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As we approach the Memorial Day holiday, when our thoughts turn toward lost loved ones and friends, it is insightful to consider how Americans of the past memorialized their loved ones.


Americans always treasured the memory of the dearly departed, but during the era just after American independence, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, elaborate and artistic memorials were the norm. Scholars debate the reasons. Many believe that with the death of America’s most revered founding father, George Washington, in 1799, a fashion developed for creating and displaying memorial pictures in the home. Other scholars argue that the death of Washington coincided with the height of the Neoclassical, or Federal style in America. During the period after the Revolution, Americans saw themselves as latter-day Greeks and Romans. After all, they argued, the United States was the first democracy since ancient times. So, they used depictions of leaders like George Washington, along with imagery derived from antiquity.

Painting of memorial with image of George Washington in center, angel to one side and soldier weeping in front
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for George Washington, by Mehetabel Wingate, 1800-1810 / THF6971

This wonderful memorial painting of George Washington was drawn in pencil and ink and painted in watercolors by a woman in Haverhill, Massachusetts, named Mehetabel Wingate. Born in 1772, Mehetabel was likely trained in painting as part of her education at an academy for genteel young ladies, much like a “finishing school” for young ladies in the 20th century. She also would have been tutored in the needle arts. The concept was to teach proper young ladies the arts as part of an appreciation for the “finer things” in life. This would prepare them for a suitable marriage and help them take their place in refined society.

In the academies, young women were taught to copy from artistic models for their work. In this case, Mehetabel Wingate copied a print engraved by Enoch G. Grindley titled in Latin “Pater Patrae” (“Father of the Country”) and printed in 1800, just after Washington’s death in 1799. Undoubtedly, she saw the print and was skilled enough to copy it in color. The image of the soldier weeping in front of the massive monument to Washington is impressive. Also impressive are the angels or cherubs holding garlands, and women dressed up as classical goddesses, grieving. One of the goddesses holds a portrait of Washington. Of course, the inscriptions tout many of Washington’s accomplishments. Mehetabel Wingate was a talented artist and ambitious in undertaking a composition as complicated as this one.

Oval-shaped painting of woman in white dress leaning on a memorial containing text
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for Mehetabel Bradley Wingate, by her daughter Mehetabel Wingate, 1796 / THF237513

Fortunately, The Henry Ford owns two additional works made by Mehetabel Wingate (1772–1846). From these, we can learn a bit about her life and her family. This remarkably preserved watercolor painting memorializes her mother, also named Mehetabel, who died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1796. Young Mehetabel, who would have been 24 in 1796, is shown mourning in front of a grave marker, which is inscribed. Although it is simplified, she wears a fashionable dress in the most current style. Around her is an idealized landscape, which includes a willow tree, or “weeping” willow, on the left, which symbolized sadness. On the right is a pine tree, which symbolized everlasting life. In the background is a group of buildings, perhaps symbolizing the town, including the church, which represented faith and hope. These are standard images seen in many, if not most, American memorial pictures. Mehetabel Wingate undoubtedly learned these conventions in the young girls’ academy in her hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Painting of four women in varying styles of white gowns, one holding flowers and one greenery
Women in Classical Dress, 1790-1810, by Mehetabel Wingate / THF152522

The painting, above, while not a memorial painting, shows us how young ladies in the academies learned how to paint. Mehetabel seems to be practicing poses and angles, as the young ladies dressed as classical goddesses reach out to each other. It likely pre-dates both works previously shown and may have been done as a classroom exercise. As such, it is a remarkable survival.

Person in long black dress or gown leaning against a memorial containing text, next to a tree
In memory of Freeman Bartlett Jr. who died in Calcutta November the 1st 1817, aged 19 years, by Eliza T. Reed, about 1818 / THF14816

This example, painted later than Mehetabel Wingate’s work, shows the same conventions: a grieving female in front of a tomb with an inscription about the dearly departed—in this case, a young man who died at the tender age of 19 in far-off Calcutta. We also see the idealized landscape with the “weeping” willow tree and the church in the background.

Painting of woman in gray dress leaning despondently on one of two memorials containing text
Memorial Painting for Elijah and Lucy White, unknown artist, circa 1826 / THF120259

The painting above, done a few years later, shows some of the variations possible in memorial pictures. Unlike the previous examples, painted on paper, this was painted on expensive, white silk. It commemorates two people, Elijah and Lucy White, presumably husband and wife, who both died in their sixties. We see the same imagery here as before, although the trees, other than the “weeping” willows, are so abstract as to be difficult to identify.

Painting with urn shape containing text, surrounded by six white birds with yellow wings and vines
Memorial Painting for Sarah Burgat, J. Preble, 1826 / THF305542

The example above represents a regional approach to memorial paintings. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the late 1700s and early 1800s brought an interesting, stylized approach to their memorial paintings that have come to be known as “Fraktur.” The urn that would be seen on top of the monument in the previous examples now takes center stage, and is surrounded by symmetrically arranged birds. What we are seeing here is a combination of New England imagery, such as the urn, with Pennsylvania German imagery, such as the stylized birds. We know that this work was made in a town called Paris, as the artist, J. Preble, signed it in front of her name. There are two possible locations for Paris—one in Stark County, Ohio, and the other in Kentucky. Both had sizeable German immigrant populations in the 1820s. As America was settled and people moved west in the early 19th century, cultural practices melded and merged.

By the 1840s and 1850s, the concept of the memorial painting came to be viewed as old-fashioned. The invention of photography revolutionized the way folks could save representations of loved ones and friends. By the middle of the 19th century, these paintings were viewed as relics from the past. But in the early 20th century, collectors like Henry Ford recognized the historic and artistic value of these works and began to collect them. As a uniquely American art, they provide insight into the values of Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts 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.

education, presidents, making, women's history, paintings, art, home life, holidays, by Charles Sable

Man in suit and tie

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States / THF118582

March 4, 1861: Inauguration Day. Abraham Lincoln, the President-elect, takes the oath of office to become the 16th President of the United States. It was an uncertain time. The country was torn over the issue of slavery. For years, a tenuous arrangement had been maintained between free and slaveholding states, but now many Americans—on both sides—seemed unwilling to compromise. The Democratic Party had fractured over the issue. Two Democrats and a former Whig, each with differing views, vied to become president in 1860. This left the Republican Party, which wanted to limit slavery, with an opportunity for an electoral victory.

Lincoln, the Republican Party candidate, was elected by a minority of eligible voters, winning mainly Northern and Western states—enough for an electoral majority—but receiving little or no support from the slaveholding South. Since Lincoln's election in November 1860, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union, and many Americans feared the other eight slave states would follow. Americans anxiously waited to hear from their new president.

Gold colored button with text "Abraham Lincoln 1860" and portrait of man in center
Campaign Button, 1860 / THF101182

In his inaugural address, Lincoln tried to allay the fears and apprehensions of those who perceived him as a radical and those who sought to break the bonds of the Union. More immediately, his address responded to the crisis at hand. Lincoln, a practiced circuit lawyer, laid out his case to dismantle the theory of secession. He believed that the Constitution provided clear options to change government through scheduled elections and amendments. Lincoln considered the more violent option of revolution as a right held by the people, but only if other means of change did not exist. Secession, Lincoln argued, was not a possibility granted by the founders of the nation or the Constitution. Logically, it would only lead to ever-smaller seceding groups. And governing sovereignty devolved from the Union—not the states, as secessionists argued. Finally, if the Constitution was a compact between sovereign states, then all parties would have to agree to unmake it. Clearly, President Lincoln did not.

Lincoln did not want conflict. His administration had yet to govern, and even so, he believed that as president he would have "little power for mischief," as he would be constrained by the checks and balances framed in the Constitution. Lincoln implored all his countrymen to stop and think before taking rash steps. But if conflict came, he would be bound by his presidential oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the government.

Lincoln concluded his case with the most famous passages in the speech—a call to remember the bonds that unify the country, and his vision of hope:

"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Lincoln's appeal, however, avoided the cause of the onrushing war—slavery. Failing to take this divisive issue head-on only added to its polarizing effect. Many Americans in the North found Lincoln's speech too conciliatory. Southerners thought it threatened war. And the nation had little time to stop and think. Immediately after his inauguration, Lincoln had to decide whether to resupply Fort Sumter, the U.S. military post in Charleston harbor, the heart of secession. In April, the "bonds of affection" broke.

Lincoln had hoped that time and thoughtful deliberation would resolve this issue—and in a way it did. The tragedies of war empowered Lincoln to reconsider his views. His views on slavery and freedom evolved. No longer bound, Lincoln moved toward emancipation, toward freeing enslaved Americans, and toward his "better angels."

Group of men sit and stand around a table filled with papers and books, with additional papers and books around the room
Engraving, "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet" / THF6763

To read Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, click here.


Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

Civil War, presidents, Abraham Lincoln, by Andy Stupperich

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The Jazz Bowl, originally called The New Yorker, about 1930.
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Cowan Pottery of Rocky River, Ohio, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in early 1930 when a commission arrived from a New York gallery for a New York City-themed punch bowl. The client -- who preferred to remain unknown -- wanted the design to capture the essence of the vibrant city.

The assignment went to 24-year-old ceramic artist Viktor Schreckengost. His design would become an icon of America’s “Jazz Age” of the 1920s and 1930s.

The Artist and His Design
The cosmopolitan Viktor Schreckengost was a perfect choice for this special commission. Schreckengost (1906-2008), born in Sebring, Ohio, had studied ceramics at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the late 1920s. He then spent a year in Vienna, where he was introduced to cutting-edge ideas in European art and design. When Schreckengost returned to Ohio, he took a part-time teaching position at his alma mater and spent the balance of his time as a designer at Cowan Pottery.

A jazz musician as well as an artist, Schreckengost had firsthand knowledge of New York, where he frequented jazz clubs during visits. To Schreckengost, jazz music represented the spirit of New York. He wanted to capture its excitement and energy in visual form on his bowl. Schreckengost later recalled: “I thought back to a magical night when a friend and I went to see [Cab] Calloway at the Cotton Club [in Harlem] ... the city, the jazz, the Cotton Club, everything ... I knew I had to get it all on the bowl.”

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During its heyday in the 1920s and 30s, the Cotton Club was the place to listen to jazz in New York. THF125266

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A “Jazz”-inscribed drumhead surrounded by musical instruments symbolize the Cotton Club. Organ pipes represent the grand theater organs that graced New York City’s movie palaces during the 1920s and 1930s. Schreckengost recalled that he was especially fond of Radio City Music Hall’s Wurlitzer organ. THF88363

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A show in progress at Radio City Music Hall auditorium, 1936. THF125259

The images on the Jazz Bowl, then, may be read as a night on the town in New York City, starting out in bustling Times Square; then on to Radio City Music Hall to enjoy a show; next, a stroll uptown past a group of soaring skyscrapers to take in a sweeping view of the Hudson River; afterward, a stop at a cocktail party; and finally--topping off the evening with a visit to the famous Cotton Club.

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Times Square, circa 1930. THF125262i

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The blinking traffic signals, and "Follies" and "Dance" signs on the Jazz Bowl portray the vitality of Times Square at night. THF88358

Schreckengost decorated the punch bowl with a deep turquoise blue background he described as “Egyptian,” since it recalled the shade found on ancient Egyptian pottery. According to Schreckengost, the penetrating blue immerses the viewer in the glow of the night air--and the sensation of mystery and magic of a night on the town.

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This is the view of the New York skyline and the Hudson River that Schreckengost saw on his trips to the city and later interpreted in the Jazz Bowl. THF125264g

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Skyscrapers, a luxury ocean liner, cocktails on a tray, and liquor bottles represent a night on the town. THF88364

The Famous Client
In early 1931, the finished bowl was delivered to New York. The pleased patron who had commissioned it immediately ordered two additional punch bowls. To Schreckengost’s delight, the patron turned out to be Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady of New York State. Mrs. Roosevelt had commissioned the bowl to celebrate her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930 reelection as governor. She presumably placed one bowl in the Governor’s Residence in Albany, one in the Roosevelts’ home in Hyde Park, and one in their Manhattan apartment. When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933, after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election as President, one of the bowls made its way there as well.

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Eleanor Roosevelt commissioned the Jazz Bowl to celebrate her husband’s 1930 reelection as governor of New York.
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Mass Producing the Jazz Bowl?
Immediately after the Jazz Bowl was delivered to Eleanor Roosevelt, the New York City gallery placed an order for fifty identical bowls. Unfortunately, Schreckengost’s process was laborious--it took Cowan Pottery’s artisans an entire day to produce the incised decoration on Mrs. Roosevelt’s version. Cowan Pottery sought to mass produce the punch bowl, simplifying the original design to create a second and third version the company originally marketed as “The New Yorker.”

The Henry Ford’s bowl is the third version, known informally as “The Poor Man’s Jazz Bowl.” It is slightly smaller than the original and the decoration is raised, rather than scratched into the surface. No one knows exactly, but perhaps fifty of the original version, only a few of the unsuccessful second version, and possibly twenty of the third version of the Jazz Bowl were made in total. The whereabouts of many of the Jazz Bowls are not known, though they appear periodically on the art market and are acquired by eager collectors. Even the present location of the bowls made for Eleanor Roosevelt seems to be a mystery.

Jazz Bowl as Icon
The “Poor Man’s Jazz Bowl” didn’t save the Cowan Pottery from the ravages of the Great Depression -- by the end of 1931, the company folded. Viktor Schreckengost moved on, continuing to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Art and pursuing freelance design for several firms. His Jazz Bowl would come to be recognized as a visual icon of the Jazz Age in America.

Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.

manufacturing, presidents, music, Henry Ford Museum, by Charles Sable, decorative arts, making, art, furnishings

postage-speech
U.S. Postage Stamps, Four Freedoms Issue, 1943

In January 1941, World War II raged in Europe—but the United States of America had not yet gotten involved.  Many citizens believed remaining uninvolved with the war was best. On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to Congress, and laid out key principles he saw as at stake in this conflict. Among other arguments for American involvement, FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech included this significant section, for which it is remembered:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants - everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

These Four Freedoms have entered our collective conscience as universal ideals—perhaps always imperfectly manifested, but always worth working towards.

However, the Freedoms have also been interpreted differently, by different people and at different times. Four of our curators examined The Henry Ford’s collections through the lens of each of the Four Freedoms to create their own interpretations.

We hope these thought-starters inspire your own contemplative journey: What does freedom mean to you?

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World War II, presidents

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The Logan County Courthouse, a fixture on the Village Green in Greenfield Village, will has reached the milestone of having been here in Dearborn for as many years as it was in Postville, Illinois - 89 years.

Abraham Lincoln featured prominently in Henry Ford’s plans for Greenfield Village, which revolved around the story of how everyday people with humble beginnings would go on to play important roles in American history. Lincoln epitomized Ford’s view of the “self-made man,” and he made a significant effort to collect as many objects as possible associated with him. By the late 1920s, Henry Ford was a “later comer” to the Lincoln collecting world, but with significant resources at his disposal, he did manage to secure a few very important items. The Logan County Courthouse is among them.

It has taken nearly all the 89 years to achieve this, but an original feature, long absent from the courtroom is making a return. The bar now stands again. Using the original set of spindles, we have re-created our interpretation of what the rail, or the bar, that divided the courtroom may have looked like in the1840s. By referencing images of other early 19th century courtrooms, and studying architectural features represented in Greenfield Village, a typical design was created. 

The stories associated with the Logan County Courthouse are fascinating. As it turns out, the story of how the original spindles from the original bar finally made their way back into the courthouse is fascinating as well.  

Authenticated objects, related to Lincoln’s early life, were especially scarce by the late 1920s. There seemed to be an abundance of items supposedly associated and attributed to Lincoln, especially split rails and things made from them, but very few of these were the real thing. For Ford, the idea of acquiring an actual building directly tied to Lincoln seemed unlikely.

But, by the summer of 1929, through a local connection, Ford was made aware that the old 1840 Postville/Logan County, Illinois courthouse, where Lincoln practiced law, was available for sale. The 89-year-old building was used as a rented private dwelling, and was in very run-down condition, described by some as “derelict.” It was owned by the elderly Judge Timothy Beach and his wife. They were fully aware of the building’s storied history, and had made several unsuccessful attempts to turn the historic building over to Logan County in return for taking over the care of the building. Seeing no other options, the Beaches agreed to the sale of the building to Ford via one of his agents. They initially seemed unaware of Ford’s intentions to move the building to Greenfield Village, assuming it was to be restored on-site much like another historic properties Ford had taken over.

THF238386This image shows the state of the building when it was first seen by Henry Ford’s staff in late August of 1929. Not visible in the large shed attached to the rear of the building. THF238386

The local newspaper, The Courier, even quoted Mrs. Beach as stating that, “she would refund to Mr. Ford if it was his plan to take the building away from Lincoln, as nothing was said by the agent about removal”. By late August of 1929, the entire project in West Lincoln, Illinois, had captured the national spotlight and the old courthouse suddenly had garnered a huge amount of attention, even becoming a tourist destination. By early September, local resistance to its removal was growing, and Ford felt the need to pay a visit to personally inspect the building and meet with local officials, and the Beaches. He clearly made his case with the owners and finalized the deal. As reported, “Ford sympathized with the sentiment of the community but thought that the citizens should look at the matter from a broader viewpoint. He spoke for the cooperation of the community with him in making a perpetual memorial for the town at Dearborn, where the world would witness it. My only desire is to square my own conscience with what I think will be for the greatest good to the greatest number of people."

Henry had made his case and the courthouse would indeed be leaving West Lincoln. Immediately following the final negotiations, Henry Ford’s crew arrived to begin the process of study, dismantling, and packing for the trip to Dearborn. Local resistance to the move continued as the final paperwork was filed to purchase the land. By September 11, the resistance had run its course and the dismantling process began. It was also revealed that the city, county, several local organizations, and even the state of Illinois had all been offered several opportunities to acquire the building and take actions to preserve it. They all had declined the various offers over the years. It was then understood that Judge & Mrs. Beach, in the end, had acted on what was best for the historic building and should not be “subjected to criticism.” Judge Beach would die on September 19, just as the last bits of the old courthouse were being loaded for their journey to Greenfield Village. 

Reconstruction, which included the fabrication of many of the first-floor details and a new stone chimney and fireplaces, began immediately. In roughly a month’s time, the building was ready for the grand opening of Greenfield Village on October 21, 1929.

Nine years later, in 1938, Eugene Amberg sent a letter to Ford describing an interesting discovery. Mr. Amberg was a native of what was now Lincoln, Illinois and worked as a railroad ticket agent. He had a great interest in the local history and was a collector of local artifacts. As he writes in the letter dated February 8, 1938:

Several years ago, you purchased the Old Postville Court House here in Lincoln, Ills from Mrs. T Beach. At the time the Court House was made into a dwelling the railing that separated the judges desk from the main court room was torn out by my father (John Amberg) who was doing the remodeling, this he stored in the attic of his home, recently my mother died and while cleaning out the attic we came across these spindles, which are the original 28 spindles that the hand railing rested upon. The hand railing was of walnut, out of which was carved some arm rests that are now on some of the pews in St. Mary’s, a church here.

Would appreciate a line from you as to whether or not you would be interested in these spindles, have had numerous offers for them, inasmuch as they are part of the original court house I feel they should be with it, in your Dearborn Village.

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Dated February 7, 1938, this is the initial letter from Gene Amberg to Henry Ford offering the 28 original spindles for sale. Despite several letters back and forth, a price could not be settled upon, and the transaction never took place. THF288006

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This drawing was sent by Gene Amberg, as a follow-up to his first letter offering the spindles for sale. The artist, Mary Katherine, was Gene’s 14 year old daughter. THF288012

Negotiations evidently faltered, as a price was not agreed upon, and the spindles were never sent. Fast forward 71 years to 2009 when an email arrived from Carol Moore and her brother, Dennis Cunningham, the grandchildren of Eugene Amberg. They had no idea that their grandfather had begun this process, and were amazed when we produced the original correspondence from our archival collection. As it turns out, their story was almost identical to Eugene’s. As Carol wrote their mother, Patricia Amberg Cunningham died March 1, 2008. While cleaning her house in Delavan, Illinois to prepare for sale, we found 28 old wooden spindles and a newspaper article believed to be from the Lincoln Courier indicating that the spindles are from the original Postville Courthouse in Lincoln, Illinois. It is our desire to donate them to the original Postville Courthouse.”

She was very familiar with Greenfield Village, and had visited the courthouse here. Jim McCabe, the Buildings Curator at the time, gladly accepted the donation.

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Clipping from the Lincoln Courier ca. 1934, noting the 28 spindles from the “old Postville courthouse” in the possession of Gene Amberg. THF288016, THF288017    

In 1848, the county seat moved from Postville, to Mount Pulaski. At that time the courthouse was decommissioned, and the county offices moved to a new courthouse.  After a legal battle between the County, and the original investor/builders of the building, it was sold to Solomon Kahn. None other than Abraham Lincoln successfully represented the County in the matter.

Understanding the local history helps to also understand the changes that took place to the building. It explains how and why portions of the building were altered, parts removed, and eventually separated.

By the late 1840s, changes had taken place on both the exterior and interior. The most significant of these was the move off its original foundation, 86 feet forward on the lot. Mr. Kahn converted the building into a general store, and ran the local post office.  It was he who moved the building to its new location. In doing so, it was lifted off its original limestone foundation, and the original single limestone chimney and interior fireplaces were demolished. A new brick lined cellar and foundation were created, along with updated internal brick chimneys on each end of the building, designed to accommodate cast-iron heating stoves.

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This is the earliest known photograph of the Logan County Courthouse taken some time between 1850 and 1880. This photograph shows the building in its second location, 80 feet forward from its original foundation, at the crest of a small rise. The original window and door configuration remain intact. The original single stone chimney, now restored to the left side of the building, has been replaced by two internal brick chimneys designed for cast-iron heating stoves. Though not visible in the photograph, the building now sits on a new brick foundation and cellar. The items sitting near the doorway speak to the building’s new life as a store. THF132074

By 1880, the old courthouse had been converted from a commercial building into a private dwelling, and that was the state in which it was found by Ford’s crew in 1929.  The doorway and first floor interior had been radically changed. Later, a porch was added to the front entrance, and a shed addition was added to the rear. Photographs taken in September of 1929 during the dismantling, show the outline of the original chimney on the side of the building where it has been re-created today. Further discoveries revealed the original floor plan of a large single room on the first-floor, and the original framing for the room divisions on the second. Second floor photographs show the original wall studs, baseboards, chair rails, window, and door frames, all directly attached to the framing, with lath and plaster added after the fact. The framing of the walls on the first floor were all clearly added after the original build.

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This post 1880 view of the Logan County Courthouse shows its transformation into a two- family dwelling. Note the single doorway is now two, the second now taking the place of a former window opening. THF238350     

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This image shows further remodeling of the front of the building. This photo ca.1900 shows the addition of recessed covered porch with some decorative posts and millwork. This is the iteration in which the building was found when it was sold to Henry Ford in September of 1929. THF238348

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These three images show the re-modeled interior of what was the original courtroom, now serving as the kitchen, dining room, and parlor. These photos were taken by Henry Ford’s staff just prior to the dismantling of the building in September of 1929. THF238580 

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The sub-divided first floor courtroom. THF238600

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View of the cellar entrance under the stairway in the sub-divided courtroom. THF238598 

We have no evidence that tells us what if any interior changes Mr. Kahn may have made when he relocated the building around 1850. The earliest photograph we have of the building shows it in its new location, but except for its new brick chimneys, it retains what appears to be its original door and window configuration. We can only assume that Mr. Kahn had kept the rail in place, which may have proved useful in the building’s new configuration as a store and post office. No photographs of the original courtroom exist and extensive changes made first in 1880, and then when the building was dismantled and reconstructed in Greenfield Village, further comprised any original evidence.

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This view of the dismantled second floor shows matching trim and chair rail connected directly to the studs indicating this as the originally installed woodwork from 1840. The wall partition studs are also notched to meet the ceiling joists, showing that they are also part of the original framing configuration of the second floor. All the trim work, including the doors were made of walnut. THF285571  

Based on the evidence we do have about these changes, it is very likely that at the time of the building’s conversion into a private dwelling, around 1880, the decorative hand-turned spindles and walnut hand rail would have been salvaged as the first floor of the building was sub-divided into a duplex. As stated in the family history, the walnut top rail was re-purposed and used in St. Mary’s Catholic Church (which burned in 1976), and the spindles saved for a future project.

Analysis of the original spindles showed that they were poplar, a wood commonly used for turning and as a secondary wood in the mid-19th century. Based on what we knew, we decided to use a combination of woods for the reconstruction of the bar rail. Walnut was used for the top rail and column caps, and the remainder of was done in poplar. Though refinished in 1929, the original walnut trim throughout the building was used as a guide for the color and sheen of the final finish. Reproduction hardware, again based on the existing hardware, mainly on the second floor, was used to mount the center gate.

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Mose Nowland, conservation team volunteer at The Henry Ford, works on the design rendering for the bar. (Photo by Jim Johnson)

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Mose Nowland and other members of The Henry Ford Conservation Team with the newly installed bar. (Photo by Bill Pagel)

The design of the physical installation of the rail and gate was robust. Each of the support columns is supported within by a steel post that runs through the floor joists and into the cellar floor. With over a half million guests visiting Greenfield Village each year, we thought this important. The design also offers some degree of protection to the original spindles that are centered within the top and bottom rail. This is a permanent installation, and we wanted to be sure it would stand up to the test of time.

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Views of the newly re-created bar at the Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village. (Photos by Jim Johnson)

A huge thank you to Mary Fahey and Dennis Morrison for stewarding the project. Also to Mose Nowland, our extraordinary volunteer with The Henry Ford’s Conservation Team, who lead the charge in creating the design, and produced beautifully detailed drawings. Ken Gesek, one of our Historic Buildings Carpenters, built the rail, Cuong Nguyen and Tamsen Brown, with the help of the rest of the THF Conservation Team, oversaw the restoration of the original spindles. Tamsen also developed the formula to match the stain and finish to the existing woodwork in the courthouse. Jason Cagle, from the Painting Staff, skillfully applied the finish. Many other people worked to move the project forward as well.

This true team effort resulted in the original spindles finally being reunited with the Logan County Courthouse after an absence of nearly 140 years.

Logan County Courthouse ca. 2014
Logan County Courthouse as it appears today in Greenfield Village. (Photo by Jim Johnson)

Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford. 

Explore more of our Logan County Courthouse artifacts in our digital collections.

Sources Cited

  • Fraker, Guy C. Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit, Carbondale, IL., Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
  • Leigh Henson, Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Illinois, The Postville Courthouse as Private Property, http://findinglincolnillinois.com/sitemap.html
  • Lincoln’s Eight Judicial Circuit, http://www.lookingforlinocln.com/8thcircuit/
  • Logan County Courthouse Spindle Accession File, 2009.111, items 1-28, Archival Collection of the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.
  • Logan County Courthouse Building Files including original correspondences, records, photographs prior to dismantling in September of 1929, photographs of dismantling process, September 1929, reconstruction photographs, Greenfield Village, September 1929, 19th century photographic images, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.
  • The Herald, vol. 5 n.3, The Edison Institute Press, March 4, 1938.
  • Illinois, Logan County, Postville, 1840 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication, Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration
  • Illinois, Logan County, Postville, 1850 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication, Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration
  • Stringer, Lawrence B, The History of Logan County, Illinois, A Record of its Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement, Pioneer Press, Chicago, 1911.
  •  “The Story of the Purchase of the Logan County Courthouse and its Removal to Greenfield Village by Mr. Henry Ford, as told in the columns of the Lincoln Evening Courier, 8/19/29-10/21/29”, compiled by Thomas I. Starr, Aug 1931. Logan County Courthouse Building Files, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.

making, presidents, Logan County Courthouse, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, collections care, by Jim Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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This statue was designed to reveal Lincoln’s “essential nobility” while the inscription above him was intended to reinforce national unity.  THF121596  

By the first decade of the 20th century, memories of the real Abraham Lincoln had faded.  A new generation of Americans came of age who had only heard the stories, the myths, and the legends. It was this generation who transformed Lincoln the real man into Lincoln the hero.

During the early decades of the 20th century, America was becoming a complex place--an urban-industrial nation, a serious player on the world stage, and a place with an increasingly diversified population of foreign-born residents.  Struggling to come to terms with the change and uncertainty of the era, people looked to Abraham Lincoln--the humble, imperfect, self-educated “common man”--for comfort and reassurance.  Abraham Lincoln, better than any single individual, seemed to embody the democratic principles upon which the country had been founded.  It was during this era that Abraham Lincoln replaced George Washington as America’s most venerated president.    

Just about everyone could find something meaningful by invoking his image, his name, or his character. 

The Lincoln Centennial

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Postcards abounded as popular keepsakes of the Lincoln Centennial, including this German-imported embossed example.  THF121598

On February 12, 1909, virtually the entire nation honored Abraham Lincoln on the 100th anniversary of his birth. In city after city, Americans put aside their regional differences and sought national unity by venerating Lincoln as a “man of the people.”

The national celebration was a grassroots effort--mainly the work of local governments, civic organizations, and print media.  Even in the old Confederate states, Lincoln’s character was held up as a model of humility and generosity. 

Sadly, Jim Crow laws in the South and practices in the North prevented African Americans from taking part in most of these observances. In their own communities, they honored the memory of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.”

The Lincoln Highway

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Abraham Lincoln and symbols of national unity are pictured on the front of this 1915 travelogue.  THF204498

In 1912, the few “good” roads that existed for automobile travel were dirt-covered--making them bumpy and dusty in dry weather and virtually impassable when it rained.  To get anywhere, it was better to take a train than to drive.

Enter Carl Fisher, an automobile headlight entrepreneur who had the ambitious idea of creating a highway that would cross the continent from New York City to San Francisco.  He turned to manufacturers of automobiles and automobile accessories for support and financial backing. His biggest advocate became Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company.

It was Joy’s idea to name the road in honor of Abraham Lincoln. Joy was only a year old when Lincoln was assassinated but his father had filled him with stories of the martyred president. He felt that connecting the road with Lincoln would both increase both its patriotic appeal and enhance its symbolism as the road that unified the nation--a fitting parallel to Lincoln’s great achievement of preserving the union.

Abraham Lincoln and World War I

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This World War I poster includes an excerpt of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  THF239921

During the First World War, Lincoln’s reputation extended beyond American shores to the international arena.  For, who could more perfectly symbolize the international fight for freedom--the fight to make the world safe for democracy--than America’s own Abraham Lincoln?  Although Lincoln’s tactics as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War had been questioned during his own time, his policies, decisions, defense of war, and crackdown on obstructionists now seemed to exemplify visionary leadership.

Reviving Lincoln as a symbol of wisdom, courage, and sacrifice during World War I might have been propaganda but it worked its magic on the American public.  Northerners and Southerners enlisted in droves and fought alongside each other in battle.  African Americans’ loyalty to Lincoln inspired thousands to enlist and bravely serve their country--though largely in segregated units.

Lincoln Logs

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This Lincoln Logs set dates from about 1960—the era of TV Westerns and the Davey Crockett craze.  THF6627

Beloved by generations of young children, Lincoln Logs have been around since the 1920s.  Oddly, their origin had nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln or log cabins.  John Lloyd Wright, Lincoln Logs inventor and son of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, claimed that the idea for this sturdy, interlocking “log” playset came to him in Tokyo, Japan in 1916, while visiting the construction site of the hotel designed by his father.  The Imperial Hotel, as it was named, was built upon a unique, earthquake-proof foundation of interlocking beams.

By the time Wright patented his invention in 1920, he was calling it a “Toy-Cabin” construction set.  In 1924, it came on the market as “Lincoln Logs: America’s National Toy.”  Further cementing the connection, a 1928 advertisement claimed that Lincoln Logs provided, “All the romance of the early days of Abraham Lincoln with all the thrill of Pioneer Life.”  Lincoln Logs were an instant success--leading to larger and more elaborate play sets that included cowboys, pioneer towns, forts, horses, and livestock.

The Lincoln Memorial

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The Greek temple-like design of the Lincoln Memorial symbolizes the democratic principles for which Lincoln stood.  THF121594

During the 1909 Lincoln Centennial, Congress found itself in the embarrassing position of having no plans to honor Lincoln in the nation’s capital.  So in 1911, a Lincoln Memorial Commission was created.  The commissioners saw this Memorial as both a tribute to Lincoln and an important symbol of a reunified nation.  They chose to avoid any literal references to Lincoln’s accomplishments as President as well as his role as the “Great Emancipator.”  They felt that might offend people, especially Southerners.  No, this expression of Lincoln must transcend all that to represent the man who defended democracy and saved the Union.  It must idealize Lincoln’s memory and reveal his “essential nobility.”

After delays in the completion of the enormous statue, the Lincoln Memorial was finally dedicated in 1922.  In keeping with federal policies on segregation, African American guests to the dedication were seated in a “colored section” off to the side, where they reported rude treatment by military attendants. 

Henry Ford and Abraham Lincoln

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In this 1934 photograph, Henry Ford poses in front of the Logan County Courthouse with Lincoln portrayer Charles Roscoe Miles.  THF121394

In his great admiration for Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford was like many other Americans of his generation.  Born two years before Lincoln was assassinated, he had grown up surrounded by Lincoln myths and stories.  His Uncle Barney’s regiment--the Union Army’s famed 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry--had even escorted President Lincoln’s casket from the Old State House in downtown Springfield, Illinois, to its final resting place in Oak Ridge Cemetery about two miles away.

As Henry grew from a youth to an enterprising automobile entrepreneur, Lincoln’s lessons were not lost on him.  According to the stories, Lincoln’s success had been due to such character traits as honesty, temperance, industry, and pluck.  Furthermore, Lincoln embodied the ideals of the “self-made man,” rising up from humble beginnings to make something of himself. 

By the 1920s, a now-wealthy Henry Ford began to amass a collection to honor his hero--including the rocker that Lincoln had been sitting in at Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated.  When an antique dealer friend told him of a neglected courthouse in Lincoln, Illinois, in which Lincoln had practiced law, Henry Ford knew that this was the key he had been searching for.  It would become the centerpiece of an “exhibit” in his Early American Village (now Greenfield Village) depicting the move from slavery to emancipation.  The building would also house his Lincoln collection, to serve as a teaching tool for “the application of the practical principles of justice and common sense so often exemplified by Abraham Lincoln in real life.”   Ford’s workmen dismantled and reconstructed the courthouse in Greenfield Village in record time for its grand opening on October 21, 1929. 

75 Years of Negro Progress Exposition

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Lincoln’s image looms large in this poster advertising the nine-day Negro Progress Exposition.  THF61510

Abraham Lincoln remained a powerful source of inspiration to African Americans through the early 20th century, as they struggled to realize the promise of emancipation.  The image of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” belonged particularly to them.  Those who had experienced firsthand Lincoln’s gift of freedom from slavery considered him their savior and they passed down to younger generations the intensely personal love and reverence they felt for him.

Seventy-five years after Lincoln was assassinated, Detroit was host to a nine-day exposition celebrating both past achievements and “new horizons of advancement.”  Each day of the Exposition offered a theme, including Business Day, Women’s Day, Race Relations Day, Youth and Athletic Day, and Patriotic Day.  Joe Louis, World’s Heavyweight Champion, made an appearance and Dr. George Washington Carver’s laboratory was featured.

In reality, progress for African Americans had been and would continue to be slow.  Most of the earlier dreams of freedom and racial equality had failed.  Jim Crow laws and practices were very much in effect.  Discrimination was widespread, in the North as well as the South.  Race riots continued.  It would be 15 more years before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a bus, sparking the Civil Rights movement.  Later Civil Rights leaders would, in fact, downplay Lincoln’s role in their plight--feeling that reinforcing his image as the “Great Emancipator” diminished their own struggles and African Americans’ own contributions.   


Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.

by Donna R. Braden, presidents, Abraham Lincoln

As we look forward to the Greenfield Village opening of 2017, our guests and staff alike enjoy reconnecting with our amazing array of historic buildings. Each of them not only represent different periods of American history, they also hold so many fascinating stories. Among the more interesting, are how they came to have new lives here in Greenfield Village. The Logan County Courthouse’s story is among my favorites.

Abraham Lincoln featured prominently in Henry Ford’s plans for Greenfield Village which revolved around the story of how everyday people with humble beginnings would go on to play important roles in American history. Henry Ford was a “later comer” to the Lincoln collecting world, but with significant resources at his disposal, he did manage to secure a few very important items. The Logan County Courthouse is among them.

GVOpening1Logan County Courthouse as it stands today in Greenfield Village.

Authenticated objects, related to Lincoln’s early life, were especially scarce by the late 1920s.There seemed to be an abundance of items supposedly associated and attributed to Lincoln, especially split rails and things made from them. But very few of these were the real thing. For Henry Ford, the idea of acquiring an actual building directly tied to Abraham Lincoln seemed unlikely. 

GVOpening2Logan County Courthouse September of 1929.

But, in the summer of 1929, through a local connection, Henry Ford was made aware that the old 1840 Postville/ Logan County, Illinois courthouse, where Lincoln practiced law, was available for sale. The 89-year-old building, was used as a rented private dwelling, and was in run down condition, described by some as “derelict”. It was owned by the elderly Judge Timothy Beach and his wife. They were fully aware of the building’s storied history, and had made several unsuccessful attempts to turn the historic building over to Logan County in return for funding the restoration, and taking over its on-going care and maintenance.

GVOpening3View of rear section of building with shed addition, September 1929

Seeing no other options, the Beaches agreed to the sale of the building to Henry Ford via one of his agents. They initially seemed unaware of Henry Ford intentions to move the building to Greenfield Village, assuming it was to be restored on-site much like another historic properties Ford had taken over. The local newspaper, The Courier, even quoted Mrs. Beach as saying “she would refund to Mr. Ford if it was his plan to take the building away from Lincoln, as nothing was said by the agent about removal”.  By late August of 1929, the entire project in West Lincoln, Illinois, had captured the national spotlight and the old courthouse suddenly had garnered a huge amount of attention, even becoming a tourist destination. 

GVOpening4View of side currently adjacent to Dr. Howard’s Office, September, 1929.  This view shows evidence of filled in window openings. The window currently behind the judge’s bench was restored.

By early September, local resistance to its removal was growing, and Henry Ford felt the need to pay a visit to personally inspect the building and meet with local officials, and the Beaches. He clearly made his case with the owners and finalized the deal. As reported, “Ford sympathized with the sentiment of the community but thought that the citizens should look at the matter from a broader viewpoint. He spoke for the cooperation of the community with him in making a perpetual memorial for the town at Dearborn, where the world would witness it. My only desire is to square my own conscience with what I think will be for the greatest good to the greatest number of people.”

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Views of partitioned first floor, summer 1929.

The courthouse would indeed be leaving West Lincoln, and by September 6, Henry Ford’s crew arrived to begin the process of study, dismantling, and packing for the trip to Dearborn. Local resistance to the move continued as the final paperwork was filed, and the newly purchased land was secured by Ford’s staff. By September 11, the resistance had run its course and the dismantling process began. It was also revealed that the city, county, several local organizations, and even the state of Illinois had all been offered several opportunities to acquire the building and take actions to preserve it. They all had declined the various offers over the years. It was then understood that Judge & Mrs. Beach, in the end, had acted on what was best for the historic building and should not be “subjected to criticism.” Judge Beach would die a week later, on September 19th.

The dismantling and discovery process was closely covered by the local newspapers, and as the building came apart, its original design was revealed.

Beginning as early as the late 1840s, changes had taken place on both the exterior and interior of the building. By 1880, the building had been converted from a commercial building into a dwelling and that was the state in which it was found by Ford’s crew in 1929. The doorway and first floor interior had been radically changed and eventually, a covered porch was added to what is now the main entrance, and a shed addition to the rear. But, the most significant change, was the move off its original foundation, 86 feet forward on the lot.

In 1848, the county seat moved from Postville, to Mount Pulaski. At that time the courthouse was decommissioned, and after a legal battle between the County, and the original investor/builders of the building, it was sold to Solomon Kahn. None other than Abraham Lincoln successfully represented the County in the matter. Mr. Kahn converted the building into a general store, and ran the local post office within.  It was he who moved the building to its new location. In doing so, the old limestone foundation was left behind, and the original limestone chimney and interior fireplaces were demolished. A new brick lined cellar and foundation was created, along with updated internal brick chimneys on each end of the building, designed to accommodate cast-iron heating stoves. This took place before 1850. 

GVOpening10The oldest know photograph of the Logan County Courthouse c.1850-1880. The original door arrangement remains in place.

Photographs taken in September of 1929, show the outline of the original chimney on the side of the building where it has been re-created today. Further discoveries revealed the original floor plan of a large single room on the first-floor, and the original framing for the room divisions on the second.  Second floor photographs show the original wall studs, baseboards, chair rails, window, and door frames, all directly attached to the framing, with lath and plaster added after the fact. The framing of the walls on the first floor were all clearly added after the original build. The oldest photograph of the courthouse shows it on its second site with its original window and door arrangement still in place, but with new brick chimneys. The photo dates from between 1850 and 1880.

It was some of the older inhabitants of the area that alerted Henry Ford’s staff as to the original location of the foundation. Once located, the original foundation revealed the dimensions of the original first-floor fireplace. All the stones were carefully removed and shipped to Dearborn. The courthouse rests on this foundation today. The local newspaper also reported that while excavating the foundation, a large key and doorknob were found at the edge, aligned where the front door would have been located. 

GVOpening11View of side that currently faces Scotch Settlement School, September, 1929.  Shadow of original stone chimney is visible. Patched sections of siding show that originally, the stone would have been flush with the siding until approximately the top third, which would have extended out from the building like the entire chimney currently does. The window and door are late additions.

By September 20th, the building, consisting of two car loads of material, was on its way to Dearborn. Reconstruction in Greenfield Village began almost immediately at a frenzied pace. Finishing touches were still being applied right up until the October 21st dedication of Greenfield Village. Edward Cutler oversaw the final design elements needed to restore the building along with the actual work of reconstructing it. All the first- floor details, including the fireplace, mantle, and judges bench had to be re-created. The first-floor interior trim was reproduced in walnut, and was based on the original trim that survived on the second floor. The second floor, using a large amount of original material, including flooring, was also restored to its original appearance. Even the original plaster was collected, re-ground, and used to re-plaster the interior walls.

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GVOpening13Views of the excavated original foundation, located 86 feet back from building’s second location. Lower view shows foundation for the original fireplace. September, 1929.

Based on the oldest of the original photographs, all new windows and exterior doors were also reproduced. Where possible, the original exterior walnut siding was also restored, and re-applied to the building and secured with brass screws.This was not a period technique, but rather a solution by Cutler to ensure the original siding with its worn nail holes, would stay in place. 

The result was a place where Henry Ford could now display, and share his collection of Lincoln associated artifacts, including the most famous of all, the rocking chair from the presidential booth in Ford’s theater where Abraham Lincoln was sitting when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth in April of 1865.

GVOpening14Re-construction well under way in Greenfield Village on October, 2, 1929. The building would be complete for the October 21, dedication. The Sarah Jordan Boarding House can be seen in the distance.

GVOpening15The completed Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village as it appeared for the October 21 dedication.

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The newly unpacked Ford’s Theater rocking chair in the Logan County Courthouse, January of 1930.

GVOpening17The interior of the completed Logan County Courthouse c.1935. It featured a display of Abraham Lincoln associated objects including Springfield furniture and the rocking chair from Ford’s Theater.

From 1929 until the mid-1980s, the building was left almost untouched as a shrine to Abraham Lincoln.

It was not until the mid-1980s that the research material was re-examined, primarily for preparations for much needed repairs to the now 50 plus year old restoration. In 1980, prior to the restoration work, the Lincoln assassination rocking chair was removed from the courthouse and placed in Henry Ford Museum. In 1984, the building underwent a significant restoration and was re-sided, the first- floor flooring was repaired, and extensive plaster repair and refinishing took place. In addition, a furnace was added (inside the judge’s bench), to provide adequate heat.

The interpretation of the building also was redefined and was re-focused away from the Abraham Lincoln shrine and more toward the stories of the history of our legal system and the civic lives of Americans in the 1840s. Gradually, many of the Lincoln artifacts were removed to appropriate climate controlled storage or display in Henry Ford Museum. 

That brings us to the Greenfield Village opening of 2017. The Logan County Courthouse has now stood as long in Greenfield Village as it did in Postville, 88 years. It has had an interesting and storied history in both locations. Both the curatorial team, and the Greenfield Village programs team are excited to continue the process of ongoing research and improving the scholarship of the stories we tell there. We are working on some projects to accomplish just that for the near future and are looking forward to sharing all the details.

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Logan County Courthouse, presidents, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Jim Johnson, Abraham Lincoln

Making America Better

September 23, 2016 Think THF

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The attendees are members of the Presidential Commission on the Development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. From left, they are: Dr. Robert Wright, commission Chairman; Renee Amoore; Vicky Bailey; Andrew McLemore, Jr.; Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.; Senator Rick Santorum, R-Penn.; Michael Lomax; Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga.; Harold Skramstad, Jr.; Barbara Franco; Robert Wilkins; Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Cicely Tyson; Lerone Bennett, Jr.; Congressman John Larson, D-Conn.; Eric Sexton; Claudine Brown; Larry Small, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; Currie Ballard. White House photo by Paul Morse. 

NMAAHC-logo_mobileWe celebrate a new national museum for the citizens of the United States – the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The idea of a national museum for African Americans started 100 years ago when black Civil War veterans announced their intentions in Washington D.C. to create a building on the Mall that would commemorate the deeds, struggles and contributions of Black Americans for the advancement of our nation. In 1929, the same year Henry Ford opened his museum complex in Dearborn, Michigan, President Herbert Hoover appointed a commission to study the idea of establishing an African American museum. However, the commission languished and was eventually dissolved 15 years later.

The Civil War veterans’ dream to commemorate the history and culture of African Americans was revived by civil rights icon and U. S. Representative John Lewis, who knows about perseverance and leadership through his many key roles in the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. For 15 years, Representative Lewis co-sponsored and reintroduced legislation annually to establish a national museum to preserve and present African American history and culture. The museum bill finally passed in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and, on December 16, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act authorizing the creation of the new Smithsonian Institution museum. John Lewis attended the presidential bill signing ceremony along with members of the African American Presidential Commission, including The Henry Ford’s President Emeritus Harold Skramstad.

In July 2005, Lonnie Bunch was appointed as the founding Executive Director to lead the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Mr. Bunch’s vision is that the stories, objects and lives presented in the museum will “make America better.” On September 24, 2016, the museum opened to the public with a dedication ceremony led by President Barack Obama. Our new national museum enables current and future generations to engage in their history at an institution destined to, as Mr. Bunch hopes, “make America better.”

Christian W. Overland is Executive Vice President of The Henry Ford.

by Christian W. Øverland, presidents, African American history

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1912 Baker Electric Victoria, used by five first ladies of the United States. THF67884

You might imagine that the White House was an early adopter of the automobile. We think of the presidency as being on technology’s cutting edge. Furthermore, when you realize that progressive Theodore Roosevelt’s term (1901-1909) coincided with the automobile’s rise, it seems natural that the Chief Executive would have made prominent use of the day’s foremost invention. But Roosevelt held fast to the reins and refused to give up his horse-drawn vehicles.

It’s not that Roosevelt avoided cars altogether. He certainly took the occasional car ride while in office, but he refused to bring autos into the presidential transport fleet. This was the era when most people still viewed the automobile as a plaything for the wealthy. It would have damaged Roosevelt’s populist image to have him seen barreling down the street in a motor car. And so it was left to his successor, William Howard Taft, to motorize the White House.

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William Howard Taft campaign button. THF155488

Taft did so with gusto, converting the mansion’s stables into a garage and filling it with a White steam car, two gasoline-powered Pierce-Arrows and a Baker electric in 1909. It’s interesting to note that Taft played no favorites when it came to fuel. (The question of which fuel – gasoline, steam or electric – was optimal wasn’t quite settled.) And it seems no coincidence that the Ohio-born Taft favored two carmakers, White and Baker, based in Cleveland.

While the President preferred the White steamer, First Lady Helen Taft chose the Baker as her personal vehicle. Mrs. Taft was not content to be chauffeured around Washington – she drove the Baker herself. Her use of an electric car was perfectly in keeping with the trend for marketing electrics toward prosperous, status-conscious women. Three years later, Mrs. Taft traded in the 1909 model for a new 1912 Baker electric valued at $2000. Records indicate that only $809.50 was paid, so either she received a generous trade-in credit or Baker thought the publicity was worth a substantial discount (or, perhaps, a little of both).

That second Baker, a Victoria model with a gracefully curved body, boasted a top speed of about 30 miles per hour and a range near 50 miles. The little car became a White House fixture. When Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency in 1913, his wife Ellen and their three daughters drove the Baker. And after Ellen Wilson’s death in 1914, President Wilson’s second wife, Edith, also made use of the Baker. When Warren Harding took office in 1921, First Lady Florence Harding inherited the Baker electric. (The Hardings, like the Tafts, were Ohioans and perhaps took a little Buckeye pride in the Victoria.) And after President Harding’s death in 1923, Calvin Coolidge assumed office and new First Lady Grace Coolidge took to the Baker. By this time, though, the 1912 Baker was outdated in appearance and propulsion. The Baker electric was retired in 1928, and soon thereafter made its way to The Henry Ford.

baker-electric

Our Baker has now gone back to Cleveland, its city of manufacture. For the next year, it will be on loan to the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum of the Western Reserve Historical Society. The loan begins just as the nation’s political spotlight turns to Cleveland with the Republican National Convention, scheduled for July 18-21, 2016. It’s quite fitting: the convention is a major milestone on the road to the White House, and that’s a road the Baker has traveled many times before.

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alternative fuel vehicles, cars, by Matt Anderson, women's history, presidents, presidential vehicles

limo-collage

The Henry Ford was excited to once again welcome author and former Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, along with journalist Lisa McCubbin, to Henry Ford Museum this spring in celebration of his latest book,
Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. 

More about Mr. Hill and our presidential limousines:
Clint Hill on Presidential Limousines
Presidential Vehicles
Looking Back: JFK Remembered at Henry Ford Museum
Protecting our Presidents
Turning Point

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In honor of Mr. Hill's visit to The Henry Ford, Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson put together this overview of the presidential limousines found within on exhibit at Henry Ford Museum. Learn more below.


A presidential parade car provides two things: visibility and security. Those concepts are often at odds. The Henry Ford’s presidential Lincolns illustrate the difficult and changing balance between the chief executive’s need to be seen and need to be safe.

“Sunshine Special,” the 1939 Lincoln Model K most often associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the first parade car specifically modified for presidential use. Coachbuilder Brunn & Company focused more on utility than luxury, deleting armrests for maximum seating capacity and adding wide running boards for Secret Service agents. The car was not armored until Pearl Harbor, when bullet resistant tires, glass and armor plating were installed.

In 1950, Harry S. Truman took delivery of a new Lincoln with a body by Raymond Dietrich, but the car was used most often by successor Dwight D. Eisenhower. Again there was no armor, but in 1954 the limo received the weatherproof plexiglass roof that inspired its nickname, the “Bubbletop.” Security features did not extend much beyond riding steps on the rear bumper and flashing red lights at the front.

Planning for the next car started under Eisenhower, but the 1961 Lincoln Continental limo is forever tied to John F. Kennedy. Once again, armor was not considered necessary, and Kennedy preferred to travel with the top removed whenever possible. But his assassination ended the tradition of open cars. Ford and custom car builder Hess & Eisenhardt rebuilt the 1961 Lincoln with a permanent roof, titanium armor and bullet-resistant glass five layers thick.

The 1972 Lincoln limousine was the first presidential parade car designed and built as an armored vehicle from the start. Security was now of prime importance – a point dramatically underscored when Ronald Reagan suffered an attempt on his life while getting into the limo in 1981.

The Henry Ford’s presidential Lincolns were leased to the White House. As the leases ended, the cars returned to Ford Motor Company and the firm gifted them to the museum. Currently, Cadillac supplies the president’s state cars. Each is custom-built – most recently on truck platforms – and each is typically destroyed at the end of its service life.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Henry Ford Museum, convertibles, presidents, presidential vehicles, limousines, JFK, Ford Motor Company, cars, by Matt Anderson