By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2004
About 140,000 people have bought tickets to watch pickup trucks being assembled since the Ford Rouge Factory in Dearborn, Mich., opened to visitors in May.
It's the only automotive plant in America open for tours, but even so, I just didn't get it. Who cares how they're made as long as they start every morning?
But the tour, it turns out, is more than bumpers and fenders. It's about America's history, and the industrial complex that changed the way the world does business.
The Rouge plant was once the largest in the world, a city unto itself, with 100,000 employees, its own hospital, railroad, fire station, police force, giant company store and shipping docks. People emigrated from around the world to line up for jobs with Henry Ford, who figured his business would boom if he paid his workers enough to buy his product. The middle class was mass produced here, along with the vehicles that opened the nation to travel -- and to suburbanization. Artists such as Diego Rivera, Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, Charles Sheeler and Michael Kenna came here to capture on film and canvas what they understood was a revolution.
This year's opening of the factory to tours came just as the nearby Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village completed a $200 million renovation. Greenfield Village, which re-creates 19th-century American life, is on the scale of Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, but it includes the opportunity to tour in a Model T, a horse-drawn carriage, a steam-engine train or a paddlewheel boat. During the Christmas holidays, the village is decked out and filled with music and special performances.
The museum focuses on the creativity and technological genius of American industry, but it includes a diverse collection of Americana -- from the chair, still bloodstained, that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when assassinated, to the bus that Rosa Parks was riding when her refusal to move rocked the country, and the world.
If you hurry and arrive before Dec. 6, you can see artist Sheeler's photographic documentation of the Ford Rouge Plant at a special exhibit mounted by the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). The DIA is also the permanent home of a room-size mural by Rivera. Inspired by the plant and commissioned by Ford, the mural is considered the Mexican artist's best.
Seldom do industry, art and history come together in one neat package. Think of it as the Full Ford experience.
Ford, the world's first billionaire, collected whatever struck his fancy. He bought old machines and entire buildings of historic note. A great admirer of Thomas Edison, Ford asked Edison's son to capture the famed inventor's last breath in a test tube -- a test tube that is now among thousands of artifacts at the Henry Ford Museum.
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.
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.
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.
Distressed that the line sometimes slowed as his factory awaited parts, Ford decided to make everything needed to construct a car, including steel, glass and paint. More than 100 raw materials from around the world were shipped into one end of the Ford Rouge plant. Completed cars moved out the other end.
The movie doesn't gloss over Ford's bitter opposition to unions and even shows his hired goons beating up union organizers. But what comes through strongest is Ford's genius, and his impact on a new century.
The new plant is, oddly enough, a state-of-the-art experiment in industrial environmentalism. The factory grounds are planted with more than 100,000 flowers, trees and shrubs, and vines will eventually cover the factory walls. The roof is also covered with plants and has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest living roof. Cisterns capture rainwater for use in the factory, and in the shop, hydrogen from paint fumes is captured and made into electricity.
From a deck above the factory floor, you watch workers and robots do their jobs. Miles of conveyor belts that look like roller coasters shoot up and down the interior. As they have since the 1920s, parts move to the workers. But now, the parts move not just horizonally down the line, but up and down, so that workers don't need to bend.
Buildings moved from original locations include the Springfield, Ill., courthouse where Lincoln practiced law; the Ohio home and bicycle shop where the Wright brothers tinkered with the idea of human flight; and the Ohio boyhood home of William H. McGuffey, author of McGuffey's Readers.
It's clear during a walk through the village that Ford admired Edison, who routinely came pretty close to his goal of creating one major invention every six months, and a minor one every 10 days. Edison's lab in Fort Myers, Fla., was moved here, as was his glassmaking shed, his home and the 1870 boarding house where his assistants lived when working at his lab in Menlo Park, N.J. Unable to buy Edison's Menlo Park lab, office, library and machine shop, Ford in the early 1900s arranged to have exact replicas built on the Greenfield Village grounds.
As part of the recent renovation, buildings within the village were moved to create seven themed areas. For example, buildings that house artisans are centered on an old mill, so you can meander down one street and watch demonstrations by weavers, jewelers, blacksmiths and potters. Main Street includes all the elements of a town: houses, school, church, working restaurants, tavern, shops, post office, doctor's office and a carousel.
My visit coincided with the World Series baseball tournament on village grounds -- the world series for baseball played in the uniforms and by the rules used in 1867, that is. Other annual events include a parade of cars from 1932 and earlier each fall, and from 1933 to 1977 each summer.
Next month the village will be decked out for Christmas. On weekends, it will stay open until 10 p.m., lighted by candles, kerosene lanterns, bonfires and warming barrels. Carolers, bands and people dressed in period costume will stroll the village, and at 9:45 p.m., in an old American custom now lost, fireworks will light the sky. Ice skates are lent to anyone who wishes to skate the village pond after shopping for handcrafted presents or attending a performance of "The Christmas Carol."
It's like a Hallmark card come to life -- from an earlier time, before America was divided into red and blue.