Win at The Henry Ford.
American innovation knows no bounds, and racing, which combines technical excellence with the human endeavor, speaks to our constant need to push the limits of what’s possible. That’s why Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation has gathered one of the finest collections of innovative, powerful, record-busting race cars and automotive artifacts in the world.
Building on this unparalleled collection, The Henry Ford’s newest exhibition, Driven to Win: Racing in Americapresented by General Motors, gives guests a visceral sense of just how thrilling it is to “go faster and push the limits of racing.” BRC Imagination Arts partnered with The Henry Ford to help bring its incredible collection to life through emotional storytelling, and to get guests excited about “the lives of those who invented their way into the winner's circle and often changed the world in the process.”
The result: Fueled by Passion, the exhilarating, immersive experience at the heart of the new exhibition. The 15-minute sensory-filled experience shares the stories of five people who have empowered themselves to push their personal limits, and ignites the drive we all have to power our passions.