Greenfield Village may just look like a lot of buildings to some, but each building tells stories of people. When I wrote The Henry Ford Official Guidebook, it really hit me how unique and one-of-a-kind Greenfield Village is. I wanted to share several stories I found particularly interesting about Greenfield Village.
Researching Building Stories
Whenever we research a Village building, we usually start with archival material—looking at sources like census records, account books, store invoices (like the one below, related to Dr. Howard’s Office), and old photographs—to give us authentic accounts about our subjects’ lives. Here are some examples.
At Daggett Farmhouse, Samuel Daggett’s account book showed that he not only built houses but also dug stones for the community schoolhouse; made shingles for local people’s houses; made chairs, spinning wheels, coffins, and sleds; and even pulled teeth! If you are interested in learning more about how our research influenced the interpretation at Daggett, along with four other Village buildings, check out this blog post.
Daggett Farmhouse, photographed by Michelle Andonian. / THF54173
For Dr. Howard’s Office, we looked at old photographs, family reminiscences, the doctor’s daily record of patients and what he prescribed for them, his handwritten receipt (recipe) book of remedies, and invoices of supplies and dried herbs he purchased. You can read more about the history of Dr. Alonson Howard and his office in this blog post.
For J.R. Jones General Store, we used a range of primary sources, from local census records to photographs of the building on its original site (like the one below) to account books documenting purchases of store stock from similar general stores. You can read more about the history of J.R. Jones General Store in this blog post.
Photo of J.R. Jones General Store on its original site. / THF255033
Urbanization and Industrialization Seen through Greenfield Village Buildings
Many Greenfield Village buildings were acquired because of Henry Ford’s interests. But some give us the opportunity to look at larger trends in American life, especially related to urbanization and industrialization.
Engelbert Grimm sold clocks and watches to Detroit-area customers, including Henry Ford, in the 1880s. But Grimm Jewelry Store also demonstrates that in an increasingly urban and industrial nation, people were expected to know the time and be on time—all the time.
Grimm Jewelry Store in Greenfield Village. / THF1947
Related to this, notice the public clock in the Detroit Publishing Company photograph below of West 23rd Street, New York City, about 1908. (Clue: Look down the street, above the horse-drawn carriage, and you’ll see a large street clock on a stand.) You can read more about the emergence of “clock time” in this blog post.
Smiths Creek Depot is here because of its connection with Thomas Edison. But this building also shows us that railroad depots at the time were more than simply the place to catch a train—they were also bustling places where townspeople connected with the outside world. Below you can see a photo of Smiths Creek in Greenfield Village, as well asthe hustle and bustle of railroad depots in a wonderful image of the Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne, Wyoming, from about 1910.
Smiths Creek Depot in Greenfield Village. / THF1873
Henry Ford brought Sarah Jordan Boarding House to Greenfield Village because it was home to many of Thomas Edison’s workers. It was also one of three residences wired for Edison’s new electrical lighting system in December 1879—and it is the only one still in existence. In the bigger picture, the mushrooming of boarding houses at this time was particularly due to a shortage of affordable housing in the growing urban-industrial centers, which were experiencing a tremendous influx of new wage laborers.
Sarah Jordan Boarding House in Greenfield Village. / THF2007
Sarah Jordan Boarding House on its original site in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1879. / THF117242
Luther Burbank and Henry Ford
Other buildings in Greenfield Village have strong ties to Henry’s personal relationships. Henry Ford met horticulturalist Luther Burbank in connection with the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That year, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a few other companions traveled there to attend Edison Day. Luther Burbank welcomed them to the area.
Panama-Pacific International Exposition Souvenir Medal. / THF154006
Afterward, the group followed Burbank up on an invitation to visit him at his experimental garden in Santa Rosa, California. Edison and Ford had a grand time there. Burbank later wrote, “The ladies said we acted like three schoolboys, but we didn’t care.”
Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank, and Henry Ford at Burbank's home in Santa Rosa, California. / THF126337
After that visit, the original group, plus tire magnate Harvey Firestone, drove by automobile to the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. During that trip, Edison proposed a camping trip for Ford, Firestone, and himself. The Vagabonds camping trips, taking place over the next nine years, were born!
Henry Ford was so inspired by Luther Burbank’s character, accomplishments, and “learning by doing” approach that he brought to Greenfield Village a modified version of the Luther Burbank Birthplace and a restored version of the Luther Burbank Garden Office from Santa Rosa.
Luther Burbank Garden Office in Greenfield Village. / THF1887
Greenfield Village Buildings and World’s Fair Connections
In a striking Albert Kahn–designed building, Ford Motor Company boasted the largest and most expensive corporate pavilion of the same Chicago fair. It drew some 75% of visitors to the fair that year. After the fair, the central part of this building was transported from Chicago to Dearborn, where it became the Ford Rotunda. It was used as a hospitality center until it burned in a devastating fire in 1962.
Ford at the Fair Brochure, showing the building section that would eventually become the Ford Rotunda. / THF210966
Ford Rotunda in Dearborn after a 1953 renovation. / THF142018
A presenter at the Texas Centennial Exposition demonstrates how the soybean oil extraction process works with a model of a soybean oil extractor that now resides in the Soybean Lab in Greenfield Village. / THF222337
Boys from Henry Ford's Edison Institute Schools operate miniature machine replicas in a scale model of the Menlo Park Machine Shop during the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. / THF250326
Village Buildings That Influenced Famous Men
Several people whose stories are represented in Greenfield Village were influenced by the places in which they grew up and worked, like the Wright Brothers, shown below on the porch of their Dayton, Ohio, home, now the Wright Home in the Village, around 1910.
In addition to practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln traveled to courthouses like the Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village to try court cases for local folk. The experiences he gained in these prepared him for his future role as U.S. president (read more about this in this “What If” story).
Enterprising young Tom Edison took a job as a newsboy on a local railway, where one of the stops was Smiths Creek Station. This and other experiences on that railway contributed to the man Thomas Edison would become—curious, entrepreneurial, interested in new technologies, and collaborative.
Young Thomas Edison as a newsboy and candy butcher. / THF116798
Henry Ford, the eldest of six children, was born and raised in the farmhouse pictured below, now known as Ford Home in Greenfield Village. Henry hated the drudgery of farm work. He spent his entire life trying to ease farmers’ burdens and make their lives easier.
Henry J. Heinz (the namesake of Heinz House in Greenfield Village) wasn’t just an inventor or an entrepreneur or a marketing genius: he was all of these things. Throughout the course of his career, he truly changed the way we eat and the way we think about what we eat.
Beginning with horseradish, Heinz expanded his business to include many relishes and pickles—stressing their purity and high quality at a time when other processed foods did not share these characteristics. The sample display case below highlights the phrase “pure food products.”
Heinz had an eye for promotion and advertising unequaled among his competitors. This included signs, billboards, special exhibits, and, as shown below, the specially constructed Heinz Ocean Pier, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which opened in 1898.
Advertising process photograph showing Heinz Ocean Pier. / THF117096
The pickle pin, for instance, was a wildly successful advertising promotion. Heinz first offered a free pickle-shaped watch fob at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. At some point, a pin replaced the watch fob, and the rest is history!
By the time of H.J. Heinz’s death in 1919, his company had grown into one of the largest food processing businesses in the nation. His company was known for its innovative food processing, packaging, advertising, and enlightened business practices. You can learn more about Heinz House and its journey to Greenfield Village here.
Even More Fun Facts about Greenfield Village Buildings
Most of the time, we focus on big themes that tell American history in relatable ways. When we choose a theme to focus on, we inevitably leave out interesting little-known facts. For example, Cohen Millinery was a dry goods store, a candy store, a Kroger grocery, and a restaurant during its lifetime!
Surprisingly, for most of its life prior to its incorporation into Greenfield Village, Logan County Courthouse was a private residence. Many different families had lived there, including Mr. and Mrs. Elijah Watkins, the last caretakers before Henry Ford acquired the building. They are depicted below, along with an interior shot of one of their rooms when Henry Ford’s agents went to look at the building.
Interior of Logan County Courthouse at its original site. / THF238596
In the 1820s, eastern Ohio farmers realized huge profits from the fine-grade wool of purebred Merino sheep. But by the 1880s, competition had made raising Merino sheep unprofitable. Benjamin Firestone, the previous owner of Firestone Farmhouse and father of Harvey Firestone, however, stuck with the tried and true. Today, you can visit our wrinkly friends grazing one of several pastures in the Village.
Merino sheep at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village in 2014. / THF119103
We have several different breeds of animals at the Village, but some of our most memorable were built, not bred. The Herschell-Spillman Carousel is a favorite amongst visitors. Many people think that all carousel animals were hand-carved. But the Herschell-Spillman Company, the makers of our carousel, created quantities of affordable carousel animals through a shop production system, using machinery to rough out parts. You can read more on the history of our carousel in this blog post.
And there you have it! Remember, odd and anachronistic as it might seem at times—the juxtaposed time periods, the buildings from so many different places, the specific people highlighted—there’s only one Greenfield Village!
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
This fall we welcomed Rich Sheridan, CEO (and Chief Storyteller) of Menlo Innovations, to The Henry Ford as an Entrepreneur in Residence. Rich is our second EIR to join us in 2019, following Melvin Parsons, founder of We The People Growers Association in Ypsilanti. Hear more about Melvin's story below.
Thanks to a grant, the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship has allowed The Henry Ford to provide the next generation of entrepreneurs with hands-on learning opportunities. This initiative includes the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, a public speaker series featuring influencers in entrepreneurship, workshops and the expansion of youth programming that leverages the institution’s Archive of American Innovation to create a deep and engaging understanding of invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship from a young age.
Learn more about Rich, his background, and his passion for cultivating joy.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your company, Menlo Innovations. I am a #PureMichigan kid. I grew up in Mount Clemens, Mich., just north of Detroit and attended Chippewa Valley High School where I started learning to program computers on a teletype in 1971. I then went to Ann Arbor and received a bachelor of science in computer science and a master of science in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. After graduation in 1982, I decided I loved Ann Arbor too much to leave and have been there ever since. I married my high school sweetheart, Carol, and we raised our three daughters (Megan, Lauren and Sarah) in a house we’ve been working on since we bought it in 1983. We have two granddaughters now and two more (twins!) on the way.
I co-founded Menlo Innovations in 2001 with James Goebel. We are a contract software design and development firm in downtown Ann Arbor with a mission to “end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.” Our goal since our founding is to return joy to technology … for the people who use the software our team creates, for the people who pay us to design and build it, and for the people who do the work.
Our team has done lots of work in the automotive industry, the healthcare industry, logistics, retail, in just about every technology and platform available.
Do you have a specific memory about your first visit to The Henry Ford? Growing up in Clinton Township (near Mount Clemens), there was a program offered every summer that I believe they called Summer Recreation. Most of the activities were at the elementary school I attended. They also offered field trips and once a summer they took us to Greenfield Village. I loved it every time I went. My specific memories include rock candy (!), the steam engine train, the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, the horse-drawn carriages, the Model-T fleet, the blacksmith shop, the glassblowing, and of course, the Menlo Park lab of Thomas Edison.
What inspires your most about Thomas Edison and his Menlo Laboratory? As a kid, I got goosebumps whenever I entered that lab. I’m not even sure if I knew what had actually happened there. I could sense the human energy that existed there, the camaraderie, the inventiveness, and the excitement of creating things that had a chance to change the world. I loved the fact that there was a “lab” that was wide open and filled with such fascinating equipment, above a machine shop. My favorites toys as a kid were Erector sets, electrical experimentation kits, LEGO blocks, chemistry sets, and a microscope. In my mind’s eye, I saw all of this at work in this lab and this was a place that adults worked! I wanted that in my own work life.
What have you been working on with The Henry Ford as our EIR? What excites you most about your time here? The Henry Ford wants to ensure they offer practical relevance to the problems we face in our world today. Businesses and engineers at those businesses have the opportunity to create great impact. The adults running those firms and working there need inspiration (just like we kids did). Businesses today need creativity, imagination, invention and innovation more now than ever. What better place to inspire and begin such a journey than The Henry Ford.
My project is to help the amazing team at The Henry Ford imagine an innovation space that businesses can use to bring their teams, their ideas, and perhaps even their customers to play, explore, invent and ideate. The space itself will be right in the middle of the museum. Thus, teams who use that space will be able to use the museum as a sort of lab for creating, drawing important lessons from the past and they ideate about the future. As William Pretzer said in his book Working at Inventing, “Henry Ford’s goal was to create a museum that would not only record the past but would shape the future as well. It would use the past to encourage visitors, especially the young, to aspire great achievements of their own.” It certainly worked for me!
Why is it important to put joy into your work every day? I have to admit, my desire to create Menlo Innovations was a selfish one. I wanted to create a workplace I wanted to come to every day, with energy, enthusiasm and inspiration. The beautiful thing is that this kind of environment is contagious. We actually get over 3,000 visitors every year who come from all over the world just to see how we do what we do. They can feel the energy of the place and we end up talking about the “business value of joy.” The visitors often ask, “Why is joy so important?” I present them with a rhetorical question: “Imagine half of my team had joy and the other half didn’t? Which half would you want working on your project?” Everyone chooses the joyful half (of course!). I then ask them why?
“They’d be more productive.”
“They’d care more about the outcome.”
“They’d produce higher quality.”
“They’d be easier to work with.”
There is, in fact, tangible business value to joy. We know this. Thomas Edison knew this. Henry Ford knew this. Now it’s time for the rest of the world to get on board.