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Man in duster coat and top hat by a fire pit waves to the camera
“The Night Before Christmas” program at Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. / Photograph by Amy Nasir.


Guests of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village have been captivated by our various dramatic programs for decades at The Henry Ford. And Anthony Lucas’ performances as an historical actor have been essential in bringing our stories to life throughout many time periods and historical contexts. I had the honor of sitting down with Anthony, 2010 winner of The Henry Ford’s Steven Hamp Award, to chat about his 20 years of theatrical work at The Henry Ford.

You’ve been performing at The Henry Ford since the fall of 2000. What was your first project here?

I started as a replacement actor when another actor was out sick, and I performed in a program called “Gullah Tales” near the Hermitage Slave Quarters. After this, they called me back to do more performances.

How did you get into acting and what inspired you to act?

My interest to become an actor goes back to when I was five years old, believe it or not. I used to watch a gentleman named Bill Kennedy, a local TV host in Detroit who would show a lot of black-and-white Hollywood movies on Sunday afternoons. I would watch actors like James Cagney, and I said in my mind: “Wow, I want to do that!” I have a lot of favorite actors, but James Cagney was the first one because of his energy and his versatility. He could play a lot of different roles other than playing the bad guy. All the movies I watched on Bill Kennedy at the Movies were very entertaining, and they made a big impression upon me, including all the musicals and the films that starred Shirley Temple, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Bette Davis—the Golden Age of Hollywood.

What were your first theatrical roles and when did you perform them?

I really didn't get the opportunity to act until at the end of the 11th grade in high school. The following year, I did two plays. One was kind of a historical play dealing with Black history. It was called “In White America,” and it was a series of vignettes and monologues about civil rights and the Black struggle for freedom in the United States. And the other play was a kind of comedy farce called “Day of Absence.” The story took place in the South, and it dealt with what would happen if one day all the Black folks had suddenly disappeared. My performances took place in the early 1970s. We were coming right out of the sixties with the civil rights movement and the Black power movement. And so that was my start. I went on to study theater at Western Michigan University and performed in various shows with Detroit Repertory Theatre and Plowshares Theatre Company.

Man in suit smiles and holds a hat to the side among chairs
“Elijah: The Real McCoy” program in the museum. / Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)

You’ve performed in several programs at The Henry Ford, which we’ll get into in a moment. But first, which one stands out as your favorite?

I love all the shows that I do, but one of my most favorite programs is “Elijah: The Real McCoy,” which I performed in both the village and museum. Elaine Kaiser, who has since retired [as Manager of Dramatic Programs at The Henry Ford], wrote it brilliantly. She wrote it for me to perform at Discovery Camp. Every show was very rewarding, and I just loved working with the kids during camp and seeing them at shows. The story starts with Elijah McCoy as a young kid, and the scenes travel through his achievements and struggles until he reaches his success as an inventor, and then into his old age. I loved to perform each stage of his life and see the kids’ reactions.

Man in suit (vest, pants, and white shirt) kneels on the ground with hands outstretched while children in baseball caps watch
Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)

Have there been any challenges you’ve encountered while performing?

Well, here’s a story that’s kind of funny. One summer in the village, I was very busy. While I was at Town Hall doing a couple of Elijah McCoy shows, I would need to change into a different period costume and get to Susquehanna Plantation to do “North Star Tales” as fast as I could. And then I would hurry up and go back to Town Hall, change, and do another Elijah McCoy. Thankfully, Elaine Kaiser loaned me her bike, so I could ride it between shows. So, it was quite exciting!

Man and woman stand in front of white wooden house as a group of people seated on benches watch
How I Got Over” program at Susquehanna Plantation. / Photograph by Roy Ritchie

I’ve attended your performances at Susquehanna Plantation many times and have always been inspired when participating with other guests as we jumped from the porch steps yelling, “Freedom!” How long have you been performing at Susquehanna, and are there any other similar programs you perform in?

There were a few different shows we did at Susquehanna, and they go back to 2003, right after the renovation of the village. There is “How I Got Over,” “Tally’s Tales,” and a newer version called “North Star Tales,” which were all themed around the stories of slavery and endurance on the plantation. Last year in 2021, I narrated the North Star Gospel Chorale’s performance on the porch of Susquehanna as part of Salute to America: Summer Stroll. That was the first year, and it was really a great experience. We really enjoyed that. It's really a powerful show and I was happy to be a part of that. The Chorale also performed in the museum in February 2020, right before the pandemic, which was livestreamed on Facebook.

Man in suit stands at podium with hand pointed at the audience in front of backdrop of large Rosa Parks stamp
“I’ve Seen the Mountain Top” speech at National Day of Courage in the museum. / Screenshot from YouTube

You are also a big part of the “Minds on Freedom” program in the museum. When did that start and how did it develop?

Yes, this program started in 2004, and it was a combination of two shows—a musical act, and then a dialogue part about the Civil Rights Movement. It was merged into one show called “Minds on Freedom,” which was performed in the museum around our Celebrate Black History program in February. There was also our special celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in June 2011, which I enjoyed being a part of. And during the National Day of Courage, celebrating Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday on February 4, 2013, I performed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Seen the Mountain Top” speech. That's always an honor any time I get a chance to express the words of Dr. King. He was a great man, a great orator, a great minister, and a great leader. And he gave his life for us to believe them. So any time you try to deliver his speeches, you’re never going to be like Dr. King. But I use my own approach and try my best to get the spirit across.

Man in white dress shirt and plaid tie in three poses: hand to chest, pointing, and arms stretched to the sky
“Elijah: The Real McCoy” program in the museum. / Photographs by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)

Many guests are familiar with your performances at our Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village and Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village events. How and when did these roles begin?

Oh, yeah, performing “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe goes way back with me, because it was one of the first dramatic readings I recited in high school. My mother coached me. I think if my mother had pursued acting, she may have been a pretty good actress. She helped me bring the story to life. Around 2003, Elaine Kaiser asked me to dramatize this short story for Hallowe’en from the point of view of a murderer descending into paranoia, haunted by the thumping sound of the murdered man’s heart. The program is different from Holiday Nights, because I have set times for shows. So I usually don't have a chance to interact with the audience in-between shows as much as I would like. Interacting with the audience afterwards whenever possible is a special part of being there. I'm not there just because I'm an actor to do shows. I'm there to be a part of The Henry Ford and to interact with the guests and help create that experience for them. It’s very special, unique, and moving to interact with the guests. So that's how I approach it.

I started performing at Holiday Nights just before I performed at the Hallowe’en event. Initially around 2003, I was working with a few other actors, and we were moving around the village doing a variety of poems and Christmas carols. And it was around 2004, I performed Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nick,” which we generally call “The Night Before Christmas.”  I performed it as a solo act and was relocated outside of Town Hall and later to a warming fire. It’s developed into a very special event because of how guests react. There was one guy who proposed to his girlfriend at my warming fire. There are so many people with stories of their own, making Holiday Nights and the village a big part of their lives. Holiday Nights is a whole story in itself. I started adding an introduction to the performance rather than just solely dramatizing the poem. I started talking about Christmas in early America. And then I would ask guests about all the different holiday foods and dishes they like, and finally I would ask: Do you like Christmas cookies? I would then ask the big question: Do you have any with you tonight?

After this, guests started bringing me Christmas cookies every year. I come home with all sorts of cookies, sugar cookies, and chocolate chip cookies and all. Oh, yeah, it's funny. But it's great, though, because people come year after year and sometimes they tell me they used to bring their children and now they're all grown up. I'm like, wow, this is a reminder of how long I've been doing it. And it's so rewarding; sometimes I look out and see people that are moved. They get emotional and so it's wonderful. And the children are the best, they can just make you feel like a million bucks. In December 2020, I recited “The Night Before Christmas” for a video during the pandemic. That was a real different take on it because they had me come in and sit down and have a storybook in my hand. So I had to rework it so it could fit that format. And I like that too. It was very comfortable and warm. That was a real nice change of pace.

Man in overcoat and top hat stands in front of a backdrop of a building as seated people look on
“The Tell-Tale Heart” program at Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village. / Photograph by Kristina Sikora (KMS Photography)

Do you have any other stories about interacting with guests you’d like to share?

Sure. I was performing Elijah McCoy at the Town Hall one day, and there is a point where I would walk up the steps of the stage. I was playing the elderly Elijah, and I asked for volunteers from the audience to help me up the steps. So, this one little girl came up to me and she said: your tie is crooked. And she starts straightening my tie. Sometimes you just have to roll with it. That was a beautiful moment.

Another time, there was this couple that followed my shows. They took pictures of me performing Elijah McCoy in the village and “Minds on Freedom” in the museum, and other performances. The wife put together a scrapbook of their photos, and it had all these pictures and a beautiful cover. They gave it to me as a gift. I was just so speechless, you know, that they took time to create it over several months, putting this book together. I was very moved by it.


Amy Nasir is Digital Marketing Specialist and former Historical Presenter in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.

The Henry Ford staff, Holiday Nights, Henry Ford Museum, Hallowe'en in Greenfield Village, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, events, Civil Rights, by Amy Nasir, African American history, actors and acting, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Portrait of man with shoulder-length hair and beard wearing suit, in ornate frame
Photograph of Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr., 1860s. / THF237208


How do we uncover the stories of the people who lived and worked in the buildings that come to Greenfield Village? Usually, there are no books written about them, unless they were famous—like Abraham Lincoln or the Wright Brothers. To piece together the stories of these people, we have to look at archival documents, images, and artifacts—which offer a firsthand account or a direct reference to the people and their stories. These primary sources—like census records, business records, and personal reminiscences—each provide clues. But they can be hard to interpret and difficult to piece together. Moreover, they are sometimes inaccurate and can even contradict each other. We must constantly assess the value and accuracy of each source and compare it with others.

We delved into many of these types of sources to prepare for an episode of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation featuring Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr.—whose mid-19th-century office now resides in Greenfield Village. Many of our findings are summarized in the blog post, “Dr. Howard, A Country Doctor in Southwest Michigan.” Where did we go in our search to uncover clues to Dr. Howard’s background and medical practice? Here are some of the sources that helped us out.

First, Our Own Archival Records


Typewritten page of text
First page from great-grandson Howard Washburn’s write-up on Dr. Howard, May 25, 1962. / THF627447

The first place we look when we explore the stories of Greenfield Village buildings and the people related to them is our own Edison Institute (or EI) archives. Beginning at the time that each building is first acquired and brought to Greenfield Village, the majority of the records collected by the museum for that building are kept in the archival accession EI.186—or what we familiarly call the “Building Boxes.” We were lucky that in the case of Dr. Howard’s Office, we found in this accession two folders entitled “Family History.”

These folders contain numerous typed reports, the result of years of tedious research undertaken by Dr. Howard’s great-grandson, Howard Washburn. Washburn’s study of Dr. Howard began in 1935, from which time he developed a steadily expanding notebook on the subject. In January 1946, he and his mother purchased and came to live on the family farm, “Windfall,” where the office was located. Washburn’s interest in his great-grandfather’s life and medical practice deepened in the 1950s and 1960s, involving both sifting through the materials that were still in the office and collecting numerous reminiscences about Dr. Howard from his by-then elderly family members, friends, and neighbors.

Group of people mingle outside a small, red, wooden building
Dedication of Dr. Howard’s Office in Greenfield Village, with Howard family descendants, October 1963. / THF20847

Washburn found some wonderful primary sources of his own in his search, like the extensive entry about Dr. Howard’s life that was handwritten in the Howard family Bible by his son, Camer. But most of Washburn’s material came from those previously mentioned personal reminiscences. We know that people’s long-term memories can be sketchy, especially when decades have gone by (Dr. Howard passed away in 1883). So, we planned to compare these reminiscences with other types of sources (see section below on genealogical records).

Black-and-white photo of room interior with wooden walls lined with wooden shelves containing books, bottles, and jars
Photograph of office interior, taken at the building’s original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, before removal to Greenfield Village, March 1956. / THF237188

The Building Boxes in our archives also house numerous photographs that document each Greenfield Village building, especially photographs relating to each building on its original site just before its removal to Greenfield Village. Howard Washburn’s reports informed us that when Dr. Howard passed away in 1883, his wife Cynthia padlocked his office with most of its contents intact. Sure enough, photographs of the building’s interior that were taken when Henry Ford’s assistants came to look at the building in the 1950s reveal a huge array of original furniture, bottles, casks, business records, and medical books. These came with the building to Greenfield Village. They not only helped us later recreate the building’s interior as close as possible to the original, but also furthered our knowledge about many aspects of Dr. Howard’s medical practice.

Journal cover containing text
A homeopathic medical publication from July 1868, found amongst the contents of Dr. Howard’s Office when it was brought to Greenfield Village. / THF627467

Dr. Howard’s business records and medical books (all paper items that were later removed from the building because of their fragility) were put together with other family documents to make up another accession in our archives—the Howard Family Papers. These materials particularly reveal Dr. Howard’s increasing interest in adapting a range of different approaches to treating patients.

Letter handwritten in cursive
Letter from Isaac Haines to Dr. Howard, April 18, 1877, inquiring about how to get to the doctor’s office from Fort Wayne, Indiana. / THF627457

Some particularly interesting letters from patients in the Howard Family Papers contain descriptions of ailments that people asked Dr. Howard to diagnose for them. Another of these letters, from 1877, even came from a man in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who requested directions to his office (about 75 miles away!) so he could make a personal visit.

Narrow notebook containing handwritten cursive text, some X-ed out
Two pages from Dr. Howard’s 1849–1853 account book. / THF627454

The Howard Family Papers also contain Dr. Howard’s account books, dating all the way from 1849 to 1881. These primarily record his visits to or from patients and the amount that he charged them. Unfortunately, most of the patients’ names are difficult to read. However, the 1878 account book does contain several neatly handwritten pages of patients, listed in alphabetical order, at the front—many of which are indeed legible. Some of these even mention the patients’ hometowns, including Tekonsha, Michigan (where his office was located), as well as nearby Burlington (about five miles away) and Union City (about nine miles away). We hope to delve more deeply into the backgrounds of some of these patients through genealogical records, to get an idea of their ages, occupations, and backgrounds.

Handwritten receipt with image of building on letterhead at top and cursive list of items below
Invoice from Farrand, Williams & Co., from February 15, 1881, for Dr. Howard’s purchase of medical equipment, supplies, and ingredients. / THF620458

The Howard Family Papers also contain several invoices sent to Dr. Howard from a chemical supply company in Detroit, Michigan, dated 1881. These provide valuable clues to the types of medicinal ingredients that Dr. Howard purchased to create his pills and concoctions—and help to break down the stereotype that everything he used was botanical (i.e., natural materials like plants and herbs) and homegrown or locally obtained. The invoices contain not only dried herbs and plants but also such non-botanical ingredients as quinine and alum that relate to more conventional Western medical practice.

Page with faint handwritten cursive text
Dr. Howard’s “recipe” for cough syrup, from his 1864 handwritten receipt book. / THF620470

One of the most valuable items in this collection—originally donated with the building—is Dr. Howard’s own handwritten book of receipts (or recipes) for remedies from 1864. Like the account books, the pages are difficult to decipher without some concentrated effort. But it is possible to get an idea of the types of illnesses he was trying to treat and the combination of purchased and locally available ingredients he combined in creating his remedies.

Genealogical Records


Black-and-white image of four children in old-fashioned clothing posing for camera
The four children of Dr. Howard and his second wife, Cynthia, about 1870. Front, left to right: Mattie, Camer, and Letitia; rear: Manchie. / THF109605

As mentioned before, it is important to verify the stories gleaned from personal reminiscences. So, for Dr. Howard’s background and family history, we also consulted census and other genealogical records (many, thankfully, online on websites like ancestry.com). Here we could verify the dates of the Howard family’s move to Michigan, as well as the names, birth and death dates, and places of origin of his parents, siblings, and two wives (Letitia, his first wife, passed away in 1857; he married his second wife, Cynthia, a year later), and children with each wife), as well as other interesting information, like the fact that his father, Alonson B. Howard, Sr., served in the War of 1812.

Black-and-white portrait of man with beard wearing a suit, in an elaborate frame; contains text at the bottom
Photograph of Dr. Howard’s father, Alonson B. Howard, Sr., about 1860. / THF237220

We also learned through census records that Dr. Howard listed his occupation in three different ways over the years—as a farmer in 1850 and 1860, as a physician in 1870, and as both a physician and surgeon in 1880.

Local History Records


Black-and-white photo of several wooden buildings by side of two-lane road among trees
Dr. Howard’s office on its original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, situated along the road at the front of “Windfall,” the family farm, March 1956. / THF237150

It is important for us to remember that, although a building and its story might reside in Greenfield Village today, it originally came from another place. This larger context is crucially important to creating an accurate picture in our interpretation of that building and the people related to it. Dr. Howard’s office was originally located just outside the village of Tekonsha, Calhoun County, in south central Michigan. The Howard family settled there in the 1840s, when Alonson, Jr. was 17 years old, during a period of great migration into Michigan by white settlers. A majority of settlers, including the Howard family, came from upstate New York.

Road sign next to dirt road running by fields and buildings
Road sign near original site of Dr. Howard’s office, August 1959. / THF237152

To find out more about Tekonsha in the 1840s, we consulted the voluminous History of Calhoun County from 1877. We know that the numerous county histories that were published across the country around the time of America’s centennial in 1876 are among the best sources for recounting minute details of the early settlement of various communities. Indeed, the Calhoun County history provided several valuable bits of information. But, of course, in the end, it is essentially the story of white settlers. About Native Americans, who had recently occupied the area and some of whom still lived there during Dr. Howard’s time, this county history ranged from sketchy to dismissive to outright racist.

Black-and-white image of dark-skinned woman in shawl and cap knitting and looking at camera; also contains text
We found in our research that self-emancipated orator Sojourner Truth was perhaps Calhoun County’s best-known African American resident at the time. She lived in Harmonia (Bedford Charter Township, now part of Battle Creek) from 1857 until her death in 1883. Residents in Tekonsha, located about 25 miles down the road, would have undoubtedly heard of or read about her. / THF121160

African Americans were similarly dismissed from the historical record in this county history, except as “runaways” on the Underground Railroad who were “saved” by white “conductors.” To create a more accurate picture of these marginalized groups, we pursued additional research in scholarly books and trustworthy websites. Potawatomi tribal history was particularly important for us to understand because according to Howard Washburn, Dr. Howard had a friendly relationship with members of this group and even named two of his children after “Indian” friends of his (see “Dr. Howard: A Country Doctor in Southwest Michigan” for more detail on this history).

Oral Histories


Five people with arms around each other pose for camera in front of a red wooden building
Five descendants of Dr. Howard standing in front of his office in Greenfield Village in June 2013. From left to right: Corey Washburn (North Dakota); Sue Gillies (Australia); Dawn Gunther (California); Fiona Lynton (Australia); and Angela Karaca (Australia). / Photograph by Donna Braden.

Oral histories involve the systematic collecting and recording of personal reminiscences through live interviews. They can convey a level of detail not available in other sources, and can be informative, vivid, and colorful—often with a touch of humor and a wellspring of emotion.

In 2013, we were treated to a visit from five descendants of Dr. Howard, on a pilgrimage from their homes in North Dakota, California, and even Australia, to visit the sites related to their ancestor. During a lively oral history session with us, they filled in gaps in our knowledge about the family tree of Dr. Howard’s descendants, as well as regaling us with stories they had researched and collected themselves (see “A Visit from Dr. Howard’s Descendants”).

The Building and Its Contents


Small red wooden building among green lawns, trees, walkways, and streetlamps
Dr. Howard’s office as it looks in Greenfield Village today. / THF1696

Since we know that Dr. Howard was the first and only individual to use this space as a doctor’s office, the actual building additionally becomes a unique primary source of its own for providing clues. The building spaces reveal that he divided what had originally been a schoolhouse into several partitioned rooms: a public waiting room, a private office, a working laboratory (where he mixed his own concoctions), and a pill-rolling room (where he hand-rolled his own pills).

Black-and-white photo of dresser and hutch among other furniture
Dr. Howard’s desk, in one of several photographs taken of the building’s interior on its original site before removal to Greenfield Village. The desk is on display in the refurbished building in Greenfield Village today. / THF237200

The original furnishings that were donated with the building—e.g., the cast-iron stove, a wooden storage trunk, Dr. Howard’s desk, chairs, and a daybed—provide further concrete evidence of his use of the building and its specific spaces. Finally, the wooden casks for holding extracts and the approximately 250 bottles and jars that came with the building—most with their original labels and some with their contents intact—greatly helped to supplement our knowledge about the ingredients that Dr. Howard used and the concoctions he created to treat patients (see “Dr. Howard’s ‘Medicine Cabinet’” for more on this).

Conclusion


We have described some of the sources we look at when researching the people related to our Greenfield Village buildings, and, specifically, some of our most helpful finds in piecing together the story of country doctor Alonson B. Howard, Jr. There are always more clues to be unearthed. The research on each Village building is never-ending, and we look forward to deepening and enriching the stories of Dr. Howard and other people who once inhabited buildings now in Greenfield Village.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She would like to thank Associate Curator Ryan Jelso for his assistance in doing the genealogical research on the Howard family.

healthcare, Michigan, The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Dr. Howard's Office, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Donna R. Braden, research, archives

Corner of simple wooden room with narrow shelves on the walls lined with bottles, jars, and papersShelves of original bottles and jars that Dr. Howard used in his medical practice, still lining the shelves of the office when this photograph was taken, just before the removal of the building to Greenfield Village in March 1956. / THF237192


During the mid-19th century, people did not know what caused disease. They didn’t understand the nature of germs and contagion, nor did they realize the connection between unsanitary conditions and sickness. The pharmaceutical industry had not yet become established and standards for ensuring safe medicinal ingredients didn’t exist at that time.

Rectangular brown paper package with decorative elements and text, along with two images of men's faces
Dr. Filkins’s Vegetable Sugar-Coated Liver Pills, a patent medicine from about 1870. / THF154650

To cure what ailed them, many people at the time chose to use “patent” medicines (whose ingredients often ranged from questionable to outright dangerous) or home remedies. (For more on patent medicines, see “Patent Medicine Entrepreneurs: Friend or ‘Faux’?”) Still, most small towns had at least one person who called himself a doctor.

Black-and-white photo of face and torso of a man with muttonchops and beard wearing a jacket
Photograph of Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr., 1865–1866. / THF109611

Dr. Howard’s Medical Practice


Small red wooden building sitting on a greenspace among trees, sidewalks, and streetlamps
Dr. Howard’s Office, as it looks today in Greenfield Village. / THF1696

Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr., whose modest office is located today in Greenfield Village, was one such doctor. From 1852 until his death in 1883, he treated patients in and around Tekonsha, Calhoun County, Michigan—practicing medicine in his office as well as traveling around to visit patients in their homes. (For more on Dr. Howard’s background and medical practice, see “Dr. Alonson B. Howard, A Country Doctor in Southwest Michigan”).

Black-and-white photo of cemetery, road, and small, overgrown building across the road
Photograph of Dr. Howard’s office on its original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, taken from Windfall Cemetery across the street, August 1959. / THF297164

Dr. Howard wasn’t the only doctor around. Several other physicians practiced medicine in and around the Tekonsha area during Dr. Howard’s career. Furthermore, visiting doctors from the East Coast made the circuit, staying overnight to administer to those who needed their specialty medicine or treatment.

Page with text
This “eclectic” medical journal from 1882 was found among the contents of Dr. Howard’s office when it was moved to Greenfield Village. / THF627461

Facing competition, Dr. Howard likely made some conscious choices about his practice. He would have been considered an “eclectic” doctor at the time, choosing from three different approaches to best treat each illness: “conventional” (also known variously as orthodox, allopathic, or heroic), homeopathic, and botanic medical practice.

Wooden box lined with red velvet, containing scissors, knives, bandages, and other implements
Surgical kit from the era of Dr. Howard’s practice. / THF188363

In the true sense of a country doctor, Dr. Howard combined the attributes of chemist, apothecary, dentist, physician, and surgeon. According to reminiscences and his obituary, Dr. Howard was well known for his treatment of chronic illnesses. His 1864 receipt book of remedies includes his handwritten “recipes” for the treatment of such illnesses as venereal disease, tuberculosis, spinal meningitis, scrofula, cancer, Bright’s Disease, dysentery, kidney problems, enlarged liver, worms, and menstrual problems, while reminiscences also include reference to his delivering children.

Hand-written cursive text on page
Dr. Howard’s “recipe” for treating kidney problems, from his handwritten receipt book, 1864. / THF620465

Concoctions, Elixirs, and Cures


Narrow room with built-in racking filled with casks and vats labeled with hand-written text
The interior of the “laboratory” in Dr. Howard’s Office today, based upon photographs of the original arrangement. The original casks are still displayed. / THF11271

Like other country doctors of the time, Dr. Howard prepared his own medicines and remedies. His niece, Etta, remembered as a little girl watching him mix powders and medicines and marveling at his speed and dexterity in folding packets.

In concocting his remedies, Dr. Howard often first ground up the raw ingredients, then carefully mixed them together using precise recipes that were his own or that he had collected from elsewhere (usually a medical treatise). Many of the medicines required careful boiling, evaporation, or distillation. Pills were hand-rolled. Smaller concoctions went into bottles and jars, while more sizable preparations of liquid extracts and syrups were stored in casks, or small barrels, and stacked on shelves in his laboratory.

Corner of room with wooden floors and walls covered with narrow shelving containing many bottles and jars
Contents of Dr. Howard’s Office today, based upon the arrangement of jars and bottles when the building was on its original site. / THF11280

The bottles and jars lining the shelves in Dr. Howard’s private office would have housed both raw ingredients for his remedies and small amounts of his homemade concoctions. Nearly all the bottles and jars that are in the building today belonged to Dr. Howard back in the 19th century. When the building came to Greenfield Village in the 1960s, many of these containers still had their original labels and contents. These provided the basis for the 2003 refurbishment of the building (after it was moved to the Village Green). At this time, many of the by-then faded labels were replaced with identical reproductions and oft-ancient contents were replaced with newer or simulated versions.

Small red wooden building on trailer behind truck next to gray wooden building among lawns, roads, and trees
Dr. Howard’s Office being relocated to the Village Green (from its original location near where the Village Playground is today) during the 2002–2003 Greenfield Village restoration. / THF19075

Perusing these labels, in combination with the ingredients listed in Dr. Howard’s 1864 receipt book of remedies, offers us great insight into exactly what ingredients and concoctions he used to administer to the sick and ailing. Just what was in Dr. Howard’s “medicine cabinet”? Let’s take a look!

These are some of the raw ingredients that Dr. Howard used in his remedies and housed in jars and bottles on the shelves in his office:

  • Dried plants (leaves, berries, petals, and roots), like lobelia, red rose petals, raspberry leaf, blue vervain, burdock root, valerian root, and dandelion root
  • Dried herbs, like fennel seeds, thyme, rosemary, parsley, peppermint, dill weed, basil, sage, and lemon balm
  • Tree roots, leaves, and bark, like wild cherry bark, white oak bark, white willow bark, slippery elm bark, birch bark, and black walnut leaves
  • Spices (whole or pulverized), like ginger, mace, turmeric, cumin, and cloves
  • Chemicals and minerals, like alum, calomel, carbonate of iron, laudanum, chloroform, carbonate ammonia, and bromide potassium

     

These are the types of concoctions that he would have mixed or prepared and stored in jars and bottles in his office:

  • Infusions (for drinking, prepared by simmering leaves, roots, bark, or berries of plants, tree bark, or herbs in hot liquid), including infusions of chamomile, horseradish, foxglove, flaxseed, hops, wild cherry bark, sarsaparilla, slippery elm bark, and valerian
  • Poultices or liniments (for applying to skin to relieve pain), including dyspepsia paste, liniment for rheumatism, liniment of camphor, soap liniment, and hemorrhoid ointment
  • Pills (would have been hand-rolled by Dr. Howard), including “female pills,” ague pills, toothache pills, anti-spasmodic pills, typhoid pills, cathartic pills, and tonic pills
  • Waters (water flavored with different substances), like orange water, camphor water, anise water, cinnamon water, peppermint water, rose water, spearmint water, saline water, dill water, caraway water, mineral water, and lavender water
  • Tinctures (concentrated substances dissolved in alcohol, which would have been added to a drink by droplet; these were stronger and more concentrated than infusions), like tinctures of belladonna, capsicum, and iodine, and chlorine tooth wash
  • Syrups, like ginger syrup, pectoral syrup, wild cherry syrup, “Dr. Howard’s Own Cough Syrup,” syrup of birch bark, syrup of juniper, and syrup of ipecac
  • Oils (for rubbing on skin, inhaling, or consuming in small quantities), including oil of roses, dandelion oil, oil of lemon, oil of lavender, oil of nutmeg, castor oil, cod liver oil, oil of dill, oil of flax seed, oil of garlic, oil of peppermint, and oil of juniper berry


Black-and-white photo of storage room containing casks on racks, barrels, and furniture
Photograph of casks for syrups and extracts on the building’s original site, taken in 1956. /
THF109607

The room next to Dr. Howard’s private office, which he called his laboratory, is where he would have mixed his medicines, hung large cuttings of plants and herbs to dry, kept equipment for creating his concoctions, and stored his casks of extracts and syrups. The extracts would have been made by steeping plants, tree bark, or herbs in water, alcohol, vinegar, or other solvent to draw out their characteristic essence. These included:

  • Extract of “lyon’s heart” (promoted digestion)
  • “W.C.S.” (as written on the cask), probably wild cherry syrup (useful for numerous ailments: cold, coughs, breathing, digestive pain)
  • Extract of butternut bark (to treat dysentery, constipation)
  • Extract of “bonesett” (for fever)
  • Extract of ragweed (reduced inflammation)
  • Extract of blue vervain (to treat severe headache)
  • Extract of skunk cabbage (helped treat asthma and rheumatism)
  • Extract of wahoo (despite safety concerns, people took wahoo root bark for indigestion, constipation, and water retention)
  • Extract of brook liverwort (for chronic cough, liver conditions)
  • Extract of snake root (to treat typhoid and other intermittent fevers)

 

Conclusion


Black-and-white portrait of man in suit sitting at table containing bottles and jars
Photograph of small-town doctor John C. McCullough, from Wheatland, Indiana, 1875, posing with some of his “tools of the trade” for mixing concoctions: apothecary and medicine bottles, a funnel, a beaker, and a scale to weigh ingredients. / THF226496

Like other country doctors, Dr. Howard administered to the sick and ailing in the best ways he knew. He used existing knowledge, trial and error, and his own intuition in diagnosing and treating illnesses and diseases. He made his own decisions about what ingredients to obtain and mixed his own concoctions.

Case lined in blue velvet with insert standing up to display many small vials; also contains text labels
The pharmaceutical industry was just becoming established when Dr. Howard passed away in 1883. This kit contains pharmaceutical samples created by Merck about 1884. Merck traces its origins to the German Merck family, who founded the business back in the 1600s. Its American affiliate was created in 1891. Lehn & Fink were New York City importers, exporters, and wholesale druggists during the 1880s. / THF167218

This was a time before prescription medicines and safe, off-the-shelf drugs were available, and before there were government safety standards on ingredients (which began with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906). Some of the ingredients that Dr. Howard used may seem odd or unfamiliar to us today. Others appear more familiar, though these are more likely to be used today to treat such health concerns as headaches, anxiety, or insomnia than the deadly infectious diseases of Dr. Howard’s time. In all, the contents of Dr. Howard’s office—the original jars, bottles, and casks, as well as his receipt book of remedies—give us an extraordinary opportunity to look, deeply and viscerally, at the contents of one country doctor’s “medicine cabinet.”


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She would like to acknowledge the meticulous work of Nancy Bryk, former curator at The Henry Ford, in refurbishing the office interior when it was moved to the Village Green during the 2002–2003 Greenfield Village restoration.

Michigan, healthcare, by Donna R. Braden, Dr. Howard's Office, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

Two painted and two gilt figures among four bells
The Sir John Bennett tower clock. / Photo by The Henry Ford.


The quarter-hour chime of the Sir John Bennett tower clock is a memorable sound that can be heard throughout Greenfield Village, emanating from its four figures—the muse, Gog, Magog, and Father Time (shown right to left above). Early in 2021, Magog’s chime and striking arm developed cracks along the mechanical shoulder.

Close-up of shoulder of figure in different colors and textures, one portion damaged
Recorded damage of Magog’s chiming arm. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.

Painted metal pieces, one in the shape of a forearm and hand, on a cloth on a workbench
Disassembly of Magog’s arm prior to cleaning. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.

The arm was disassembled by Conservation Specialist Andrew Ganem, and conservation and curatorial staff were faced with a decision to repair the original arm or to replace it with a replica. One of the major concerns with repair was that new cracks could develop in the already thin (0.04”) sheet metal when Sir John Bennett becomes operable again. After some discussion, we made a decision to replicate and replace the arm to allow for safe operation of the clock, while preserving the original component in storage for future reference.

The replica arm could not be easily replicated using conventional copper metalwork techniques because of its highly textured surface. An easier replication method came from our partners at Ford Motor Company, who proposed the use of 3D scanning and polymer printing. To accomplish this, the original arm was 3D scanned and that data imported into a computer-aided design (CAD) program. The replica arm was then printed using stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing. You can learn more about this type of printing here.

Yellow shape with blue end and portions labeled with text
Image courtesy Ford Motor Company.

Yellow shape with portions labeled with text
Image courtesy Ford Motor Company.

Yellow semicircle
Image courtesy Ford Motor Company.

The scanned model of the arm was produced by Daniel Johnson and Kevin Lesperance at Ford Motor Company’s metrology lab.

Two hollow shapes--one gray, one painted yellow and blue, sitting on a workbench
A side-by-side comparison between the SLA 3D-printed copy on the left and the original artifact on the right. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.

Two people handle a hollow statuary arm on a workbench
The 3D-printed part is tested for fit prior to electroplating by Ford Motor Company’s Erik Riha on left and The Henry Ford’s Andrew Ganem on the right. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.

The SLA plastic material wasn’t strong enough to endure continuous use in the outdoor environment of Sir John Bennett’s tower clock, so Ford engineers proposed coating the replica polymer part with nickel and copper layers using electrical deposition. The nickel layer stiffened the print, while the copper layer offered a better surface for painting.

Statuary figure from the side, showing copperplated arm
Test for fitting the plated arm onto Magog. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.

Copper form with black base sitting on blue quilted fabric
Holes in the cast iron mount for the arm. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.

The use of an appropriate painting system that could endure the outdoor environment in Greenfield Village was imperative. Dr. Mark Nichols of Coatings, Surface Engineering, and Process Modeling Research at Ford Motor Company and Dan Corum of PPG recommended PSX-One (high solids, acrylic polysiloxane.) Amercoat 2/400 was used as a primer, as it provides chemical, environmental, and moisture resistance. The paint colors on the original arm were matched to a color sample and duplicated by Andrew Wojtowicz of PPG.

Two identical tubular shapes next to each other, one gold and blue and one gray and blue, with small jar between them
Original arm, left; 3D-printed arm, right; and Munsell color sample in the middle. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.

The primed surface on the shoulder and elbow was coated with oil sizing and gilded with 24-karat gold.

Four identical tubular shapes--left one gray, next one copper, third gold and blue, right semi-dull gold and blue
Left to right: SLA-printed replica; copper/nickel/copper-plated SLA replica; copper/nickel/copper-plated SLA replica primed, painted, and gilded, ready for use; and original artifact part for comparison. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.

During a test assembly, we noted that the linkage that connects Magog’s arm to the chiming mechanism was too short, so Andrew fabricated an extension and attached it to the original linkage. He also fabricated new hardware for the elbow joint to accommodate the additional thickness of the replacement part.

Metal piping or tubing with round shape with bolts on end
Extension fabricated by Andrew Ganem. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.

Person wearing mask holds a portion of a painted statue
Photo by Cuong Nguyen.

Painted and gold tubular shape with hinged bend in middle
Elbow joint. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.

Two metal rods with gold stoppers on either end sit on a metal table
Original and machined hardware. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.

Magog’s clapper for the bell striker required attention by Andrew and The Henry Ford’s welder Chuck Albright, who soldered the joint between the cuff, wrist, and grip for the strike (hammer). A vibration isolator (made from Sorbothane) was inserted to reduce shock between the clapper and the arm during operation.

Painted hand and wrist shape with large hole in hand
Separation between the hand and the wrist. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.

Painted hand- and wrist-shaped object
Required surface preparation for a strong solder repair. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.

Person's wrist wearing blue glove inside white sculpted fist holding a barbell
The size of the fist. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.

Special thanks to Dr. Mark Nichols, Dr. George Luckey, Erik Riha, Daniel Johnson, and Kevin Lesperance at Ford Motor Company, and to Daniel Corum and Andrew Wojtowicz at PPG. The help from Ford Motor Company specialists and their fabrication equipment made the project possible without invasive modifications to the artifact part.

We also extend a grateful thank you to Jason Hayburn, whose generous donation funded the electroforming of the replica.


Cuong T. Nguyen is Objects Conservator at The Henry Ford.

Sir John Bennett, technology, philanthropy, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, conservation, collections care, by Cuong Nguyen, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Log cabin on a green lawn with other buildings and trees in background

McGuffey’s birthplace in Greenfield Village today. / THF1969

William Holmes McGuffey’s easy-to-understand Eclectic Readers were influenced by his experiences growing up on the Pennsylvania and Ohio frontiers, as well as his family background and upbringing. His birthplace, a log home from western Pennsylvania now in Greenfield Village, is a physical representation of these experiences.

McGuffey’s Birthplace in Western Pennsylvania


Black-and-white portrait of man with receding hairline wearing suit
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey, 1855. / THF286352

William Holmes McGuffey’s family was Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish)—a group of strict Presbyterians who had migrated from the Scottish Lowlands to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. During the 1700s, many Scots-Irish emigrated to Pennsylvania, a colony that offered available land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. By the end of America’s colonial period, more than 30% of the population in Pennsylvania was Scots-Irish.

As early as 1760, land was almost unobtainable in the American East and many Scots-Irish headed inland to the western frontier, quickly inhabiting areas in western Pennsylvania during the 1780s and 1790s. This rapid settlement was only possible because the American government had, through treaties and sometimes military action, forced Native American tribes to move successively further west until they were pushed out of western Pennsylvania entirely. The major tribes that had inhabited the area, having migrated or been forced there from other areas during the 1700s, included the Lenni-Lenape or Delaware, the Shawnee, and the Seneca (referred to by European settlers as “Mingo”). Other tribes who might have traversed and/or built temporary villages in the area included the Huron/Wyandot, Chippewa, Mississauga, Ottawa, Mohawk, Cherokee, and Mohican.

William Holmes McGuffey’s family followed the typical migration pattern of other Scots-Irish immigrants. His paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, had arrived during the last great wave of Scots-Irish immigration, sailing with their three young children from Wigtownshire, Scotland, to Philadelphia in 1774. They soon joined a community of Scots-Irish immigrants in York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved to Washington County in western Pennsylvania, where cheap land on the expanding western frontier had opened to settlers.

Here, they would once again be living among like-minded people, a community of Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Scots-Irish families, like other immigrants, did not leave all of their Old-World ideas and ways of doing things behind. They shared a similar heritage of music, language, foodways, and material culture. They also tried to establish familiar institutions in the move west—first churches, but also schools, stores, and courts of law.

Log cabin with stone fireplace among trees with another building visible in the background
McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village, photographed in 2007 by Michelle Andonian. / THF53239

McGuffey’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, moved to Washington County about the same time as the McGuffey family. The log home that became William Holmes McGuffey’s birthplace was constructed about 1790 on the Holmes acreage. It was likely Henry and Jane Holmes’s first-stage log home (meaning they planned to build and move to a nicer home as soon as possible). Their daughter, Anna, married Alexander McGuffey at the Holmes farmstead just before Christmas 1797, and they lived in this log structure as their first home. While living there, they had their first three children: Jane (born in 1799), William Holmes (born in 1800), and Henry (born in 1802).

In 1802—only five years after they married and moved into the log house where William Holmes McGuffey was born—Alexander and Anna McGuffey moved their young family further west, to the largely unsettled Connecticut Western Reserve area of northeastern Ohio. William Holmes McGuffey, then two years old, would complete his growing-up years on this new frontier (see “William Holmes McGuffey and his Popular Readers” for more on this).

Log Houses


Page with text and image of log cabin surrounded by people with large eagle holding banner above
During the 1840 Presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, the log home became a romantic symbol of the frontier and the pioneer spirit, as shown in this 1840 music sheet cover. / THF256421

The log house would become an American icon, but its origins are European. Finnish and Swedish settlers are thought to have been the first people to construct horizontal log dwellings in America, in the colony of New Sweden (now Delaware) in the early 1600s. Welsh settlers carried the tradition of log construction into Pennsylvania.

Later waves of immigrants, including Swiss and Germans, brought their own variations of log dwellings. The Scots-Irish, who did not possess a log building tradition of their own, supposedly adapted a form of the stone houses from their native country to log construction, and greatly contributed to its spread across the frontier.

One of the principal advantages of log construction was the economy of tools required to complete a structure. A log structure could be raised and largely completed with as few as two to four different tools. Trees could be chopped down and logs cut to the right length with a felling axe. The sides of the logs were hewn flat with a broad axe. Notching was done with an axe, hatchet, or saw.

Close-up photo of corner of log cabin on stone foundation
A closeup of the McGuffey birthplace on its original location, showing both notching and the chinking. / THF252509

The horizontal spaces or joints between logs were usually filled with a combination of materials, known as “chinking” and “daubing.” These materials were used for shutting out the driving wind, rain, and snow as well as keeping out vermin. Many different materials were used for chinking and daubing, including whatever was most conveniently at hand. Chinking usually consisted of wood slabs or stones, along with a soft packing filler such as moss, clay, or dried animal dung. Daubing, applied last, often consisted of clay, lime, and other locally available materials.

McGuffey’s Birthplace in Greenfield Village


Matted photograph of run-down looking wooden building with equally run-down looking fence in front
McGuffey’s birthplace on its original site in 1932. / THF133827

Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by William Holmes McGuffey’s readers. Beginning in the 1910s, Ford purchased every copy of the readers that he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. By the early 1930s, Ford decided to commemorate McGuffey’s impact on his education and upbringing in an even bigger way—by moving McGuffey’s humble log home birthplace to Greenfield Village.

Unfortunately, by the time Henry Ford saw McGuffey’s birthplace in western Pennsylvania in October 1932, it no longer served as a home, but had been used for many years as a “loom house” or “spinning room” and a sheep barn. The structure had largely collapsed; no walls were completely standing. But Henry Ford purchased it anyway, from a McGuffey descendant who still owned the property. Edward Cutler, Henry Ford’s architect, measured the remaining chimney foundation for later recreation, and had trees suitable to replace the missing or deteriorated logs cut down and prepared for shipment. All these parts were shipped to Dearborn in November 1932.

From January to August 1934, the home was reconstructed in the Village with some modifications. Originally a rectangular home, when completed in Greenfield Village it was approximately 16½ feet square and was ten logs high rather than nine. A shed (smokehouse) was found on the Pennsylvania site and recorded, but was not moved with the McGuffey house. The smokehouse in Greenfield Village was a replica completed at the same time as the house. By 1942, a pen with sheep had been added.

Log cabin under construction
Constructing the McGuffey School in Greenfield Village, 1934. / THF28571

The William Holmes McGuffey School was a newly constructed building in Greenfield Village, built in 1934 out of logs from the Holmes family’s original barn. Among its early furnishings was a schoolmaster’s desk made from a walnut kitchen table used by the McGuffey family.

Dedication ceremonies for the McGuffey buildings took place on September 23, 1934 (the 134th anniversary of McGuffey’s birth), in Greenfield Village. Attended by McGuffey relatives and other dignitaries, the dedication ceremonies were broadcast by NBC. A memorial program was also held at the McGuffey birthplace site in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and a marker was placed there.

Interior of room building with low beamed ceiling, large stone fireplace, and various furniture
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 1954. / THF138606

For many years, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, furnished with household goods of the period, was open for visitors touring Greenfield Village. Over time, the structure was repaired many times, but some of the choices made during these renovations—like copper sheathing, wire mesh, and Portland cement—increased the rate of the structure’s deterioration. In 1998, the building was determined to be a safety hazard and closed to visitors. Happily, as part of the Village upgrade of 2002–2003, the log structure was renovated and restored. This involved replacing logs and roof shingles and applying a new style of chinking with a non-Portland cement mortar mix.

Woman in long simple dress and apron bends over a fire in a large stone fireplace
Presenter cooking over the fireplace in the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 2018. / Photo courtesy of Caroline Braden

The William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace is today furnished as it might have looked in 1800–1802, the period when the McGuffey family resided there during William Holmes McGuffey’s infancy and toddlerhood. Though we have no specific information on furnishings owned by the McGuffeys during the time they lived in this home, we have excellent information on household furnishings from the same time period and geographic location, based upon probate inventories of families from Washington County, Pennsylvania. These include such furnishings as a worktable, a few mismatched chairs, iron pots for fireplace cooking, a butter churn, and kegs and barrels for storing food.

Room interior showing large stone fireplace and a variety of old-fashioned furnishings
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, showing current placement of furnishings. / Photo courtesy of Deborah Berk

The furnishings reflect the needs and personalities of its inhabitants—William Holmes’s father, Alexander; his mother, Anna; and William and his siblings. For example, in order to emphasize the influence of the religious and literate Anna, we have included a Bible and some books. Alexander is represented by men’s clothing and the shaving set on the shelf. The children’s presence is indicated by the cradle, the small stool, the diapers on the drying rack, and the toys in the cupboard.

The placement of the furnishings in the McGuffey birthplace also shows the family’s Scots-Irish background. It was the custom of this group to make the hearth the focal point of the home, with a clear path from the door to the fireplace. Rather than being put in the center of the room, the table would have been de-emphasized and placed against the wall.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Her book, Spaces that Tell Stories: Recreating Historical Environments (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), recounts in greater detail the research, furnishings plan, and current interpretation of the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village.

immigrants, home life, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, by Donna R. Braden

Photograph of man wearing glasses and a suit reading a book
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey reading a book, circa 1860. /
THF110186

William Holmes McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were both successful and influential. Between 1836 (when the readers were first introduced) and 1850, seven million copies of them were sold. During the second half of the 1800s, they became the most widely circulated textbooks in the United States, influencing the outlooks and perspectives of such luminaries as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and the Wright brothers. How did the readers come to be, and why did they have such tremendous appeal?

Typewritten, hand-signed letter on letterhead
A letter from President Taft to Henry Ford testifying about the importance of McGuffey Readers in his life, 1924. / THF96603

McGuffey’s Influences


Many factors contributed to the creation and content of McGuffey’s readers, including his heritage, family background, and experiences growing up.

William Holmes McGuffey’s family was part of a group of immigrants to America who were often referred to as Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish). These people were Presbyterians from the Scottish Lowlands who had migrated to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. Religious restrictions and economic conditions had motivated members of this group to emigrate to America during the 1700s, and many of them settled in Pennsylvania—a colony that offered affordable land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. As land became increasingly unobtainable in the East, many Scots-Irish immigrants headed west and south to the edges of European settlement. In these scattered frontier communities, the Presbyterian Church remained a stabilizing force, and its tenets would become a major influence on the later McGuffey Readers.

The McGuffey family followed a similar pattern of migration to other Scots-Irish. William Holmes McGuffey’s paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, landed in Philadelphia in 1774, then moved farther west to York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved again, to Washington County in western Pennsylvania—then considered the edge of the settlement or the western frontier. There, cheap land had recently become available to white settlers (see “William Holmes McGuffey’s Birthplace” for more on this). William’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, had also moved to Washington County about this same time. Their farmstead, named Rural Grove, was close to the McGuffey place. This was undoubtedly how William’s parents, Alexander McGuffey and Anna Holmes, met.

Small log cabin with shingled roof and stone fireplace, surrounded by grass and other buildings
The McGuffey birthplace as it stands today in Greenfield Village. / THF1969

Alexander and Anna were married just before Christmas 1797. Their first home was the log house now in Greenfield Village. This house, situated on the Holmes farmstead, had likely been Henry and Jane Holmes’s initial home before they constructed a larger frame house. Alexander and Anna’s first three children were born here: Jane (1799), William Holmes (1800), and Henry (1802).

William’s parents played a particularly significant role in young William’s life. His restless father, Alexander, embodied the values of individualism, adventure, risk-taking, and making one’s own way in the world. His mother, Anna—who was serious, pious, intelligent, and literate—enjoyed the stability of the Scots-Irish community in which they lived.

Black-and-white print of log cabin in a forested area with people, chickens, and logs stacked outside; also contains text
This 1870 Currier & Ives print of a settler’s family and their log home gives an impression—albeit a romanticized one—of what living on the sparsely settled frontier might have been like. / THF200600

In 1802—only two years after William Holmes was born—Alexander’s restlessness spurred the young family to move west into the Ohio Territory, to a sparsely settled area known at the time as the Connecticut Western Reserve. Here, the family settled on 160 wooded acres and established a small farm. Five more children were born there: Anna (1804), Catherine (1807), Elizabeth (1809), Asenath (1811), and Alexander Hamilton (1816). William spent his youth on this fairly isolated farmstead on the Ohio frontier.

At the time, the Ohio frontier was considered the edge of settlement—for white settlers, anyway. Although travelers and white settlers at the time described this area as a “howling wilderness” or the “solitary wilds,” in fact Native Americans had inhabited the region for thousands of years. By the time Europeans (primarily French and British fur traders) arrived in the 1700s, several Native American tribes had recently moved into the area. These included the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and Seneca-Cayuga—who had all migrated or been forced to settle there during that time from other places in the north, east, south, and west.

Black silhouette of person's head and shoulders, oval-matted and in ribbed gold frame
A hand-cut silhouette of George Washington, created around the time of his presidency. / THF142004

The influx of American settlers into Ohio with the passage of the Land Ordinance Act (1785) and the Northwest Ordinance (1787) spurred the American government—which had never truly recognized Native rights of land ownership—to evict the Native Americans from these lands. In the 1780s, a series of treaties was attempted. When these proved essentially unsuccessful, a frustrated President Washington decided to use brute force instead. He commanded a successive series of military generals to drive the Native tribes out of Ohio. Eventually, General Anthony Wayne declared victory in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. (William’s father, Alexander, had been involved in this and previous battles in what became known as the Ohio Indian Wars of the 1790s.) The resulting Treaty of Greenville in 1795 pushed Ohio’s Native tribes into a demarcated section of northwest Ohio, until they were forced out of Ohio completely in the early 1800s.

In 1795 (the same year as the Treaty of Greenville), Connecticut, which had been deeded the strip of land in northeast Ohio Territory known as the Western Reserve back in 1662, sold this land to a group of speculators. They surveyed the land, neatly dividing it into townships and then assigning land agents who sold individually marked lots to incoming white settlers. Within about ten years, Ohio essentially shifted from “Indian Country” to a territory rapidly filling up with white settlers. In 1803, Ohio became the 17th state admitted to the United States, though the Western Reserve area in northeastern Ohio remained fairly sparsely settled until after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. Though only some of William Holmes McGuffey’s neighbors were—like him—Scots-Irish Presbyterians from western Pennsylvania, many shared the similar experience of adapting to the Ohio frontier from more settled communities farther east.

McGuffey’s Readers


Blue book cover with illustration of children reading at the base of a tree; also contains text
McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic First Reader, 1848. / THF289925

As part of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, schooling and education had been encouraged, but the ordinance charter did not create a system for establishing or funding schools. The children of more well-to-do families paid tuition to attend private schools, called academies, where both boys and girls received rudimentary training in classics, reading, writing, and arithmetic.

While education was considered a high priority by New Englanders and Scots-Irish Presbyterians settling in Ohio, many farm families—especially those migrating to the area from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky—often lacked the money and inclination to ensure that their children received a formal education. In 1818, a traveler remarked that the schools in Ohio were very few in number and “wretched” in conditions.

William Holmes McGuffey received a better education than most children raised on the Ohio frontier. In his early years, his mother taught him basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, but she was always attempting to find ways for William to receive more education. She eventually succeeded in finding a school for him to attend in Youngstown, six miles away, run by Presbyterian minister Rev. William Wick, and William quickly developed a passion for learning. At the completion of his studies, Rev. Wick informed William that he had now received enough education to teach others and encouraged him to open a school. As a result, in September 1814, 14-year-old William McGuffey held his first “subscription school” at Calcutta, Ohio, for 48 students. His students, whose parents paid a fee for their instruction, brought their own books, with the Bible being the most common.

Two years later, and for the next four years, McGuffey attended the Old Stone Academy in Darlington, in western Pennsylvania. He then enrolled in Washington College, a Scots-Irish Presbyterian school located in Washington, Pennsylvania—ironically only a few miles from where he had been born. For the next six years, William alternated between working on his family’s farm in Ohio, teaching school, and attending classes at Washington. As he tried to educate others in the scattered and isolated settlements of the western frontier, he got a true sense of how desperately children needed an easy, standardized way of learning to read and write.

Blue book cover with image of three people reading a book; also contains text
McGuffey’s Eclectic Second Reader, 1836. / THF289931

William completed his formal schooling at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a Presbyterian school, then taught there for the next 10 years (1826–36). By the 1830s, Ohio’s population had grown tremendously, and many public schools were opening. McGuffey saw a great need for a system of standardized education, especially for children of immigrants and those living in the scattered settlements of the West (now the Midwest) and South. In the mid-1830s, Truman & Smith, a Cincinnati publishing company, invited him to prepare a new series of textbooks to be marketed in the Midwest.

McGuffey worked to make his Eclectic Readers interesting and accessible to children, based on his observations while he was a teacher. An important difference from the few earlier textbooks that existed in America was that these were purposefully developed as a series, with each reader intended to be progressively more difficult and challenging than the one preceding it. He completed his first and second readers in 1836 and the primer, third, and fourth readers in 1837. William’s younger brother, Alexander, compiled the fifth reader in 1844 and the sixth in 1857.

Page with text
Cover page of McGuffey’s Newly Revised Rhetorical Guide; or Fifth Reader, 1853, owned by Bishop Milton Wright, father of Orville and Wilbur Wright. / THF250428

McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were called “eclectic” because they included stories, poems, essays, and speeches drawn from a variety of sources. The primer and the first two readers consisted mainly of brief, simple tales and lessons. The more advanced readers included excerpts from orations, scripture, and English literature.

When students completed a reader, they moved on to the next level. With time off for harvest and farm chores, rural pupils might get no further than the second reader before completing their education in their mid-teens, which would provide reading skills equal to about a third- or fourth-grade level today.

Blue book cover with image and text and book opened to two-page spread with image and text
Inside pages and outside cover of McGuffey’s New Second Eclectic Reader, 1865. / THF59806

The McGuffey Readers had a huge impact on American society, especially in the Midwest and South. The books not only taught youngsters to read; they were also often their primary source of information about history, philosophy, and science. For many schoolchildren, the excerpts in the readers from the works of authors like Shakespeare and Wordsworth were the closest they would get in their lifetimes to the Western world’s great literature. The stories in the readers also helped establish common understandings, heroes, values, and even expressions among a wide group of Americans. For example, when President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that he did not wish to be a “Meddlesome Matty,” everyone knew what he meant. He was referring to a character in McGuffey’s fourth reader who snooped and meddled in other people’s affairs.

The kind of practical morality that McGuffey advocated in these books was based on his own upbringing and Scots-Irish Presbyterian background. The ideal character traits that were emphasized in the readers—industry, thrift, temperance, kindness, virtue—all reflected Presbyterian values. As the series was updated in 1841, 1844, 1857, 1866, and 1879, the publishers gradually muted its overt religious messages. But they never lost McGuffey’s original emphasis on moral instruction.

Over time, critics have attacked McGuffey’s readers for such flaws as not addressing the injustices of slavery, referring to Native Americans as “savages,” having anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic overtones, and reinforcing the traditional role of women as homemakers. McGuffey himself revised some of his text over successive editions. Still, the readers are of their place, their time, and the background and life experiences of their author.

Henry Ford and McGuffey’s Readers


Man wearing suit sits in a chair by a fireplace, reading a book
Henry Ford perusing a McGuffey reader inside the McGuffey Birthplace, Greenfield Village, 1940. / THF126110

Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by the McGuffey Readers. Ford considered McGuffey one of his great heroes because of his ability to spark young imaginations. He believed that the books were successful because they used a narrative approach that spoke to the time and place of readers like himself.

Book cover with text and image of children reading with a dog
Henry Ford had this reader, originally published in 1885, reprinted in 1930 for use in his Edison Institute Schools. / THF288332

McGuffey Readers had a deep and lasting influence on Henry Ford. They were among the earliest objects reflecting the American experience that Henry Ford collected, beginning in the 1910s. Ford bought every copy that he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. A strong believer in McGuffey’s educational principles, Ford perpetuated these beliefs by founding the Edison Institute Schools. He even had the readers reprinted so that the children in the schools could use them.

Group of children walk out of a log cabin door
Edison Institute schoolchildren exiting McGuffey School, 1937–40. / THF286354

Ford commemorated McGuffey’s role in educational reform by rebuilding his birthplace in Greenfield Village and constructing a school out of barn logs from the original farmstead where McGuffey was born. William Holmes McGuffey School served as the second-grade classroom for the students attending Edison Institute Schools from 1934 until the school system was closed in 1969.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

Henry Ford, childhood, school, education, books, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Donna R. Braden

Red wooden building among other buildings by a pond
Tripp Sawmill in Greenfield Village. / THF1880

Visit the Liberty Craftworks district in Greenfield Village, and a red structure stands out at the far end of the pond. That’s the Tripp Sawmill, which once operated in Tipton, Michigan, in the mid-1800s, under the ownership of Rev. Henry Tripp and his family.

“It’s an interesting example of a logical, sequential, flowing process,” Marc Greuther, vice president of historical resources and chief curator at The Henry Ford, said of the sawmill. “It’s not a stretch to think of the building as a kind of machine, if you will, a single-purpose machine that is quite refined.”

Black-and-white photo of man working next to very large tree trunk mounted on a machine in a wooden building
A Man Working in the Tripp Sawmill in Greenfield Village, June 15, 1936. / THF277109

The sawmill was built and run solely by the Tripp family, tailored to the needs of the surrounding community. Tipton, an early American startup of sorts, was not necessarily looking for a large-scale logging operation in its midst. Instead, it needed a self-contained, functioning sawmill that could cut and process lumber from the area’s felled trees. It most likely operated only during the winter months, when residents could easily move felled trees from their properties across the frozen ground. “The Tripps were quite adept at figuring out how to start a business and find a niche,” said Greuther. “They were venturesome, entrepreneurial, and had that can-do attitude.”

Black-and-white photo of a wooden building with a sloped roof
The Tripp Sawmill on its original site in Tipton, Michigan. / THF243590

While many such sawmills in the United States at the time were water-powered, especially those started in newly founded communities, the Tripp Sawmill was powered by steam from the outset—finely tuned and aligned to the resources within its vicinity. A well, for example, was on-site. The mill collected and used rainwater. Its boiler was fueled with waste wood and sawdust from the mill’s operation. “The mill exemplifies a judicious use of resources and technology and human personnel and output all working together,” said Greuther.

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by Jennifer LaForce, The Henry Ford Magazine, Michigan, manufacturing, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

Small red brick building with bell tower
Scotch Settlement School in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller


Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village offers an engaging look into the ways Americans celebrated Christmas in the past. At Scotch Settlement School, the holiday vignette reflects the Christmas programs that took place in the thousands of one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the landscape of rural America.

Black-and-white photo of group of African American boys and girls standing with an African American woman outside a small wooden building
Students and teacher pose outside their rural one-room school in Summerville, South Carolina, about 1903. / THF115900

The schoolhouse—often the only public building in the neighborhood—was a center of community life in rural areas. It was not only a place where children learned to read, write, and do arithmetic, but might also serve as a place to attend church services, go to Grange meetings, vote in elections, or listen to a debate.

Matted black-and-white photo of group of children wearing stars and stripes sitting and standing with a man in a suit in front of a wooden building
Students dressed in patriotic costumes for a school program, pageant, or parade, about 1905. / THF700057

People in rural communities particularly looked forward to the programs put on by the students who attended these schools—local boys and girls who ranged in age from about seven to the mid-teens. School programs were often presented throughout the year for occasions such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, Arbor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and eighth-grade graduation. People came from miles around to country schools to attend these events.

Page with handwritten text and holly leaf and berries drawn with crayon (?)
Folded page with handwritten text
Handwritten Christmas program from Blair School, Webster County, Iowa, December 23, 1914
. / THF700097, THF700098

Among the most anticipated events that took place at the schoolhouse was the Christmas program—it was a highlight of the rural winter social season. Preparations usually started right after Thanksgiving as students began learning poems and other recitations, rehearsing a play, or practicing songs. Every child was included. Students might have their first experience in public speaking or singing before an audience at these school programs.

Room interior containing Christmas tree, wood-burning stove, bookshelves, and American flag hanging from wall
Interior of Scotch Settlement School during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller.

The schoolroom was often decorated for the occasion, sometimes with a Christmas tree. During the late 1800s, when the presence of Christmas trees was not yet a widespread tradition, many children saw their first Christmas tree at the school Christmas program. Presents like candy, nuts, fruit, or mittens—provided by parents or other members of the community—were often part of the event. Growing up in 1870s frontier Iowa, writer Hamlin Garland recalled the local minister bringing a Christmas tree to the schoolhouse one Christmas—a tree with few candles or shiny decorations, but one loaded with presents. Forty years later, Garland vividly remembered the bag of popcorn he received that day.

Teachers were often required to organize at least two programs a year. Teachers who put on unsuccessful programs might soon find themselves out of a teaching position. Teachers in rural schools usually came from a similar background to their students—often from the same farming community—so an observant teacher would have understood the kind of school program that would please students, parents, and the community.

Children at times performed in buildings so crowded that audience members had to stand along the edges of the classroom. Sometimes there wasn’t room for everyone to squeeze in. To see their parents and so many other members of the community in the audience helped make these children aware that the adults in their lives valued their schoolwork. This encouraged many of the students to appreciate their opportunity for education—even if they didn’t fully realize it until years later. Some children might even have been aware of how these programs contributed to a sense of community.

Postcard with handwritten text, blurred address, and one-cent stamp
Postcard with the handwritten message, “Our school have [sic] a tree & exercises at the Church across from the schoolhouse & we all have a part in it,” from 11-year-old Ivan Colman of Tuscola County, Michigan, December 1913. / THF146214

These simple Christmas programs—filled with recitations, songs, and modest gifts—created cherished lifelong memories for countless children.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

childhood, music, actors and acting, events, holidays, Christmas, education, school, Scotch Settlement School, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Holiday Nights, by Jeanine Head Miller

Two-story white wooden building with green lawn with a few small trees around it
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.

image001
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

Architectural element of white box with round holes in a "U" pattern in it
Architectural elements of white boxes with round holes in a "U" pattern in them
Architectural elements of white boxes with round holes in a "U" pattern in them
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.

Close-up of decorative trim above a window
Top of a window, showing decorative trim above, and part of black shutters to either side; maroon curtains visible inside
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.

Front façade of a white house with symmetrical windows with black shutters, and closed black shutters above the front door
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.)

Peaked gable of a white wooden house with rectangular and quarter-circle-shaped windows; above a porch (?) with columns
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.

View, looking up from below, of white building porch with columns, topped with triangular gable
Cornice of white column from underneath
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.

Black-and-white photo of two-story wooden house with columns flanking front door
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

Back of two-story wooden building with porch, columns, and square addition to right side
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.

Round decorative architectural detail sitting on work table in space with paint-spattered walls
Close-up of round wooden architectural element with fan-shaped tines
Close-up of architectural element in flower shape with radiating petals/tines coming out from it
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

Two men on scaffolding hold a large wooden architectural element on a building façade
Two men on scaffolding hold a large wooden architectural element on a building façade
Two men on scaffolding stand on either side of a large wooden architectural element on a building façade
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!

Two-story white wooden house with symmetrical windows with black shutters and a peaked roof
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.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, collections care, by Jim Johnson, Noah Webster Home, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

“The Farmer Is the Man That Feeds Us All.” The words of that folk tune became indelibly imprinted on U.S. popular culture when Alan Lomax included it as the 66th out of the 317 songs in Folk Songs of North America (in the English Language) (1960). In fact, linking “the farmer” to “the man” tells only half the story!

Painting of four women in flowing white gowns; one holds a cornucopia and one two plant fronds
Women in classical dress, 1790-1810 / THF152522

Plenty of popular images of women in agriculture exist. The painting above, rendered by a girl in Massachusetts in the early years of the new nation, shows a woman holding a cornucopia. This likely represented either Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, or Copia, the Roman goddess of abundance. The goddess to the far right, holding a branch, might represent Pax, the Roman goddess of peace.

Page with text and images of woman working with some kind of tools and fabric weaving in progress
Mode of Spinning and Weaving by the Pueblo Indians, 1857 / THF621691

Abundance and peace marked a stable and secure agricultural society. Yet, farms throughout the expanding United States flourished on lands that matrilineal indigenous societies had managed for centuries before colonization. The Henry Ford acknowledges these matrilineal indigenous societies as stewards of the lands that sustained them for centuries.

Ribbon with text and a number of images
Hillsboro County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Badge, 1852 / THF154922

The popular depictions of goddesses of agriculture, grains, harvest, and fertility continued in U.S. popular culture for decades. The agricultural fair badge above depicts either the Greek goddess, Demeter; the Roman goddess, Ceres; or America’s Lady Liberty—all matrons of agriculture.

In contrast, illustrations in The Farmers and Dairymans Almanac, published the same year (1852), featured only men engaged in the practice of growing crops and rearing livestock. The work fit the seasons—flailing grain, building fence, spreading manure, and bringing in the sheaves—but emphasized that men did agricultural work and ran the business of farming as well.

Male authority over business ventures, including farming, stemmed from legal traditions based in English common law. These included the precedent of feme covert—that married women had no legal civil identity separate from their husbands. Married women were civilly dead. Thus, only single adult women or widows could negotiate the legally binding contracts required to operate farms. Married women could not—their husbands alone had the legal authority to do so. State laws began chipping away at feme covert during the 1820s by granting married women authority over their wages, recourse if abandoned by a husband, or the privilege of parental authority. It took decades, however, before most states afforded married women authority over their property and finances.

Woman in striped dress sits on low stool, milking a cow eating hay, next to a wooden fence and building
Woman milking a cow, circa 1890 / THF228504

Women acted as farmers, nonetheless. They performed many tasks routinely, including milking cows and tending chickens.

Seven women wearing kerchiefs and long skirts work in a field
Farm scene showing Norwegian women at work in fields off Merrick Road, 1890-1915 / THF38397

Women worked in the fields, too, especially when crops needed planting, cultivating, or harvesting. Sometimes they did this work as a member of a gang of laborers. The companionship might have eased some of the tedium of hoeing around seedlings to reduce competition from weeds, but it did not ease the physical demands of the labor. The women shown above, described as Norwegian by the photographer, work in farm fields near Brooklyn, New York.

Open field with a large group of people sitting/standing/working in the distance, some with boxes
Workers in an Onion Field, H. J. Heinz Company, circa 1910 / THF291590

Perishable commodities required everyone to pitch in. The above photograph shows girls and boys, as well as women and men, busy in an onion field under contract to the H. J. Heinz Company.

Duplicate arched photographs in a frame with text, depicting people working at trees in a wooded area, one rolling a barrel into a wagon
In a Great Pine Forest, Collecting Turpentine, North Carolina / THF278800

During harvest seasons, farming needs often took precedence over domestic routines and women worked alongside men to get work done as quickly as possible. This included harvesting turpentine from long-leaf pine forests—yes, forestry work is a branch of agricultural work.

Women operated some machinery, too. Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (1882) features women and children raking hay. One illustration (page 96) shows a woman operating a Wheeler & Melick Co. rake, but this and others like it might have been pure advertising ploys, emphasizing ease of operation and celebrating the notion that “many hands make light work.” The description for the Coates Lock-Lever Hay and Grain Rake in Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (page 231) explains that “twenty acres is a fair day’s work, and as any boy or girl who can guide a horse can work it, it will readily be seen how great a labor-saver it is.”


Page with text and several line drawings that show agricultural work and tools
Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (1882), pg. 240 / THF277183

The need to get hay in dry provided opportunities for girls and women to contribute their labor. The 1882 illustration above shows a girl and a boy on horses that generate the power to raise the loaded hay fork and run it along the track to dump hay in the barn. The same illustration shows a woman at work in the dirtiest job, distributing the dumped hay in the mow.

Double arched duplicate photographs in a frame with text, showing a group of African American people standing on a large hay pile
A Rice Raft with Plantation Hands, Near Georgetown, South Carolina, 1901-1909 / THF278804

The work completed by women and children often contributed to the economic solvency of the family farm. They “gleaned” by walking through harvested fields and picking up grain and straw missed by the work crews. The photograph above shows laborers after a day at work in rice fields in South Carolina. The raft transported them and their grain and straw back home, where they hulled the grain for family use or to sell and used the straw as forage or bedding for their livestock.

Other important farm work occurred in domestic spaces. This “women’s work” should not be discounted among farm work. Women and girls ensured food security and kept farms running by raising, processing, and preserving food crops and processing animal products (eggs, dairy, meat). Several farm homes in Greenfield Village tell these critical stories.

Garden with raised wooden beds containing nasturtiums and other plants, with wooden building and windmill in the distance
Daggett Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian / THF53544

The Daggett family, of Daggett Farmhouse, had a very set routine of farm and household management tasks. Samuel Daggett ran the business side of the farm. He had to ensure harvests of enough hay to keep the cattle herd healthy, and enough small grains to satisfy family consumption needs and market income. Anna Bushnell Daggett, on the other hand, oversaw the kitchen garden, to ensure harvests adequate to feed the family. The Daggett family raised food they needed for the entire year on their farmland. They had to plan the quantity and quality of plants and vegetables they needed to grow and harvest to ensure family survival. They then had to preserve the crops by pickling, storing (in a root cellar), fermenting, or drying them to ensure a supply throughout the winter months and into the next season.

Print of aerial view of farm property, with house, outbuildings, fields, trees, cows and horses, and people
Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Wayne, Michigan, 1876, page 34, detail / THF126026

The Ford farmhouse functioned well under the oversight of Henry Ford’s mother, Mary Litogot Ford. She maintained the busy farmstead while ensuring that her young and growing family was well fed and healthy. She, with the help of neighboring farmgirls, milked the cattle and tended chickens. She may also have helped with pressing seasonal farm work like bringing in the hay crop, but her young family probably consumed most of her attention on the farm. Mary unfortunately passed away on March 29, 1876, and it’s hard to imagine the historical farmstead operating without her at the center (distinctive in her dress in the illustration above, published in 1876) standing with children and chickens.

Two women shuck and remove kernels from corn cobs at a kitchen table containing other dishes and food
Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007, Photographed by Michelle Andonian / THF52966

Firestone Farmhouse provides insight into the question, “What does it take to put a meal on the table?” This work drove a farm woman’s working day as she prepared three meals each day, 365 days every year. Morning activities focused on the repetitive and time-consuming tasks of preparing, consuming, and cleaning up after breakfast, while also preparing farm-grown produce, eggs, and meat for the noon meal. Other chores, including work in the kitchen garden, processing of dairy products, and tending to the chicken flock, in addition to household chores and childcare, consumed afternoons and evenings. Evenings involved additional preparation for the same tasks repeated the next day, and so on. Disruptions to these routines included celebrations like weddings, somber events such as funerals, and the haste of harvest which increased the farm workload for all.

Black-and-white photo of wooden house with large iron kettle over ring of stones in dirt yard
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991 / THF45318

The center of many farm women’s lives revolved around the backyards of farm homes. Grace Mattox, her ancestors and her children, spent countless hours over decades keeping the backyard of the Mattox Family Home swept. This area, with its nearby brush arbor, provided additional space to get work done, and to visit with relatives and neighbors while they did it. The Mattox children remembered their hardscrabble existence, consisting of constant work to keep the garden cultivated, ripe vegetables processed, and food on the table.

The Henry Ford’s collections and these historic farmsteads in Greenfield Village provide a glimpse into the routines of farm women’s work. Their labor, from sun-up to sun-down, was essential to ensure the health and wellbeing of their families, as well as the smooth operation of their farms. These routines changed by the mid-twentieth century, as processed foods reduced the work required to maintain the family food supply and new farm implements replaced laborers. Often, women pursued off-farm work, but they remained essential to farm operations as their earnings helped family farms make ends meet.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford and Kathleen Johnson is a student at Henry Ford Academy.

Daggett Farmhouse, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, home life, food, women's history, farms and farming, agriculture, by Kathleen Johnson, by Debra A. Reid, #THFCuratorChat