Firestone Farmhouse and Firestone Barn during reconstruction in Greenfield Village, December 1984. / THF118159
Two centuries ago, in the 1820s, Peter Firestone began the construction of his new farmstead in Columbiana County, Ohio. It eventually comprised a sturdy brick home, a very large barn, and several small outbuildings. The task took him, his family, and numerous local craftsmen many years to complete. The farmhouse alone is said to have taken four years; it is possible the entire complex may have taken as many as ten years.
When The Henry Ford acquired Firestone Farmhouse and Firestone Barn in 1983, the first challenge we faced was moving them to Dearborn, Michigan, from their original location in eastern Ohio—some 200 miles away. We decided the only feasible method was to completely disassemble the buildings, pack the materials into trailers, and transport them to Greenfield Village, where we would reenact Peter Firestone's feat.
Research and Disassembly
Our project commenced in April 1983, when an architectural recording team began to measure the structures to be moved and created drawings that would be used for their reconstruction. The team noted the condition of the buildings, researched their history, and began to develop theories about the changes the structures had gone through over the years. Armed with architectural plans and documentary evidence, we began a careful probing of the buildings to uncover information about their construction.
We took paint samples from wood surfaces and analyzed them microscopically to help identify layers of paint applied over time. We also removed brick and mortar samples for chemical analysis. At this time, we discovered former stair locations, old room partition placements, blocked-up doorways, and the remnants of a fireplace in the farmhouse. Our examination of the barn revealed much about its original form and the changes made to it in the early 20th century. Our team recorded the location of mortises for missing framing members and incorporated patterns of the original construction into the drawings.
In conjunction with this work, we conducted two other types of research—archeological research and architectural field research. Evidence from an archeological dig to locate outbuildings that had once been part of the historic farm proved inconclusive, but we did uncover a large quantity of artifacts that helped establish how the farmhouse had been furnished in the past. As part of our architectural field research, we surveyed more than 200 area farmsteads. After analyzing our material, we went back to conduct an in-depth study of 25 barns resembling Firestone Barn, as well as various other 19th-century outbuildings.
We began disassembling the structures by removing and numbering interior woodwork and doors, which were then packed into trailers. Our team removed plaster and lath from ceilings and partitions. Then, we took up floorboards from all three levels of the farmhouse, numbered them, and placed them into trailers. In this same way, all the elements of the farmhouse interior and roof were disassembled and readied for shipment to Greenfield Village.
Next, restoration specialists took apart the masonry structure of the farmhouse brick by brick. They cleaned the bricks onsite and packed them with straw in shipping crates. As the brick walls came down, we removed window and door units intact. Then, the masonry specialists prepared the farmhouse’s sandstone foundation for disassembly. They numbered each stone on the interior face (which had several layers of whitewash on it) and photographed each wall surface with its numbering pattern showing. As the masons removed the stones, they again numbered each one on its top bedding surface. The stones, too, were cleaned and packed with straw in crates, and the number of each stone was listed on the outside.
Masonry restorers removed each brick from the walls of Firestone Farmhouse. After being cleaned of excess mortar, the bricks were packed with straw in the crates in the foreground. / THF149938
The barn was stripped of its 20th-century additions, siding, and roof to expose the frame of the building for disassembly. The wooden pins anchoring each timber joint had to be driven out so that the posts and beams could be taken apart in the reverse order of their assembly. Prior to removal, each timber was numbered with a color-coded plastic tag that identified its location in the frame. Timbers less than 40 feet long were loaded into trailers. Those that were longer—for example, one floor support beam that measured 68 feet—had to be shipped on a special stretch trailer.
Each stage of disassembly yielded more information about the original construction and subsequent alterations of the buildings.
In the barn we discovered the original granary and hay chute arrangements. Analysis of historic photographs and field data brought to light the "drive-through" equipment shed/corn crib that had been almost obliterated by 20thcentury alterations. We also unveiled early 19th-century changes to the structure, including a tool and storage room on the second level and subdivisions of the stalls on the first level.
The farmhouse continued to divulge more of its secrets. Evidence of major interior and exterior renovations turned up daily, as we found reused materials from the original construction in every conceivable portion of the later construction.
This bedroom doorway, which had been closed off during Firestone Farmhouse’s 1882 renovation, came to light during the disassembly process. / THF149936
We made one very exciting find while moving a section of hand-decorated plaster ceiling above the central stairway. Attached to a framing member associated with the farmhouse’s renovation was a scrap of paper inscribed, “James Maxwell Washingtonville Ohio 1882 / Harvey Firestone Columbiana Ohio 1882.” Aged 12 and 14, respectively, these boys had left a "secret" message, and we had been the lucky finders. Census research established that James Maxwell was the son of a plasterer. He was probably helping his father with interior renovation for the Firestones. Since we knew from the account book of Harvey Firestone’s father, Benjamin, that the renovation of the exterior of the farmhouse had been accomplished in 1882, the note proved conclusively that the interior renovation had been done at the same time. This helped influence our choice of 1882 as the restoration period for the entire farm.
This hidden message enabled us to precisely date Firestone Farmhouse’s 1882 renovation. / THF124772
Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village
While all this work was taking place in Ohio, we transformed Greenfield Village in anticipation of the farm's arrival. Workers cleared a seven-acre area designated as the farm site for development. We moved six buildings to new locations in the Village; eliminated four non-historic buildings from the area; constructed three new buildings for behind-the-scenes activities to replace those displaced by the farm; and relocated a portion of the railroad tracks.
By the end of 1983, four trailers, two large stacks of over-sized beams, and no fewer than 250 crates of brick and stone were all onsite awaiting the spring construction season. While planning for the entire farm restoration continued, workers began to reproduce a substantial portion of the barn that had been lost to 20th-century alterations. We purchased white oak logs, and craftsmen began hand hewing and joining timbers to recreate most of the original ground-floor framing, which had been replaced by modern materials. This process alone, excluding the actual erection of the timbers, took four craftsmen nearly three months to accomplish. Later in the project, additional components had to be created to replace portions of two sheds initially attached to the main barn. These had been drastically altered for 20th-century farming needs. The upper portions of the barn required numerous replacements and repairs, though most of this part of the frame had been unchanged from its original construction.
In May 1984, we broke ground for the foundation of both the farmhouse and barn. Throughout the summer and into the fall, the masonry shell of the farmhouse rose slowly from the foundation toward the roof line, with windows, doors, and floor framing incorporated during the process. The task of restoring each basement stone to its original location and replicating the brick bonding was tedious and time-consuming. To replace damaged bricks, we manufactured replicas in three different shades to match the originals in color variation, as well as in shape and texture. The entire masonry shell of the farmhouse was finally completed late in the fall, just as plunging temperatures threatened to stop the project. Winter weather halted most outdoor activity, and a temporary roof was placed on the building until late the next spring.
Masons set the transported stones back into Firestone Farmhouse’s new foundation. Here, the author assists by referring to composite photographs of each of the basement walls. / THF149926
The largely reproduced lower frame of the barn was erected in the summer, with repairs and minor replacements to the large upper section of the building continuing into the fall. After trial-fitting and adjusting individual portions of the upper stories, workers reassembled them in sections called “bents.” Each bent was lifted into place, then connected to another by struts and top plates to create the full frame. The erection process for the three-tier main frame lasted until December, when production of the attached sheds began. We completed roofing and siding of the main barn in the winter months as work on the remaining portions of the sheds moved offsite and indoors to escape the cold weather.
The author in May 1985 with a portion of the scale model constructed to assist in the restoration of the barn. The ramp side of the nearly completed barn is in the background. / THF149932
We restored the interior of the farmhouse during the first four months of 1985, placing each numbered floorboard, wall stud, wall plank, and door or window trim piece in its original location. At the same time, we repaired or replaced damaged materials using the same type of materials in the original construction. We applied new plaster to lathed stud walls and ceilings, as well as to the brick walls of the interior, then reinstalled additional trimwork that had covered the old plastering. Finish work then began on the interior surfaces of the farmhouse in preparation for whitewashing, painting, and papering. Carpenters moved outside at this time to restore the three porches that had been built in 1882. We finished painting the exterior in early June 1985.
With the coming of spring, we resumed outdoor work on the barn. We completed the attached sheds and massive stone ramp that leads to the upper floor of the barn, then moved our work inside. We attached plank floors with wooden pegs in the threshing area; restored the granary and tool room; and placed packed earth floors in the animal stall area on the ground level. We constructed new doors based on historic photographs, field studies, and an extant door—one of three types used for the barn.
The restoration of the farmhouse and barn did not represent a complete recreation of the Firestone farm. Additional elements helped establish the environment of an operating farm of the 1880s. We reproduced a pump house next to the farmhouse using historic photographs, archeological evidence, and field research data. We also acquired a period outhouse in Ohio, restored it, and placed it in the yard behind the farmhouse. We then erected a chicken house—modeled after examples shown in agricultural literature of the period—adjacent to the barn, as well as a fence enclosure for hogs. To complete the experience, we built more than 7,000 linear feet of fencing to match historic photographs of fields at the farm’s original site.
Over a period of almost two and a half years, we moved the Firestone farm from Ohio to Michigan and meticulously and accurately restored it to its physical condition of a century earlier. The process required an understanding of the historical record, the careful handling of tens of thousands of historic architectural objects, and the reproduction of thousands of missing elements. It may not have equaled Peter Firestone's feat 160 years earlier, but it did honor his effort, as well as that of the millions of 19th-century farmers who contributed to our country's agricultural heritage.
Christmas tree in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we really enjoy showing how Americans would have celebrated Christmas in the 19th century. In almost all the houses, we use historical primary sources to try to glean out descriptions of what people may have done—but we have almost no concrete visual evidence. However, one huge exception is the Wright Home, the family home of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
We know from various sources that in 1900 there was a big homecoming in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin Wright, one of Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers, was returning home from living apart for a very long time, slightly estranged. In celebration, the family decided to put up their first Christmas tree. Wilbur and Orville, who were amateur photographers but probably as good as any professional of the time, documented some of that process.
Within the last decade, we have been able to access a very high-resolution image of the Wright family Christmas tree image from the Library of Congress, and the details just leapt out at us. This photograph, which we know was taken in 1900, documents exactly how the Wright Brothers designed and put up their Christmas tree. We examined all the minutiae in the photo and have attempted to recreate this tree as exactly as possible.
Wright Home Parlor Decorated for Christmas, Original Site, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF119489
The toys, the various ornaments—it's all in line with what's typical in the time period. So if you look at the tree in the Wright Home, you’ll see it lit with candles—this is not an electrified house yet in 1900. There's a variety of ornaments designed to hold candies and similar things. It has strung popcorn, which would have been homemade, but it also has store-bought German tinsel garland, glass ornaments (either from Poland or Germany), and all kinds of additional decorations that may have been saved from year to year. There's a homemade star on top that has tinsel tails coming off it.
For many years, we just had a low-resolution, fuzzy photograph of the tree, and we reproduced things as faithfully as we could—for example, what appeared to be a paper scrap-art angel. The first glimpse of the high-resolution photograph absolutely flabbergasted us, because front-and-center on the tree is a little scrap-art of a screaming, crying baby. It must have been some sort of inside joke within the family. We were able to reproduce it exactly as it would have looked on the tree.
The screaming baby scrap-art on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
In keeping with tradition, the tree is also covered with gifts for different members of the family. It seems that the adult gifts were hung unwrapped on the tree, whereas many of the children's things were either wrapped or just placed under the tree, based on the photograph. For example, on the tree, we see a pair of what are known as Scotch gloves—you would have found examples of these in Sears catalogues of the early 1900s. There's also a fur scarf, toy trumpets, and even a change purse, all hung on the tree.
Scotch gloves hanging on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
Beneath the tree, the arrangement of toys and gifts is quite fun. There’s a pair of roller skates, a little toy train, tea sets, furniture sets, and all kinds of different things geared specifically toward all the Wright nieces and nephews who would have come to visit on that Christmas morning.
There's also a wonderful set of photographs associated with the tree after Christmas. For example, there’s one of Bertha Wright, one of Reuchlin’s middle daughters, in the next room over, sitting playing with her toys. She's clearly been interrupted in her play, and you can see that in the expression on her face: “Okay, let's get this over with.”
Bertha Wright, Age Five, Niece of the Wright Brothers, Daughter of Reuchlin Wright, circa 1900 / THF243319
There are also photos outside the house, featuring the sleigh (which is prominent under the tree in the high-res photograph, stacked with books). Behind them in all these photographs is a little fir tree—the tree that was inside the house for Christmas has now been placed out there and propped up in the corner, probably for the winter season.
Milton, Leontine, and Ivonette Wright at Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF243321
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we have a wonderful large high-resolution blow-up of the tree photograph set up in the Wright Home for our guests to compare-and-contrast with the recreated tree in the corner. Be sure to stop by the Wright Home to see it on your next Holiday Nights visit!
The original historic photo of the Wright family Christmas tree, displayed in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Brian James Egen)
This post was adapted from the transcript of a video featuring Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
If you visit the Wright Home in Greenfield Village, the presenter in the house will probably draw your attention to the bookcase in the living room. Many of these books, along with more housed in the Benson Ford Research Center, did indeed belong to the Wrights, and were used by Orville and Wilbur Wright, their sister Katharine, or their father Milton. We’ve just digitized over 50 Wright family books, including this 1892 copy of Medea used by Katharine Wright. Other examples include The Principal Works of Charles Darwin, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and A Manual of Instruction in Latin. Browse the list of titles to see what other bookish ideas may have influenced the young Wright Brothers by visiting our Digital Collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
By the end of the 19th century technological miracles were commonplace. Railroad trains routinely traveled a-mile-a-minute. Electric lights could turn night into day. Voices traveled over wires. Pictures could be set into motion. Lighter-than-air balloons and dirigibles even offered access to the sky. But the age-old dream of flying with wings like birds still seemed like a fantasy. In a simple bicycle shop now located in Greenfield Village, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, turned the fantasy of heavier-than-air flight into reality.