The Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village. / THF1882
The Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village was originally designed and built in New Haven, Connecticut, over the course of 1822 and 1823. The home, designed by David Hoadley, is built in the Classical Revival style, popular in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
The house is loaded with wonderful classical details, some of which include carved Ionic capitals topping solid chestnut fluted columns on the front portico (very appropriate, as they represent wisdom in the Greek order), fluted pilasters (rectangular columns) with side lights and a fan light (window) over the front door, and interesting wooden mutules (large decorative wooden blocks with holes evenly drilled over the surface) lining the underside of the cornice or the soffit. Mutules are elements found on ancient Greek and Roman temples and were originally decorative elements found on rafter ends. The cornice surrounds the pediment (the triangular portion) on the front of the house and runs under the eaves or soffit all around the perimeter.
The front portico of the Noah Webster Home features fluted columns with carved Ionic capitals. The soffit of the roof includes dentil details (more below) and a very fine bead trim at the lower edge. The doorway’s fluted pilasters carry through the column elements with the same carved Ionic capitals. The front door with its fan light is a reproduction based on original examples found in the New Haven region, and the door hardware is also a reproduction of a fine imported English lock set. The porch, steps, and column plinths, along with the front foundation blocks, are all brownstone. / Photo by Jim Johnson
The above shots show details of the mutules on Webster Home. These architectural ornaments were inspired by details found on ancient Greek and Roman temples, and were often seen as ornamentation for rafter ends that would extend under the eave. The details within the mutules were completed in sets of six and could also include “drops” and additional elements that would connect at a right angle to the frieze below the eave cornice. Our examples use a round drilled pattern in sets of six. / Photos by Jim Johnson
All the windows have decorative lintels (horizontal supports at the top), which are further decorated with rows of small blocks known as dentils, because they indeed look like rows of teeth. So, our Webster Home has lintels with dentils. The cornice of the front portico (a roof supported by columns) also features a larger set of dentils, and a very delicate bead molding on the edge of the cornice.
The photos above show details of the decorative window lentils, ornamented with dentils, small wooden blocks that resemble rows of teeth. / Photos by Jim Johnson
Another interesting note about the front façade of the building has to do with the center second-floor window over the portico. Originally, there was not a real window in that opening—it was a dummy window originally included to balance the fenestration (design of the window and door openings) on the façade of the house. All the original site photos show that window with a closed set of blinds (note that shutters are solid covers, whereas blinds have louvers). In recent years, I have worked with our carpentry staff to permanently close the blinds of the “new” window added to the house by Edward Cutler in 1936 in order to return the front of the house to its original appearance.
There was never an actual window in the second-floor center opening. The closed blinds create the illusion of a window that balances the front façade with equal openings top and bottom. / Photo by Jim Johnson
All of these above-mentioned decorative elements continue into the rear of the house, including a very charming small back porch that features transom windows over both back doors and fluted columns with carved Ionic capitals. Also at the rear is the third-floor attic that features a pair of quarter-moon windows, a style immortalized in the house from The Amityville Horror. (This is not lost on an entire generation of our movie-going guests, so we light those windows red for Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village.)
Quarter moon windows on the rear elevation provide light for the attic stairway. The decorative mutule elements can clearly be seen on the soffit of the entire cornice, including the later brick addition. / Photo by Jim Johnson
I should note that due to significant changes to the rear of the house in the nineteenth century, and its reconstruction into a hillside in Greenfield Village, many alterations were made. But, in doing so, the original architectural features were carried forward with excellent craftsmanship and design.
These images show the architectural details of the rear portico. Because of significant changes to the rear of the house in the 1860s, and its reconstruction into a hillside in Greenfield Village, modifications were made to the backside. None the less, original architectural elements were carried through with very high levels of craftsmanship and design. / Photos by Jim Johnson
If all these beautiful details were not enough, front and center in the triangular pediment on the front elevation, acting as a focal point, is a louvered ellipse (oval), which was undoubtedly handmade by a master craftsman (anonymous to us today) in New Haven in 1822. It consists of thin pieces of wood that create a louvered fan radiating from a carved central floret design, all set in a wooden oval frame, or ellipse. Though wonderfully decorative, it also served a function, allowing air and some light into the attic space. In letters sent by Rebecca Webster to Noah Webster while he was away on a long overseas research trip in the 1820s, Rebecca mentions laying out pippins (apples) in the attic.
Early-twentieth-century photographs of the house on its original site in New Haven clearly show the Victorian/Italianate additions that were added to the exterior of the house in 1868 by the Trowbridge family. The Trowbridge family is connected to Mary Southgate, the Websters’ granddaughter, who was raised in the house and married Henry Trowbridge in 1838. They did not take possession of the house until 1849, when it was deeded to them by the Webster estate.
Mary died in 1860 and Henry remarried, thus ending the direct Webster association with the house. Henry took on the renovations of the house with his second wife to make the house more fashionable, both inside and out. In doing so, most of the original Federal-style architectural elements were removed, primarily inside, and were replaced with heavy dark walnut woodwork, doors, and a carved staircase. The interior updates also included marble fireplace surrounds and plaster medallions in all the main room ceilings.
The exterior alterations and additions take the form of one- and two-story bay windows and a large brick addition to the rear of the house. A new Italianate-style dark walnut front door and surround was also installed. Surprisingly, many of the early-nineteenth-century architectural decorative elements were included within the Victorian/Italianate additions, likely to create continuity. This can be seen in the early-twentieth-century photographs that show that mutules have been added to the soffits of all of the 1860s bay windows and the brick addition. At some point, likely in the early twentieth century, all the windows were replaced with large one-over-one pane sashes.
This image, taken March 31, 1934, as part of the Historic American Building Survey, shows the Webster Home on its original site at the corner of Temple and Grove Streets in New Haven, Connecticut. It clearly shows the late 1860s Italianate additions in the form of second-floor bay windows, an Italianate-style front door and surround, and updated one-over-one pane windows. The house was in use as a dormitory by Yale University at the time this photograph was taken. / THF236363
A view of the rear of the house in New Haven, circa 1936, showing the original configuration on level ground. The square Italianate addition and second story bay window were added in 1868. / THF236377
In 1936, Yale University decided to sell the Noah Webster Home to a demolition company for salvage, to make way for new construction. Edward Cutler recalled that the one thing Yale was interested in was the ellipse—for the art school, due to its extraordinary design and craftsmanship. Luckily, Henry Ford’s representatives were able to purchase the house from the demolition company before many of the decorative elements had been stripped off.
Since 1936, the front pediment of the Webster Home has undergone many repairs, siding replacement, and painting. It faces almost full west and takes a beating from the elements. Yet not until now has the ellipse been removed and examined more closely.
Recently, our carpentry team carefully removed the ellipse and took it back to their shop to undergo some repair work. The decision was made to not replace any of its elements, but rather to stabilize the original louvers and do some reinforcements to the center floret element. Further work was done to ensure that no water can get in or around any part of the ellipse. New siding was custom milled for the pediment, including areas where it joins the ellipse, and the molding that surrounds it was restored. Several coats of new paint will further protect this amazing and beautiful survivor.
These images show the 199-year-old decorative ellipse from the front pediment of the Noah Webster Home. It underwent conservation efforts and received several coats of new paint in preparation for its return to its rightful location. / Photos by Jim Johnson
The three images above show the original ellipse being reinstalled in the pediment. / Photos by Jim Johnson
The renovation of the façade of the Noah Webster Home is now complete as the ellipse has returned to its place of honor, ready to withstand the elements for another 200 years. Kudos to the talented carpentry and painting staff of The Henry Ford!
The completed renovation of the façade of the Noah Webster Home. / Photo by Jim Johnson
So, the next time you walk by the Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village, slow down a bit and linger to allow time to take in the all the details that were intended to be seen—when the speed of life moved at a very different pace, two centuries ago.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village & Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford.
Join us this Saturday, September 25, 2021, at the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village, as a group of living historians present household and harvest activities and stories of rural western Pennsylvania in 1800.
What forces would have been in play for Anna and Alexander McGuffey in the young American nation at that time?
The first decade of the 19th century in America saw the rise, through trial and error, of a new nation—our Early Republic. The Early Republic era, which roughly ran from the 1780s through the 1830s, was greatly influenced by world events and national politics. The French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, and the ongoing war between England and France all challenged, and at times threatened, the newly formed government of the United States. A war with Great Britain, the War of 1812, was fought from 1812–1814.
Thomas Jefferson’s election as president of the United States paved the way for westward expansion. / THF8163
The election of Thomas Jefferson, who served as president from 1801–1809, paved the way for the westward expansion of the United States. At a time when the western frontier was eastern Ohio, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition that quickly followed were huge factors for westward movement in the decades to come. To offer some perspective, the United States population in 1800 was over 5.3 million—of whom nearly one-fifth were enslaved.
By 1800, the McGuffey family, who had settled in western Pennsylvania in the 1780s, followed the traditional seasonal routines of farming. In an area that had been settled for nearly 20 years, no longer a frontier, the Pennsylvania landscape encompassed cleared fields, mature orchards, more substantial homes, and an established community.
Job Roberts’ 1804 book, The Pennsylvania Farmer, showed that farming was common in the state by the turn of the century. / THF625673
The McGuffeys were not isolated, and would have been aware of world events, regional and national politics, and trends in fashion, and would have had access to a wide range of imported goods. They would make their own westward journey into Ohio in 1802.
We hope you can visit us Saturday to learn more about the family and their fall activities.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
Harvesting wheat at Firestone Farm / Photo by Lee Cagle.
Every year, the staff of Firestone Farm go into the fields to harvest wheat. Our living history program at Firestone Farm is set in 1885, and because the area of east central Ohio where the farm originates was not an intense grain-raising area, the latest and greatest harvesting technology was generally not in use. As a result, we use a somewhat older technology—a “self-rake reaper.” Our machine was produced by the Johnston Harvester Company out of Batavia, New York, and was built likely in the mid-1880s.
The machine combines a mowing machine (which cuts down the wheat, gathering it on a large wooden bed) with a raking mechanism (which can be adjusted to sweep the accumulated grain stalks off the bed of the machine into measured piles). It has a wonderful robotic action as it makes it way around the field. The machine is pulled by two large horses and the entire mechanism is powered by them.
The loose piles of wheat then need to be gathered up and tied into bundles. In turn, these bundles are stood up on end with other bundles to create a shock or stook. This allows the grain to finish drying before it is stored or stacked for threshing later in the season. (Threshing is the process of separating the grain from the stems, or straw, and the chaff, or the covering of the individual wheat berries.) This is all done by hand—and it takes many hands. Both men and women would have worked together in the field, but before the age of machines (pre-1840s), men typically did the blade work (using sickles, scythes, and grain cradles) and women did the bundling and shocking.
In 1885, each part of the grain harvest was a separate process, using a different machine. Machines that both cut and tied/bundled the grain began to see more common use at the end of the 1880s. These were called binders, and first used wire, then twine, to do this. Eventually, all the harvest processes, including threshing, were “combined” into one step with the advent of the combine. Early versions were horse drawn, but by the 1930s, self-propelled versions began to be used. The final transition took place after World War II as the horse finally was replaced by the tractor on the American farm.
You can get a quick overview of the many steps in wheat production at Firestone Farm in the video below.
Lithograph, "Strawberries," by Currier & Ives, 1870 / THF624651, detail
By the mid-19th century, true leisure time was a rare commodity among the American population. There were very few “official” holidays on the calendar and a twelve-hour workday, six-day workweek was the norm. For these Americans, bringing and sharing food to an outside gathering, whether it be an excursion to the seaside, to a rustic location, or to enjoy a simple meal after church, was a shared experience, a time to pause and take a breath.
What we call a picnic derives from the 17th-century French word “pique-nique,” a term used to describe a social gathering in which attendees each contribute a portion of food. They ranged from very formal affairs with several courses served by servants to very simple gatherings with the most basic of foods being served.
Mid-June is strawberry time here in Michigan, and strawberry-themed gatherings were a popular entertainment. Period magazines, newspapers, and other sources of the 1850s and 1860s go into great detail about picnic ideas and the logistical requirements for a successful event.
On Saturday, June 12, 2021, step back into the early 1860s to our re-created strawberry party outside the Chapman Home in Greenfield Village from 10 AM to 4 PM. You’ll be able to purchase strawberry hard cider, strawberry shortcake, strawberry pie, and strawberry frozen custard at various locations within the Village to soothe your own strawberry cravings, and can watch historic cooking demonstrations highlighting strawberries at Daggett Farmhouse, Ford Home, and Firestone Farm.
The recipes we’ll be demonstrating at each building are included below. Note that these are historic recipes and some of the measurements and techniques may not be familiar to today's home cooks. For more modern recipes dedicated to all things strawberry, check out Strawberry Love, featured in our Shop Summer 21 catalog.
A Pound Cake
Take a pound of butter, beat it in an earthen pan with your hand one way till like a fine thick cream; then have ready twelve eggs, with half the whites; beat them well, and beat them up with the butter, and work into it a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, and a few carraways, well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon. Butter a pan and put it in, and then bake it an hour in a quick oven.
--Susannah Carter, The Frugal Colonial Housewife, 1742, pg. 104
To Make Currant Jelly
Strip the currants (strawberries) from the stalks, put them in a stone jar, stop it close, set it in a kettle of boiling water, half way the jar, let it boil half an hour, take it out, and strain the juice through a course hair-sieve; to a pint of juice put a pound of sugar, set it over a fine clear fire in our preserving pan or bell-metal skillet; keep stirring it all the time till the sugar is melted, then skim the scum off as fast as it rises. When your jelly is very clear and fine, pour it into gallipots; when cold, cut white paper just the bigness of the top of the pot and lay on the jelly, dip those papers in brandy; then cover the top close with white paper, and prick it full of holes; set it in a dry place, put some into glasses, and paper them.
--Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747, pg. 183
2 cups of flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp shortening (1/2 butter)
About 1-1/2 cups sour milk “lobbered”
Sift the flour, salt, and soda together into a bowl and work in the shortening. Make a hole in the center and pour in the milk, stirring the flour into it from the sides with a wooden spoon. The dough should be just about as soft as it can be handled, so the amount of milk is indefinite. Pour it out on to a floured board and then pat it out or roll it gently—handling it just as little as possible—to a cake about three quarters of an inch thick. Put this into a buttered baking tin either square or oblong and bake it on a hot oven (450 degrees) for fifteen minutes. The amount of soda depends somewhat on the sourness of the milk. Do not try to sour pasteurized milk, for it can not be done. It will get "old" but it will not "lobber."
And if you don't know what "lobbered" means, it means thick—the dictionary stylishly calls it "clambered." If you use too much soda, the cake will be yellow and taste like lye. Of course, you may be safer in making a baking-powder dough, in which case you take your regular recipe for biscuits but add another tablespoonful of shortening (using half butter, at least, for the shortening) and bake it the same way.
When your cake is done (and "shortcake" in my kind of recipe doesn't mean "biscuits"), proceed after this fashion: have your strawberries (dead ripe) washed, hulled, mashed, and sweetened, in a bowl... And be sure there are plenty of them. Turn your hot cake out on the platter and split it in two, laying the top half aside while you give your undivided attention to the lower. Spread this most generously with butter just softened enough (never melted) to spread nicely, and be sure to lay it on clear up to the very eaves. Now slosh your berries on, spoonful after spoonful—all it will take. Over this put the top layer, and give it the same treatment, butter and berries, and let them drool off the edges—a rich, red, luscious, slowly oozing cascade of ambrosia. On the top place a few whole berries—if you want to—and get it to the table as quickly as you can. It should be eaten just off the warm, and if anybody wants to deluge it with cream, let him do so. But the memory of a strawberry shortcake like this lies with the cake and not the cream.
--Della Lutes, Home Grown, 1936, p. 128-130
Place strawberries in bottom of jar, add a layer of cinnamon and cloves, then berries, and so on; pour over it a syrup made of two coffee-cups cider vinegar, and three pints sugar, boiled about five minutes; let stand twenty-four hours, pour off syrup, boil, pour over berries, and let stand as before, then boil berries and syrup slowly for twenty-five minutes; put in jars and cover. The above is for six quarts of berries.
--Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, Estelle Woods Wilcox, Ed., 1877, p. 268
Fruit Ice Cream
To every pint of fruit-juice, allow a pint of sweet cream. The quantity of sugar will depend upon the acidity of the fruit used. Apples, peaches, pears, pine-apples, quinces, etc., should be pared and grated. Small fruits, such as currants, raspberries, or strawberries, should be mashed and put through a sieve. After sweetening with powdered sugar, and stirring thoroughly, let it stand until the cream is whipped—2 or 3 minutes. Put together and then whip the mixture for 5 minutes. Put into the freezer, stirring it from the bottom and sides 2 or 3 times during the freezing process.
--Mrs. Frances E. Owens, Mrs. Owens’ Cook Book and Useful Household Hints, 1884, p. 301
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
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.
Christmas tree in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we really enjoy showing how Americans would have celebrated Christmas in the 19th century. In almost all the houses, we use historical primary sources to try to glean out descriptions of what people may have done—but we have almost no concrete visual evidence. However, one huge exception is the Wright Home, the family home of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
We know from various sources that in 1900 there was a big homecoming in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin Wright, one of Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers, was returning home from living apart for a very long time, slightly estranged. In celebration, the family decided to put up their first Christmas tree. Wilbur and Orville, who were amateur photographers but probably as good as any professional of the time, documented some of that process.
Within the last decade, we have been able to access a very high-resolution image of the Wright family Christmas tree image from the Library of Congress, and the details just leapt out at us. This photograph, which we know was taken in 1900, documents exactly how the Wright Brothers designed and put up their Christmas tree. We examined all the minutiae in the photo and have attempted to recreate this tree as exactly as possible.
Wright Home Parlor Decorated for Christmas, Original Site, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF119489
The toys, the various ornaments—it's all in line with what's typical in the time period. So if you look at the tree in the Wright Home, you’ll see it lit with candles—this is not an electrified house yet in 1900. There's a variety of ornaments designed to hold candies and similar things. It has strung popcorn, which would have been homemade, but it also has store-bought German tinsel garland, glass ornaments (either from Poland or Germany), and all kinds of additional decorations that may have been saved from year to year. There's a homemade star on top that has tinsel tails coming off it.
For many years, we just had a low-resolution, fuzzy photograph of the tree, and we reproduced things as faithfully as we could—for example, what appeared to be a paper scrap-art angel. The first glimpse of the high-resolution photograph absolutely flabbergasted us, because front-and-center on the tree is a little scrap-art of a screaming, crying baby. It must have been some sort of inside joke within the family. We were able to reproduce it exactly as it would have looked on the tree.
The screaming baby scrap-art on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
In keeping with tradition, the tree is also covered with gifts for different members of the family. It seems that the adult gifts were hung unwrapped on the tree, whereas many of the children's things were either wrapped or just placed under the tree, based on the photograph. For example, on the tree, we see a pair of what are known as Scotch gloves—you would have found examples of these in Sears catalogues of the early 1900s. There's also a fur scarf, toy trumpets, and even a change purse, all hung on the tree.
Scotch gloves hanging on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
Beneath the tree, the arrangement of toys and gifts is quite fun. There’s a pair of roller skates, a little toy train, tea sets, furniture sets, and all kinds of different things geared specifically toward all the Wright nieces and nephews who would have come to visit on that Christmas morning.
There's also a wonderful set of photographs associated with the tree after Christmas. For example, there’s one of Bertha Wright, one of Reuchlin’s middle daughters, in the next room over, sitting playing with her toys. She's clearly been interrupted in her play, and you can see that in the expression on her face: “Okay, let's get this over with.”
Bertha Wright, Age Five, Niece of the Wright Brothers, Daughter of Reuchlin Wright, circa 1900 / THF243319
There are also photos outside the house, featuring the sleigh (which is prominent under the tree in the high-res photograph, stacked with books). Behind them in all these photographs is a little fir tree—the tree that was inside the house for Christmas has now been placed out there and propped up in the corner, probably for the winter season.
Milton, Leontine, and Ivonette Wright at Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF243321
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we have a wonderful large high-resolution blow-up of the tree photograph set up in the Wright Home for our guests to compare-and-contrast with the recreated tree in the corner. Be sure to stop by the Wright Home to see it on your next Holiday Nights visit!
The original historic photo of the Wright family Christmas tree, displayed in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Brian James Egen)
This post was adapted from the transcript of a video featuring Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
"Ghost of Abraham Lincoln" in Logan County Courthouse for Halloween in Greenfield Village, 1982 / THF146345
Our beloved Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village program is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It’s been a fascinating journey to have been involved from nearly the beginning, eventually leading the team that plans and produces this very complicated and detailed guest experience.
Throughout the entire history of the event, the true star of the show has been Greenfield Village after dark. I know of no better palette for our amazing creative team to have at its disposal to work magic year after year.
The year 2020 and its COVID-19 pandemic will be looked back on as a turning point for not only the Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village program, but for all of The Henry Ford. The need for a safe environment and the resources available have forced the team to take a fresh look at the event and view things from a very different perspective. We are excited and invigorated by the plan we have brought forth and we hope our guests are too.
The Beginnings of Halloween in Greenfield Village
The Greenfield Village Halloween program began as an experience shared through our Education Department’s catalogue of classes and courses. This new concept of a family-based, Halloween-themed experience was first developed as a scary wagon ride experience, with stops and treats at various buildings in Greenfield Village. There were other fun seasonal activities, including dunking for apples, a costume parade and contest, and refreshments in Lovett Hall. The wagon ride was carefully planned out and tapped into Village stories, going as far as having as having a staff member’s child on board as a designated kidnap victim--a sign of the different times that were the early 1980s.
"Trick or Treat" at Wright Home in Greenfield Village, October 1982 / THF146356
This program was presented on an ambitious scale. It was offered one night only and served a remarkably large audience. It was wildly popular and showed what future possibilities and demand lay ahead for the Halloween season. (You can read more about this very first Greenfield Village Halloween program here.)
A series of events led to the next phase of the Greenfield Village Halloween program. The Tylenol poisoning scare in the fall of 1982 changed people’s view of the safety of trick-or-treating. This, combined with new staff and reorganized Village Programs and Special Events departments, brought forth the novel idea of opening Greenfield Village at night as a safe place for trick-or-treating. Thus, the foundation for Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village was born: the basic format of the program we have used until now.
This first Village trick-or-treat Halloween program drew an unexpectedly huge crowd of over 5,000 people. No control measures for timed or paced entry times were put in place and the event was open to the public. As expected, the supply of treats ran out quickly and drastic measures had to be put in place to try and keep pace. I remember working at the first treat stop, the Loranger Gristmill. We gave out handfuls of loose candy corn (a nice thematic connection to the gristmill). I remember it being a very chaotic experience and the porch of the gristmill being coated in smashed candy corn, which could not be seen—only felt—under my feet. In the light of the following day, I was amazed to see single pieces of candy corn that had been pressed out to the size of my hand, still retaining their original shape and color!
"Trick or Treat" at Heinz House in Greenfield Village, October 1982 / THF146374
Many lessons were learned that opening weekend. Moving forward, Halloween in Greenfield Village became a members-only event and entry times were established to slow and control the flow.
Developing the Program in the 1980s and 1990s
Halloween would remain a members-only event for the next 20 years. The first few years, Halloween only took place for one weekend in October. This would continue through the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the still members-only program would expand to two weekends and eventually three. During this time, staff were allotted a certain amount of free tickets, but were required to show up on a set day and time and stand in a very long line to get their tickets. Member tickets for the limited number of program days typically sold out very quickly.
In the first era of the program, there was a lot of emphasis put on the treats and their thematic connection to the Greenfield Village sites from which they would be given out. Different treats were picked out each year.
The inside of the brochure for 1983’s “Family Halloween in Greenfield Village” lists the thematic connections for each building treat stop. / THF146311
Connecting the trick-or-treat path were a variety of Halloween-themed vignettes or interactions, associated with historical events and characters with a nod to scary stories of the past. The effects were low-tech and, in some cases, took inspiration from the emerging haunted house industry. First seen in the 1970s, these haunted houses were grassroots amateur efforts, often sponsored and produced by local Jaycees, Elks, and other fraternal organizations as fund raisers. They relied on cheap scare tactics that involved being jumped out at, grabbed, and sometimes gory scenes. For years, we used some of these very same techniques. The Ackley Covered Bridge was notorious for this.
"Gorilla" on Ackley Covered Bridge during Halloween in Greenfield Village, October 1982 / THF146372
When it came to infrastructure, the Greenfield Village of the 1980s and 1990s basically resembled the Greenfield Village of 1929. There were very few, if any, streetlights and limited access to power to add additional lighting. Until the restoration of 2003, Halloween in Greenfield Village was very dark. Because of this, the jack-o’-lantern pumpkin path played an important role in lighting the way through the experience. A continuous thread to today’s program is the large number of hand-carved and candlelit jack-o’-lanterns that line the path—though now, they serve more to create ambience and atmosphere. Over 1,000 pumpkins are now hand-carved each week to achieve the continuous path.
Volunteers Carving Pumpkins for Family Halloween Jamboree in Greenfield Village, October 1981 / THF146327
Throughout the 1990s, the Family Halloween program, still a members-only event, continued to grow in popularity and had become a yearly tradition for many. Creative collaborations between the Special Events, Village Programs, and AV teams continued to improve the experience, and serious work and experimentations began with lighting and visual effects. A huge breakthrough was the discovery that Tim and Tom, the Firestone Farm black Percheron horses were decent riding horses. It was not long before the Headless Horseman made his debut in the front fields of Firestone Farm. He was soon joined by Ichabod Crane and a Halloween in Greenfield Village favorite was born.
By 2001, though the sophistication and fit and finish of Halloween in Greenfield Village had evolved dramatically from its early years, there was still great potential for growth. Previously, costuming had mainly been reworked or cast-off bits and pieces from the period clothing inventory, décor was minimal, and aside from the hundreds of pumpkins on the jack-o’-lantern path, the main emphasis remained on treats.
The New Millennium Brings a Turning Point to the Program
Workers Laying Conduit in Greenfield Village during Infrastructure Restoration, January 2003 / THF133585
In 2002, the big news around Greenfield Village was the impending massive infrastructure restoration that would begin to take place in the fall. The Village would close at the end of September and not reopen until the following June. Halloween would take a hiatus that year as the huge project gained steam. This would be a turning point and a newly imagined program soon emerged, keeping in step with the newly imagined Greenfield Village.
By the summer of 2003, a cross-functional team began planning the work. The team very quickly established a back story that would guide what the new Halloween would and would not be. The shock and gore, now so prevalent in haunted houses, was removed from the mix. Instead, there was a move toward a family-friendly experience that would rely on the power of Greenfield Village after dark and scary and adventure-based stories that fuel the imagination and Halloween spirit.
Another important inspiration was Halloween party guides, published from the early 1900s through the 1950s, in the collections of The Henry Ford. These handbooks gave endless advice on how to decorate, what games to play, what food to prepare and serve, and a whole host of other miscellaneous tips on how to throw the best Halloween party. Among the most useful and inspirational were the series of yearly Bogie Books, published by the Dennison paper and party goods company from 1912 through 1935. These pamphlets were filled with illustrations, some in color, that featured the huge array of crepe paper and other party products produced by the Dennison Manufacturing Company. Elaborate costumes and party décor were shown—along with the list of Dennison products one would need to replicate the awe-inspiring ideas featured. The colors, textures, and techniques guided our teams in both costuming and decorating throughout the Village.
Dennison's Bogie Book: Suggestions for Halloween & Thanksgiving, circa 1925 / THF96746
Trick-or-treating would remain the main vehicle for moving guests through the experience on a set path, but the look and feel of the treat stations would begin to change dramatically. The Period Clothing Studio became very involved and began to design a spectacular series of costumes to bring the gothic, fairytale, and adventure storybook characters to life—with a nod to costumes of the 1910s and 1920s. By 2005, these characters would become the treat station hosts, with their own stages and stage lighting. Other favorite characters, like the Woman in White, the Dancing Skeletons, the live scarecrow, and, of course, the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane, made triumphant returns with new costumes.
Costume Studio Preparing for Halloween in Greenfield Village, October 2005 / THF12490
Another significant change at this point was the shift from Hallowe’en being a members-only event to a public event. Members still had first-pick when ticket sales opened, as they do now, but after a certain date, the public was invited to purchase tickets. As the popularity of the event continued to grow, so did attendance capacities.
The creative work to improve costumes, set designs, and theatrical lighting continued. Through the 2010s, staged theatrical performances of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and other fun, but dark fairytales, such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” were added to the mix. To set up the live Headless Horseman experience, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was also performed. Along with the dramatic presentations, live Halloween-themed musical performances featuring a vampire trio, the Potion Sisters, and a musical pirate review rounded out the offerings. To top it off, the Top Hat Side Show became a fixture on Washington Boulevard, anchoring the 1920s carnival theme in that area.
The Top Hat Side Show performing at Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village for the first time in 2015. (Photo by KMS Photography)
By 2019, the Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village experience had hit its full stride and welcomed a record number of guests. There were now several different ways to experience the program with the addition of evening dining opportunities, including the children-themed “Fairytale Feast” and the 1850s Eagle Tavern Harvest Supper.
Rethinking Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village in 2020
Signage outside the main entrance of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in March 2020, announcing the closure of our venues due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl)
Planning for the 2020 Hallowe’en program was well underway when the world as we knew it came to a screeching halt—and along with it, the entire summer calendar of Greenfield Village special events. As we cautiously reopened the Village and Museum over the Fourth of July weekend, The Henry Ford continued to learn and understand how safety measures should work, what the scale of program offerings needed to be, and what the future might bring. By the end of the summer, it was clear that we could consider a Halloween program in October. We knew it would need to be reimagined and presented in a very different way in order to comply with safety measures while at the same time allowing our guests to have a fun and enjoyable experience.
Based on decades of experience in planning and producing large scale public events, the Hallowe’en planning team took a fresh look at the program. It was immediately apparent that the entire concept of lining up for treats would have to be eliminated. Without the need for a set prescribed route, new possibilities opened, and the Holiday Nights model of enjoying the evening at one’s own pace and experiencing program elements in any order became the logical approach. Greatly reduced attendance capacities and timed entry would ensure a safe experience. Unfortunately, we were not able to offer our evening dining experiences this year, but happily, many familiar and favorite characters and experiences made a return.
A witch and the Hallowe’en Express welcome guests to Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village in 2020. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)
A very exciting addition for 2020 is the Hallowe’en Express, a brand-new Halloween-themed train ride that makes a round trip excursion from the “Brimstone” Station at the front of the Village. Guests encounter all sorts of sights and sounds along the way. The presence of a live steam locomotive in the Village, with an eerie whistle created just for this occasion, adds an entirely new dimension to the overall experience for our guests.
Over the past 40 years, Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village has steadily grown and evolved. There have been many turning points in its long history, and 2020 will rank among the most significant. New beginnings can often be viewed as painful endings, but the Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village planning team is fully embracing this new beginning and is very excited to share the path we have taken.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village and Curator of Historic Structures & Landscapes at The Henry Ford.
First of the 2020 crop of Firestone Farm Merino lambs: twins born April 11. A ram and ewe are showing a few of the prized wrinkles.
As I begin my second full year as director of Greenfield Village, I was truly looking forward to welcoming everyone back for our 91st season and sharing the exciting things happening in the village. Instead, as we all face a new reality and a new normal, I would like to share how, even as we have paused so much of our own day-to-day routines, work continues in Greenfield Village.
As we entered the second week of March, signs of spring were everywhere, and the anticipation, along with the preparations for the annual opening of Greenfield Village, were picking up pace. The Greenfield Village team was looking forward to a challenging but exciting year, with a calendar full of exciting new projects.
It's not only about the new stuff, though. We all looked forward to our tried-and-true favorites coming back to life for another season: Firestone Farm, Daggett Farm, Menlo Park, Liberty Craftworks and the calendar of special events, to name a few. Each of these has a special place in our hearts and offers its own opportunities for new learning and perspectives. Despite all our hope and anticipation for this coming year, however, our plans took a different direction.
As our campus closed this past March, it had long been obvious that the year was going to be very different than the one we had planned. The Henry Ford's leadership quickly assessed the daily operations in order to narrow down to essential functions. For most of Greenfield Village, this meant keeping what had been closed for the season closed. Liberty Craftworks, which typically continues to produce glass, pottery and textile items through the winter months, was closed, and the glass furnaces were emptied and shut down. This left the most basic and essential work of caring for the village animals to continue.
Here I am with the Percheron horse Tom at Firestone Barn, summer 1985.
As proud as I am to be director of Greenfield Village, I am equally proud, if not more so, to be part of a small team of people providing daily care for its animals. This work has brought me full circle to my roots as a member of the first generations of Firestone Farmers 35 years ago. It’s amazing to me how quickly the sights, sounds and smells surrounding me in the Firestone Barn bring back the routines I knew so well so long ago. I am also proud of my colleagues who work along with me to continue these important tasks.
The pandemic has not stopped the flow of the seasons and daily life at Firestone Farm. Our team made the decision very soon after we closed to move the group of expecting Merino ewes off-site to a location where they could have around-the-clock care and monitoring as they approached lambing time in early April. This group of nearly 20 is now under the watchful eye of Master Farmer Steve Opp in Stockbridge, Michigan, about 60 miles away.
Meet the newest members of the Firestone Farm family.
After their move, the ewes were given time to settle into their new temporary home. They were then sheared in preparation for lambing, as is our practice this time of year. I am very pleased to report that the first lambs were born Easter weekend, Saturday, April 11. All are doing well, and several more lambs are expected over the next few weeks. Once the lambs are old enough to safely travel, and we have a better understanding of our operating schedule looking ahead, they will all return to Firestone Farm, having the distinction of being the first group of Firestone lambs not born in the Firestone Barn in 35 years.
The last of the Firestone Farm sheep getting sheared in the Firestone Barn.
The wethers, rams and yearling ewes that remain at Firestone Farm were also recently sheared and are ready for the warm weather. One of the wethers sheared out at 18 pounds of wool, which will eventually be processed into a variety of products that are sold in our stores.
A Half Century in the Making, the Journey from Yuletides to Holiday Nights
What we know and love today as Holiday Nights did not spontaneously appear in 2000 when we first opened Greenfield Village on December evenings for an immersive holiday experience. Holiday Nights has evolved and grown based on many experiences and inspirations from decades of village “Christmases past.” and the work of many talented people.
The ability to transport our guests to a different time and place is most powerful after dark as the modern world that constantly pushes closer to our borders can be temporarily pushed away. When all is said and done, Greenfield Village provides the most perfect “set” in which to bring the past alive. With over 300 years of history represented, the possibilities are endless; a world where Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life can seamlessly collide. A place where a small town from the distant past comes to life for several hours on December evenings, bringing forth the magic of the holiday season.
Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village is a classic example of “if you build it, they will come.” What began with conservative hopes for several hundred people in attendance has continually grown year after year.
Information Booklet, "Christmas at Greenfield Village 1964." THF112439
The holiday experience in Greenfield Village has a long history. As early as the mid-1960s, Village buildings were decorated both inside and out for the holiday season. Historic Christmas recipes were prepared in the village kitchens in fireplaces and wood burning stoves. Early on, all the guest experiences were limited to daytime and varied from guided tours, to full access, to tour on your own. Decorations were very elaborate, and included many collection items, but were not always based on sound historical research. Every building got a bit of Christmas, whether it would have been celebrated or not. During this period, attendance was vigorous, especially on December weekends.
Guests at Clinton Inn (Eagle Tavern) During "Yuletide Evening in the Village," 1975. THF144738
By the mid-1970s, new evening holiday experiences, called Yuletide Evenings, were introduced. Guests had the choice of a formal dinner in either the newly constructed Heritage Hall (now the Michigan Café) or the Clinton Inn (now the Eagle Tavern).The experience included horse drawn wagon, or if conditions allowed, sleigh rides into the Village, and depending on which package was purchased, a tour of 4 different decorated historic buildings, either before or after dinner. By the early 1980s, the Clinton Inn became Eagle Tavern, and the evening program changed to become an immersive 1850 dining experience much like the program offered today. Eventually, the Village tour portion of the evening was discontinued, offering a dinner only experience.
In the early 1990s, a concerted effort had been made for some years to reinvigorate the daytime program. By paying attention to historical accuracy, but at the same time, broadening the scope and allowing for a wider interpretation of how Americans began to celebrate Christmas in the 19th century, more engaging programs were offered. Hundreds of artifacts were chosen to fit out the dining rooms, parlors, and where appropriate, Christmas trees. Additional research was also done to lift-up the historic cooking programs and infuse a “living history” approach to the historic structures with the addition of period clothing. All this further supported the stories of the diversity of the American Christmas celebration. This work laid the foundation for the core content of Holiday Nights that we rely on today.
By the late 1990s, for a variety of reasons, the daytime visitation to the Greenfield Village Holiday Program had begun to decline while the evening program attendance remained strong. Based on the inspiration and fond memories of the wonderful candle and lantern lit buildings decorated for the holidays, a new program was proposed to re-create that opportunity through the Educational Programs class offerings. Though on a very small scale that served less than 100 people, this program reminded us of what could be possible and got the creative process rolling.
Brochure, "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF144736
The Twelve Nights of Christmas, what would later be called Holiday Nights, debuted for the Christmas season of 2000. The daytime “Holiday” program remained in place, and the evening program was basically an evening version. This early version was very quiet, and very dark, as none of the village restoration had taken place yet. Most of the activities were based inside the buildings. Despite the slow start, the potential was fully realized, and creative and physical growth began. With the village closed for the holiday season of 2002 for the renovation, there was time to regroup, brainstorm, and make plans. The new and improved version for the “new” village in 2003 saw expanded outdoor activities, more music, and an ice rink that featured an artificial ice surface. Even with enhanced programming elements, the program was still not really filling the space as it could.
Musicians Performing at "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF133593
During these early years, it was apparent to the village programs team that to achieve the level of experience we were aspiring to, the event would need to be broken down into production areas, and each would need its own level of care and attention to detail. Decorating the village, designing and deploying the lighting, planning the historic food demonstrations, food sales and retail, staffing and training, musical and dramatic program casting and rehearsing, dressing an army of staff, firewood, lanterns, and communicating the entire thing, all was captured and pulled together with the Holiday Nights manual. This work became the go-to document for what needed to be done when and where, once preparation for the evening program began. This tool also became invaluable in planning and producing subsequent years of the program. So, as ideas came forth as to how to expand and improve the Holiday Nights guest experience, the program manual format made it possible to incorporate the new elements and move the experience forward.
A very memorable off site staff mini-retreat to a local book store cafe in 2004 laid the foundation for the program we know today. Building on the sound historical content of our village holiday celebration, our success with Holiday Nights thus far, along with a commitment from the institution, we created and refined the combination of guest experiences that today, makes Holiday Nights truly one of the nation’s greatest holiday experiences. The fireworks finale, the end of the evening procession and sing-a-long, a visit from Santa, a real ice skating rink, immersive food and drink stalls in the center of the Village, a greens market, storytellers, over 100 staff in period dress as well as a wide variety of additional dining experiences and top quality live music, has put Holiday Nights on the map over 20 seasons.
The program continues to grow and evolve. For my part, it’s been a privilege and source of pride to see how far we have come and how we have come together to achieve such greatness. I look forward to the road ahead and what the next 20 years may bring.
Inspired by the evolution of Holiday Nights? See it for yourself - limited tickets for 2019 remain.
Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford and Director of Greenfield Village.
The Logan County Courthouse, a fixture on the Village Green in Greenfield Village, will has reached the milestone of having been here in Dearborn for as many years as it was in Postville, Illinois - 89 years.
Abraham Lincoln featured prominently in Henry Ford’s plans for Greenfield Village, which revolved around the story of how everyday people with humble beginnings would go on to play important roles in American history. Lincoln epitomized Ford’s view of the “self-made man,” and he made a significant effort to collect as many objects as possible associated with him. By the late 1920s, Henry Ford was a “later comer” to the Lincoln collecting world, but with significant resources at his disposal, he did manage to secure a few very important items. The Logan County Courthouse is among them.
It has taken nearly all the 89 years to achieve this, but an original feature, long absent from the courtroom is making a return. The bar now stands again. Using the original set of spindles, we have re-created our interpretation of what the rail, or the bar, that divided the courtroom may have looked like in the1840s. By referencing images of other early 19th century courtrooms, and studying architectural features represented in Greenfield Village, a typical design was created.
The stories associated with the Logan County Courthouse are fascinating. As it turns out, the story of how the original spindles from the original bar finally made their way back into the courthouse is fascinating as well.
Authenticated objects, related to Lincoln’s early life, were especially scarce by the late 1920s. There seemed to be an abundance of items supposedly associated and attributed to Lincoln, especially split rails and things made from them, but very few of these were the real thing. For Ford, the idea of acquiring an actual building directly tied to Lincoln seemed unlikely.
But, by the summer of 1929, through a local connection, Ford was made aware that the old 1840 Postville/Logan County, Illinois courthouse, where Lincoln practiced law, was available for sale. The 89-year-old building was used as a rented private dwelling, and was in very run-down condition, described by some as “derelict.” It was owned by the elderly Judge Timothy Beach and his wife. They were fully aware of the building’s storied history, and had made several unsuccessful attempts to turn the historic building over to Logan County in return for taking over the care of the building. Seeing no other options, the Beaches agreed to the sale of the building to Ford via one of his agents. They initially seemed unaware of Ford’s intentions to move the building to Greenfield Village, assuming it was to be restored on-site much like another historic properties Ford had taken over.
This image shows the state of the building when it was first seen by Henry Ford’s staff in late August of 1929. Not visible in the large shed attached to the rear of the building. THF238386
The local newspaper, The Courier, even quoted Mrs. Beach as stating that, “she would refund to Mr. Ford if it was his plan to take the building away from Lincoln, as nothing was said by the agent about removal”. By late August of 1929, the entire project in West Lincoln, Illinois, had captured the national spotlight and the old courthouse suddenly had garnered a huge amount of attention, even becoming a tourist destination. By early September, local resistance to its removal was growing, and Ford felt the need to pay a visit to personally inspect the building and meet with local officials, and the Beaches. He clearly made his case with the owners and finalized the deal. As reported, “Ford sympathized with the sentiment of the community but thought that the citizens should look at the matter from a broader viewpoint. He spoke for the cooperation of the community with him in making a perpetual memorial for the town at Dearborn, where the world would witness it. My only desire is to square my own conscience with what I think will be for the greatest good to the greatest number of people."
Henry had made his case and the courthouse would indeed be leaving West Lincoln. Immediately following the final negotiations, Henry Ford’s crew arrived to begin the process of study, dismantling, and packing for the trip to Dearborn. Local resistance to the move continued as the final paperwork was filed to purchase the land. By September 11, the resistance had run its course and the dismantling process began. It was also revealed that the city, county, several local organizations, and even the state of Illinois had all been offered several opportunities to acquire the building and take actions to preserve it. They all had declined the various offers over the years. It was then understood that Judge & Mrs. Beach, in the end, had acted on what was best for the historic building and should not be “subjected to criticism.” Judge Beach would die on September 19, just as the last bits of the old courthouse were being loaded for their journey to Greenfield Village.
Reconstruction, which included the fabrication of many of the first-floor details and a new stone chimney and fireplaces, began immediately. In roughly a month’s time, the building was ready for the grand opening of Greenfield Village on October 21, 1929.
Nine years later, in 1938, Eugene Amberg sent a letter to Ford describing an interesting discovery. Mr. Amberg was a native of what was now Lincoln, Illinois and worked as a railroad ticket agent. He had a great interest in the local history and was a collector of local artifacts. As he writes in the letter dated February 8, 1938:
Several years ago, you purchased the Old Postville Court House here in Lincoln, Ills from Mrs. T Beach. At the time the Court House was made into a dwelling the railing that separated the judges desk from the main court room was torn out by my father (John Amberg) who was doing the remodeling, this he stored in the attic of his home, recently my mother died and while cleaning out the attic we came across these spindles, which are the original 28 spindles that the hand railing rested upon. The hand railing was of walnut, out of which was carved some arm rests that are now on some of the pews in St. Mary’s, a church here.
Would appreciate a line from you as to whether or not you would be interested in these spindles, have had numerous offers for them, inasmuch as they are part of the original court house I feel they should be with it, in your Dearborn Village.
Dated February 7, 1938, this is the initial letter from Gene Amberg to Henry Ford offering the 28 original spindles for sale. Despite several letters back and forth, a price could not be settled upon, and the transaction never took place. THF288006
This drawing was sent by Gene Amberg, as a follow-up to his first letter offering the spindles for sale. The artist, Mary Katherine, was Gene’s 14 year old daughter. THF288012
Negotiations evidently faltered, as a price was not agreed upon, and the spindles were never sent. Fast forward 71 years to 2009 when an email arrived from Carol Moore and her brother, Dennis Cunningham, the grandchildren of Eugene Amberg. They had no idea that their grandfather had begun this process, and were amazed when we produced the original correspondence from our archival collection. As it turns out, their story was almost identical to Eugene’s. As Carol wrote their mother, “Patricia Amberg Cunningham died March 1, 2008. While cleaning her house in Delavan, Illinois to prepare for sale, we found 28 old wooden spindles and a newspaper article believed to be from the Lincoln Courier indicating that the spindles are from the original Postville Courthouse in Lincoln, Illinois. It is our desire to donate them to the original Postville Courthouse.”
She was very familiar with Greenfield Village, and had visited the courthouse here. Jim McCabe, the Buildings Curator at the time, gladly accepted the donation.
Clipping from the Lincoln Courier ca. 1934, noting the 28 spindles from the “old Postville courthouse” in the possession of Gene Amberg. THF288016, THF288017
In 1848, the county seat moved from Postville, to Mount Pulaski. At that time the courthouse was decommissioned, and the county offices moved to a new courthouse. After a legal battle between the County, and the original investor/builders of the building, it was sold to Solomon Kahn. None other than Abraham Lincoln successfully represented the County in the matter.
Understanding the local history helps to also understand the changes that took place to the building. It explains how and why portions of the building were altered, parts removed, and eventually separated.
By the late 1840s, changes had taken place on both the exterior and interior. The most significant of these was the move off its original foundation, 86 feet forward on the lot. Mr. Kahn converted the building into a general store, and ran the local post office. It was he who moved the building to its new location. In doing so, it was lifted off its original limestone foundation, and the original single limestone chimney and interior fireplaces were demolished. A new brick lined cellar and foundation were created, along with updated internal brick chimneys on each end of the building, designed to accommodate cast-iron heating stoves.
This is the earliest known photograph of the Logan County Courthouse taken some time between 1850 and 1880. This photograph shows the building in its second location, 80 feet forward from its original foundation, at the crest of a small rise. The original window and door configuration remain intact. The original single stone chimney, now restored to the left side of the building, has been replaced by two internal brick chimneys designed for cast-iron heating stoves. Though not visible in the photograph, the building now sits on a new brick foundation and cellar. The items sitting near the doorway speak to the building’s new life as a store. THF132074
By 1880, the old courthouse had been converted from a commercial building into a private dwelling, and that was the state in which it was found by Ford’s crew in 1929. The doorway and first floor interior had been radically changed. Later, a porch was added to the front entrance, and a shed addition was added to the rear. Photographs taken in September of 1929 during the dismantling, show the outline of the original chimney on the side of the building where it has been re-created today. Further discoveries revealed the original floor plan of a large single room on the first-floor, and the original framing for the room divisions on the second. Second floor photographs show the original wall studs, baseboards, chair rails, window, and door frames, all directly attached to the framing, with lath and plaster added after the fact. The framing of the walls on the first floor were all clearly added after the original build.
This post 1880 view of the Logan County Courthouse shows its transformation into a two- family dwelling. Note the single doorway is now two, the second now taking the place of a former window opening. THF238350
This image shows further remodeling of the front of the building. This photo ca.1900 shows the addition of recessed covered porch with some decorative posts and millwork. This is the iteration in which the building was found when it was sold to Henry Ford in September of 1929. THF238348
These three images show the re-modeled interior of what was the original courtroom, now serving as the kitchen, dining room, and parlor. These photos were taken by Henry Ford’s staff just prior to the dismantling of the building in September of 1929. THF238580
The sub-divided first floor courtroom. THF238600
View of the cellar entrance under the stairway in the sub-divided courtroom. THF238598
We have no evidence that tells us what if any interior changes Mr. Kahn may have made when he relocated the building around 1850. The earliest photograph we have of the building shows it in its new location, but except for its new brick chimneys, it retains what appears to be its original door and window configuration. We can only assume that Mr. Kahn had kept the rail in place, which may have proved useful in the building’s new configuration as a store and post office. No photographs of the original courtroom exist and extensive changes made first in 1880, and then when the building was dismantled and reconstructed in Greenfield Village, further comprised any original evidence.
This view of the dismantled second floor shows matching trim and chair rail connected directly to the studs indicating this as the originally installed woodwork from 1840. The wall partition studs are also notched to meet the ceiling joists, showing that they are also part of the original framing configuration of the second floor. All the trim work, including the doors were made of walnut. THF285571
Based on the evidence we do have about these changes, it is very likely that at the time of the building’s conversion into a private dwelling, around 1880, the decorative hand-turned spindles and walnut hand rail would have been salvaged as the first floor of the building was sub-divided into a duplex. As stated in the family history, the walnut top rail was re-purposed and used in St. Mary’s Catholic Church (which burned in 1976), and the spindles saved for a future project.
Analysis of the original spindles showed that they were poplar, a wood commonly used for turning and as a secondary wood in the mid-19th century. Based on what we knew, we decided to use a combination of woods for the reconstruction of the bar rail. Walnut was used for the top rail and column caps, and the remainder of was done in poplar. Though refinished in 1929, the original walnut trim throughout the building was used as a guide for the color and sheen of the final finish. Reproduction hardware, again based on the existing hardware, mainly on the second floor, was used to mount the center gate.
Mose Nowland, conservation team volunteer at The Henry Ford, works on the design rendering for the bar. (Photo by Jim Johnson)
Mose Nowland and other members of The Henry Ford Conservation Team with the newly installed bar. (Photo by Bill Pagel)
The design of the physical installation of the rail and gate was robust. Each of the support columns is supported within by a steel post that runs through the floor joists and into the cellar floor. With over a half million guests visiting Greenfield Village each year, we thought this important. The design also offers some degree of protection to the original spindles that are centered within the top and bottom rail. This is a permanent installation, and we wanted to be sure it would stand up to the test of time.
Views of the newly re-created bar at the Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village. (Photos by Jim Johnson)
A huge thank you to Mary Fahey and Dennis Morrison for stewarding the project. Also to Mose Nowland, our extraordinary volunteer with The Henry Ford’s Conservation Team, who lead the charge in creating the design, and produced beautifully detailed drawings. Ken Gesek, one of our Historic Buildings Carpenters, built the rail, Cuong Nguyen and Tamsen Brown, with the help of the rest of the THF Conservation Team, oversaw the restoration of the original spindles. Tamsen also developed the formula to match the stain and finish to the existing woodwork in the courthouse. Jason Cagle, from the Painting Staff, skillfully applied the finish. Many other people worked to move the project forward as well.
This true team effort resulted in the original spindles finally being reunited with the Logan County Courthouse after an absence of nearly 140 years.
Logan County Courthouse as it appears today in Greenfield Village. (Photo by Jim Johnson)
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
Logan County Courthouse Spindle Accession File, 2009.111, items 1-28, Archival Collection of the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.
Logan County Courthouse Building Files including original correspondences, records, photographs prior to dismantling in September of 1929, photographs of dismantling process, September 1929, reconstruction photographs, Greenfield Village, September 1929, 19th century photographic images, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.
The Herald, vol. 5 n.3, The Edison Institute Press, March 4, 1938.
Illinois, Logan County, Postville, 1840 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication, Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration
Illinois, Logan County, Postville, 1850 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication, Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration
Stringer, Lawrence B, The History of Logan County, Illinois, A Record of its Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement, Pioneer Press, Chicago, 1911.
“The Story of the Purchase of the Logan County Courthouse and its Removal to Greenfield Village by Mr. Henry Ford, as told in the columns of the Lincoln Evening Courier, 8/19/29-10/21/29”, compiled by Thomas I. Starr, Aug 1931. Logan County Courthouse Building Files, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.