These Are the Times of Our Lives

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North America » United States » Michigan » Detroit
May 27th 2011
Published: February 25th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Henry Ford's birth homeHenry Ford's birth homeHenry Ford's birth home

The simple Michigan farmhouse where Henry Ford grew up.
Today, I am heading for Detroit.

Ones first reaction may be to question my sanity.

There are pretty good reasons.

The popular impression of Detroit is a post-industrial hell hole, a city that has been abandoned by everyone with the means to leave.

The place appears to be nothing but empty skyscrapers, burned out factories, boarded up houses, and endless blocks of overgrown vacant lots.

When a photographer wants to make a series about a city in decay, they invariably head for Detroit.

The reality is different to this bleak image.

Detroit has a lot of life, at least in certain parts.

The city has a vital underground art scene.

For fans of Do It Yourself culture, which includes most Burning Man participants, Detroit is an important destination.

This is not to say that Detroit is an easy destination.

In most cities, deep research is essential to staying sane in a tourist horde.

Here, deep research is essential to safety.

In Detroit, knowing where to go and how to act when there makes the difference between having a good time and becoming a crime statistic.

I read a number
Henry Ford's first workshopHenry Ford's first workshopHenry Ford's first workshop

A reproductionof Henry Ford's first workshop, built by Ford himself in 1933
of websites and books before coming here, and read hotel reviews very carefully to gauge their safety level.

I ultimately discovered that expensive hotels downtown are quite safe, and less expensive hotels in the museum district are also quite safe.

Inexpensive hotels elsewhere provide the kind of adventure that people may not want.

I ultimately chose to stay at the Inn at Ferry Street.

They are located within walking distance of several museums.

They also have a free shuttle service within ten miles, which covered everything I wanted to see.

Keeping my car in a secure lot was a rather important criterion this weekend.

Finally, they did not raise rates for the holiday weekend, which meant it would fit my budget.

Henry Ford Center

Before heading there, I went to see a legacy of Detroit’s golden age.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Detroit was the shining beacon of industrial America.

A person with skills and ambition could make a fortune here faster than anywhere else in the country.

One of those people was Henry Ford, who perfected the modern automobile industry.

Thomas Edison's labThomas Edison's labThomas Edison's lab

Reproduction of the lab in Menlo Park where Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Henry Ford ensured the reconstruction was accurate to the tiniest detail.
made a lot of money doing so.

He then spent a big part of it collecting artifacts of American history, particularly those related to inventors and industrialization.

He ultimately opened a museum to showcase it all, which he called the Thomas Edison Institute of Technology.

It’s now called the Henry Ford Center.

They promote themselves as the nation’s ultimate history attraction, but I treated it as a junior varsity version of the National Museum of American History (see March 9th) at the Smithsonian.

Like that museum, the center has an amazing collection.

Unlike that museum, this collection reveals quite a bit about how Henry Ford viewed his country.

The center is divided into two distinct parts, with separate admission.

The first part is a museum building housing most of the artifacts.

The other is a collection of historic buildings called Greenfield Village.

Virtually all of them were bought by Henry Ford himself, and reflect something he cared about.

I saw Greenfield Village first.

Henry Ford, like many industrialists of his era, believed that success is due almost entirely to genius combined with endless hard work.
Edison's lab, second floorEdison's lab, second floorEdison's lab, second floor

The second floor of the reconstructed Menlo Park lab where Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. Thomas Edison himself described it as exactly like he remembered it.

Greenfield Village reflects this worldview.

The first section is on Henry Ford himself and his start in the automobile business.

He was born in rural Michigan.

He moved his birth house here in 1919 and had it meticulously restored.

It’s a four room farm house.

Docents explain what each room was used for while Ford was living there.

Six people lived in this house at the time!

As the displays put it “Henry Ford learned the virtue of hard work on the farm. He hated his chores, but did them gladly. At 16, he left for more interesting work in Detroit”.

Next to the farmhouse is his first Detroit workshop, which he recreated in Greenfield Village in 1933.

He built engines on the kitchen counter, and built his first car in the garage.

Thomas Edison's First Laboratory

The next, and most important section, is next door.

It’s dedicated to Thomas Edison.

This section has the tone of a shrine to the ultimate role model.

As noted earlier in Florida , Henry Ford spent some time working for Thomas Edison.

Edison encouraged him
The Thomas Edison chairThe Thomas Edison chairThe Thomas Edison chair

Thomas Edison sat in this chair for a famous photograph. Afterward, Henry Ford nailed the chair to the floor. Notice the square of different floorboards under the chair.
to pursue his interest in automobiles.

Henry Ford never forgot this, and considered Edison a father figure for the rest of his life.

When Thomas Edison moved his laboratory from Menlo Park to West Orange , he left the old buildings to rot.

In 1928, Henry Ford bought everything that remained and moved it to Detroit.

He then did a through restoration, recreating Edison’s lab down to the tiniest detail.

This building is a recreation of where Edison invented both the light bulb and the phonograph, so he wanted to get it right.

He succeeded well indeed.

The first floor of the two story building is the machine shop.

In this room, skilled machinists would turn Edison’s plans into prototypes for testing.

It looked like a miniature version of the lab in West Orange.

The second floor was the chemistry and testing department.

The walls are covered with flasks and bottles, and equipment for testing electrical products.

Edison spent most of his working time in the original version of this room, testing ideas.

As noted in West Orange, he would spend
Booker T Washington cabinBooker T Washington cabinBooker T Washington cabin

Reproduction of the cabin where Booker T Washington was born.
entire days here, taking quick naps on a couch and eating nothing but pies.

The room has two unusual artifacts.

The far end of the room contains a pipe organ.

Edison and his workers held dance parties in the room on their rare days off.

Some of them started after midnight and went until the sun came up.

The other artifact is a chair in the middle of the floor.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the light bulb in 1929, when Edison was eighty four, Henry Ford invited him to Greenfield Village for a dinner in his honor.

Afterwards, Edison, Henry Ford, and then President Hebert Hoover went to see the restored lab.

Edison was astonished by the results, and proclaimed it looked exactly like he remembered from fifty years earlier.

Edison sat in the chair for a photograph.

Afterward, Henry Ford nailed the chair to the floor exactly where Edison left it.

It’s still there.

When the museum had to replace the floorboards several years ago, they left the floor under the chair intact.

After Edison’s Lab, Greenfield Village has several
Abraham Lincoln CourthouseAbraham Lincoln CourthouseAbraham Lincoln Courthouse

The courthouse from Pottsville Illinois where Abraham Lincoln started as a lawyer.
sections that attempt to recreate American towns as they existed during Henry Ford’s early years.

There are several farm buildings, where people demonstrate period techniques.

There is a section of colonial craft shops, also with demonstrations.

One area recreates a small town, and another has old buildings of all sorts as an architectural showcase.

For visitors that have never been to a living history museum like the Colonial Spanish Quarter it will probably be fascinating; for me it all felt jumbled together and out of place.

This part of Greenfield Village has some notable buildings, which reveal Henry Ford’s obsession with certain aspects of American history.

The village has a replica of the slave cabin where Booker T Washington was born.

Henry Ford was a huge admirer for his work inventing new uses for plants, and met him several times.

There is a photo of the two of them in front of the cabin.

Greenfield Village has a battered wooden building that looks like a barn with lots of windows.

It’s actually the 1840 courthouse from Postville Illinois where Abraham Lincoln started his law career.

Local residents sued Henry Ford in
Wright Brothers workshopWright Brothers workshopWright Brothers workshop

The bicycle workshop where the Wright Brothers did most of their research on flight
an attempt to derail the sale of the building in 1928.

Henry Ford also acquired the cabin where William Holmes McGuffey was born.

McGuffey wrote a series of famous English textbooks that Henry Ford obsessed over in grade school.

Wright Brothers Workshop

Finally, Greenfield Village has the home and workshop of the Wright brothers.

Henry Ford was fascinated with aviation.

The museum half of the complex has an entire section on early flight.

In 1937, Henry Ford bought the home and workshop of the Wright brothers in Dayton (see yesterday) and moved them to Greenfield Village.

The buildings themselves are surprisingly small.

The museum justifies Ford’s relocation of these buildings by noting that Orville Wright himself sold them, and historic preservation was basically unknown in Dayton at the time.

What they don’t mention is the brothers were famous enough that the buildings may have survived in Dayton to become part of the current national monument if Henry Ford hadn’t called.

The staff does present a very through portrait of the brothers and what they accomplished.

American Automotive History

The museum part of the complex continues Henry Ford’s fascination with
Wright Brothers houseWright Brothers houseWright Brothers house

The house where the Wright Brothers lived when they invented the airplane.
American history and invention.

The centerpiece is an exhibit on automobile culture.

Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation while I was there, but several of the artifacts were still on display.

One of them is an original neon sign for McDonalds.

For anyone who has seen the latest restaurants with the yellow arches on either side, the sign will look familiar.

The display has Henry Ford’s first car model, the Quadricycle from 1896, basically a chair with four wheels and a small engine on the back.

It has the one and only car that Henry Ford personally raced, the 999, which he did in Florida in the early 1900s.

It has the Goldenrod, the final car to break the land speed record using a gasoline engine, in 1965 (all subsequent record holders have been powered by jet engines).

Finally, there is the original Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, which was built in the 1950s.

When Oscar Meyer resurrected their car several years ago, they had to go to the Henry Ford Center to get the plans they needed.

The museum has a series of presidential limousines.

The reason they are here is that
The QuadricycleThe QuadricycleThe Quadricycle

The Quadricycle, the first car ever designed by Henry Ford.
all of them were made by Lincoln, a Ford brand.

One belonged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and another to Ronald Reagan.

The central one is the limo where John F Kennedy was shot.

The car looks nothing like it did in 1963 because the secret service remodeled it extensively after the tragic events, adding an armor plated hard top and bullet proof glass.

They also replaced the entire interior, so the blood stained seats are long gone.

Still, this is the one.

Artifacts of American History

The section I spent the most time in was called American Freedom.

In theory, it examined the ideal of freedom in this country and how it has evolved over time.

I found this aspect rather mushy.

I instead treated it as a fascinating collection of artifacts, the type that only someone with unlimited funds could assemble.

It has an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, displayed under climate controlled glass.

It has an original copy of Common Sense by Thomas Paine.

It has a chair used by George Washington during a tour he made as President.

It has a handwritten copy of the
The GoldenrodThe GoldenrodThe Goldenrod

The Goldenrod, the last gasoline powered car to hold the land speed record, which it won in 1965.
thirteenth amendment (the one that abolished slavery), one of only three in existence.

On a darker note, it has shackles and collars used to control slaves.

It also has the chair from Ford’s Theater that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot.

A display next to the chair tries to describe it as a memorial to the president, but I still found it rather disturbing.

It’s here because Henry Ford was fascinated by both antique chairs and Abraham Lincoln.

The section also has the bus that Rosa Parks was riding when she refused to give up her seat.

This artifact was bought by museum staff in 2002, long after Henry Ford’s death.

They bought it at auction, outbidding the Smithsonian.

The previous owner had bought it from the city of Montgomery in the 1970s and used it as a storage shed!

Museum staff proved it was the right one through its Identification Number, which was listed in Montgomery city records.

The bus is fully restored to its appearance in the 1950s.

The museum ultimately paints a picture of America through some really rose colored
Original Oscar Meyer WeinermobileOriginal Oscar Meyer WeinermobileOriginal Oscar Meyer Weinermobile

The most photographed car in the museum, and possibly the world. Add me to that list :)

Subsequent directors have tweaked the mission over the years, but the core of the collection is still the history of his country as Henry Ford wished to see it.

That history has no bad parts other than slavery; everything led to progress and an increase of the greater good.

The museum is most telling for what it does NOT describe about Henry Ford as a businessman.

When it came to running his company, Henry Ford was basically a control freak.

He took the style of the Southern textile industrialists to extremes.

He was quick to fire union organizers and anyone else who troubled him.

To root them out, he had over a thousand Pinkerton detectives on payroll.

In 1928, the New York Times called him the Mussolini of Detroit.

Henry Ford helped create the rigid culture of rules within the American auto industry that left it so vulnerable to foreign competition in the 1970s.

None of this is covered in the museum, of course.

A pity, because examining these factors could be so useful to the next generation of inventors and business leaders.

Paul Van Dyk

The FDR LimoThe FDR LimoThe FDR Limo

An official limo used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt while president.

After the Henry Ford museum, I dove into Detroit culture in earnest.

Detroit these days is probably best known for its music.

Almost twenty years ago, a group of pioneering electronic artists created a new form of dance music.

It emphasized the artificiality of this machine created music, with heavy monotonous drum machine beats and simple keyboard lines over them.

They called it techno.

They gained a large following in their hometown, but the rest of the country ignored them.

Soon enough, their records crossed the ocean to England.

There, they ignited a firestorm that culminated in the mid 1990s rave movement.

The entire world was now dancing to this new music that they swore was English, while the Detroit pioneers faded into obscurity.

In 1999, a group of local promoters decided to do something about this.

They founded the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, which would showcase the music of Detroit in all its glory.

While it was a huge success artistically, the festival was much more questionable financially.

After several management changes, the festival focus broadened to include artists influenced by
Rosa Parks busRosa Parks busRosa Parks bus

The bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.
Detroit sounds, and it was renamed Movement.

That festival has grown into the largest electronic music showcase in the US, and one of the largest in the world.

Thankfully, it has kept the relatively low ticket prices and adventurous booking policy as it has grown.

Oddly enough, while researching this trip I found little information about it on US websites, while it was listed all over European ones.

The festival starts with a series of opening parties at various clubs.

Not all of them are officially sanctioned.

I decided to go to a European trance show featuring Paul Van Dyk.

Trance emphasizes intricate keyboard arrangements over the rhythmic base beats of techno.

Paul Van Dyk is one of the more famous artists working in the genre today; his remix of the song “Times of Our Lives” was all over radio about five years ago.

The club had an energy that I have not experienced in a while.

The place was packed, of course, and nearly everyone was moving.

Paul didn’t even play his biggest hits, and the crowd barely noticed.

Whatever he played, they ate it up.

Several songs featured bridges with soaring keyboards and no beats; people invariably threw their hands in the air.

Twice, people broke out in English football (read “soccer”) chants.

The crowd was a bit older on average than concerts back home, which I considered a good thing.

I really enjoyed my night here; I can’t wait for the rest.

Paul's Movement show is not online, but others from the same period are. Here's a taste:


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