The Richart Wagon Shop is another example of Henry Ford’s interest in American transportation history. It was built in 1847 by Israel Biddle Richart in Macon, Michigan, and operated for over 50 years in the business of building, repairing, and painting wagons. In fall 1941, it was acquired for and moved to Greenfield Village.
We’ve just digitized a number of photographs of the building on its original site, including this image showing the distinctive lower and upper double doors still visible today—though notably missing a ramp to allow carriages access to the second floor.
How can historians use the clues hidden in the floor plans of houses to piece together the past?
Every home is a reflection of the people who once resided there, at once a testament to the past and a projection into the future. In few cases is this more evident than in the George Matthew Adams House in Greenfield Village. Originally built in Saline, Michigan, in 1846, the house was moved to the Village in 1937 and reconstructed on the crest of a hill, not unlike many other houses in Greenfield Village. Fast forward to the 21st century, and it became apparent that the home was slowly sliding down. This of course signaled the beginning of a battle against time and gravity to save the Adams House; every problem that arises, however, brings with it new opportunities to try different approaches and put the latest scholarship into practice.
The recent work on the Adams House (also called the Adams Family Home) has given researchers a chance to look at the old house from a fresh perspective. When houses are renovated, historians do their best with the available sources to ensure the house in question is as close to the original plan as possible. Precision can prove to be difficult, as some important information is often absent from the written record. This is when logic and deduction come into play, much like detective work. Historians can use photographs and floor plans to discover the truth and uncover the mysteries hidden in the house.
Houses are rarely static objects. As the years go by, people change, families grow, and structures pass into different ownership. Homes are adapted to meet the needs of their residents, and in doing so, those same dwellings are able to share their secrets with those that have a discerning eye. Consider, for example, this picture of the front entryway of Adams House, looking into the kitchen. The way to the kitchen is open, just as it is at Greenfield Village, but what about the opening to the left, immediately in front of the kitchen door? When we study the blueprint, it appears that this passage would lead into the sitting room, although it is not depicted in the 1876 interpretation of the Adams House in the Village. It is entirely possible that this passage was open, and the doorway to the kitchen solid wall, when the home was built in 1846, more than three decades before George Matthew Adams. The kitchen of the 1840s was a far cry from the kitchen of today. While modern kitchens are open and inviting, often combined with or indistinguishable from the dining room, antebellum kitchens were usually cut off from the rest of the house, a place that the family never exhibited and where guests were rarely allowed. In fact, it was more likely to have a passage from the main hallway lead into the sitting room than the kitchen. It might be the case that the door to the kitchen was added many years later, when homeowners insisted on a greater degree of convenience and changing domestic patterns made the kitchen into more of a social and familial gathering place.
Looking into the kitchen from another angle, even more interesting features can be spotted. The wall with the doorway in the picture below shows a division in the kitchen, which in all likelihood was a pantry. So while it is unclear if the pantry wall in the picture is original to the house, there are several clues to help scholars determine a rough chronology. Many kitchens in the early Victorian era had no need for a pantry. After the Civil War, however, mass production and an increase in commercial products led to a need to store food and keep it organized. The Adams House as it stands today does indeed have a pantry, although not in the same location as the one depicted here. Like the other walls in the picture, the wall in question is made using plaster applied to strips of lath. This is the 19th-century equivalent of the beams and drywall system of today. All of the strips in the house are split laths rather than sawn laths, indicating that the interior wall is close to the rest of the house in terms of construction date. Laths that were sawn off of logs rather than stripped would illustrate a date closer to the 20th century and an increase in sawmill technology, when there was greater uniformity both in the form of houses and the materials that were used to make them. The pantry wall, with its construction indistinguishable from the rest of the original structure, could be original to the house or, if not built right away, a very quick addition afterwards.
Like the foundation of the Adams House, the floor plan has shifted and fluctuated. The great gap in years, as well as the gap in the written and photographic record, makes piecing together the layout of the Adams House a daunting task. By using a combination of photographs, blueprints, and oral histories, employees at The Henry Ford have been able to conjecturally construct the history of the George Matthew Adams House. With this fresh and logical outlook, it is easier than ever to see the changes in the home between its construction in 1846, George Matthew Adams’ birth in 1878, and the purchase of the house by The Henry Ford in 1937. These changes over the years show how the role of the house evolved to meet the needs of new families and domestic ideals. The recent study on the Adams House layout has helped uncover not only what features of the house had been modified, but also how and why those alterations took place when they did.
Jacob Thomas is one of the 2013 Simmons Graduate Interns at The Henry Ford.
It’s always a thrill when we get to meet descendants of people connected with our Greenfield Village buildings. A few weeks ago, we hosted five descendants of Dr. Howard, whose Tekonsha, Mich., office is located out in the Village next to the Logan County Court House.
These five knowledgeable and enthusiastic members of the family came from North Dakota, California, and as far away as Australia! The group drove here together from North Dakota, visiting other family sites along the way—including, of course, the original site of Dr. Howard’s office in Tekonsha (near Marshall).
Dr. Howard’s office was brought to Greenfield Village to represent the office of a country doctor. It is particularly unique because virtually everything in the building is original and dates to the time of his practice.
Interior shots of Dr. Howard’s office in 1956, just before the building was moved to Greenfield Village.
Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard (1823-1883) was known to have a keen mind, an earthy sense of humor, and a colorful personality.
From the time he started his practice in the early 1850s until his death in 1883, Dr. Howard used a combination of methods to cure sick patients. These included herbal remedies that he concocted himself and more conventional medicines he had learned about while attending Cleveland Medical College and the University of Michigan for a few years. When he wasn’t in his office in Tekonsha, he was “out tending to patients” in the local area.
When Dr. Howard’s descendants came here a few weeks ago, they were hoping to unearth clues to this long-ago history that would build upon their previous research into family stories and genealogy. They spent a lot of time out in the building, talking to staff and visitors and taking loads of pictures. Then they combed through our archival collections that contained materials about their family and about the office.
We were delighted that they were also willing to let us interview them so they could tell us more about their family history—filling in gaps in our own knowledge, revealing new insights, and truly putting new life back into the Dr. Howard story.
Thanks, Corey, Dawn, Sue, Angela, and Fiona, for reminding us that people all over the world continue to have deep personal connections to our buildings in Greenfield Village. It was a pleasure meeting you and we hope you come back to visit again soon.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.