1421 Dill Road De Witt, Michigan 48820
GEM readers who enjoy anything to do with old machinery and who travel through southeastern Michigan should enjoy a visit to the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, about fifteen minutes east of Metro Airport and just north of 1-94. This museum was the result of Henry Ford's desire to preserve examples of American technology. It is said that he sent men all over the country with carte blanche to buy whatever they thought appropriate. Their efforts created a collection of extremely diverse objects, from airplanes to light bulbs, and many things in between- old radios, primitive household machines, like vacuum cleaners and handoperated washers, machine tools, engines, locomotives, farm implements, steam tractors, gas tractors, and a wonderful assemblage of stationary steam engines (including an enormous English Newcomen atmospheric engine- as big as a house-going back to about 1770).
There are a few interesting airplanes. Cars, of course, are a major focus of the exhibits. Most of these are American, although the museum owns one of the six existing Bugatti Royales (it is hard to believe, but the Royale dwarfs the Duesenberg parked near it!) A number of exhibits, such as the roadside diner, and early kitchen, the household items, some furniture and dishes and the shops which sell 'old' items manufactured in the Greenfield Village workshops, make the museum interesting enough even for people who don't want to spend the day staring at locomotives or lathes.
The farm implements are quite interesting in themselves. They consist of many hand tools, such as cradles and pitchforks, and a number of early machines, including reapers. The collection of tractors is neither comprehensive nor impressive, but is nevertheless interesting. I suspect Henry Ford just told his searchers to pick up a few old tractors. There are several huge steam traction engines, and a few gas tractors, the most interesting of which, I think, are the Ferguson-Brown and the prototype 9N.
Not long ago, I wrote to the museum to get a complete list of their gas tractors, thinking that GEM readers might be interested. Here is the list which the Curator of the Collections Division, Mr. Peter H. Cousins, kindly sent to me:
Allis-Chalmers 10-18, 1914Allis-Chalmers 6-12, 1919Caterpillar 10, 1929John Deere 6,1941Farmall, about 1925Ferguson-Brown, 1938Ford Experimental tractor, 1907-1908Ford 9N prototype, 1939Ford 8N, 1952Fordson, 1917Fordson, 1926Fordson F, 1935Hart-Parr 12-24,1929Massey-Harris General Purpose, about 1933 (four-wheel drive)Minneapolis-Moline Universal MTRaymond, about 1922 Samson, 1920-22
The 1926 Fordson is a factory cutaway for demonstration in South America. The Farmall has 36' tires on cut-down wheels. This tractor was red a few years ago, and had been labeled '1936 F-20.' I wrote to the museum about this, and received a reply stating that they were aware of the mistake and were going to repaint the tractor. I gather that there was no serial number, but the museum had done some looking into the matter and concluded a 1925 model, based on the shape of the rear axle. Eventually, the tractor was repainted gray by the museum. It remains on rubber, and has a modern aftermarket magneto, which looks completely out of place.
According to the letter which I received from the museum, the tractor had been sold to the Ford Motor Company about 1936, when Ford was thinking about getting back into tractor production. An IHC dealer had apparently painted the Farmall red and labeled it 'F-20.' This could have been an unscrupulous act, but then, a lot of people thought a Farmall and an F-20 were about the same thing (as they were in most of the essentials; on rubber, especially, the original Farmall performed remarkably like an F-20). Ford would have used the Farmall for comparison purposes.
Some readers may have seen pictures of an experimental Ford row-crop tractor built about 1937; it is styled like a Ford car, but is built along the lines of a Farmall, with small rear wheels and cranked axle. The museum eventually sold this tractor. It would probably not have been competitive at that point, which makes one wonder if the museum staff succumbed to the temptation to get rid of an embarrassment to the Ford Motor Company (how much nicer to have kept the tractor for its historical interest).
The museum's Ford 9N prototype is quite interesting, as it has very different wheels from the production model, and the styling is very simple-probably something cobbled up in a Ford sheet metal shop just to make a tractor to demonstrate. Near the 9N is the Ferguson-Brown brought over by Harry Ferguson to demonstrate his hydraulic system to Henry Ford (most people know of the famous 'handshake agreement' that resulted from this demonstration). The Ferguson-Brown tractor has a cast frame resembling that of a Fordson. It is on steel, and of course has the Ferguson hydraulics and linkage.
The entrance to the Ford Museum has gone up about a dollar a year for the past four or five years, to the current price of $11.50. This is pretty steep, considering the numbers of people who pass through, but it is still worth it for machinery lovers. Almost everything can be approached closely, and photography is allowed. A while back, I got interested in the history of machine tools, lathes and such machines that contributed to our ability to produce complex machines in factories. There are a number of these machines in the museum.
The truly impressive collection of steam engines can be seen up close, and on one trip. I had the pleasure of being accompanied by a metallurgist who showed me, by pointing out features of the various engines, how manufacturing and machining had changed from the middle of the 18th century through the middle of the 19th. Until the end of the 18th century, the steam engines are extremely crude, with lots of work that looks like it was done by wrought-iron fence makers (the larger engines from that period have flywheels cast in segments, with square holes and forged square shafts, and wooden wedges for keys!).
After the development of the industrial metal-working lathe (around 1800), the steam engines take on a beautiful machined look that is a joy to behold if you are a nuts-and-bolts lover. I confess that about once a year, I get the urge to take a day off and go down to the Ford Museum, just to get my fill of nuts and bolts.
There have been some renovations in progress in the museum, according to people I know who have been there recently. Some of the exhibits were apparently inaccessible during the renovations. It would be worth a call to Dearborn (Area Code 313) to find out. The museum staff is very pleasant and helpful, and are glad to send brochures or answer questions over the phone. Show-goers are probably aware of the special weekends sponsored by Greenfield Village during the year and devoted to old machinery or to old cars. If not, a phone call will get you a complete list of these activities. There is, incidentally, an interesting gift shop which has a nice little collection of books on cars and tractors and early Americana, some attractive jewelry, Victorian paper dolls, model kits, and so on. There is also a pleasant cafeteria-style restaurant with reasonable prices, which means that you can take a break, but not waste a lot of time going out looking for a restaurant.
You can browse the museum fairly quickly, of course, but it is so big that it takes most of a day to look at everything with any attention. Next door is Greenfield Village, which is Henry Ford's other museum-a collection of all kinds of old buildings, American with a couple of exceptions (including a rebuild of the wreckage of Edison's Menlo Park laboratory). The Village takes a good part of a day if any time is spent looking at the buildings. It is possible to buy a combination day ticket for the museum and Greenfield Village, which is only a few steps away, but in that case you would end up browsing both places.