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An Insider's Guide to Enjoying Greenfield Village

by Lisa Diggs

It’s a common misconception that Greenfield Village does not open until Michigan’s unofficial start of summer, more commonly known as Memorial Weekend. Actually, while The Henry Ford’s outdoor museum is closed during the majority of the winter, it reopens annually on April 15. Spring is an excellent time to visit too, with pleasant temps worthy of long walks and smaller crowds. The latter of which lends itself to more conversation with the village’s lovely and well-informed cast of characters. If you ask, and I did, they have excellent suggestions on how to make the most of your visit.

One of the best kernels of wisdom came from Jasmine who immediately advised that guests not attempt to take in both Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in the same day. Both are worthy of ample time, and trying to squeeze in a stop at each will sell each short. Jasmine also highly recommends planning your trip in advance to make the most of the time you do have. The website has excellent tools to help with that.

If you do have a limited amount of time, it turns out that according to the employees, Greenfield Village, not unlike the Motor City, has its own “Big Three.” Nearly everyone I spoke with said do not miss the Wright Brothers’ cycle shop, Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park exhibit, nor the Logan County Courthouse.

Wilbur and Orville Wright operated their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle business out of the actual building you’ll find in the village from 1897 to 1908. They sold and repaired bikes there, but perhaps most fascinating is the fact that it was also in this shop that the Wright brothers built their earliest flying machines. Among those was the 1903 Flyer that became the first successful heavier-than-air, powered, controlled aircraft.

In the case of Thomas Edison, he and Henry Ford were close friends. In 1928, Ford commissioned a painstaking reconstruction of Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory for Greenfield Village. Researchers referenced photographs and reminiscences from Edison's early employees, and crews incorporated salvaged materials and original structures from the laboratory's long-abandoned New Jersey site. It is so realistic that Edison himself once pointed out the window toward something while telling a story, before realizing that he was in Dearborn, Michigan, not New Jersey. 

Ford was also a great admirer of Lincoln. Between 1840 and 1847, Abraham Lincoln actually tried cases as a traveling lawyer in the Logan County Courthouse when it was located in what was then Postville, Illinois. When the Logan County seat moved to Mt. Pulaski, this courthouse was reused as a general store, jail, post office, and private dwelling. Henry Ford purchased it in 1929 and brought it to Greenfield Village.

Most people when they enter the park head straight for Main Street, but Pam suggests taking in the village from the back to the front. The oldest structures are located in the back so it’s a more accurate way to experience it from an historic perspective. She recommends taking the train all the way in and enjoying that area, and then catching a carriage up toward the carousel to take in the rest.

Transportation opportunities are a spectacular aspect of the Greenfield Village experience. Sue and Tiffany definitely recommend a ride in a Model T. First of all because it’s an incredibly rare experience to travel in one of these authentic vehicles, and second, because it gives you a great look at the whole place. If you get a good tour guide, they will also provide you with loads of insider information.

While admitting that it may be a tad pricey for some, nearly every person I spoke with also recommended a meal at the Eagle Tavern. The locally-sourced food is authentic to the time, and the long candlelit tables and dark wood really help you immerse yourself into the experience.

If a full meal isn’t to your liking, or you just hanker for a sweet treat afterward, Roz advises not missing out on the frozen custard stand. The rich, creaminess of the old-fashioned custard is a much different taste sensation than most of today’s common “froyo.” The men of the Model T district whole-heartedly agreed, especially on a hot day.

Heather, while also a big fan of the custard, recommended a different refreshments experience. She likes to head over to Cotswold Cottage for tea, though cautions aiming for early or late in the season to avoid the bees. Cotswold Cottage is in the Porches and Parlors district, and was originally tended by Clara Ford. She adored the English gardens she had seen in her travels, so this is an attempt to recreate that ambiance. The tea service offers a decidedly American take on the beloved English tradition, with locally-sourced provisions, such as Slow Jams preserves and Zingerman’s goat cheese.

Lastly, because most people tend to head right toward Main Street, there’s a chance they may miss out on one of Rex’s favorite districts, Liberty Craftworks. There you can see artisans demonstrating authentic period crafts and trades. The Pottery Shop was recently renovated with a new indoor salt kiln and expanded workshop so it’s easier to take in, and there’s nothing quite like the glass blowing demonstrations in the 75-year-old Sandwich Glass Plant. If you pop into the shop to buy a souvenir made on site, you’ll be especially glad that you took the time to see these master crafters at work.

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