“Was Henry Ford’s father unhappy that Henry didn’t become a farmer? Did they get along?”
A few years back, my friend Regina stood in the Ford Home and asked that question to the uniformed presenter. We were on a homeschooling field trip with our children.
As many times as I’d been to Greenfield Village, I’d never considered that kind of relationship question. I had a tendency to be fascinated with the stuff – the artifacts, the décor, the period clothing, etc. I was a little surprised with the question, but even more surprised by the detail of presenter’s reply. It was a weekday, and the home wasn’t very busy, so this gentleman graciously took the time to share with us some really interesting insights and stories. That question charged my curiosity to look beyond what I was seeing, and the presenter’s deep knowledge and ability to weave a story transformed how I experienced The Henry Ford.
So, who are these presenters?
To begin with, they aren’t only the people wearing period attire. In addition to those clad in the clothes of the past, uniformed presenters drive Model Ts, carriages and other historic transportation; they operate the carousel and work throughout the village, museum and Ford Rouge Factory Tour in a multitude of capacities. They are the working storytellers who help make the artifacts and objects at The Henry Ford come alive – a key element to turning a visit into an inspirational experience.
“Presenters are an all part-time staff of highly committed, highly educated people,” Jim Van Bochove, The Henry Ford’s director of workforce development told me. They may be college students, teachers, retired professionals or someone who comes to the position with a different background or interest that fits the role. “It’s a unique position, and some people are willing to travel quite a distance to dedicate their time to being a presenter here.” He also said the presenter staff is extremely loyal, and there’s not a lot of turnover. (I’d sure say so. There's a presenter who has been with The Henry Ford for 55 years.)
New presenters and all staff for that matter – service, administrative, volunteer, intern, and executive – start their career at The Henry Ford with a daylong program called Traditions, Vision and Values. It’s a busy season for the training as Greenfield Village’s April 15 opening day approaches.
“It’s up to the all of our colleagues here to deliver The Henry Ford experience to our guests,” Jim said. The TVV training, as they call it, is where they learn about the history, culture and vision of the institution. I caught some of it, and it was a pretty lively time – appropriate for working at such a dynamic place.
This group is enjoying an early March TVV program. Some of the participants are assigned as presenters in one of the seven districts in Greenfield Village such as Working Farms or Edison at Work.
Above, Tim Johnson and Meg Anderson from The Henry Ford’s workforce development department engage new staff. You can see that Henry Ford himself remains an important part of the training.
After this training, presenters go through a day of hospitality training. Then they attend two days of basic presenter training to learn storytelling techniques, engage in role playing, make presentations on newly learned material, and benefit from the constructive comments from other new and experienced presenters.
After the general training, presenters move on to hands-on instruction by their managers, supervisors and site leaders depending on where they will be assigned. Kathie Flack, training and event logistics manager, explained to me that by assigning presenters to specific districts, they have more of an opportunity to really become experts in their area.
Since most new presenters this time of year are gearing up for work assignments in Greenfield Village, they might be instructed on how to start and maintain a fire or cook using a wood burning stove. They may attend Model T driving school or learn to milk a cow, harness a horse, operate a plow, or make candles or pumpkin ale. During this time, they’ll also get some of the details regarding the logistics of working at their assigned venue.
At the William Ford barn, I looked on as an experienced presenter and carriage driver instructed a new presenter in harnessing a horse. It looked pretty complicated to me, but Ryan Spencer, manager of Firestone Farm, assured me that after some practice, it only takes one person five minutes to collar, harness and hitch a team of two horses to a carriage.
Before she can drive visitors, she’ll have to pass certification which includes 50 hours of guided training and passing a driving test with 100-percent.
“It’s pretty involved,” Ryan said. “The driver has to be prepared, and the team has to be confident with the driver. She also has to be able to get out of uncomfortable situations and to anticipate certain others.”
In addition to all the horse-related training necessary, new drivers have to pass a tour test and a written test – also with a perfect score.
The new presenter (on the right) spent the day at Firestone Farm learning about chores in the house and barn. In the photo above, he’s examining the grooves from the pit saw used to cut the white oak into lumber when the Firestone’s built the barn in about 1830. He will most likely be horse trained next winter season. “There’s a lot of other work to learn at the farm first,” Ryan said.
In addition to the specific presenter training, there’s getting dressed for the job. The clothing studio outfits all workers who encounter guests at The Henry Ford – whether it is in a uniform or period-specific gear.
This presenter stands for a final fitting of a new custom ensemble as a seamstress inspects. Tracy Donohue, the manager of the clothing studio said they make most all elements of period attire, with the exception of a few foundational garments such as corsets. Uniforms are also purchased in pieces, but all are tailored for each wearer.
The studio works with curators and available historic resources to fit presenters with the most accurate period clothing. There are often multiple fittings. Tracy said that depending on the detail and the pattern challenges, there might be as many as 80 hours of work put in making one dress.
I have to say, the studio storage warehouse is a pretty spectacular place – with aisles and aisles of period clothing, historically accurate fabrics and accessories, and the fantastic costumes for special events like the Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village and Holiday Nights.
Tracy told me the studio has a very comprehensive cataloging system since it inventories close to 50,000 items.
Once presenters are trained, outfitted and equipped with the key elements of the stories they’ll tell, and after they gain a little experience, they can really dig in to learn more by visiting the reading room at the Benson Ford Research Center.
The green binders above are filled with detailed information and interesting facts specific to the buildings and artifacts; community and domestic life, and customs and historic practices of the time periods represented in Greenfield Village.
Presenters (and visitors for that matter) may also access some primary source materials associated with each building, including its move to Greenfield Village. The photo on the right is of the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop in its original location, before Henry Ford had it moved to the village from 1127 West Third St. in Dayton, Ohio, in 1937.
It’s no doubt the people who become presenters at The Henry Ford are there because they want to be there. They’re eager to delve into more of the details and history and share it because they understand Henry Ford’s original vision and want to inspire visitors to learn from the traditions of the past to make a better future.
I love this photo I took a couple years ago. This presenter was pleased (and relieved) with her successful first experience making grape preserves.
Last year I confessed my desire to be a historic reenactor. The blog post made the rounds in the encampment during the inaugural War of 1812 Muster in Greenfield Village, and at the event when I revealed in conversation that I was the "wannabe," many participants generously shared with me some of their stories and why they reenact. I got some great insight that isn’t often revealed when walking though as an observer at such an event. For visitors, the reenactors faithfully remain in character - teaching us through living history. And over the years, through the Civil War encampment, the dramatic performances at the village and museum, and now through this 1812 event, I know my family and I have learned so much. (This year’s War of 1812 Muster is Aug. 18-19.)
After last year's 1812 muster, I received a nice note from a woman who participated as part of the First Regiment Volunteers:
I am so glad you came (back) out to see the GFV 1812 premier! I had read your “Reenactor Wannabe” blog the week prior and wanted to share an insider’s view with you. I thought that perhaps you had considered mostly the more superficial aspects of it as a hobby.
I have re-enacted on the coattails of my husband these past 16 or so years. He deeply loves late 18th- and early 19th-century American history and has a passion for sharing it with others. Now our two pre-teen sons are also involved. I have been in two different groups and found them both to be wonderful communities. I say “community” as I really feel that when we come together, we recapture that sense of small town support and interdependence that goes way back and often feels to be missing today. This community will gently nudge you not to be “farby” (unauthentic). They will share their patterns, stories, accounts, antique finds, historical tidbits and camaraderie with you. They share the clothes off their backs (hand-me-downs for the kids or an extra cap when you forget to pack yours!). They teach you and your children period card games, how to use historic tools, play a fife, make lace or rush a chair for example. They work together on the demonstrations (like the kids’ recruiting station) and cooperate on projects such as making reproduction wooden boxes or shingles to give back to the host historic site. Community members reach out to each other in order to overcome - as you said - “the logistical feat it must take for those involved to be there.” They help each other put up tents or work to save them from rising flood waters. They potluck communal meals and share fire pits. I could go on. I have learned much and look forward to my weekends with my community of dear friends. Nothing else propels me to research historic recipes and then to eagerly iron clothes for a couple hours like a reenacting weekend on the horizon!
I was grateful for her perspective, and her note prompted me to dig a little deeper and learn more. During the Civil War Remembrance this year at Greenfield Village, I had the opportunity to talk with some of the reenactors while they were preparing their camps for the annual Memorial Day Weekend event. (Reenactment groups from near and far participate in the event. They register in advance and are required to meet certain authenticity guidelines to ensure historical accuracy is presented to visitors.)
“Can I fire a musket?” Ken Giolando told me was the first question his then 15-year-old son Tommy asked when in 2004 Ken proposed the idea of participating in Civil War reenactments.
And, since the answer was "Yes," Tommy's reply was an enthusiastic, “I’m in!”
Ken, his wife and children joined the 21st Michigan Reenactors, after years of wanting to reenact - but just not knowing how.
I met Ken and his family as they were setting up camp for the annual Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village. It was an unusual sight for me: The village filled with present-day trucks and trailers.
Patty Giorlando demonstrates a spinning wheel, a skill she recently acquired participating in reenactments.
As an annual attendee of the remembrance event, I’ve always marveled at the detailed camps built by reenactors. My appreciation of the event grew tenfold as I witnessed all of the effort the participants put forth sharing their love of history with those of us who walk through. I think it really hit home when I saw cannons and horses unloaded.
Since I continue to toy with the idea of participating as a reenactor some day, I asked Ken how he got involved in reenacting.
“I used to go to events and think, 'Oh, we can't do this.’” He suspected you had to have all kinds of money to buy "all the stuff," or the people who did it must be part of some special club or professionals or something.
“Then one year, I was organizing a living-history event in the city that I live," he said. He went online to find some Civil War reenactors and came across 21st Michigan. “They came out to the event and were great.” The members who participated learned of Ken’s interest and - just like that - they asked him if he wanted to join.
He said the group was so welcoming and encouraging – and getting involved was not as hard as he thought. “We had never really inquired because we just assumed." He said there's a good lesson in that: Do not assume.
Dave Tennies portrays Senator Jacob Howard, and Ken Giorlando is the Postmaster.
Ken portrays a Postmaster of the mid-19th century. He uses period correct stationary, stamps, pen and ink and a desk to accent his presentation. Letters written by the many members of the living history community are actually sent and picked up through his post office.
Ken and his family - like other reenactors - are motivated by their passion for history. The Giorlandos are very active and participate in 20 or more reenactment events each year. Some are events that the 21st Michigan puts on for its members – such as a Civil War-era Christmas gathering. He and his family pitch their tents and interact with the public at some events (like at Greenfield Village), and at others, they have an opportunity to stay in authentic period housing.
Ken, his wife, daughter and one son are members of the Civilian Contingency of the unit, while his other two boys are part of the Volunteer Infantry – and that’s where the musket firing come in.
“The 21st Michigan’s view is to get you going, get you in some clothes and have you come out to see what it’s all about. If you have a love and a passion for this – we want you to do it.” Ken said the group strives for authenticity, not wanting visitors to see anything farby. “We work hard at that and encourage each other to do the same.”
Ken explained to me the different levels of reenacting - mainstream, progressive and what he called hardcore. Mainstream reenacting is where there is a lot of interaction with the public. The more progressive events may include public interaction, but in an overall environment that offers greater authenticity. He said the hardcore events are where there is no public, and reenactors are doing it for their own experience – like going off into the woods, setting up camp and reenacting battles, etc.
Andy Assenmacher, also a member of the Civilian Contingency of the 21st Michigan, added that the group has all levels of reenactors, its members are very encouraging and don't criticize. “We have lots of families,” he said. They also freely pass around clothes for the children since they are quickly outgrown
Dave Tennies (pictured above with Ken) got involved in reenacting by default. His son wanted to be a reenactor, and he needed a parent. That was 15 years ago. His son isn’t reenacting anymore, but Dave portrays former Michigan Attorney General and eventual United States Senator, Jacob Howard. During the Civil War, Senator Howard worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln in drafting and passing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery.
I talked with Lorna Paul, a long-time participant in the Civil War event at Greenfield Village. She's a member of the 4th Michigan Co A Voluntary Infantry Reenactors, which also has civilian and infantry contingents. Lorna was encouraging and explained to me how her involvement grew. Like Dave Tennies from the 21st Michigan, it was Lorna's children who prompted the family's involvement in reenacting years ago. Her children are now grown and don't participate often, but her two-year-old granddaughter enjoys accompanying her to events. Lorna is a seamstress, and she often makes and repairs period clothing for other reenactors. (I actually met quite a few reenactors what are able to incorporate their love for history with their work.)
Jeff Sinclair is a member of the 102 Colored Troops. He's been reenacting for 16 years with the 30-member group that includes story tellers who portray Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Their group also has a display of medical supplies and implements, and they set up numerous educational boards.
Jeff said he had come back to the states after working overseas and was looking for some fellowship. In his work, he came across some people who were reenactors; he was intrigued so he tried it out. He said it's a great group of people and that participating at the event at Greenfield Village is one his favorites. "It's always so joyful," he said.
Larry O'Donnell acquired a pre-Civil War transit made by Henry Ware of Ohio, which seemed to prompt his involvement. He's been reenacting for five years and was at Greenfield Village as part of the 4th Texas. Larry portrays General Jeremy Gilmer who was a topographical engineer. Surveying equipment was an essential tool during the Civil War. It was common for troops to build a bridge, retreat across it, then blow it up so opposing troops couldn't follow. In real life, Larry is a member of the Michigan Society of Professional Surveyors, a group that has an educational component that allows Larry and other members to borrow historic equipment to share with the public at events. He had some of that equipment at the event, too.
Many reenactors I spoke with told me of the sense of community they experience at events, that they have gained cherished friendships and made priceless memories. I can say after talking to many, many friendly people who were so willing and eager to share with me their stories, I realized that although how they got involved in reenacting is unique to each person - the reason they got involved is universal: They all have a deep passion for history, want learn about it by experiencing it for themselves and are moved by the desire to share it with others.
With greater insight and appreciation, I'm looking forward to learning even more at the War of 1812 Muster and want to say on behalf of those of us who visit as observers and students:"Thank you!" Thank you to all you reenactors out there for sharing your knowledge, your energy, your artifacts, your time and your passion for history with so many strangers. You are an inspiration to many.
Kristine Hass is a mother of five and long-time member of The Henry Ford. She frequently blogs about coming events and visits to America’s Greatest History Attraction.