Highlights of the Henry Ford Museum: A Michigan Family Day Trip
JFK's Limousine, Mark Twain's Table, Edison's Last Breath and the House of the Future!
The Henry Ford is a large museum complex outside Detroit, Michigan, dedicated to preserving Americana and illustrating the industrial revolution, but it really is much more than that. Located in Dearborn, the complex consists of the Henry Ford Museum itself; an outdoor museum of historical and recreated buildings called Greenfield Village; a Ford truck factory tour; an IMAX theater; and a research center. More than 26 million objects and documents are part of the complex's collection.
In other words, it simply is too much to absorb in one day. So we focused on the museum proper, and that is a daily adventure all by itself because the museum sprawls over 12 acres! There are 13 sections to the museum, with the largest being the one dedicated to automobiles of course.
Following are some of the highlights we saw during a recent visit. Shown here is the actual Montgomery City bus that Rosa Parks was riding in when she refused to give up her seat, a major event in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. All photos are by us unless otherwise stated.
JFK's Limousine and Other Presidential Vehicles
The museum has several sad objects from bad events in America's history, and this 1961 Lincoln is the one that President John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated in Dallas in November, 1963. It is amazing to stand and look at knowing what happened in the car. Nearby are two videos about that horrible event you can watch to learn more or re-live those dark days. I found it fascinating that the government kept the car in use for years after JFK's assassination.
The car is one of a series of presidential vehicles in a row that starts with Theodore Roosevelt's horse-drawn Brougham carriage. Surprising for such a progressive politician, he didn't much like automobiles. There are also cars that Eisenhower and FDR used, as well as the presidential limo that Reagan was pushed into when he was almost killed by an assassin in 1981.
The museum says the Reagan vehicle will be the last of the presidential cars to be preserved because the Secret Service now destroys retired ones for security reasons.
Tracing Henry Ford's Path to Today's Automobiles
From the Quadricycle to the Model T And Beyond
One row in the Driving America section of the museum is dedicated to showing the early development of Henry Ford's vehicles, from the 1896 Quadricycle shown here to the Model T cars that would dominate U.S. roads in the 1920s.
Believe it or not, the museum says that in 1923 half of all the cars in America were Model Ts!
The 1908 Ford Model S roadster is a pretty cool red, and I also thought the 1909 Model T touring car looked pretty sharp. But by the time the 1930 Model A touring car arrived the look was getting a bit stodgy.
The car exhibits go way beyond Ford vehicles, though. Make sure you see the 1865 Roper, which the museum says is the oldest surviving American automobile. The car was such an oddity that people paid to see it go around a track.
Some of the other historic vehicles in the collection include a 1965 Lotus Ford that won the Indy 500 race in 1965, the first rear-engine car to achieve victory, and the 1948 Tucker 48, a rather mythical vehicle that was chronicled in the movie ''Tucker."
Also seek out the 1931 Bugatti Royale, one of the grandest and most beautiful-looking vehicles ever. It is also one of the rarest, since only six were ever made.
You can skip the area that highlights the cars from the 1970s -- wow they were ugly. But do check out the section on alternative-energy cars, which have a history dating back to the beginning of automobiles. I thought the 1980 Comuta-Car Electric Runabout, with its two seats, sloped front and square back was one of the ugliest cars ever.
From Wing-Walkers to the 1939 Douglas DC-3, the Most Successful Airplane Ever
The Heroes in the Sky section of the museum traces the early history of flight, starting with an exhibit showing film of the early wing-walkers and barnstormers who were a popular entertainment in the first decades of the 20th century. It is fun to sit in the recreated stadium seats and watch some of the daredevils at work.
The exhibit includes the 1925 Fokker F-VII Trimotor that Richard Byrd claimed he used to fly over the North Pole in 1926 (a claim that has been disputed ever since). Also on display is the 1928 Ford 4 AT-B that Byrd used to fly over the South Pole in 1929, a feat that I don't think has been contested.
A 1939 Sikorsky VS-300A helicopter is pretty cool, because it shows just how fragile these early copters appeared to be. My favorite part of the exhibit was the 1931 Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro, an aircraft I have read about but never actually seen in person. Apparently, I'm not the only one who found this craft fascinating. The museum says that it was used by the Detroit News for taking aerial photographs but was more known for causing a scene wherever it flew.
The exhibit ends with a complete 1939 Douglas DC-3 suspended above the floor. The museum's display explains the history of its development and calls it the most successful passenger airplane of all time.
''Oh, I Wish I Were An Oscar Mayer Weiner...''
Is there anybody who grew up in the U.S. who doesn't know the jingle for Oscar Mayer hot dogs?
It was a lot of fun to see a full-size Wienermobile at the Ford Museum, and it is just as kitschy as you can imagine. This one was built in 1952 and looks to be in really great shape.
Behind it is one of the museum's eating places -- the Wienermobile cafe -- that serves, well, Oscar Mayer wieners of course!
Henry Ford's Great Friend, Thomas A. Edison
Henry Ford and Thomas A. Edison were contemporaries and close friends, which isn't surprising because they were both very interested in improving the way Americans lived. Edison, of course, was the inventor of the phonograph and practical electric light bulb, among other every-day objects, while Ford developed manufacturing processes that enabled the construction of cars at affordable enough prices that the average worker could afford them.
The museum was dedicated on Oct. 21, 1929, the 50th anniversary of that first successful incandescent bulb. Edison attended the ceremony, and there is even a concrete slab in the museum showing his footprints and signature from that time. The museum contains an Edison dynamo generator from 1880.
But oddest Edison object in the collection is the test tube shown here. The display says it was held near Edison's mouth just before his death in 1931, then stopped shut. It was sent to Ford containing Edison's "last breath" as a symbol of their close friendship. Very bizarre.
George Washington's Bed, Abraham Lincoln's Chair
The folding camp bed shown here was used by General George Washington from 1775-1780 during the Revolutionary War. He was supposed to be a very tall man for the age, so that bed probably wasn't very comfortable.
Next to it his camp chest from 1783, when the war ended with American independence.
Also in this area of the museum is an official copy of the Declaration of Independence from 1823. Two hundred official copies were made that year under an Act of Congress. This is one of only 30 known to still exist.
Nearby is another of the sadder items in the museum. It's the upholstered chair that Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated in Ford's Theatre by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865.
And not far away from that is a genuine Ku Klux Klan robe and hood from about 1925, a stark reminder that the issues surrounding freedom for blacks in the United States didn't end when the shooting stopped in the Civil War.
More uplifting is an exhibit about Jackie Robinson, who helped break Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947.
American Furniture Highlighted By Items That Belonged to the Famous
There's a whole exhibit on the furniture styles and breakthroughs that dominated American life throughout the country's history, though in all truthfulness looking at each individual piece got to be daunting after awhile.
But there was a display of some furniture that had famous owners that is worth checking out. The portable writing desk shown here was owned by author Edgar Allan Poe from 1830 until his death in 1849, and it is fun to imagine him writing the first modern detective story or his poem about the raven on it.
A table belonging to another writer is nearby. Mark Twain used the drop-leaf table on display for writing in his later years, and his daughter gave the table to Ford after her father's death. Behind the table is a 1904 portrait of the writer, who had been invited to speak at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. He was unable to go because of his wife's poor health, so he sent this painting in his place saying it was "better than the original," according to the museum.
Buckminster Fuller's House of the Future
Set off in one corner of the Ford Museum is a house that looks like what someone in the 1940s or 1950s would have imagined people in the future would live in.
Inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller designed this circular house in 1945 with the intention that these space-saving structures would be used to ease the anticipated housing shortage that would occur as the World War II veterans returned home and married.
The idea was that the house would be constructed from factory manufactured kits, assembled on site by 10 workers in only two days. It was intended to be suitable for any environment and to use resources as efficiently as possible. And it does. For instance, the windows are sealed shut while drop down wall panels allow air in more effectively. The kitchen doesn't have a refrigerator -- instead food is placed in built-in refrigerated drawers and shelves. Clothes are hung in closets on a rotating device, so you can bring to the front the item you want.
Apparently, another big plus was that the house was supposed to be easy to clean. Walking through it you get the sense that the people who envisioned this round, very tightly enclosed house were also the ones who thought we'd all have flying cars by now.
But the house never went into production as Fuller and the company involved squabbled until the Levittowns being built ended the need for Fuller's house. Two prototypes that had been built were used by one of the company's investors, who salvaged some parts of the house in a hybrid dwelling with a ranch home. The house was donated to the Ford Museum in 1990 and reconstructed.
Don't miss going into the house. It is a real highlight of the Ford Museum.
The museum is holding a special exhibit of Beatles memorabilia through Sept. 18. It costs an extra $5 per adult, and is well worthwhile.
The exhibit details the rise of the rock group from the boyhoods of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to their post-Beatles careers.
Early artifacts include a drum set used by the Quarrymen (John's band prior to the Beatles). John, Paul and George were known to have played on the set at one time. Also on display is a guitar that John ordered by mail in 1957.
The exhibit then chronicles the early beginnings of the Beatles and continues into Beatlemania, when the whole world seemed to go crazy over the band. You can see pieces of hair collected from John and Paul during 1964 U.S. tour!
The psychedelic period and the break-up are chronicled, though they were less interesting I think because by then the band was so well-known. Post-Beatles memorabilia include a 1976 guitar pick that Paul used and perhaps the saddest item in the exhibit: The Double Fantasy album John signed to his killer Mark David Chapman on Dec. 8, 1980, just before getting shot.
The museum describes the exhibit as the largest collection of Beatles memorabilia ever assembled. I can't say whether that is true or not. But it doesn't matter. It's a great experience for any fan of the Beatles!
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