Detroit: The Henry Ford (Museum)


Okay, I know Detroit has a reputation — the kind that might make a lot of people wonder if there is anygood reason to visit.  You can blame Eminem or that movie Gran Torino, but there are good reasons that the city has a bad rap.  Many of Detroit’s neighborhoods are stricken with poverty and blighted by abandoned homes, and crime is commonplace.

But, there is one very good reason to visit Detroit.  In fact, I think it’s a good enough reason to ignore all those other problems.  It’s the Henry Ford Museum.

Located on the western side of Dearborn, Michigan, next to the sprawling Ford Test Track, The Henry Ford consists of the Henry Ford Museum (in the building you see in the photo above) and Greenfield Village (within walking distance of the museum).  The Ford Rouge Factory tour also begins here.

My 4-day-weekend vacation was quickly coming to an end, and I had to be at the Detroit Airport for a late afternoon flight home, but I was determined to cram in a visit to the Museum and Village in just 5 hours.  I certainly could have used more time, but it was enough to allow for a quick visit to all the highlights.

Upon entering the museum, exhibits stretch out in every direction.  Immediately in front of you is a slab of concrete, in which Thomas Edison wrote his name.  Edison was Henry Ford’s idol.

Presidential Limousines

I chose to start my tour of the museum with a right turn, which led me past the collection of presidential limousines.  This one was Ronald Reagan’s car, a 1972 Lincoln.  It served other presidents as well, going back to Richard Nixon, but it was forever associated with Reagan, after he rode away in it, following his attempted assassination in 1981.

John F. Kennedy’s car is next.  The 1961 Lincoln is famous for being the car that carried Kennedy through Dallas, when he was assassinated.

Several other presidential cars are also on display, including this one — FDR’s Sunshine Special, a 1939 Lincoln. It was made with special provisions, that helped the partially paralyzed president get in and out of the car.

Just beyond it, Teddy Roosevelt’s vehicle is also on display.  This one isn’t a car, it’s a carriage, used from 1902 to 1928.


The far end of the museum houses numerous railroad locomotives and rail cars.

This snow plow was built in 1923, and used by the Canadian Pacific Railroad to clear the tracks.

Parts of the museum are a work in progress.  Dozens of classic cars were parked bumper-to-bumper, awaiting a more organized display.  By the time you get there, this exhibit should be complete.

The entire “Automobile in American Life” exhibit was closed, and hidden behind temporary walls.  There were a few places that allowed a peek, though.  I would have loved to get a closer look at that beautiful old Holiday Inn neon sign…

… and the vintage McDonald’s sign, along with this old Texaco station.

Heroes of the Sky

I wandered back towards the middle of the museum — much of which is taken up with the Heroes of the Sky exhibit.

There’s a re-created Wright Flyer here…

… as well as one of the original news choppers — operated by the Detroit News.

And take a look at this Fokker!  It’s a 1925 Fokker F-VII Trimotor, painted with big, bold letters by its manufacturer, Tony Fokker, so that no one would mistake it for a Ford.  This particular plane was known as the Josephine Ford (named for Edsel Ford’s daughter), and was flown over the North Pole during Admiral Richard Byrd’s expedition to the Arctic.

One of the biggest planes on display is one that you’ll notice as you first walk into the museum.  This DC-3 was once flown by Northwest Airlines.

I’m not sure what exhibit I was in, when I found this — but it’s certainly one of the more impressive, yet understated, items at the museum.  It’s George Washington’s camp chest…

… and his folding camp bed.  Both of these items likely accompanied him on his tour of battlefields in New England in the 1780’s.

With Liberty And Justice For All

Here’s another incredibly cool reason to visit The Henry Ford — you can sit on the bus where the Civil Rights Movement got its start.  It’s the actual bus which Rosa Parks was riding in, when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.

The actual seat in which Parks was sitting isn’t marked, but the exhibit’s photos suggest it was the first forward-facing seat on the left side of the bus (the right side of this photo).

There are other exhibits in this area, but the bus is obviously the main attraction.

Made In America

If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for in the Made in America exhibit, you can easily get overwhelmed in a sea of machinery.  I was wandering around, aimlessly, admiring all of the old engines (but admittedly getting a little glazed-over), when another visitor spontaneously struck up a conversation with me.

“Can you believe, that’s the oldest steam engine in the world?”

“Yeah, I know!”

But I didn’t know.  I had almost given up on reading signs, and nearly missed something incredible.  This is a Newcomen Engine, built around 1760.  Thomas Newcomen designed the first truly successful steam engine 50 years earlier.  This one had been used to pump water out of a mine in England.

This huge engine is much newer (compared to its colonial-era predecessor).  It’s one of nine generators built by Henry Ford as the powerhouse of his Highland Park plant.  It generated the electricity that helped build Model-T cars.  A sign explains that, sometime after 1930, he had the giant machine moved here, then built the museum around it.

If you’ve ever wondered how light bulbs are made (or at least were made, before we all switched to those curly fluorescent lights), here’s the answer.  The Corning Ribbon Machine could crank out 600 light bulbs in one minute.  Back in the 1970’s, 15 of these machines made most of the light bulbs used throughout the world.

Before the advent of this machine, it would have taken a glass blower 10 hours to make this many bulbs.

That’s only about half of the Henry Ford Museum.  The rest is on the next page.

Oh, and I should mention these Mold-A-Rama machines.  For a couple of bucks, you can make your own car, truck, or Wienermobile.  Liquid plastic is forced into a mold, cooled, and the finished product is scooped out.  There are ten machines, each with its own design, located throughout the museum.  I dare you to visit, and not buy at least one.

The Henry Ford Museum is open 7 days a week, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Greenfield Village has similar hours, but only during the summer — and during the shoulder seasons, it may only be open Friday-Sunday.  A tour of the Ford Rouge Factory is available Monday through Saturday, with buses departing every 20 minutes, starting at 9:20 a.m.  Admission to the Village + Museum or Factory is $29.50 for adults, $21 for children (2011 prices, check for updates here).

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