As Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, I’ve worked on many Greenfield Village building makeovers since I started here in the late 1970s. Today I’m going to take you behind the scenes to five of my favorites.
THF237357 / Historical Presenters outside Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village, circa 1982
The 1980s and 1990s were an exciting time here, as we upgraded many Village buildings that had long been unchanged. The history and presentations of many of them were inaccurate, like the presenter outfit and penny candy in this general store image of 1965.
THF126771 / Historical Presenter and Visitors in the General Store, Greenfield Village, 1965 / Photographed by Philippe Halsman
We looked at sources that many historians used—probate records, census records, local newspapers, old photos (like this one of Firestone Farm). These helped us uncover more accurate stories about the people who had lived and worked in these buildings.
THF115221 / Firestone Farmhouse at Its Original Site, Columbiana, Ohio, circa 1876, Robert, Harvey and Elmer with Grandmother Sally Anne Firestone
Eagle Tavern, constructed in the 1830s, was one of the first buildings we tackled. In 1927, Henry Ford found this by-then-dilapidated building (see photo) in Clinton, Michigan, brought it to Greenfield Village, and located it on the Village Green.
THF237252 / Eagle Tavern at Its Original Site, Clinton, Michigan, 1925
Ford enlarged the back of the building to use as a student cafeteria for his Edison Institute schools. You can see the addition behind the carriages lined up for tours, which left from here when the Village first opened to the public in the 1930s.
THF120768 / Horse-Drawn Carriages outside Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern), Greenfield Village, 1929-1950
When I started working at the museum in 1977, Clinton Inn was still a cafeteria, but for visitors. Here’s a photo of visitors lunching there back in 1958.
THF123749 / Visitors Lunching at the Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern), Greenfield Village, 1958
The so-called “colonial kitchen” was also used for fireplace cooking classes as part of the museum’s Adult Education Program. I took several of these classes back then—but, alas, I don’t seem to be in this particular photograph!
THF112256 / Colonial Cooking Class Held at Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern) in Greenfield Village, 1978
In 1981, I joined a new Food Committee, to better align our food offerings with our overall interpretation. We proposed turning this historic building into a sit-down restaurant with period food and drink. Our idea was accepted, and we got to work.
THF54290 / Server at Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village, October 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian
Delving into historical research, we settled on the year 1850 for interpreting the building’s role as a roadside way-station and community hangout (like this 1855 print). In 1850, the place was called Eagle Tavern, run by a farmer named Calvin Wood.
THF120729 / Mail Coaches Changing Horses at a New England Tavern, 1855
To find out what and how people ate at that time, I looked at travelers’ accounts, etiquette books, and historic cookbooks. The chefs tested historic recipes. We sampled them to create each seasonal menu—like this, one of our first “Bills of Fare.”
THF123845 / Menu from Eagle Tavern, Greenfield Village, 1982, "Bill of Fare"
Eagle Tavern opened in April 1982, with staff dressed in some of the Village’s first-ever historically accurate clothing. This photo, taken when our dream of establishing a historic restaurant became a reality, still fills me with pride! (You can find more content related to Eagle Tavern on The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nationepisode page and YouTube clip.)
THF237355 / Historical Presenters outside Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village, 1983
When I started at The Henry Ford in Summer 1977, the far end of Greenfield Village was undergoing a big change. The 18th-century Connecticut home of antiques collector Mary Dana Wells had just arrived and was being rebuilt using hand construction methods.
THF133332 / Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, circa 1978
The building was initially called the Saltbox House (an antiquarian’s term referencing its shape, as seen in this photo before the home was moved). Indeed, the early focus here was on interpreting the architecture and Mrs. Wells’ rare antique furniture.
Now that you’ve seen the colonial “saltbox” shape of the exterior, here’s an interior shot of Mrs. Wells’ antiques when she lived there.
THF236130 / Daggett Farm House at Its Earlier Site, Union, Connecticut, 1951-1977
In 1981, I joined an interdepartmental task force to enliven Village buildings. At the Saltbox House, we decided to highlight colonial-era household activities. The house soon came alive with the sights and sounds of cooking, cleaning, and spinning wool.
THF136883 / Activities Inside the Connecticut Salt Box House (now Daggett Farmhouse) in Greenfield Village, 1989
Meanwhile, our research revealed that a family named the Daggetts had lived there during the 1760s, the period of our interpretation. From Samuel Daggett’s rare account book, we could reconstruct what the Daggett family did at their farm during that time.
THF54170 / Presenter Working at Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, October 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian
Over time, the interpretation at the house moved from simple demonstrations of domestic activities to a more accurate recreation of the lives and livelihood of the Daggett family. Eventually, the house was renamed the Daggett Farmhouse.
THF16439 / Presenter Working at Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, April 2006
I think of Firestone Farm as our greatest building makeover and I was involved with it from the beginning. In 1983, the museum was first offered Harvey Firestone’s boyhood home, located in Columbiana, Ohio. Here’s a 1965 photo of it on its original site.
THF115233 / Firestone Farmhouse at Its Original Site, Columbiana, Ohio, 1965
Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone became friends, business associates, and members of a small group called the “Vagabonds,” who traveled around and went camping together. Ford often visited the Firestone family homestead in Columbiana, Ohio.
THF124714 / Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford at Firestone Farm, Columbiana, Ohio, 1918
Curator of Agriculture Peter Cousins (shown on the right here) proposed that this farmhouse become the nucleus for a year-round, authentically recreated “living history” farm. He was instrumental in thoroughly documenting the farmhouse and barn.
THF138464 / Construction at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, May 1985
Meticulous research went into furnishing the farmhouse rooms. This dim black-and-white photo of a corner of the parlor from 1898 provided important clues to how this room looked when Harvey’s parents, Benjamin and Catherine Firestone, ran the farm.
Based upon that photo, other photos of parlors of the period, and actual furnishings from that era, here is how that corner of the parlor was reconstructed when the farmhouse was reconstructed in Greenfield Village.
THF53032 / Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian
My task was researching the cooking and other domestic activities and supplying the appropriate equipment for the kitchen and pantry. Here’s a glimpse at what that kitchen came to look like later, with presenters getting the midday meal on the table.
THF53126 / Presenters Working at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian
In June 1985, Firestone Farm was officially “reborn” in Greenfield Village. Here’s a photo of the dedication, with President Gerald Ford speaking. (You can find more content about Firestone Farm on The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation’sepisode page and YouTube clip.)
New research in the early 1990s revealed that this rural Georgia home in Greenfield Village had housed several generations of the Mattox family—an African American family who, through determination and hard work, owned and maintained their home and land.
Reopened in 1991, the Mattox House depicts the 1930s era, when Amos (shown here, ca. 1910) and Grace Mattox—descended from enslaved African Americans—raised their two children. Life was hard but the family proudly affirmed that there was “always enough.”
My primary job here was to furnish the kitchen and prepare the space for cooking programs. I used many of the great oral histories that the project team had initially collected, gleaning information about the Mattox family’s cooking and eating habits.
THF53399 / Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian
In 1992, Rosa Parks visited the Mattox House, furnished like similar homes at the time with newspapers covering the front room walls to insulate against cool Georgia nights and winters. (You can find more content about the Mattox Family Home on our The Henry Ford’sInnovation Nation episode page.)
THF123775 / Rosa Parks Visiting Mattox House in Greenfield Village, 1992
My several years of experience with historical research, artifacts, and interpretation came in handy when, in 1990, I became the lead curator on a makeover of the general store on the Village Green.
THF54366 / J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village, October 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian
Henry Ford originally wanted a general store to complete the buildings he had envisioned for his Village Green. He found the perfect store in Waterford, Michigan (as shown here), purchased it, brought it to Greenfield Village, and had it rebuilt in 1927.
THF126117 / J.R. Jones General Store (Just Before the Move to Greenfield Village), Original Site, Waterford, Michigan, 1926
Ford then sent agents out to obtain historic store stock. One of the items they sent back was a storefront sign with the name Elias A. Brown. Elias Brown had run a store in New York, not Michigan—leading to a lot of confusion for visitors over the years.
THF138605 / Elias A. Brown General Store in Greenfield Village, October 1958
We began researching the store’s history in Waterford and found that it had changed proprietors nine times! We decided that James R. Jones, the 1880s storekeeper (pictured here), was our best choice to interpret. His name replaced Elias Brown’s out front.
THF277166 / Portrait of J.R. Jones, circa 1890 / back
Further research led us to specific customers, the choices of goods people might have purchased, and the role of general stores in local communities—as seen by this “community bulletin board” we later created in the store from local announcements and ads.
THF53768 / J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian
Wanting the store interior to look like a real working store—filled with lots of duplicate and like-new items—we used both real artifacts and accurate reproductions. By the time we were done, the store was stocked with some 5000 items!
THF53774 / J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian
The J.R. Jones Store opened in 1994, shown here with our first vintage baseball team, the Lah-de-Dahs—named after a team from Waterford back in the 1880s. When visitors walk inside the store today, they’re still blown away by the store’s interior! (Check out more content about the J.R. Jones General Store on our website and a YouTube clip from The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.)
THF136301 / "Lah-De-Dahs" Baseball Team in Greenfield Village, Spring 1994
Well, this just touches upon the makeover stories of a few buildings in Greenfield Village. We continue to uncover new research and new stories. I hope you enjoyed this brief virtual visit to Greenfield Village and plan to make a real visit soon!
THF16450 / Presenters Working at Daggett Farmhouse in Greenfield Village, April 2006
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
This year, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the George Washington Carver Memorial in Greenfield Village. There is not a great deal of specific information about this project in the archival collections, but here is what we do know.
Henry Ford’s connections and interest in the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute began as early as 1910 when he contributed to the school’s scholarship fund. At this time, George Washington Carver was the head of the Research and Experimental Station there.
Henry Ford always had interests in agricultural science, and as his empire grew, he became even more focused on using natural resources, especially plants, to maximize industrial production. He was especially interested in plant materials that could be grown locally. Carver has similar interest, but his focus was on improving the lives of southern farmers. His greatest fame was that of a “Food Scientist”, though he was also very well known for developing a variety of cotton that was better suited for the growing conditions in Alabama. Through the decades that followed, connections and correspondences were made, but it would not be until 1937 that the two would meet face to face.
Through the 1930s, work and research began to really ramp up in the Research or Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village. Various plants with the potential to produce industrial products were researched, but eventually, the soybean became the focus. Processes that extracted oils and fibers became very sophisticated, and some limited production of soy based car parts did take place in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as a result of the work done there.
In 1935, the Farm Chemurgic Council had its very first meeting in Dearborn. This group, formed to study and encourage better use of renewable resources, would meet annually becoming the National Farm Chemurgic Council. It was at the 1937 meeting, also held in Dearborn, that George Washington Carver, and his assistant, Austin Curtis, were asked to speak. Carver was put up in a suite of rooms at the Dearborn Inn, and it was here that he and Henry Ford were able to meet and discuss their ideas for the first time, face to face. During the visit, Ford entertained Carver at Greenfield Village and gave him the grand tour. Carver was also invited to address the students of the Edison Institute Schools. Carver would write to Ford following the visit, “two of the greatest things that have come into my life have come this year. The first was the meeting with you, and to see the great educational project that you are carrying on in a way that I have never seen demonstrated before.”
It was at some point during the visit that Henry Ford put forth the idea of including a building dedicated to George Washington Carver in Greenfield Village. It seems that he asked Carver about his recollections of his birthplace, and went as far as to ask for descriptions and drawings. Later correspondence from Austin Curtis in November of 1937 confirm Ford’s interest. It was determined by that point that the original building that stood on the farm of Moses Carver in Diamond Point, Missouri had long been demolished. Granting Ford’s request, Curtis would go on to supply suggested dimensions and a sketch, to help guide the project. The cabin was described as fourteen feet by eighteen feet with a nine- foot wall, reaching to fourteen feet at the peak of the roof. It included a chimney made of clay and sticks.
A 1937 rendering of the birthplace of George Washington Carver based on his recollections. No artist is attributed, but it is likely this was drawn by Carver. THF113849
It would not be until the spring of 1942 that the project would get underway. The building, very loosely based on the descriptions provided by Carver, would be constructed adjacent to the Logan County Courthouse. In 1935, the two brick slave quarters from the Hermitage Plantation, had been reconstructed on the other side of the courthouse. The grouping was completed with the addition of the Mattox House (thought to be a white overseers house from Georgia) in 1943. As Edward Cutler, Henry Ford’s architect, would state in a 1955 interview, “we had the slave huts, the Lincoln Courthouse, the George Washington Carver House. The emancipator was in between the slaves and the highly- educated man, It’s a little picture in itself.”
There are no records beyond Henry Ford’s requests for information as to how the final design of the building, that now stands in Greenfield Village, was determined. An invoice and correspondence does appear requesting white pine logs, of specific dimensions, from Ford’s Iron Mountain property. There is also an extensive photo documentation of the construction process in the spring and early summer of 1942.
Logs in place, roof framing in process, spring 1942. THF285285
Newly Completed George Washington Carver Memorial, Early Summer, 1942. THF285295
In the end, the cabin would resemble less of a hard scrabble slave hut, and more of a 1940s Adirondack style cabin that any of us would be proud to have on some property “up north”. It was fitted out with a sitting room, two small bedrooms (with built in bunks), a bathroom, and a tiny kitchen. It was furnished with pre-civil war antiques and was also equipped with a brick fireplace that included a complete set-up for fireplace cooking. As an interesting tribute to Carver, a project, sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America, provided wood representing trees from all 48 states and the District of Columbia to be used as paneling throughout the cabin. Today, one can still see the names of each wood and state inscribed into the panels.
Plans had initially been made for Carver to come for an extended stay in Dearborn in August of 1942, but those plans changed and he arrived on July 19. This was likely due to Carver’s frail health and bouts of illness. While the memorial was being built, extensive plans were also underway for the conversion of the old Waterworks building on Michigan Avenue, adjacent to Greenfield Village, into a research laboratory for Carver. The unplanned early arrival date forced a massive effort into place to finish the work before Carver arrival. Despite wartime restrictions, three hundred men were assigned to the job and it was finished in about a week’s time.
George Washington Carver would stay for two weeks and during his visit, he was given the “royal” treatment. His visit was covered extensively by the press and he made at least one formal presentation to the student of the Edison Institute at the Martha Mary Chapel. During his stay, he resided at the Dearborn Inn, but on July 21, following the dedication of the laboratory and the memorial in Greenfield Village, just to add another level of authenticity to the cabin, Carver spent the night in it.
George Washington Carver and Henry Ford at the Dedication of the George Washington Carver National Laboratory, July 21, 1942. THF253993 Edsel Ford, George Washington Carver, and Henry Ford, Carver Memorial, July 21, 1942. THF253989
George Washington Carver at fireplace in Carver Memorial, July 21, 1942. THF285303
George Washington Carver seated at the table in Carver Memorial, July 21, 1942. THF285305
The completed George Washington Carver Memorial in Greenfield Village c.1943. THF285299
Beginning in 1938, Carver began to suffer from some serious health issues. Pernicious anemia is often a fatal disease and when first diagnosed, there was not much hope for Carver’s survival. He surprised everyone by responding to the new treatments and gaining back his strength. Henry and Clara visited Tuskegee in 1938 for the first time, later, when Henry Ford heard of Carver’s illness, he sent an elevator to be installed in the laboratory where Carver spent most of his time. Carver would profusely thank Ford, calling it a “life saver”. In 1939, Carver visited the Fords at Richmond Hill and visited the school the Fords had built and named for him there. In 1941, the Fords made another visit to Tuskegee to attend the dedication of the George Washington Carver Museum.
During this time, Carver would suffer relapses, and then rebound, each time surprising his doctors. This likely had much to do with his change in travel plans in the summer of 1942. Following his visit to Dearborn, through the fall, there was regular correspondence to Henry Ford. One of the last, dated December 22, 1942, was a thank you for the pair of shoes made by the Greenfield Village cobbler. Following a fall down some stairs, George Washington Carver died on January 5, 1943, he was seventy-eight years old.
Carver Memorial in its whitewashed iteration, c.1950. THF285299
It was seventy-five years ago, that George Washington Carver made his last trip to Dearborn. His legacy lives on here, and he remains in the excellent company of those everyday Americans such as Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Henry Ford, who despite very ordinary beginnings, went on to achieve extraordinary things and inspire others. His fame lives on today, and even our elementary school- age guests, know of George Washington Carver and his work with the peanut.
Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford.
Bryan, Ford, Friends, Family & Forays: Scenes from the Life & Times of Henry Ford, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2002.
Edward Cutler Oral Interview, 1955, Archival Collection, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.
Collection of correspondences between Henry Ford and George Washington Carver, Frank Campsall, Austin Curtis, 1937-1943, Archival Collection, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.
George Washington Carver Memorial Building Boxes, Archival Collection, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.
The Herald, August, 1942, The Edison Institute, Dearborn, MI
John Gunsolly operated what is now known as the Gunsolly Carding Mill in Plymouth, Michigan, beginning around 1850. Henry Ford reportedly remembered childhood visits to the mill with his father, delivering wool, and in 1929 he moved the building to Greenfield Village. We’ve just digitized 60 images of the building on its original site and throughout its history in the Village, like this one, showing power loom operation in the building (then called the Plymouth Carding Mill) in 1935. Today, visitors to The Henry Ford can see traditional weaving in action in Liberty Craftworks’ Weaving Shop, itself a former cotton mill. See more images of Gunsolly by visiting our digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
In explaining Mr. Ford's interest in the past, I think that in every person, after they reach a certain age, they begin to reminisce...in Mr. Ford's case, he was able to carry it further than the average person.
- Ernest Liebold, secretary to Henry Ford, in the book Reminiscences
In the beginning of the 20th century, the American elite were collecting European and English paintings, sculptures and decorative arts...but as cities began to grow and rural areas grew more and more scarce, those same people began to long for fine American furniture, glassware, porcelain, rare books and more.
That is, except for a handful of people like Henry Ford.
To him, humble machines were an expression of the "genius of the American people" and a reflection of American progress. He believed that everyday objects told what wasn't recorded in written histories and reflected a way of life that was quickly slipping away.
As early as 1912, Ford was collecting "relics" that represented American industrial progress, such as wagons and threshing machines - but it was this progress that prompted him to his first restoration and renovation of a building.
In 1919, a road improvement project in Ford's hometown of Springwells Township, Michigan (now the city of Dearborn), meant his birthplace would need to be either moved 200 yards from its original location - or destroyed.
Ford decided to move the house and restore it to the way it looked at the time of his mother's death in 1876, when he was 13 years old. Ford personally took charge of the birthplace restoration, meticulously recreating the details of the house down to the original or similar furnishings.
For example, Ford remembered sitting by a Starlight stove in the dining room as a child. After 18 months of searching, he discovered the exact make and model on a porch in Stockbridge, Michigan, which he purchased for $25 and loaded into his car for the journey back to Dearborn. And when he couldn't find the precise pattern of dishes his mother had used, he had the original site of his birthplace excavated and had replicas made from the pottery shards found.
Ford dedicated the restoration of his childhood home to his mother's memory and her teachings, particularly noting her love of family, her belief in the value of hard work, in learning "not from the school books but from life," and her belief in trusting one's intuition. His mother had encouraged his early tinkering and youthful inventions, and he felt sure she had set him on his unique path in life.
When the restoration of his childhood home was completed, people were awestruck by its authenticity. It seemed remarkable to him, and others, how a recreated environment could catapult one into another time and place.
This was the beginning of Ford's interest in preservation of historic buildings, and after several other restorations of buildings at their original sites, he began looking to create a village that would represent the early days of America up to the present. Working with Ford Motor Company draftsman and architect Edward L. Cutler, Ford began laying out plans for Greenfield Village.
It wasn't meant to represent any specific place in the United States, or even serve as a particular town - Ford created Greenfield Village primarily from buildings that he had purchased and moved to the site, organizing them around a village green with a courthouse, a town hall, a church, a store, an inn and a school. He placed homes along a road beyond the green. He brought industrial buildings, such as carding mills, sawmills and gristmills to the village and made them operate.
Today, Greenfield Village is organized into seven historic districts, with real working farms, a glassblowing shop, a pottery shop and more...so that, just like Henry Ford when he surveyed his preserved birthplace, you, too, can be transported to another place and time to learn about the ordinary and extraordinary people who shaped America.