I recently visited Greenfield Village, where Henry Ford, that idol/icon of American enterprise, built his own version of reality.
The Real vs. the Idyll
Ford’s idyllic village, set in the 1860s, occupies about 80 acres in Dearborn, Michigan, in the area where he grew up. The time-stamped village is especially ironic because in a sense it encapsulates the era that Ford helped America leapfrog from.
It struck me that Henry Ford created an idyl when he created Greenfield Village. According to the dictionary, an idyl is “an extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque episode or scene, typically an idealized or unsustainable one.”
It makes sense to me that he created Greenfield Village as he aged. Our hindsight is subject to a certain push and pull as we wrestle between what’s real and what’s ideal. Memory can easily become distorted. In this process, sometimes the idyll of the past becomes an idol. It is simply easier to handle than reality.
The Background of Greenfield Village
Henry Ford was born in 1863 and was supposed to take over the family business of farming. But like many smart, ambitious people, he wanted something more than to follow in his father’s footsteps. Ford achieved success on an amazing scale. He did not invent the automobile, but he created The Ford Motor Company, which mass produced automobiles, specifically the Model T.
By 1927, his company had produced and sold more than 15 million Model T’s. It’s hard to overstate the significance of 15 million anything in 1927. But automobiles? Automobiles revolutionized the culture and economy of America. In a very real sense, Ford helped America drive into a new era.
And then, it would appear, Ford hankered for the days he had once sprung from, even though he had been eager to leave that world behind. At the apex of his success — beginning in the 1920s and 30s — he began to use his vast wealth to reverse gears a bit. By purchasing historic buildings from around the country and moving them to the Dearborn area, he created a village which would be forever locked in the 1860s. You might even say that he recreated a past he never experienced (except in infancy), and which perhaps never existed.
Visiting with Family Members
I was lucky enough to visit Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village with my elderly parents and my young adult daughter.
The day we visited was perfect — lovely fall weather and very few people. It was fun to wander through a village as perfect as Disneyland: everything was exactly real, and, at the same time, completely fake. There’s something about “picture-perfect” that just makes a person happy. Perhaps it pleases our aesthetic sensibilities.
The buildings in Greenfield Village come from many places. They all enshrine American ingenuity, because that’s what Ford prized. Some of the icons present in the village include: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and Orville & Wilbur Wright.
How I loved pushing my father’s wheelchair through the village, knowing that the Model-T Fords and horse-drawn carriages would make way for us. And it was fun to see both of my parents enjoy the day and engage with the many costumed interpreters.
From the buildings around the village square:
From Henry Ford’s boyhood home:
Musing Over Our Day at Greenfield Village
Back home again in the humdrum, I’m musing over the day we spent at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. I recognize the human tendency to preserve the memory of a life that never quite existed. Perhaps we prefer to enshrine an idea, rather than a reality. I suppose this is why we create idealized versions of ourselves to post on social media. Who wants to mess with the real when we can project an idyll? The real is never picture-perfect.
Since I’m a memoirist, these questions are all very active in my mind. I in no way exempt myself from the pull and power of the idyll. Memory is prone to a certain gloss.
Have you been to places like Greenfield Village or Disneyland? How did you react to them?