The Henry Ford Experience
A Vertically Integrated Interpretive Assembly Line

447 Richard Pell, of the Institute for Applied Autonomy, operates a robotic souvenir machine that makes molded statuettes of Henry Ford at the Henry Ford Museum. CLUI photoEVERYTHING COMES TOGETHER AT THE Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn Michigan. The museum is located at what must be the largest and most diversified corporate headquarters landscapes in the nation. The site covers several active Ford production and research industrial compounds, including one of their varied terrain proving grounds; the company's world headquarters office building; Henry Ford's estate, Fair Lane; a convention center; Ford's 90 acre historic park Greenfield Village; and the massive museum, with an Imax theater, where tour buses leave to take visitors to the nearby Rouge Plant, once the most famous factory complex in the world. From the birthplace of the corporate founder and the re-creation of his boyhood universe, to the current production site of the F-150 pickup truck, a visit to this microcosm of the American industrial macrocosm is revealing, entertaining, astounding, and inspiring. It is a place for exploration and discovery among a bounty of factoids, and a place to be processed through a state of the art, high-volume, industrial interpretation machine.

448 A Honda Civic (slightly ahead of a Ford Escort), leads a parade of cars spanning "A Hundred Years of the Automobile in American Life" exhibit at the Henry Ford. CLUI photo The museum building is the place to begin, and to buy expensive tickets to all the attractions. The museum opened in 1929, as part of an educational complex imagined by Henry Ford himself. Though the Henry Ford Academy still occupies a corner of the large building, the museum has taken over most of the floorspace, swelling with collections that focus on American material culture, with an emphasis on American innovation and invention.

Artifacts, implements, machines, and vehicles are clustered in several gallery zones on the museum's continuous open floor, arranged by themes such as agriculture, furnishings, early flight, power generation, railways, and clockworks. The museum is full of cars, of course, as any museum purporting to be about the last hundred years of America should be. The cars include the limousine that J. F. Kennedy was assassinated in (a Ford product); Charles Lindburgh's 1935 camping trailer (which he towed around the country quite a bit for 20 years, before he dropped it off at the Museum in 1957); and a 1950's vintage Oscar Meyer Weinermobile (though on a Jeep chassis, not a Ford product, this model did have tail lights from a Ford Thunderbird).

453 The Dymaxion House at the Ford Museum. CLUI photoOne of the most notable artifacts in the museum is the only remaining prototype of the Dymaxion House, built according to Buckminister Fuller's design, by the Beach Aircraft company. The house is a gleaming metal spaceship, hanging on a central mast by a nearly invisible network of cables and cantilevers. Radiating from the mast inside are partitions dividing the circular space into two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. Innovations include two tiny molded plastic bathrooms that were supposed to wash themselves, and a motorized vertical conveyor of shelves for clothing.

The Dymaxion House is just one of dozens of buildings that have been collected by the museum. The rest are outdoors in the adjacent attraction, a 90 acre historical park called Greenfield Village.

Greenfield Village is a unique kind of museum, where the artifacts are not housed in buildings, but are buildings. Though there are other historic villages composed of relocated structures, the moves are usually local, and the groupings relatively small. Greenfield Village is truly a nationwide collection of buildings, a transposition of historic sites from the east and west to the industrial suburbs of Michigan.

The idea for it is said to have begun when Ford's own birthplace, a small house in the farm country near Dearborn, was in the path of (of all things) road construction. To save it, he had it relocated to a new site, and decided to renovate it to match his childhood memories. This precipitated a wave of building collection, preservation and historical re-creation that continued through his life, and continues to this day, at the nostalgic, anachronistic, fantasy town of Greenfield Village.

The buildings Ford collected represented a blend of personal and national history, perhaps appropriate for a man who had an impact on the nation unlike any other. In addition to his own childhood home, the village has a replica of the rural schoolhouse he attended. Ford also bought, moved, and reassembled on site the home of one of his school teachers, as well as that of a baptist minister and writer that influenced him, George Adams. He brought a 1790 log cabin to the village from Pennsylvania, as it was the birthplace of Williams Holmes McGuffey, the writer of one of his (and of millions of others') school textbook. He bought the homes of other writers he admired, and placed them in the village, including a 1823 house from New Haven, Connecticut, that belonged to Noah Webster, the dictionary pioneer, and the poet Robert Frost's Michigan house.

He relocated the boyhood home of his friend (the tire magnate) Henry Firestone, a large brick house built in 1828, from Ohio, and re-created the farm land that had surrounded it. In addition to these houses, he bought other buildings he thought were of significance: An 1840 courthouse from Lincoln, Illinois, that Abraham Lincoln once worked in; a 17th Century windmill from Cape Cod; slave's quarters from Georgia; from Santa Rosa, California, the garden office of the famous horticulturalist Luther Burbank; and from Dayton, Ohio, not only the circa 1875 home of the Wright brothers, but their legendary bicycle shop, a brick storefront building.

Nobody is as celebrated in Greenfield Village as Ford's friend and former boss, Thomas Edison. His relationship with Edison lasted through his life. Greenfield Village, and the museum next door, is largely a homage to Edison and the inventiveness, industry, and showmanship he mastered, and that Ford so admired. Among the Edison related structures at the village are buildings from the famous lab site at Menlo Park, New Jersey, including the original boarding house that housed the lab workers, and Edison's grandparent's house, built in 1815, which was relocated to the village from Ontario.

452 The Ford Rouge Plant, near Dearborn, once the most "vertically integrated" factory in the world. CLUI photoThe final step in this epic interpretive triad is to board a special bus outside the museum for a visit to the visitor center at the Rouge Plant, a few miles away. After building the first assembly line car plant in Highland Park, north of Detroit, which produced the Model T, Ford built his next big plant along the Rouge River, near Dearborn. This became one of the largest and most revolutionary industrial sites in the world. Construction started in 1917, and by the 1930's Rouge had 100,000 workers at the mile and a half long plant site, putting out a Model A car every 49 seconds.

The plant was a self-contained industrial world, where the cars were made literally from scratch. Raw materials came in by rail and by ship, much of it from Ford owned mines, quarries, and plantations, including the iron ore to be turned into steel at the on site blast furnaces, foundries, and mills, and the raw rubber for making tires at the site's tire plant. Everything, from glass to door handles, were made on site. It was as close to a complete industrial empire by a single company as has ever been achieved. Interestingly, this notion of "vertical integration" that Ford established at Rouge was never repeated by the company. Workers uprisings in the 1930's, trust-busting, unionization, World War II, Henry Ford's death in 1947, and other factors led the company to favor a more decentralized method, and the dozens of plants that the company later built were all specialized, and scattered around the state and region.

In the 1980's half of the Rouge site was sold to an independent steel company. Many of the older plants on site were dirty, outdated, and closed. By 1992, the only remaining car made there was the Mustang, which had atrophied from the stylish muscle car of the '60s to a middle of the road compact car, with less than 100,000 made that year. A low point for the Rouge came in the late 1990's when an explosion at the boiler plant killed six people, and injured many others. After that Mustang production moved to another plant.

In the last few years, the site has undergone a transformation. Many of the old buildings have been torn down, and a new showcase plant has been built, the Dearborn Truck Plant, which makes the F-150 pick-up, one of Ford's most popular and durable products. Rouge is still Ford's largest single plant, though it operates on only 600 of the Rouge's original 2,000 acres. 6,000 people work at the site, making parts for other Ford products, as well as the F-150. It takes twelve hours to assemble a truck, which travels along on a variety of conveyors through the plant, and the plant puts one out every sixty seconds, at the rate of 800-900 per day in two shifts.

449 The entrance to the factory visitor center. CLUI photoSome of this history is addressed in the Rouge Visitor Center, a new and elaborate tourist attraction, built along with the adjacent truck plant, that serves as a portal for plant tours. The visitor center is set up like an assembly line of sorts, with four separate and clearly marked Stations. Visitors first enter a holding area, where the contents of all the shuttle buses are collected. After a brief introduction by a greeter, and some video, the raw product is moved into the Legacy Theater, where an overview of the company and the plant is applied through a well-produced but fairly conventional three-screen static image and historical footage documentary voice-over cinematic method. Between the exit of Station 1, and the entrance of Station 2 is about twenty feet of empty space, that provides an airing out, before the next step.

The sign above Station 2 reads "The Art of Manufacturing." In we go. Inside, Station 2 is a domed space, full of swivel seats, with multiple large screens surrounding the room. After being seated, visitors are warned of impending strobes and percussive sounds, and that they are about to experience what it is like to become an F-150 pickup. Then the dramatic orchestral music begins, and we are shown, in surround, in fact immersed, in the car making process, from the forging of engine blocks to the stamping of body panels, to the painting process. The theater has vibrating floors and blasts of heat, and jets of air and vapor during appropriate moments to heighten the effect. Then we experience the final assembly, and road test, and release: the F-150 heads out into the landscape (a shot made under the snowy Sierras in the Alabama Hills of the Owens Valley). Lights on.

Station 3 is reached through elevators, whose doors open up on a panoramic viewing area, an overlook, above the plant, showing, most prominently, "the world's largest living roof" atop the new truck plant. In the other direction, the old Rouge sprawls to the river. Back lit canted plaques line the base of the windows like flower pots.

450 Visitors become the product at the Ford Rouge Plant Visitor Center. CLUI photoBack down the elevators to an intermediate level, Station 4 has a bank of video screens warning off photography for the following chapter, then a break area, with tables and vending machines. Beyond the fortification of the vending machines is the entrance of a sky bridge, that leads to the plant. Inside, we view the final assembly of F-150s from an open gallery that rings around above the "trim line," where the windshields, doors, mirrors, and other trim are joined to the truck and its bed. It is unclear if the plant visit is part of a station or not. Perhaps by this time our interpretive assembly is complete, as we merge with the real thing, and are free to move about at our own pace, amid the canted plaques and touchscreens of the gallery. Buses heading back to the Museum leave every half hour. Plenty of time to peruse the gift items that are only available at the "factory store."

When Henry Ford was 16 he left home and went to seek his fortune in the city. He found work with Edison's Illuminating Company, in Detroit. Starting in 1892, when not at work, he tinkered with putting an engine on a four wheeled bicycle, in a small brick building behind the duplex he was living in. 41 years later, he built a version of this small brick building at Greenfield Village, using some token bricks from the duplex for authenticity. The original site, 58 Bagley Avenue, is now the once grand Michigan Theater, haphazardly redeveloped into an indoor parking lot. This site has become an icon of the Motor City as a city made, then ruined, by motors.

451 A couple of Fords in the Michigan Theater. CLUI photo