The museum and village complex opened in 1929 as an institute of learning for the exclusive use of students and scholars. The public considered it a mysterious and perhaps wondrous place they yearned to see.
"It was like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory," says museum spokesman Andrew Johnson. People would walk or drive by the fenced compound near the plant and conjecture about what was inside. Finally, by popular demand, the museum and village were opened to all in 1932.
The Ford Rouge Factory Tour includes a 360-degree multiscreen theater.
(The Henry Ford)
As one would expect, the museum has lots of cars, including vintage autos, and cars famous because of the people they carried. Every presidential limo is housed here, including the 1961 Lincoln in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Also on display are planes and trains, bikes and washing machines, baby buggies and vacuum cleaners, and a particularly ingenious prefab house designed by Buckminster Fuller.
A quote from Ford explains the focus of what might first seem an eclectic collection: "When I went to our American history books to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land, I discovered that the historians knew nothing about harrows," Ford once said. "Yet our country has depended more on harrows than on guns or speeches. I thought that a history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk and I think so yet."
For me, the museum's most moving piece is the bus Rosa Parks rode on the day she refused to give up her seat. Even years after the 1955 incident shook the country, Montgomery, Ala., had no clue about the significance of that little bus. City transit officials took it out of service in 1971 and sold it to a guy who threw the seats down a ravine to make more room for his tools. Wild animals eventually moved in, and passing Bubbas used it for target practice.
Finally, someone realized its historic value and put it on the auction block. The Smithsonian had already decided where it would put it, but was outbid by the Ford museum. After paying more than $400,000 for the rusted shell, the museum spent another $318,000 restoring it.
A tour guide points out the seat Parks was sitting in on that seminal day in American civil rights history. Visitors take turns moving into that seat, as if it were a hallowed place, perhaps as if they could experience what a cleaning woman might have felt that day as she defied a system enshrined in both custom and law.
The Rouge Plant
When Ford Motor Co. designed its new plant for F150 pickup trucks, it included two theaters and an observation deck for visitors. Visitors entering the plant first see a film that used a vast archive of historic documents to re-create the history of a man and a company that revolutionized manufacturing, and America.
When Henry Ford began making the Model T, it was considered a marvel that his workers could turn out a car every 12 hours. But after a visit to a meat-packing plant, where men stood while meat moved past them on hooks hanging from conveyer belts, Ford realized he could do better. By bringing the assembly line to the manufacturing process, he was able to make a car in 93 minutes.