While most Canadians are probably familiar with institutions like the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa or the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C, most know little about The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan (just outside Detroit). And that’s a shame, because the Henry Ford is a true world-class museum (in their words, “America’s Greatest History Attraction”—a self-declared title, but definitely a believable one). With an astonishing 12 acres of exhibits under one roof, you could literally spend days roaming between remarkable pieces, from the rocking chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated (complete with bloodstains) to George Washington’s portable bed, used during the Revolutionary War, to the limousine that carried John F. Kennedy on that fateful, fatal day in 1963. You can even sit in the very seat that Rosa Parks refused to vacate on the bus that she refused to move to the back of, an event that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was spearheaded by a guy named Martin Luther King and essentially served as the spark for the entire Civil Rights Movement.
And the Henry Ford offers plenty of hands-on opportunities to engage and excite kids. To demonstrate the importance of the assembly line, little ones can help museum staff assemble an actual Model T in the old fashion (building it from the ground up), then the family can work as a team to put together miniature Model Ts using a scaled down assembly line. Just outside the Rock Stars’ Cars and Guitars exhibit (where you can see Sheryl Crow’s Fastback, Elvis’s Caddy and lots of others), Miley Cyrus’s Smart Car invites families to climb inside, and blank cardboard guitars are available for young ones to decorate. And in a section called Your Place in Time, which walks visitors through the decades, kids are invited to use the toys that some of us remember from our own, pre-Wii youth, including Etch-a-Sketch and Mr. Potato Head.
Next door at Greenfield Village, amusement park meets authentic historical town. In addition to the steam-powered train, Model Ts, carousel and horse-drawn omnibuses (all of which you can ride), 83 historic buildings await, most of them originals (not reconstructions) trucked in from all over the continent. You can walk through Thomas Edison’s workshop, the Wright Brothers’ home and shop, and, yes, Henry Ford’s childhood home. Play some turn of the century games or 1867 baseball on the village green, then enjoy a hearty meal at the Eagle Tavern, an 1850s stagecoach stop where meals, delivered in character by costumed wait staff, are served fresh, local and organic—19th century style.— Tim Johnson, CF‘s contributing editor