Michigan's Henry Ford Museum Not Just About the Cars

by  Paul Eisenberg | May 15, 2012
Henry Ford Museum
Henry Ford Museum / Photo courtesy of the museum

Long ago when I was eight years old, the word "awesome" was not used to describe vaguely impressive experiences. No one said, “Your new sweatpants are awesome,” or, "You have gum? Awesome."

Back then the word was reserved for moments that actually inspired awe. So the first time I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and Abe slowly began filling my line of sight, that was awesome.

Fast forward several decades and several hundred miles northwest of Washington, D.C., to the beginning of May in Dearborn, Michigan, where Pure Michigan and the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau brought me and a bunch of other travel writers to tour the Henry Ford Museum. As you might expect, cars, cars, and more cars of every make, model, and era are the stars of many of the Henry’s exhibits.

But the first display that caught my eye had a forlorn rocking chair, threadbare and stained with what I learned was hair tonic. A relic from one of Ford’s early automobiles, perhaps?

No. It’s the chair from Ford’s Theatre that President Lincoln was sitting in on April 14, 1865 when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

Standing before that chair and suddenly realizing what I was looking at – that was awesome.

And judging from the looks on the faces of parents and kids from all parts of the world as they made the same discovery, they were thinking along similar lines.

A better-known fixture in the museum’s collection, the Rosa Parks Bus, is no less awesome because of its historical significance. But it has been so meticulously restored and polished inside and out that you need to take a quiet moment (as President Obama did when he boarded the bus in April) to contemplate why the vehicle is a national treasure.

But since you won’t have Secret Service clearing the bus and most of the museum so you can have your moment, you just have to imagine: Even though the bus seats are new, their configuration is the same as they were in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up the second aisle seat on the right-hand side of the bus. If you only linger for a few seconds – and the pressure to keep moving is appreciable, since the bus is a key attraction – it’s worth it, especially if you take time to make your kids imagine a world where segregation was legal.

There’s no shortage of teachable moments along these lines, as long as you’re providing some context. Steps from the Lincoln rocker is a display with a figure wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Jarring for the grown-ups, but perhaps an enigma for children if they haven’t gotten to that chapter of American history in school yet.

Likewise, the kids will likely be impressed by the collection of presidential limos on display, from Teddy Roosevelt’s horse-drawn Brougham to the limo President Reagan was shepherded into when John Hinckley opened fire on him.

henry-ford-museum-jfk-limo / JFK's 1963 presidential limo

And in much the same way you’re caught off guard by the Lincoln rocker, there parked in the row of cars is John F. Kennedy’s limo. The placard for the car reads: “President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination in this limousine represents a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, when we, as Americans, were simultaneously consumed by shock, a sense of loss and fear for our future.” The sentiment is so well put and the presence of the car so powerful that it made me wish the museum would put the Kennedy limo in its own exhibit space with more displays and context around it.

There is a lot more to explore at the museum as well as Greenfield Village, an open-air, multi-acre campus where Henry Ford recreated historical structures or relocated real ones, such as Robert Frost’s home and Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park lab complex. While a tour of the village's seven historic districts packs appeal for its educational value, your younger kids may find it lacks the immediate gratification that they might get from ogling the muscle cars or boarding the enormous steam-locomotive back at the museum.

Still, it’s worth allocating two days or one very long one for the museum and village. Combo tickets are available for both attractions (adults $35, children 5-12 $25.50, kids 4 and under free) but note that the village is closed January through mid-April and most of the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

If you’re spending the night there are several full-service hotels in Dearborn and the museum is only a 20-minute car ride from Detroit, which I’ll talk about next week.

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