The last stop on our six week tour of Michigan was in the southeastern corner of the state. We camped at the Wayne County Fairgrounds, located about halfway between Ann Arbor and Detroit. Of our seven days in the area, we spent three at The Henry Ford Museum. Now, you would not be crazy to assume that a museum called The Henry Ford was all about cars, but it’s actually about much, much more. Think of it like the Smithsonian, but with an emphasis on the industrial age… and lots of other things.
The Henry Ford is actually made up of a number of different properties and there are an endless list of things to see and do during your visit. We decided to buy the “Main Attractions Package” which included visits to The Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, and the Ford Rouge Factory.
Greenfield Village is an outdoor campus filled with historic buildings, craft shops, and one-of-a-kind structures. The entire property is surrounded by a railroad track upon which an authentic steam powered train transports guests around the village.
What made Greenfield stand out were the craftspeople who were working in the various shops. We loved talking with them and, with only one exception (I’m lookin at you print shop lady…), they were happy to explain their crafts.
Honestly, looms are not something we generally get really excited about; we’re just not big into “loom life.” But, if you have someone there to explain how they work, and show you the differences between various types, and you can see the finished products as they’re created, it really does make a big difference… at least for us. And it turns out, looms are legit fascinating. Take this one built all the way back in 1801 which uses punch cards to control the design of the fabric:
These are the very same type of punch cards that eventually became the key to modern computing. Neat, right?
Or, take this guy… a tinsmith.
I had no idea tinsmithing was so fascinating, but here’s this guy rocking a mustache and beard that would put your average 25 year old hipster to shame, and he could not have been nicer in explaining to us – and the children in the room – how these products are made.
And, after he gave the little girl above one of his homemade duck-shaped cookie cutters, he gave me one too.
Because duck-wiches aren’t just for kids, you know!!
In addition to the potters and glassblowers and other craftspeople, the village is full of historic mills, churches, inns, and residences. There are the childhood homes of the Wright brothers, Noah Webster, and Henry Ford himself. And there’s an entire section devoted to the Menlo Park labs of Thomas Edison – shops that contain many of the machines he and his staff used, as well as the inventions they developed.
Perhaps the coolest part was that, while walking down the sidewalks of this idyllic little village, there was a near constant stream of vintage Model Ts zipping by. Tourists can take rides in these old cars for $10 per person.
The Ford Rouge Factory Tour
The Rouge Factory (named for the Rouge River) was and is Henry Ford’s biggest and best known plant. Built between 1917 and 1928, the factory was the largest industrial complex in the world. When it was completed, it was a mile wide and mile and a half long, it contained 93 buildings and over 15 million square feet of floor space. Today, it is the factory that produces the Ford F150 pickup truck, the most popular truck in the U.S.
The tour starts with a movie about the history of the company. We were impressed that they acknowledged some of their controversial past directly – namely their history with unions and working conditions. We thought the movie was pretty even handed.
Visitors are then ushered into a second “4D” movie – this one about the design of the F150. This was pretty much just one big truck commercial, but I guess someone’s gotta pay for all this stuff.
Guests are then sent in an elevator up to a high floor to view the entire enormous facility. Here, you can see the factory’s “green roof.”
Over the past several decades, Ford has made efforts to be more environmentally conscious and stop wrecking everything. Additionally, because the facility grew so much over the years, and because Dearborn gets a lot of precipitation, and because the factory was built right next to a river, they were having problems with flooding in the buildings. The green roof and other environmental projects at the plant were designed to soak up and reclaim a lot of that rainwater to reduce the amount of runoff. As an added benefit, the mats on the roof provide natural insulation and protect the roof itself.
The last major stop on the tour is the actual factory. There’s a catwalk that encircles a large section of the facility and visitors are free to spend as long as they’d like watching the assembly line. Unfortunately, photos are prohibited. The pictures interspersed below are from the entrance hall.
As you can imagine, the factory floor is immense, and it operates not only below you, but also above you. 1,000 employees work in the factory during each 10 hour shift. There are 2 shifts each weekday and one shift each day of the weekend. A new truck rolls off the line each minute. Putting all of that together, the factory produces 7200 vehicles each week.
From our perches on the catwalk we could see vehicles in various states of manufacture wind their way along endless conveyor belts, stopping for about 10 seconds at each work station. Employees have only that long to do their part before the vehicle moves on.
There are guides that walk the catwalks to answer questions (and make sure no one is taking photos). In speaking with them, we learned that the various tools the employees use are all tracked by a central computer system, so each employee is consistently analyzed for efficiency. As she said, “Big Brother is alive and well here at Ford.” She also told us any employee has the ability to stop the entire line to report a problem.
As we were watching the workers do their jobs – going through the same motions over and over and over again – we asked the guide whether employees had the option of switching around to do different things. She said they did, but the vast majority liked doing the same job. She said they’d often wear headphones and just do their work while listening to music or an audiobook.
Everywhere we looked, there were interesting things going. Directly below the catwalk, a large robot with a single arm delicately and efficiently picked up brand new windshields and attached them effortlessly to vehicles coming down the line. Above us we saw an endless stream of doors hanging from a line like laundry drying in the sun. Down and to the left we watched truck beds that had not yet been married to their cabs floating down an assembly line, turning a corner, and then rising on an elevator before disappearing into another section of the factory. All the while, we watched a dizzying array of employees on forklifts zipping around the floor bringing needed supplies to the various work stations.
As we continued along the catwalk, we walked into a large, glass paneled room with a commanding view of another massive factory floor. There, we watched brand new, finished trucks coming to the end of the line for a series of quality control checks. There were component leak checks, rain water checks, and checks done by robots to ensure every measurement was correct. In the middle of the room, we saw employees entering these brand new cars and driving them to various stations for additional testing and analysis. When all of that was done, the trucks would be sent outside to a racetrack where they would be put through their paces.
We initially planned to visit this factory on the same day we visited the Ford Museum, but we spent so much time there, we put the museum off to another day. Maybe it’s just us, but we thought the whole experience was fascinating.
The Henry Ford
Finally, we visited the actual Henry Ford Museum. This has, as one might expect, lots of Ford related exhibits – old cars and new cars and everything in between.
But it also had a seemingly random collection of Americana – really important pieces like the Rosa Parks bus:
and really interesting pieces like a collection of presidential limousines:
and really weird pieces like the chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot:
Speaking of which, one of those limousines pictured above is the very same one JFK was assassinated in. Apparently, the Secret Service was like “Sure, we’ll just hose off the blood and keep using it…”
Our sense with some of this stuff is that the museum has a lot of money on its hands and just wants to get people in the door. A museum about the industrial age and American innovation will appeal to some folks, but throw in some blood soaked furniture and they’ll be lining up out the door!!
Making a bit more sense, there were exhibits about the history of driving in America –
…how cars led to roads and roads led to interstates and interstates led to hotels and restaurants and drive-ins, and how it all led to Airstreams…
…which, when you think about it, all kinda led to this little project of ours…
Speaking of which, what do you think? New tow car???
Anyway, as you can probably tell, we really enjoyed this whole experience. Overall, we liked Greenfield Village more than the museum, but that was because there were so many more docents and craftspeople available to talk to. The museum was more of a regular museum – with placards on the wall to discuss the item. In fact, the only place we saw a docent was on the Rosa Parks bus – and she was great! She made the whole thing more interesting. I just wish there were more people like her. Maybe they could explain why the items of my childhood are in a museum now…
After all the history and learning, it was time for some football. I’d never actually been to a college football game since my school didn’t have a team. While going to a university located in the heart of a big city was a great experience and opened a lot of doors, I was always a bit jealous of people (like Kevin) who went to these huge schools with gorgeous campuses and die hard sports fans. Football is, obviously, huge at Michigan, so we decided to get tickets. On the upside, because it wasn’t a big important game, we were able to get really good seats for pretty cheap:
On the downside, Michigan crushed Rutgers so it wasn’t the most exciting game to watch. But it was still fun to be there and see all the traditions and school spirit.
After the game, we met up with my former colleague, Jeff, and his wife and kids for a tour of the Michigan campus. They took us to the stunningly beautiful, Oxford-inspired law school quad and its reading room (which is open to all students and gawkers like us.) Then, they showed us the rest of the bustling campus and told us about their time there. It was really cool to see.
Jeff is extremely knowledgeable about Michigan and even writes a blog about all the best places to visit in the state. His articles provided much of the road map we used when traveling through the state this summer. If you’re ever thinking about heading there, it’s a great resource written by a local. Thanks again for all your help, Jeff!
Speaking of Michigan, later that week, we met up with some blog friends who are originally from there. Brian and Heather (Tinned Sokuls) have been traveling in their Airstream for about as long as us and have visited and photographed numerous gorgeous places. In fact, I would venture to guess that if you’re on the fence about making the trip up to Alaska, and you take a look at Heather’s blogs from their time there, like this one about seeing the Northern Lights, you’ll be planning your trip in no time.
Anyway, we met up with intentions of having a beer or two and heading home. Five and a half hours later we finally dragged ourselves away from the table and called it a night.
Needless to say, we had a great time and are hoping to cross paths with them again in the future.
Michigan – Final Thoughts
And with that, six weeks after crossing the state border, we exited Michigan to begin our trek south.
When planning our travels, I intentionally set aside a big block of time for Michigan. Over and over we were told that the state was special and we needed to spend a good amount of time there. We found that to be completely accurate.
Michigan offers a nice mix of small towns, beautiful natural parks, stunning scenery, one of a kind tourism opportunities, and great small cities. The food was delicious, the beer was phenomenal, the people were warm and welcoming, and there were a plethora of things to see and do.
I will say, we were happy to have gone at the tail end of summer and beginning of fall as we missed some of the craziest crowds and got some deals on camping. We also avoided the mosquitoes and black flies we heard nightmare stories about.
As for downsides, we noticed there was no recycling anywhere. Ever. We stayed at 8 different campground and not a single one of them offered recycling. Maybe there’s a reason for it, but it seemed odd – especially in a state renowned for its natural beauty. Finally, we were never able to stay at any of the Michigan state parks. Between the lack of sites available to accommodate large motorhomes, the high costs, and some questionable reviews, we never chose a state park over our other options. It wasn’t really a big deal, just something we noticed.
All in all, we had a fantastic time and agree with what others have said – this is a state worth spending several weeks, if not months, visiting.
Thanks for the great memories, Michigan!
Next up, southbound and a stop at the Flight 93 Memorial.