Before the sound of Katy Perry could be called up on your smart phone with the touch of a fingertip, Thomas Edison shouted into a contraption the words of a favorite nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb, and created the first ever recorded sound.
More than 130 years later, you can hear for yourself the ghostly voices echo from a working phonograph in a replica of Edison’s New Jersey lab at Greenfield Village, part of The Henry Ford, in Dearborn, Michigan.
It’s a massive open-air museum filled with centuries old buildings arranged like a town from time gone by. The collection includes famed workshops and homes from the Wright brothers, Henry Ford’s birth place, Harvey Firestone’s family farm, the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln worked and one room school houses that demonstrated how education began in the United States. Spend a good day here and the adults can enjoy a bit of history and the kids can find adventure in some of the many attractions for the little ones.
I grew up in Michigan and had been to Greenfield Village (and it’s neighbor, The Henry Ford Museum) countless times throughout my childhood and adulthood. I loved it for so many reasons — the old fashioned candy in the gift shop, the train, the funny clothes people wore. As a mom taking her young girls, I was excited to see what might impress upon them.
As soon as you pass through the entrance, working farms and water wheels create the atmosphere. You are walking back in time. Make your way to a section of homes and shops where, inside, workers in period costume demonstrate skilled labors. Sophie, who was not-quite-three years old and a little hungry for lunch, wasn’t nearly as interested as Dom and I. Adults will really appreciate the display of artistry involved as pottery makers spin clay into vases (which you can buy in the gift shop) or watch glass blowers turn a ball of fire into a brilliant, cobalt blue Christmas ornament.
Sophie eventually got into the atmosphere, especially after lunch. She loved seeing the horse-drawn carriages plod up and down the streets and helping to print a page from a book at an old-fashioned printing press. Olivia, 16-months-old and more often confined to the stroller, got a little bored but we let the girls run around on some of the open grounds and play at the carousel.
The rides were most likely Sophie’s favorite – a coal powered train ride around the entire village (watch out for the ash that may blow back through the open cars) and the 100-year-old wooden menagerie carousel. She’d stay on that for a good half-dozen turns if we let her.
There’s a massive playground, which we avoided. I didn’t want to fight little people attached to whatever contraptions they were playing on. It was hard enough to stem the tide of tears when our turn on the carousel was up. But if you’re up for it, there’s a place for kids to blow off steam. And it’s designed to look like old-fashioned tools and machines. Very cute.
We spent a good part of the day wandering the streets, taking in what generations before us left behind. We regretted settling for deep-fried park food when we saw one of the stands offered southern treats like cornbread muffins. We passed by a lot of buildings, opting against going inside everything, trading turns with the stroller as some buildings just seemed too small. Considering my family lives nearby, I’m sure we’ll get a chance to come back when the girls are older and strollers are not necessary.
Dom, an electrical and software engineer, enjoyed the replica of Edison’s laboratories and was impressed by the sheer volume of inventions — something new every 10 days, something grand every six months. You can walk through a power plant housing massive machinery able to send electricity to 1,000 homes.
One of my favorite buildings is toward the opposite end of the village — Cotswold Cottage. It’s a beautiful English cottage built more than 300 years ago and transplanted to the village by Henry Ford. (His wife, Clara, loved English gardens.) It serves as a tea room now with service for grown-ups and children. We didn’t get a chance to try this out, but just walking past its walls and gardens will carry you to the English countryside. It’s worth a look, even if you can’t stay for tea. And across the street, the kids will be drawn to the giant windmill. They’re both near one of the train stations so you can hitch a ride back to the front gates if your feet are getting a little tired or you just want a chance to ride on one of the century-old locomotives.
Greenfield Village has something for everyone in a setting unlike any I’ve seen before. Plan for the day, wear some walking shoes and everyone will come away with something special.
Know before you go:
- The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124-5029
- Entrance fee: Adults $24, Seniors 62 and over $22, Kids 5-12 $17.50, Kids 4 and under Free
- Open hours: April 15-Nov. 2, every day from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m./ Nov. 7 – Nov. 30 Friday – Sunday, 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m./ December open for special holiday events, check the calendar/ Closed: January 1-April 14, 2014
- Rentals: Motorized scooters, wheelchairs and wagons for tots are all available for rent on a first-come, first-served basis