The Man Behind the Automobile: Touring The Henry Ford Museum

While we all know Henry Ford gifted America with the Model T and the assembly line, did you know he also built a museum and restored schoolhouses?Read More

There's no limit to the Americana on display at The Henry Ford Museum. (Source: Shutterstock / Aldo91)

While we all know that Henry Ford was the creator of the famous Model T – and the company that made it possible – there’s a lot most of us don’t know about the man, his vision, and his time. Fortunately, however, much of Ford’s innovation has been captured at the eponymous Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. As a marker of a major industrial shift in the U.S. – and many innovations that followed – we highly recommend you pay a visit.

A bit about Henry Ford

The Ford story begins, not in 1908 with the Model T, but in 1863 with the birth of Henry Ford himself. An avid tinkerer, even as a child, he was obsessed with how machines worked – from simple ones like wristwatches to more complex systems like steam engines. This led, inevitably, to the creation of his first car in 1892 – built with bicycle wheels and a two-cylinder engine.

The innovation didn’t stop here, of course. As his career launched in the late 19th century – taking a job at Edison Illuminating Company – he created a trove of gadgets and gizmos. Proudly, he concocted a self-driving vehicle which he called the Ford Quadricycle. Edison himself encouraged Ford to keep tinkering, improving on the design to increase power and cut down on cost.

In 1901, Ford Motor Company gave form to Ford’s vision and drive. With the help of investors, he was able to continue improving the Quadricycle until, in 1908, he landed on the Model T. As an affordable alternative to the expensive vehicles then on the road (it cost only $825, or $23,480 in today’s dollars), it was marketed largely to middle classers – farmers, regular businessmen, shopkeepers, and the like who might benefit from this new form of transportation.

The Ford assembly line in action (Source: Wikipedia)
The Ford assembly line in action (Source: Wikipedia)

To increase production of the Model T, Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913. This drastically improved efficiency and, consequently, dropped prices. By 1916, the Model T sold for only $360 – just shy of $8,000 in today’s currency. What’s more, the affordability and speedy production made it possible for Ford to sell thousands; by 1918, half of all cars in the U.S. were Model Ts.

Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, Ford used his newly acquired wealth to help improve school buildings and collect artifacts of decades past – both, he averred, which were critical to understanding and furthering progress. In fact, it was in these “golden age” decades that Ford built his eponymous museum in Dearborn (more on that below).

The Model T was a fixture of American transportation for two decades. (Source: Shutterstock / Stanislaw Tokarski)
The Model T was a fixture of American transportation for two decades. (Source: Shutterstock / Stanislaw Tokarski)

Still, though, Ford Motor Company was his bread and butter. And while the Model T remained a staple for almost two decades, it was eventually replaced by the Model A. The V8 – a chief competitor for General Motors’ newest models – followed shortly thereafter. While failing health and political foibles precipitated his slow decline after about 1940, Ford nonetheless remained at the helm of his company until 1945. He died in Dearborn only two years later, in 1947.

The Henry Ford Museum (aka The Henry Ford)

While it may seem that Henry Ford would be the sole focus of a museum named after him, it has a much broader mission: “The Henry Ford [Museum] provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation. Our purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future.”

To wit, you’ll not only find exhibits showcasing Ford’s work in the nascent auto industry, but also collections of his own Americana that are unique markers of our country’s development. Among these exhibits is a collection of watches (no surprise), and various trinkets and souvenirs procured from his work restoring school houses and historic homes. You can find just about anything here: chairs, blouses, tables, books, ’60s appliances, and vehicles of every shape and size.

It’s in this greater spirit of historic preservation that the museum was built. As noted above, Ford himself built the museum over the course of the ’20s and ’30s, though it wasn’t completed in full until the early 1940s.

A mid-century scene set at The Henry Ford Museum (Source: The Henry Ford Facebook)
A mid-century scene set at The Henry Ford Museum (Source: The Henry Ford Facebook)

After Ford’s death in 1947, staff expanded upon the collector’s Americana with items that reflected technological progress and knickknacks symbolic of everyday life. Massive acquisitions soon followed, and you can see them today – including the Allegheny locomotive and the Douglas DC-3 airplane.

As the 1980s and ’90s rolled around, the museum took two major steps: digitizing records to help better organize the massive inventory and adoption of a forward-thinking mission to fold in stories and objects that reflect the future-first thinking that drives modern society. Now, you can see the full scope of American innovation – from clunky Model T engines to 21st-century electric gadgets Ford could only dream of.

Layout and what to see

The Henry Ford Museum is broken out into four major parts:

The first section is the museum itself – this is where you’ll find Ford’s own collections as well as those curated by museum staff. If you’re interested in a nice blend of history, wow factor, and technological curiosities, definitely stop here.

The second is Greenfeld Village. This 80-acre plot was envisioned as the perfect American “time capsule” community, complete with farms, a main street, parlors, shops, and houses. It even has a school and a theater. But this wasn’t just any ordinary community; it was designed by Ford to house key homes and iconic buildings of major thinkers and doers. There are childhood homes and/or offices of the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, and others in the village, as well as the courthouse where a young Abraham Lincoln practiced law. You can spend a lot of time here, so we recommend planning a day just for Greenfeld Village.

A look inside Edison's lab in Greenfeld Village (Source: Shutterstock / Romrodphoto)
A look inside Edison’s lab in Greenfeld Village (Source: Shutterstock / Romrodphoto)

Next up, you’ll have the opportunity to visit the Ford Rouge Factory where you can see modern car-making techniques at play. You can even witness the popular F-150 is constructed right on the factory floor.

Lastly, the Henry Ford Museum boasts a state-of-the-art, 4K giant projection screen and sound system which is used to show educational films to the public. Recent headliners include the story of Apollo 11, “Amazon Adventure,” and “Superpower Dogs.”

Ticket prices change depending on which of the museum site you want access to. If you can’t decide, best just to get the All-Access Pass for $46/person.

For more information about exhibits, onsite events, and prices, visit The Henry Ford Museum website.