Firestone Farmhouse and Firestone Barn during reconstruction in Greenfield Village, December 1984. / THF118159
Two centuries ago, in the 1820s, Peter Firestone began the construction of his new farmstead in Columbiana County, Ohio. It eventually comprised a sturdy brick home, a very large barn, and several small outbuildings. The task took him, his family, and numerous local craftsmen many years to complete. The farmhouse alone is said to have taken four years; it is possible the entire complex may have taken as many as ten years.
When The Henry Ford acquired Firestone Farmhouse and Firestone Barn in 1983, the first challenge we faced was moving them to Dearborn, Michigan, from their original location in eastern Ohio—some 200 miles away. We decided the only feasible method was to completely disassemble the buildings, pack the materials into trailers, and transport them to Greenfield Village, where we would reenact Peter Firestone's feat.
Research and Disassembly
Our project commenced in April 1983, when an architectural recording team began to measure the structures to be moved and created drawings that would be used for their reconstruction. The team noted the condition of the buildings, researched their history, and began to develop theories about the changes the structures had gone through over the years. Armed with architectural plans and documentary evidence, we began a careful probing of the buildings to uncover information about their construction.
We took paint samples from wood surfaces and analyzed them microscopically to help identify layers of paint applied over time. We also removed brick and mortar samples for chemical analysis. At this time, we discovered former stair locations, old room partition placements, blocked-up doorways, and the remnants of a fireplace in the farmhouse. Our examination of the barn revealed much about its original form and the changes made to it in the early 20th century. Our team recorded the location of mortises for missing framing members and incorporated patterns of the original construction into the drawings.
In conjunction with this work, we conducted two other types of research—archeological research and architectural field research. Evidence from an archeological dig to locate outbuildings that had once been part of the historic farm proved inconclusive, but we did uncover a large quantity of artifacts that helped establish how the farmhouse had been furnished in the past. As part of our architectural field research, we surveyed more than 200 area farmsteads. After analyzing our material, we went back to conduct an in-depth study of 25 barns resembling Firestone Barn, as well as various other 19th-century outbuildings.
We began disassembling the structures by removing and numbering interior woodwork and doors, which were then packed into trailers. Our team removed plaster and lath from ceilings and partitions. Then, we took up floorboards from all three levels of the farmhouse, numbered them, and placed them into trailers. In this same way, all the elements of the farmhouse interior and roof were disassembled and readied for shipment to Greenfield Village.
Next, restoration specialists took apart the masonry structure of the farmhouse brick by brick. They cleaned the bricks onsite and packed them with straw in shipping crates. As the brick walls came down, we removed window and door units intact. Then, the masonry specialists prepared the farmhouse’s sandstone foundation for disassembly. They numbered each stone on the interior face (which had several layers of whitewash on it) and photographed each wall surface with its numbering pattern showing. As the masons removed the stones, they again numbered each one on its top bedding surface. The stones, too, were cleaned and packed with straw in crates, and the number of each stone was listed on the outside.
Masonry restorers removed each brick from the walls of Firestone Farmhouse. After being cleaned of excess mortar, the bricks were packed with straw in the crates in the foreground. / THF149938
The barn was stripped of its 20th-century additions, siding, and roof to expose the frame of the building for disassembly. The wooden pins anchoring each timber joint had to be driven out so that the posts and beams could be taken apart in the reverse order of their assembly. Prior to removal, each timber was numbered with a color-coded plastic tag that identified its location in the frame. Timbers less than 40 feet long were loaded into trailers. Those that were longer—for example, one floor support beam that measured 68 feet—had to be shipped on a special stretch trailer.
Each stage of disassembly yielded more information about the original construction and subsequent alterations of the buildings.
In the barn we discovered the original granary and hay chute arrangements. Analysis of historic photographs and field data brought to light the "drive-through" equipment shed/corn crib that had been almost obliterated by 20thcentury alterations. We also unveiled early 19th-century changes to the structure, including a tool and storage room on the second level and subdivisions of the stalls on the first level.
The farmhouse continued to divulge more of its secrets. Evidence of major interior and exterior renovations turned up daily, as we found reused materials from the original construction in every conceivable portion of the later construction.
This bedroom doorway, which had been closed off during Firestone Farmhouse’s 1882 renovation, came to light during the disassembly process. / THF149936
We made one very exciting find while moving a section of hand-decorated plaster ceiling above the central stairway. Attached to a framing member associated with the farmhouse’s renovation was a scrap of paper inscribed, “James Maxwell Washingtonville Ohio 1882 / Harvey Firestone Columbiana Ohio 1882.” Aged 12 and 14, respectively, these boys had left a "secret" message, and we had been the lucky finders. Census research established that James Maxwell was the son of a plasterer. He was probably helping his father with interior renovation for the Firestones. Since we knew from the account book of Harvey Firestone’s father, Benjamin, that the renovation of the exterior of the farmhouse had been accomplished in 1882, the note proved conclusively that the interior renovation had been done at the same time. This helped influence our choice of 1882 as the restoration period for the entire farm.
This hidden message enabled us to precisely date Firestone Farmhouse’s 1882 renovation. / THF124772
Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village
While all this work was taking place in Ohio, we transformed Greenfield Village in anticipation of the farm's arrival. Workers cleared a seven-acre area designated as the farm site for development. We moved six buildings to new locations in the Village; eliminated four non-historic buildings from the area; constructed three new buildings for behind-the-scenes activities to replace those displaced by the farm; and relocated a portion of the railroad tracks.
By the end of 1983, four trailers, two large stacks of over-sized beams, and no fewer than 250 crates of brick and stone were all onsite awaiting the spring construction season. While planning for the entire farm restoration continued, workers began to reproduce a substantial portion of the barn that had been lost to 20th-century alterations. We purchased white oak logs, and craftsmen began hand hewing and joining timbers to recreate most of the original ground-floor framing, which had been replaced by modern materials. This process alone, excluding the actual erection of the timbers, took four craftsmen nearly three months to accomplish. Later in the project, additional components had to be created to replace portions of two sheds initially attached to the main barn. These had been drastically altered for 20th-century farming needs. The upper portions of the barn required numerous replacements and repairs, though most of this part of the frame had been unchanged from its original construction.
In May 1984, we broke ground for the foundation of both the farmhouse and barn. Throughout the summer and into the fall, the masonry shell of the farmhouse rose slowly from the foundation toward the roof line, with windows, doors, and floor framing incorporated during the process. The task of restoring each basement stone to its original location and replicating the brick bonding was tedious and time-consuming. To replace damaged bricks, we manufactured replicas in three different shades to match the originals in color variation, as well as in shape and texture. The entire masonry shell of the farmhouse was finally completed late in the fall, just as plunging temperatures threatened to stop the project. Winter weather halted most outdoor activity, and a temporary roof was placed on the building until late the next spring.
Masons set the transported stones back into Firestone Farmhouse’s new foundation. Here, the author assists by referring to composite photographs of each of the basement walls. / THF149926
The largely reproduced lower frame of the barn was erected in the summer, with repairs and minor replacements to the large upper section of the building continuing into the fall. After trial-fitting and adjusting individual portions of the upper stories, workers reassembled them in sections called “bents.” Each bent was lifted into place, then connected to another by struts and top plates to create the full frame. The erection process for the three-tier main frame lasted until December, when production of the attached sheds began. We completed roofing and siding of the main barn in the winter months as work on the remaining portions of the sheds moved offsite and indoors to escape the cold weather.
The author in May 1985 with a portion of the scale model constructed to assist in the restoration of the barn. The ramp side of the nearly completed barn is in the background. / THF149932
We restored the interior of the farmhouse during the first four months of 1985, placing each numbered floorboard, wall stud, wall plank, and door or window trim piece in its original location. At the same time, we repaired or replaced damaged materials using the same type of materials in the original construction. We applied new plaster to lathed stud walls and ceilings, as well as to the brick walls of the interior, then reinstalled additional trimwork that had covered the old plastering. Finish work then began on the interior surfaces of the farmhouse in preparation for whitewashing, painting, and papering. Carpenters moved outside at this time to restore the three porches that had been built in 1882. We finished painting the exterior in early June 1985.
With the coming of spring, we resumed outdoor work on the barn. We completed the attached sheds and massive stone ramp that leads to the upper floor of the barn, then moved our work inside. We attached plank floors with wooden pegs in the threshing area; restored the granary and tool room; and placed packed earth floors in the animal stall area on the ground level. We constructed new doors based on historic photographs, field studies, and an extant door—one of three types used for the barn.
The restoration of the farmhouse and barn did not represent a complete recreation of the Firestone farm. Additional elements helped establish the environment of an operating farm of the 1880s. We reproduced a pump house next to the farmhouse using historic photographs, archeological evidence, and field research data. We also acquired a period outhouse in Ohio, restored it, and placed it in the yard behind the farmhouse. We then erected a chicken house—modeled after examples shown in agricultural literature of the period—adjacent to the barn, as well as a fence enclosure for hogs. To complete the experience, we built more than 7,000 linear feet of fencing to match historic photographs of fields at the farm’s original site.
Over a period of almost two and a half years, we moved the Firestone farm from Ohio to Michigan and meticulously and accurately restored it to its physical condition of a century earlier. The process required an understanding of the historical record, the careful handling of tens of thousands of historic architectural objects, and the reproduction of thousands of missing elements. It may not have equaled Peter Firestone's feat 160 years earlier, but it did honor his effort, as well as that of the millions of 19th-century farmers who contributed to our country's agricultural heritage.
Detail, 1882 advertisement showing a three-horse tread power in use. / THF277170
How much horsepower really comes from a horse? While the answer to this may seem obvious, it is complicated. The most complete answers start out with "it depends."
Much of farming is strenuous, tedious, repetitive work. For American farmers, chronic labor shortages made the effort of farm work even more taxing, so they looked for ways to get farm work done with less manpower. Horses and oxen were the main source of power, used for centuries for plowing. Improved farm machinery throughout the 1800s added the power of horses to other activities such as planting, cultivating, and, eventually, mowing and harvesting. Farmers understood the effort required for these tasks in terms of the number of horses needed to pull the equipment, such as one horse for a cultivator, and three or more for a harvester or large plow. Applying the power of horses to farm work helped to steadily increase the productivity of American farms throughout the 1800s.
This 1854 engraving depicted the centuries-old practice of plowing with horses. Throughout the 1800s, farmers increasingly used horses or oxen for other work as well, including planting, cultivating, mowing, and harvesting. / THF118302
Yet horsepower as a measure of power pre-dates the mechanization of the farm. It was developed by James Watt in the 1780s as a way to measure the output of a steam engine. Horsepower was based on his observations of how much work a horse could do in a normal ten-hour day, pulling the sweep arms of the horse-powered pumps that were used to remove water from mines. This worked out to 33,000 foot-pounds per minute, or the effort required to raise 33,000 pounds of water by one foot in one minute.
An 1886 trade catalog depicted Russell & Co.’s “New Massillon” grain thresher powered by both a steam traction engine and a horse-driven sweep power. / THF627487, THF627489
As farmers mechanized barn or farmyard work like threshing, winnowing, corn shelling, and corn grinding, they began to use stationary power sources—either treadmills and sweeps powered by horses, or steam engines. Here, the agricultural idea of horsepower and the industrial idea of horsepower bumped heads. For example, the portable steam engine pictured just below is rated at ten horsepower. It could be used to run the same piece of farm equipment as the two-horse tread power depicted below the steam engine, which used, well, two horses. Some farmers came to use a rule of thumb for farm equipment, calculating that one horse was worth about three horsepower in an engine. Why is this?
This ten-horsepower steam engine (top) could power the same piece of farm equipment as a two-horse tread power (bottom). / THF92184, THF32303
Engine horsepower ratings (and there are many varieties of these) are typically overestimated because they are often calculations of the power delivered to the machine—not how much actually reaches its "business end." For example, they do not account for power losses that occur between the piston and whatever the piston is driving—which can be more like 70% to 90% of the rated horsepower. In addition, those measures are made at the ideal engine speed.
On the other hand, numerous studies have shown that peak horsepower for a horse (sustainable for a few seconds) is as high as 12-15 horsepower. This is based on calculated estimates, as well as observed estimates (recorded in a 1925 study of the Iowa State Fair's horse pull). Over the course of a ten-hour workday, however, the average output of a horse is closer to one horsepower—which coincides with James Watt's original way of describing horsepower.
So how much horsepower comes from a horse? As we see, it depends. If we measure it in an optimal way, as we do with engines, it is as high as 15 horsepower. If we measure it as James Watt did—over the course of a long 10-hour day, horses walking in a circle—it gets down to about one horsepower. Nineteenth-century farmers quickly learned that if they were buying an engine for a task horses had previously performed, they needed an engine rated for three horsepower for every horse they had used for the task.
This post by Jim McCabe, former Collections Manager and Curator at The Henry Ford, originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series in May 2007. It was updated for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content.
Lloyd Van Meter photographing Nancy Lawrence near Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village, June 1958. / THF625878
What comes to mind when you picture a covered bridge? Many people imagine an idyllic scene, perhaps based on a favorite artist’s depiction or reference from literature or film. Few have difficulty visualizing a “classic” covered bridge. These structures have an appeal that has outlasted their utility, though common understanding of them is often misinformed.
Covered bridges were built across the United States throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries for the sole purpose of protecting the structure within. Building a bridge was a major undertaking that required careful planning and a substantial community investment of time, labor, and materials. In the days before weatherproofed lumber, walls and a roof could extend a valuable bridge’s lifespan by shielding the truss system and keeping structural timbers dry.
In spite of their pure functionality, people came up with their own interpretations for covered bridges. Common beliefs emerged that a roof strengthened a bridge or protected the floor planks from rain and snow. Many came to think that covered bridges were built to shelter the people and animals traversing them, and some claimed the barn-like appearance calmed uneasy animals crossing over rushing water. Storytellers showcased covered bridges in tales ranging from the romantic to the mythical. These misunderstandings and cultural references encouraged the association of covered bridges with a “simpler time.”
Thanks to their age, perceived rarity, and admittedly often picturesque settings, covered bridges have increasingly attracted Americans’ attention. In 2005, the Federal Highway Administration reported there were fewer than 900 covered bridges remaining in the United States. (The estimated peak was about 14,000; you can view the full report here.) Many of these were, and are, well-loved and well-protected, with historic preservation groups and covered bridge societies dedicated to their upkeep. America’s surviving covered bridges have become regional treasures and tourist destinations. State and local organizations have featured them in marketing campaigns, erected signage, and developed tours to facilitate sightseeing.
Some states created special maps for covered bridge tourists. Above, “Covered Bridges in Maine,” 1956, and “Covered Bridges in New Hampshire,” 1969. / THF628822, THF628825
Postcards helped people share or remember covered bridges, whether close to home or part of a special trip. These examples depict covered bridges in Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. / THF625864,THF625866,THF625870, and THF625868
Nostalgic imagery of both real and imagined covered bridges continues to adorn everything from souvenirs to home décor. These examples from the collections of The Henry Ford help illustrate the enduring romance of covered bridges. You can browse more and see photographs documenting Greenfield Village’s Ackley Covered Bridgehere.
Christmas card, 1949; "Vermont" snow globe, 1960-1975; and Hallmark "Grandparents" Christmas ornament, 1982. / THF628816, THF189039, and THF179213
Explore a similar fascination with practical structures—those that generate water power—through this expert set.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Walt Disney spent years imagining his ground-breaking entertainment venue, Disneyland, before it opened in 1955. Disney found inspiration for this remarkable theme park from many people and places.
Walt Disney (1901–1966) spent his most memorable childhood years in Marceline, Missouri, leaving him with a great fondness for small town America. Disney's early passion for cartoon drawing and humor blossomed in 1928 with his first major success, the Mickey Mouse animated cartoon character. By the 1930s, Disney headed a thriving motion picture studio making animated cartoons and live action movies. He explained his interest in developing a theme park to his biographer, Bob Thomas:
“It all started when my daughters were very young, and I took them to amusement parks on Sunday. I sat on a bench eating peanuts and looking around me. I said to myself, why can't there be a better place to take your children, where you can have fun together? Well, it took me about fifteen years to develop the idea.”
While on business trips and family vacations, Disney visited not only amusement parks, but also fairs, expositions, tourist attractions, and zoos to further his vision of creating an extraordinary family leisure experience. One of these places was Greenfield Village, which Walt Disney visited several times during the 1940s.
Walt Disney Posing in the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1940 / THF109756
Walt Disney paid his first visit to Greenfield Village on April 12, 1940. William B. Stout, an industrial designer best known for the Ford Tri-Motor airplane and the aerodynamic Scarab car, served as Disney's escort as he toured Henry Ford's historical village and museum. The Greenfield Village Journal, a daily administrative report, described Disney’s visit that day:
“Walt Disney, creator of the world-famous movie character, Mickey Mouse, visited the Village and Museum today. He showed great interest in everything mechanical, examining engines and old autos closely. He had a good time with Mr. Tremear while posing for a tin-type. In the Museum Theater he spoke for a few moments to the school children. He was accompanied by Mrs. Disney, and by Ben Sharpsteen, his chief animator. Wm B. Stout was his host.”
Walt Disney Shows Harriet Bennett How to Draw Mickey Mouse during a Visit to Henry Ford Museum, April 12, 1940 / THF118884
During Disney's tour, he stopped at the Tintype Studio to pose for photographer Charles Tremear, autographing one of his tintypes for display there. Disney also spent a few minutes talking with students from the Greenfield Village Schools, who had gathered in the museum's theater to greet him. (Henry Ford established a school system in his museum and village complex several years before his historical enterprise was formally opened to the public in 1933.) Ford Motor Company photographer George Ebling—who was often asked to take personal photographs for Henry Ford—captured images of Disney's delightful visit with the students.
On August 20, 1943, Disney again visited Henry Ford Museum. He; his wife, Lillian; and their daughter, Diane, posed for photographs with examples of some of the historical modes of transportation displayed there. Disney’s joyful, childlike expression embodies the experience he hoped to create for families visiting what would come to be Disneyland.
Walt Disney came back to Greenfield Village five years later, on August 23, 1948. Disney and one of his animators, Ward Kimball—who shared Disney's longtime fascination with railroads—had traveled to Chicago to attend the Railroad Fair. They decided to take a side trip to Greenfield Village. During the visit to Greenfield Village, Disney once again made a stop at the Tintype Studio, where he and Kimball were photographed by tintypist Charles Tremear.
Walt Disney and Ward Kimball Posing in the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1948 / THF109757
By the late 1940s, Disney's ideas for a themed entertainment park had progressed substantially. On the train ride back to California, he shared his ideas with Kimball, then summarized them in a memo dated August 31, 1948. An excerpt of this memo seems to echo aspects of Greenfield Village: “The Main Village, which includes the Railroad Station, is built around a village green or informal park … Around the park will be built the town. At one end will be the Railroad Station; at the other end, the Town Hall…”
When Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955, it quickly captured the public’s imagination. In his innovative theme park, Walt Disney drew inspiration from his many interests and experiences to create an entirely new kind of family entertainment. To learn more, check out this blog post!
This post by Cynthia Read Miller, former Curator of Photography and Prints at The Henry Ford, originally ran in September 2005 as part of our Pic of the Month series. It was reformatted for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village. / THF1914
Guests visiting Greenfield Village in the spring of 2001 encountered a newly transformed Ackley Covered Bridge. The landmark structure—one of the most recognizable, most photographed sites on the grounds—had been completely repaired and restored. While the bridge’s resurrection may have seemed to have happened miraculously, it was—as with all our restoration efforts—the result of meticulous planning and careful completion of a well-defined project.
Originally constructed in 1832 in southwestern Pennsylvania, the single-span, 80-foot bridge’s design dates back to 16th-century Italy and was adapted in a uniquely American way in the early 1800s. It is referred to as a multiple kingpost truss: a series of upright wooden posts, with all braces inclined from the abutments and leaning towards the center of the “kingpost.”
Ackley Covered Bridge was originally a community project, built by more than 100 men on land owned and with materials donated by brothers Daniel and Joshua Ackley. By the mid-1930s, it had fallen into serious disrepair, and when a modern bridge was constructed to replace it, the granddaughter of one of the builders purchased the hundred-year-old Ackley structure for about $25 and donated it to Henry Ford.
Simple and classic in its construction, the bridge was dismantled at its original location in late 1937 and shipped by rail to Dearborn. Modifications were made to ensure its longevity, and a number of basic preservation chores were undertaken in the six months between its arrival and the completion of reconstruction in July 1938. (You can view photos of the bridge’s reconstruction and dedication in our Digital Collections.)
Ackley Covered Bridge after reconstruction in Greenfield Village, June 30, 1938. / THF625902
“Even in the 1930s, the Ackley Covered Bridge was clearly an architectural treasure, and Ford and his designers knew its importance and placed it at the heart of the Village,” said Lauren B. Sickels-Taves, architectural consultant for the restoration project. The bridge was back in its prime, spanning a pond designed specifically for it.
Taking photographs near Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village, 1958. / THF625878
“Unfortunately, the pond was standing rather than flowing water, and the water level had the ability to rise and fall,” she said. “The chords and four end trusses of the bridge (basically, its feet) were exposed to extreme wet/dry cycles, and rot was imminent. By 1974 the bridge was structurally unsound, and dangerous.”
While repairs were undertaken then, nothing was done to regulate the level of the pond, and by the spring of 1999, one truss end was found to be rotting. Closer examination revealed that the bridge was once again structurally unsafe.
Alec Jerome, then part of the facilities management team he now leads at The Henry Ford, was designated as project leader to bring Ackley Covered Bridge back to stability. David Fischetti, a historical structural engineer from North Carolina with a background in covered bridges, was brought in to develop a plan to properly restore the bridge, and Arnold Graton of New Hampshire, one of the country’s leading covered bridge timberwrights, was selected to lead the stabilization and restoration work.
“First,” said Jerome, “the pond had to be drained to expose areas that needed repair. The conditions that we discovered led to some serious revisions in our original project plan—every beam touching the ground was rotting and needed to be replaced.”
Views showing restoration of Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village, September and October 2000. / THF628587, THF628611, THF628525
The dry rot portion of the original trusses was removed and new support beams were spliced on. The refurbished trusses were then seated on stainless steel plates to prevent moisture from wicking up into the wood. Also, a turnbuckle system was implemented in the upper beams of the bridge, which had become separated over time, to ensure stability. Many of the connectors holding the bridge beams together were replaced, and ultimately a bolster was laid to eliminate any conditions that would promote rot in the floor beams and allow that devastating wet/dry cycle of rot to begin again.
“Our main concerns were the extensive amount of rot over and above the original expectations, the short time period between Village programs in which we had to complete the work, and weather conditions getting in our way,” Jerome said. Work began the day after Old Car Festival in September, and lasted through the day before the start of the evening program, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the second week of October. “The project could not have been completed without the assistance of the Museum’s carpentry department and our welder,” Jerome said. “These people assisted with every facet of this restoration.” See more photographs from the restoration project in our Digital Collections.
According to conservator Sickels-Taves, research determined that Ackley Covered Bridge was the oldest multiple kingpost truss bridge and the sixth-oldest covered bridge in the nation. While the cost of its restoration after a century and a half of decline was substantial, its preservation for the future was priceless—without such key commitments of resources, important structures like Ackley Covered Bridge would be lost forever. “The bridge is unquestionably important,” Sickels-Taves said. “We should be proud, and not hesitate to brag that we are the steward of one of the earliest forms of original American architecture.”
A version of this post originally ran in the Spring/Summer 2001 issue of The Henry Ford’s former publication, Living History. It was edited for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Few visitors to Greenfield Village cross Ackley Covered Bridge realizing the significance of the structure surrounding them. It is one of the oldest surviving covered bridges in the country, and considerable thought went into its overall design. Covered bridges have long been stereotyped as quaint, but the reason behind their construction was never charm or shelter for travelers. The sole function of the “cover” was to protect the bridge’s truss system by keeping its structural timbers dry.
Built in 1832, Ackley Covered Bridge represents an early form of American vernacular architecture and is the oldest “multiple kingpost” truss bridge in the country. This structural design consists of a series of upright wooden posts with braces inclined from the abutments at either end of the bridge and leaning towards the center post, or “kingpost.” It is also a prime example of period workmanship and bridge construction undertaken with pride as a community enterprise.
This map of Washington County, Pennsylvania, shows the original site of Ackley Covered Bridge (bottom left). / THF625813
Ackley Covered Bridge was constructed across Wheeling Creek on the Greene-Washington County line near West Finley, Pennsylvania. The single-span, 80-foot structure was built to accommodate traffic caused by an influx of settlers. Daniel and Joshua Ackley, who had moved with their mother to Greene County in 1814, donated the land on which the bridge was originally constructed, as well as the building materials. More than 100 men from the local community, including contractor Daniel Clouse, were involved in the bridge’s construction. Like most early bridge builders in America, they were little known outside their community. But their techniques were sound, and their work stood the test of time.
Initial community discussions about the bridge included a proposal to use hickory trees, which were abundant in the region, in honor of President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. Instead, they settled on white oak, which was more durable and less likely to warp. The timber came from Ackley property a half mile south of the building site. It was cut at a local sawmill located a mile south of the bridge. Hewing to the shapes and size desired was done by hand on site. Stone for the abutments was secured from a quarry close by.
Ackley Covered Bridge replaced an earlier swinging grapevine bridge, and it may soon have been replaced itself if settlement and construction in the region had continued. Instead, the area remained largely undeveloped for several decades. This, along with three roof replacements (in 1860, 1890, and 1920), helped ensure the bridge’s survival.
Ackley Covered Bridge at its original site before relocation to Greenfield Village, 1937. / THF235241
Plans to replace the more than 100-year-old structure with a new concrete bridge in 1937 spurred appeals from the local community to Henry Ford, asking him to relocate Ackley Covered Bridge to Greenfield Village. Ford sent representatives to inspect, measure, and photograph the bridge before accepting it as a donation from Joshua Ackley’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Evans. She had purchased the well-worn structure from the state of Pennsylvania for $25, a figure based on the value of its timber. Evans had a family connection to one of Ford’s heroes, William Holmes McGuffey. McGuffey’s birthplace, already in Greenfield Village, had stood a mere seven miles from the original site of Ackley Covered Bridge—an association that likely factored in Ford’s decision to rescue the structure.
Dismantling of Ackley Covered Bridge began in December 1937. Its timbers were shipped by rail to Dearborn, Michigan, and the bridge was constructed over a specially designed pond in Greenfield Village just in time for its formal dedication in July 1938.
Ackley Covered Bridge after construction in Greenfield Village, 1938. / THF625902
This post was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford, from a historic structure report written in July 1999 by architectural consultant Lauren B. Sickels-Taves, Ph.D.
"You know me, Barney Oldfield" was the classic catchphrase of one of America's earliest celebrity sports figures. Indeed, during the nascent period of the automobile, most every American knew Berna “Bernie” Eli Oldfield (1878–1946). He became the best-known race car driver at a time when the motor buggy was catching the imagination and passion of a rapidly changing society. Oldfield cut a populist swath across turn-of-the century American society and, in the process, helped define an emerging cult of celebrity.
One of the consistent themes of Oldfield's early years was a restlessness and desire for bigger, brighter, and better things in life. As a teenager, Oldfield worked odd jobs in Toledo, Ohio, earning money to buy his own bicycle to ride in local and regional road and endurance races. An attempt at professional boxing ended after Oldfield contracted typhoid fever. He returned to racing bicycles for company-sponsored teams and sold parts in the off-season. Throughout the 1890s, Oldfield was part of a team of riders that barnstormed across the Midwest, racing in the new "wood bowl" tracks that were sprouting up across the region. Oldfield quickly realized the need to appeal to audiences beyond the track. He branded himself the "Bicycle Racing Champion of Ohio" and promoted a "keen formula for winning," wearing a bottle of bourbon around his neck during races but telling reporters the liquid inside was vinegar.
Shift to Auto Racing
Tom Cooper and Barney Oldfield Seated in Race Cars, circa 1902 / THF207346
Americans were fascinated with quirky and expensive motor buggies. These boxy, carriage-like vehicles appealed to Americans’ desire for new, loud, audacious, and fast entertainment. During the winter of 1899, Oldfield reconnected with an old bicycle racing companion, Tom Cooper, who had just returned from England with a motorized two-wheeler (an early motorcycle). Cooper was going to demonstrate the vehicle at a race in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, near Detroit, in October 1901. He asked Oldfield, who began riding motorcycles himself around this time, to come along. Cooper and Oldfield were a preliminary exhibition before the main event: a race between local "chauffeur" Henry Ford and the most well-known and successful automobile manufacturer of the day, Alexander Winton.
After the Grosse Pointe event, Oldfield and Cooper pursued gold mining in Colorado. When that ended in failure, Cooper headed to Detroit to focus on automobiles. Oldfield took the motorized cycle on a circuit of Western bicycle tracks, setting records along the way before returning to Detroit in the fall of 1902 at Cooper’s request. Cooper had purchased Henry Ford’s “999” race car and wanted Oldfield to drive it. "The Race" between the “999” and Alexander Winton's "Bullet" captured the imaginations of not only Detroit's automotive elite, but the general population as well. When Oldfield piloted the “999” to victory over Winton's sputtering “Bullet,” the news spread like wildfire across Detroit, the Midwest, and eventually the nation.
Beyond the immediate thrill of the race itself, Barney Oldfield, the "everyman" bicycle racer from the heartland, appealed to a wide segment of American society rushing to embrace the motor car. As the Detroit News-Tribune reported after the race, "The auto replaced the horse on the track and in the carriage shed. Society sanctioned yesterday's races. And not only society, but the general public, turned out until more than five thousand persons had passed the gatekeepers.” Barney Oldfield became the face of racing for the "general public" and helped to democratize not only racing entertainment, but also automobiles in general, as vehicles moved out of the carriage house and into backyard sheds.
Barney Oldfield Driving the Ford "999" Race Car, circa 1903 / THF140144
Over the next 15 years, Barney Oldfield established multiple world speed records and gained notoriety wherever he went. He added an iconic unlit cigar to his racing persona and perfected the roguish image of a daredevil everyman. After a brief stint driving for Winton, Oldfield took the wheel of a Peerless racer, the "Green Dragon," and established himself as America's premier driver.
Barney Oldfield Behind the Wheel of the Peerless "Green Dragon" Racecar, circa 1905 / THF228859
By 1904, Oldfield held world records in the 1-, 9-, 10-, 25-, and 50-mile speed categories. In 1907, Oldfield tried his hand at stage acting when he signed on to appear in a new musical, The Vanderbilt Cup. Over a 10-week run and a brief road tour, Oldfield “raced” his old friend Tom Cooper in stationary cars as backdrops whirled behind them and stagehands blew dirt into the front rows of the theater. The following year, Oldfield entered the open road race circuit and quickly added to his legend by sparking a feud with one of the emerging stars of the day, Ralph De Palma. In March 1910, Oldfield added the title "Speed King of the World" to his resume, driving the "Blitzen Benz" to an astonishing 131.7 miles per hour on Daytona Beach in Florida.
Barney Oldfield Driving the "Blitzen Benz" Car on a Racetrack, 1910 / THF228871
Oldfield flouted the conventions of his time, both on and off the track. He was notorious for his post-race celebrations, womanizing, and bar fights. Oldfield’s rebellious streak kept him under the scrutiny of the American Automobile Association (AAA) and, in 1910, he became the first true "outlaw" driver when he was suspended for an unsanctioned spectacle race against the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Undaunted, Oldfield and his manager set up dates at county and state fairs across the country, holding three-heat matches against a traveling stable of paid drivers. Oldfield padded his reputation by adding an element of drama to these events—he would lose the first match, barely win the second, and, after theatrically tweaking and cajoling his engine, win the third match. During this time, Oldfield also became a product spokesman (perhaps most notably for Firestone tires) and began racing a fellow showman, aerial barnstormer Lincoln Beachey, in matches pitting “the Dare Devil of the Earth vs. the Demon of the Skies for the Championship of the Universe!”
Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey Racing, Columbus, Ohio, 1914 / THF228829
Towards the end of his driving career, Oldfield made a final splash in the racing world with the Harry Miller-built "Golden Submarine," establishing dirt-track records from one to one hundred miles. Throughout the 1917 season, Oldfield drove the Golden Sub in a series of matches on dirt and wood tracks against his old rival Ralph De Palma, eventually winning four out of the seven races. Oldfield retired from competition racing in 1918 after winning two matches in Independence, Missouri. In typical Oldfield fashion, he ran the last race under AAA suspension for participating in an earlier unsanctioned event.
Barney Oldfield Driving "Golden Submarine" Race Car at Sheepshead Bay Board Track, Brooklyn, New York, 1917 / THF141856
Oldfield continued to keep himself at the fore of America's sports entertainment culture. In addition to ceremonial "referee" jobs at various races, he rubbed elbows with American movie, stage, and music stars and continued his rambunctious lifestyle. Between 1913 and 1945, Oldfield appeared in six movies (usually as himself) and also tried his hand as a road tester for Hudson Motor Company, salesman, bartender, club owner, and spokesman. Finally, in an attempt to raise funds to build another land-speed racer with Harry Miller, Oldfield staged a unique publicity and fundraising event. In 1933, outside Dallas, Texas, he drove an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor to a record 64.1 miles per hour.
Barney Oldfield Advertising Postcard for Plymouth Automobiles, circa 1935 / THF228879
Fittingly, Barney Oldfield's last public appearance was at the May 1946 Golden Jubilee of the Automobile Industry held in Detroit. Oldfield was fêted for his foundational role in what had become one of the largest industries in the nation. He shared the main speaker's table with automotive icons including Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, and Frank Duryea, and he accepted a “trophy of progress” for his role in automotive history. Barney Oldfield passed away in October 1946, having lived—in the words of one passionate fan—“such a life as men should know.”
Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) is best remembered for his work to develop the telephone, but he had a pioneering role in aviation as well. In 1907, Bell assembled a small team to design, build, and pilot some of the earliest flying machines. Working together at the dawn of manned flight, the members of Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association made extraordinary developments in a remarkably brief period of time.
Founding the Aerial Experiment Association
As his 60th birthday approached, Alexander Graham Bell finally had the time and means to pursue his long-time interest in solving the problem of flight. Bell had supported and closely followed the failed efforts of Samuel Langley to develop a practical flying machine beginning in the 1890s. He also knew of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s successful 1903 flight. The Wrights were working in secret, refusing to collaborate with could-be competitors as they shopped their Flyer around to potential buyers in the United States as well as Europe—where other aeronautical pioneers were making progress with flying machines of their own design.
Bell believed tetrahedrons—triangular pyramids—held the answer. Convinced a practical flying machine could be produced by motorizing a tetrahedral kite, he began a series of experiments at Beinn Bhreagh, a summer estate owned by Bell and his wife Mabel, overlooking Bras d'Or Lake on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. As his investigations progressed, Bell decided to assemble a team of talented young enthusiasts to help bring them to completion.
Aerial Experiment Association Members Thomas Selfridge and Alexander Graham Bell, 1908. / THF285504
The Bells warmly welcomed these four recruits to Beinn Bhreagh in the fall of 1907, and all reached an agreement to form the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA):
J. A. D. McCurdy (1886–1961), Treasurer—The son of Bell’s secretary, this Cape Breton Island native and University of Toronto student became fascinated by the tetrahedral kite experiments at Beinn Bhreagh during a visit home. Bell recruited McCurdy to assist.
F. W. “Casey” Baldwin (1882–1948), Chief Engineer—A recent mechanical engineering graduate from Toronto, Baldwin visited Beinn Bhreagh with McCurdy, a college friend. Bell appreciated Baldwin’s enthusiastic interest in his tetrahedral kite projects and invited him to take part.
Glenn Curtiss (1878–1930), Director of Experiments—Known for building lightweight, powerful engines, Curtiss manufactured motorcycles in Hammondsport, New York. Bell purchased his first aeronautical engine from Curtiss and, considering him to be the preeminent motor expert in the United States, persuaded him to formally participate in the experiments at Beinn Bhreagh.
Thomas Selfridge (1882–1908), Secretary—A promising U.S. Army lieutenant assigned to the Signal Corps’ newly established Aeronautical Division, Selfridge saw a future in military aviation and asked to observe Bell’s kite experiments. Immediately impressed, Bell petitioned his friend President Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of War William Howard Taft to allow Selfridge special permission to join the Aerial Experiment Association.
The members agreed to work together over the course of one year, effective October 1. Mabel Bell (1867–1923) supported the venture from its beginning, providing the starting capital. With the understanding that experiments would soon move to a warmer location, Beinn Bhreagh served as Aerial Experiment Association headquarters.
The Aerial Experiment Association’s articles of agreement outlined some financial details: McCurdy and Baldwin would earn $1,000 and Curtiss $5,000—an acknowledgment of his special expertise and compensation for time away from his manufacturing company. Bell and Selfridge declined a salary. Each member would receive a share of any profit from the group’s experiments. But these specifics were ancillary. The Aerial Experiment Association’s primary objective was clear: “to get into the air.”
Experiments of the Aerial Experiment Association
The group agreed to begin formal experimentation with Bell’s tetrahedral kite, Cygnet, and then move on to build and test “aerodromes” (Bell’s preferred term for what would come be to be called “airplanes”) designed by each of the other members.
tested as a glider on Bras d'Or Lake, Cape Breton Island, December 6, 1907
Nearly 3,400 “tetrahedral cells” constructed of aluminum and red silk formed Bell’s massive kite. Though it was built to be motorized, Bell wanted to first test the Cygnet as a glider. Towed by boat, with Selfridge aboard, the delicate craftremained aloft for seven minutes before coming down and being pulled into the water. The Cygnet was a total loss, but “Bell’s Boys,” as they became known, were satisfied with the results.
Bell planned to continue tetrahedral kite experimentation after the Cygnet test, but as agreed, the Aerial Experiment Association would first begin work on aerodromes. After Christmas 1907, everyone relocated to Hammondsport, New York, for milder weather and access to the facilities of the Curtiss Manufacturing Company. Excitement about the arrival of a famous inventor rippled through town, and Bell’s Boys quickly became the stars of Hammondsport’s social scene. The younger men enjoyed easy access to Curtiss motorcycles by day, and evening discussions about how best to tackle the problem of flight—often held in a room of the Curtiss home they dubbed the “thinkorium”—deepened the group’s bond.
Because Selfridge had piloted the Cygnet, his aerodrome design would be built next. Though the members of the Aerial Experiment Association—especially Selfridge—had studied contemporary advances in aviation, none had seen an airplane. After weeks of glider practice and careful construction at Hammondsport, the Aerial Experiment Association was ready to test its first one—the Red Wing.
Before the first flight of the Red Wing, 1908 / THF265979
first flown on Keuka Lake, Hammondsport, March 12, 1908
The Aerial Experiment Association suppressed expectations for the Red Wing—named for thered silk fabric of its curved wings (left over from the Cygnet). The group recognized the fixed-rudder craft as a first attempt. To everyone’s surprise, the Red Wing, piloted by Baldwin,took off on the first attempt and flew more than 300 feet before coming down.
As pilot of the Red Wing, Baldwin was selected to design the Aerial Experiment Association’s second aerodrome. He decided to partner with Curtiss. The men incorporated findings from the Red Wing experiment into their improved design for the White Wing.
In 1993, inspired by a handful of century-old newspaper references, nine employees volunteered to form The Henry Ford’s first historic base ball club. What started small has become a grand and beloved Greenfield Village tradition, guided—as it was from the beginning—by a passion for authenticity.
The Greenfield Village Lah-De-Dahs and the general store that spurred the club’s formation, 1994. / THF136301
It all began with Greenfield Village’s general store. New research in the 1990s initiated a more accurate historical interpretation of the J.R. Jones General Store as it existed in Waterford, Michigan, during the 1880s. It also turned up references to a local amateur base ball club—the Lah-De-Dahs—in period newspapers. Employees eagerly set about reviving the Lah-De-Dahs as a historic base ball club. A clue about the original uniform came from a colorful report on the Lah-De-Dahs’ poor showing in a summer 1887 game:
As the contest went on, slowly but surely dawned upon the minds of all the truth that a fine uniform does not constitute a fine pitcher, nor La-de-dahs in their mammas’ red stockings make swift, unerring fielders. —Pontiac Bill Poster, September 14, 1887
The revived Lah-De-Dahs of Greenfield Village wore white base ball shirts with a red script “L” and, at first, nondescript white painter’s pants. (The Henry Ford’s period clothing studio soon produced matching, knickers-style bottoms.) That first season, the Lah-De-Dahs played a handful of matches with rules pieced together from various historical interpretations. At Firestone Farm, the club challenged farmhands in the harvested wheat field before whatever crowd gathered along the lane. The Lah-De-Dahs also hosted a few outside historic base ball clubs at their future home field, Walnut Grove.
Historic base ball in Greenfield Village quickly assumed a more structured form that incorporated thoughtful details rooted in history—beginning with the name of the sport itself. Virtually all of the earliest references to this style of bat-and-ball game in England and the United States used the hyphenated name, “base-ball.” By the late 1830s and into the 1840s, likely due to simple changes in typesetting practices, the two-word spelling, "base ball," had begun to replace "base-ball." Conventions continued to shift, with the hyphenated version reemerging in the mid-late 19th century and receiving formal backing from the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1896. But years earlier, in 1884, the New York Times had explicitly changed its style guide away from "base-ball" to "baseball"—an early move toward the one-word convention that would stick. To highlight overlapping customs in the sport’s formative decades, The Henry Ford emphasizes the two-word spelling in its historic base ball program.
Henry Chadwick’s 1867 Base Ball Player's Book of Reference, the first reference book designed to teach the game of base ball, from which the current rules of play in Greenfield Village were drawn. / THF214794
For demonstration in Greenfield Village outside of Lah-De-Dahs matches, a set of rules, known as “Town Ball” or “Massachusetts Rules,” was selected from the 1860 Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player. Written by Henry Chadwick, a sports journalist and leading promoter of base ball, this book included early rules of the game we know today, as well as the alternative “Massachusetts Rules” version of the game. This early version of baseball requires minimal equipment, calls for a soft ball, and features chaotic rules, making it a perfect choice for guests of Greenfield Village to try.
Elements added for the comfort and enjoyment of spectators on Walnut Grove appropriately reflect the 1860s setting. On select dates, the Dodworth Saxhorn Band provides musical accompaniment representing that of a period brass band. (Much of the music commonly associated with the professional game of baseball in America—including its unofficial anthem, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—was published two generations later.) Refreshments are served from contextual, temporary structures fitting the rural environments where 1860s base ball was played. And a uniquely designed sound system—disguised by several strategically placed waste receptacles—allows the umpire and scorekeeper to present a real-time account of the game via concealed cordless microphones. The live music and play-by-play, combined with the unpredictability of the game, make for an entertaining afternoon.
The Lah-De-Dahs’ roster grew to 25 players over the club’s second and third seasons. They wore handmade uniforms for matches, which were held whenever visiting clubs could make the trip to Greenfield Village. By 2002, the season consisted of a dozen games played on select Saturdays throughout the summer. After nearly a decade of play, the Lah-De-Dahs had attracted a dedicated fan base, and spectators increasingly requested a regular schedule with more games.
The reopening of Greenfield Village in 2003 after a massive restoration project heightened expectations for the historic base ball program. With financial support from Edsel and Cynthia Ford, The Henry Ford delivered an entire summer of base ball with expanded offerings: daily period base ball demonstrations, formal games on Saturdays and Sundays—now played by the “New York rules” specified in Henry Chadwick’s 1867 Base Ball Player's Book of Reference (which were more familiar to spectators than the Massachusetts Rules game)—and the development of the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball.
The Henry Ford’s World Tournament of Historic Base Ball pays homage to the original “World's Tournament of Base Ball” hosted in August 1867 by the Detroit Base Ball Club. Though organizers ultimately failed to attract the world-famous clubs of the day, they managed to stage a remarkable, one-of-a-kind event. The trophy bat awarded to the Unknown Base Ball Club of Jackson, Michigan—winners of the first-class division of the 1867 tournament—is now in The Henry Ford’s collections. It is displayed each year in Greenfield Village during the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball.
Trophy bat awarded at the 1867 World's Tournament of Base Ball. / THF8654
For 2004, the Lah-De-Dahs’ season expanded from 12 to 30 games, and its roster swelled to 42 players. To make sure they always had an opponent, The Henry Ford created a second club. The National Base Ball Club takes its name from a competitor in the 1867 World's Tournament of Base Ball. New uniforms purchased for both clubs added to the already vibrant atmosphere during matches, with the Lah-De-Dahs in their now-familiar red and white and the Nationals in striking dark blue and gold. At first, many considered the Lah-De-Dahs to be Greenfield Village’s “home” club, but displays of sportsmanship and close games going to either side have endeared fans to both.
One of the close plays that have helped endear fans to both Greenfield Village clubs.
Over time, baseball became “America’s pastime,” an enduring cultural touchstone—and a multibillion-dollar business. Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village (and also played in many other venues around the country) showcases an early form of the sport, from a time when amateurs played for recreation and innocent amusement—for the love of the game!
Baseball autographed for All-Star centerfielder Curt Flood by one of his heroes, civil rights icon Rosa Parks. / THF96558
Curt Flood was an All-Star, Gold-Glove centerfielder for the powerhouse St. Louis Cardinals baseball team of the 1960s. He undoubtedly signed thousands of baseballs during and after his career. So why would Flood save a baseball signed by Rosa Parks among his personal effects?
The ball is part of a story of inspiration, courage, and perseverance.
Inspired to Take a Stand
Curt Flood grew up in Oakland, California, and had no direct experience with the intense racism of the Jim Crow South. He was among the first generation of Black players in Major League Baseball. In 1956, as a 19-year-old minor leaguer in the Deep South, Flood came face-to-face with the virulent racial hatred that had arisen in the wake of the 1955 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in schools, and from the ongoing Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks. It was the courage shown by Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson (the player famous for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier), and others that gave Flood the strength to persevere through his two-year minor league stint.
Flood joined the Major Leagues when he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1958. He and two of his new teammates, Bill White and Bob Gibson, became increasingly outspoken about segregationist aspects of the Cardinals operation. These men successfully pressed the organization to patronize integrated hotels and restaurants. Flood also joined Jackie Robinson at NAACP rallies across the South.
Curt Flood was featured on the August 19, 1968, cover of Sports Illustrated. The issue, pictured here with Flood’s St. Louis Cardinals hat, called him "Baseball's Best Centerfielder." / THF76590
Fighting the Reserve Clause
Flood's stellar 12-year career with the Cardinals ended suddenly in 1969, when he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies were a team going nowhere, with a fan base and management that were hostile to Black players. Flood had little desire to be part of that team. But the reserve clause gave Flood no choice in the matter. This clause was a standard part of every baseball player's contract, requiring him to play wherever the owners wanted him to play. The player had no say in the matter.
Flood's only options were to go along with the trade or retire. His first instinct was to retire. But, after reconsidering, he decided to challenge the reserve clause and sue Major League Baseball. Flood knew that this action would, in effect, end his baseball career and that he personally would gain little in the end. But the reserve clause made Flood feel like a piece of property, and he could not let that injustice stand.
After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
It is my desire to play in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia Club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the Major League Clubs my feelings in the matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Sincerely yours, Curt Flood
Lonely Path to the Supreme Court
As expected, Major League Baseball rejected Flood’s request. Over the next two and a half years, Flood, with the support of Marvin Miller of the Players Association (the fledgling professional baseball players' union), pursued his case in court, then in appeals court, and finally to the United States Supreme Court. At the inception of the suit, Flood became one of the most hated men in baseball—he was criticized in the press for trying to destroy baseball and received mountains of hate mail from fans. But it was the lack of support from active players that hurt Flood the most. Some supported Flood privately but feared retribution if they spoke out. Others were outright hostile and tried to undermine the suit even though it would benefit all players. Only baseball outsiders testified on Flood's behalf: his hero, Jackie Robinson; Hank Greenberg, who battled anti-Semitism throughout his career with the Detroit Tigers; and the iconoclastic Bill Veeck, who had owned several major and minor league baseball teams.
Curt Flood (left) and pitcher Bob Gibson had been close friends since their days in the minor leagues. Gibson privately supported Flood in his activism, but despite being one of the best pitchers in the game, he feared he would be ostracized from baseball if he backed Flood publicly. / THF98488
The court battles took a physical and emotional toll on Flood. He fell out of shape physically and turned from a social drinker to an alcoholic. The relentless negative attention from the press and fans forced Flood out of the country, first to Denmark, and later to Spain. He lost touch with his children and, by 1975, was nearly destitute and homeless. Flood was despondent and depressed. In 1978, Richard Reeves interviewed him for Esquire magazine as part of a series on men who had stood up to the system. Reeves said, "He was about the saddest man I ever met."
The closely divided Supreme Court ruled against Flood in the end. The majority opinion said, in effect, that the reserve clause was "an anomaly," but that it was Congress's job to fix it, not the courts’. Despite the Supreme Court loss, Flood's fight had created an opening to challenge baseball's reserve clause on the bargaining table. Within a few years, Jim "Catfish" Hunter became the first free agent, followed closely by Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. While Curt Flood lost the case, his efforts transformed the relationship between owners and players across professional sports, and for people with unique and valuable skills in the world at large.
Curt Flood signed this copy of the Supreme Court summary report of his suit against Major League Baseball. / THF98457
Recovery and Recognition
After more than a decade in a personal wilderness, Flood began to turn his life around with the help of friends. He was treated for alcoholism in 1980, re-married in 1986, gained a new family, and reconnected with the children of his first marriage. Flood took up the late Jackie Robinson's cause, pushing for more diversity in the management of baseball. Along with other former players, he co-founded a group known as the Baseball Network for that purpose.
In 1987, Curt Flood received the NAACP Jackie Robinson Sports Award. While he was never hired for a position in baseball management, Flood became a regular at old-timers’ games. There, many former players took the opportunity to thank him personally. In 1994, Flood was featured in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary and attended the premiere, where he met President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Not long after, he met another hero from his youth, Rosa Parks, who signed a baseball for him. Flood wrote to friends in a Christmas letter that year, "I am in the process of living happily ever after."
In 1987, the NAACP recognized Curt Flood's fight by awarding him the Jackie Robinson Sports Award. / THF76582
In the summer of 1995, Flood developed throat cancer; he died on January 20, 1997. During that year and a half, many people visited him to express gratitude for what he had done for baseball and for society at large. At his death, Curt Flood was eulogized by many, including Jesse Jackson and conservative columnist George Will, who compared him to Rosa Parks.
Curt Flood and his wife, Judy Pace Flood, with Rosa Parks in 1994. / THF98496
While in retrospect, it may seem as though changes in society are predetermined and expected, Curt Flood's experience shows that they are not a sure thing—and they are never easy. The reserve clause was a legal anachronism that stripped players of their freedom to control their own careers. It took a successful man—inspired by heroes who had taken similar steps before him—who was willing to give up everything to make that change occur.
Jim McCabe is former Curator and Collections Manager at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in February 2010 as part of our “Pic of the Month” series. It was updated for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.