Reconnecting Roots: The Original American Picker
September 19, 2018
Written by: Ryan Estabrooks
The Henry Ford is a museum in Dearborn, Michigan that’s almost like an encapsulation of American history stuffed into one huge spot. Henry Ford was an enthusiastic collector of historic items, many of which are on display here. He’s pretty much the original American Picker. He loved the stories behind the items, the history it told of both America and its people. For us here at Reconnecting Roots, it was the perfect place to visit in order to see history up close, right in front of our (admittedly, very beautiful) faces.
Henry Ford originally began collecting items as a way to stay connected to his roots. He didn’t want to forget where he came from, even as he enjoyed a crazy amount of success with the Ford Motor Company. His collection started with childhood books, clocks, and watches before expanding significantly beyond those items. He used an old tractor assembly building to store his collection and once people found out he was turning this building into a museum for others to see, he was sent hundreds of antiques by people from all over the country.
It was originally opened in 1929 as a school instead of a museum. In fact, there’s STILL a public charter school operating on the campus that educates more than 500 students every year. But once everyone caught wind of all the amazing things stored in his building, they wanted in. The Henry Ford finally opened to the public in 1933.
When we visited the museum, we were blown away by the sheer amount of stuff we could see with our own eyes. We got to check out the actual bus Rosa Parks sat on. We also stepped into the Dymaxion house prototype, which was made by Buckminster Fuller as a way to create the “house of the future”, which was pretty insane. We even got to look at some of the first gliders and planes the Wright Brothers created when they were first getting aviation off the ground.
(Get it? Aviation...off the ground? Nevermind, moving on!)
What’s really cool is how they still have factories from the early 1900s that are alive and working today. They’ll let you make sample items to take home with you as a souvenir. For example, we got to test out one of the machines and made a fun little candlestick. Even though technology has advanced to the point where we can use 3D printers to pump out just about anything we can come up with, it was still nice to work a mechanical machine with our own bare hands and watch every little piece get put together in order to create something new.
They even have a section called Greenfield Village where they live day and night using traditions from the 19th and 20th centuries. They have a handful of working farms, utilizing the methods and tools farmers used many decades ago. It’s a way for them to keep alive the traditions of the past for future generations to appreciate and learn about. And if you need a ride around town? Hop in one of their many Model-T’s and see what the first mass-produced car feels like. (Fun fact: Greenfield Village is one of the early inspirations that helped Walt Disney create Disneyland).
It’s important for places like The Henry Ford to be available for the public because it’s one thing to read about all these amazing inventions and advancements, but it’s another to see them personally. There’s only so much you can imagine when you learn about history in books. That was a big part of Henry Ford’s philosophy on life - he said the best education he received was through practical learning on the job. This is part of the reason why he liked to hold onto vintage items for others to check out themselves. I can tell you, one thing’s for sure - I learned a lot just by spending a few hours here. I think that guy was really onto something.
For us here at Reconnecting Roots, the Henry Ford was a perfect place for us to film because it ties in with the show’s theme of connecting modern people to ways of the past. We don’t have to imagine what our grandparents and great-grandparents had in their time because we can interact with it in person just as they did. It’s inspiring to see the roots of today’s technology up close and personal. Someone who visits the Henry Ford today may be the one who creates the future’s version of the Model-T.