Visiting the Henry Ford Museum

The original Wienermobile is on display at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

If anyone was asked to guess what artifact collection includes the limousine in which John F. Kennedy was shot, the last theater seat Abraham Lincoln ever sat in, or the bus that held the defiant and triumphant Rosa Parks, the guess most likely to trip from the tongue would be the Smithsonian or another Washington, DC center of history.

But, both of those crucibles of decades past rest in Dearborn, Mich., not far from where pickup trucks roll off  massive assembly line.

On a recent visit to Ford Motor Company’s headquarters just outside Detroit to review new technologies emerging from the automaker, I had a chance to steal away a side trip of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Both sit smack in the middle of the Ford corporate and manufacturing campus.

The story behind how the museum collected a lot of its exhibits is as controversial and entertaining as the historical powerhouse who lent his name to the institution. Legend has it that – at the height of his Model T-build empire – Henry Ford told his national network of dealers to look for anything of historic interest – automobile-related or otherwise.

The idea from Ford was simple. Paraphrasing: “Folks, if you find something good, buy it. I’ll pay you back.” And Ford had the cash to honor any receipt sent his way. So, The Ford Museum ended up with a massive display collection – with some items that regional historians sometimes wish had stayed closer to home.

So, the museum began as Henry Ford's personal collection and grew into a 12 acre, indoor site housing machinery, trains, planes and (of course) automobiles. The tour also unveils scores of other items that pack a tingle of excitement just to be in their presence. According to the Ford’s own list, visitors can see:

• A Wienermobile
• George Washington's bed
• Thomas Edison's last breath sealed in a glass tube
• The prototype Dymaxion house
• Bill Elliott's NASCAR ride that broke the racing track record with a speed of 212 mph

My favorite components of the Ford collection reside in the outdoor Greenfield Village. Built to resemble a township during the Industrial Revolution – complete with costumed tour guides and a fleet of Model Ts – Greenfield includes multiple complete historic buildings.

Basically, if Ford found a building of historic value he was interested in displaying, he’d buy it, send a crew to disassemble it carefully and transport it – brick for brick – from its home to the Greenfield Village.

I can only imagine the conversation that might’ve gone down while Ford was shopping for movable buildings.

“Hi. This is Henry Ford. I’m interested in the Wright Brothers’ Bicycle Shop.”

“OK, Mr. Ford. I’m sure the city fathers can work something out so you can acquire some artifacts from the shop or – “

“You weren’t listening. This is Henry Ford. I’m not interested in something inside the Wright Brothers’ Bicycle Shop. I want the shop.”

A few fictional conversations like that led to this list of relocated and reconstructed buildings in the Village:

• Noah Webster's home
• The Wright brothers' home from Dayton, Ohio
• Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory
• Henry Ford's birth home
• Harvey Firestone’s farmhouse from tire-happy, Ohio
• The Logan County Courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law in Illinois
• The Heinz Home – birthplace of ketchup

The Henry Ford Museum is open 9:30 am to 5 pm year round, while the Greenfield Village closes for the winter season. Tickets to attend both are available for $35.