Dearborn, death & American dreams

NEON DREAMS The Henry Ford Museum, Detroit.
NEON DREAMS The Henry Ford Museum, Detroit.

A Writer’s Midwestern adventure.

SEEKING the childhood haunts of farming icon Henry Ford, on arrival in the great city of Detroit, we (me, a cameraman and a presenter) headed not for Motown (unfortunately) but to the city fringe and the Dearborn area.

There, the Motor City puts on a veneer of rural respectability, but on the many occasions we got lost in our hired Buick, street upon street of homely clapboard stoops in everyday neighbourhoods revealed themselves, where no-one cared much for Ford and the quiet revolutions he spearheaded.

All that is on ostentatious display at the Henry Ford Museum, our first port of call.

It would be hard to name a more complete exhibition anywhere in the world. As an entrée to life in the American heartland, this place is the veritable cherry on the pie.

Acres of halls burst with memorabilia on a huge scale – the neon sign display must be the world’s best, and there’s an entire Holiday Inn which was moved brick-by-brick as an homage to the original American road trip.

A Museum staffer showed us to another building on the far side of the exterior exhibition (filled with entire villages – Ford loved the whole brick-by-brick thing), where he pulled-up a garage door and trundled a rather strange looking machine into the daylight.

This was Henry Ford’s 1907 ‘Automotive Plow’ – the prototype for the mass-produced Fordson tractor.

This tractor changed farming practices dramatically after centuries of hard labour and heavy horses. Ford didn’t invent it, but he made it affordable for most.

MAN OF EXTREMES Henry Ford and his wife in his first car.
MAN OF EXTREMES Henry Ford and his wife in his first car.

A documentary shown at the Museum detailed Ford’s deep regret that his vehicle production technologies helped inspire the military tank, which tore through troops in the slaughter that was WW1.

Turns out Henry Ford (1863-1947) was not just a farmer and industrialist – he was also a pacifist and a vegetarian. Now that got me interested.

As we left the Museum, a formal line of Presidential vehicles revealed itself, from beautiful carriages to limousines. The last one was roped-off, because people respectfully leant across to touch the rear right passenger door.

I wanted to see why, but the sign explained the patently obvious – this was the car in which President John F. Kennedy was killed. Surprisingly, it had been remodelled and used by other presidents for many years after the assassination.

Quite close by, the upholstered chair in which President Abraham Lincoln was shot to death is also on display.

Such a strange, endearing collection of dreams, death and the pinnacle of farming achievements. The dichotomy says much about the man behind the collection, loved and reviled in equal measure. Say what you want about Henry Ford: he was a collector like no other.

Ford’s early tractors were manufactured the world over, and many have become collectors’ items, so we hit the road in search of them, heading south into the great farming state of Ohio, on the very edge of America’s Midwest.

As we embarked, another journey was just beginning in California. Young high flier, 7-year-old student pilot Jessica Dubroff’s ‘Sea to Shining Sea’ flight was going to rewrite history and make her the youngest person to fly across the United States, assisted by her pilot trainer and her father. The Ohio and Michigan media were anticipating seeing Jessica cross their skies any day now.

Passing through the endless city limits of mighty Cleveland, I checked our itinerary, and realised a colleague back in Suffolk, England, had booked us to do an interview in east Ohio, then travel a day and a half back to Michigan, only to turn around and drive back south into Ohio again. The English have no idea about distances! I grumbled, before calling and asking for the dates to be changed.

Meanwhile, we visited affluent farms where Ford tractors that had not tilled the soil for decades were stored like precious objects in huge, pristine sheds.

We interviewed farmers who ran thousands of head of cattle on prairie-like pastures. Here, my vegetarianism was something even I questioned, since these cows lived a life of liberty, with just their ears tagged before they were set free to graze the hills until it was time to bring them in for slaughter.

We met an Amish man who ran a sawmill entirely without electricity, just a pair of heavy horses who he treated like the precious commodity they were.

LAND OF EXTREMES A traditional Amish buggy makes its way into town (Photo: Ad Meskens).
LAND OF EXTREMES A traditional Amish buggy makes its way into town (Photo: Ad Meskens).

The sight of Amish carriages crossing the landscape in the distance was an eerie link with America’s past. The culture of the Plain People contains the last vestiges of a rural romanticism that every country child can relate to.

In Ohio’s land of abundance, everything was larger than I had ever experienced. To reach the arms of the chairs in restaurants, you needed to put your arms out wide!

Then the nation awoke to terrible news that Jessica Dubroff’s plane had gone down shortly after takeoff from Cheyenne in the state of Wyoming. A brief life cut short. A dream broken in this land of big, record-breaking dreams.

Thankfully our itinerary had been adjusted, but we were asked not to delay – the subjects of our interview back in Michigan were heavily pregnant, due any day now. They couldn’t guarantee what we’d be greeted with. So we completed a long night drive across the border into Portland, Indiana, then back up to Michigan to the city of Flint, home of another great American, film maker Michael Moore.

Flint, and in fact that whole section of Michigan, was emerging from a harsh winter. Nevertheless it’s not just the climate that caused a certain down-at-heel quality.

Unlike the vasty fields of Ohio, that part of Michigan seemed rather poverty-stricken. The farmers were less welcoming and more suspicious of travellers. We got lost a few times, and the idea of knocking on doors and asking for directions was more than a little frightening.

This was long before Michael Moore’s films pricked the conscience of the western world – we were only there to interview a goat breeder.

Her flock of Boer goats was in the process of birthing its next generation, so we waited patiently while the mothers bleated. New life within a toughened landscape brought all the cheer we needed to feel better about Henry Ford’s macabre collection, about Jessica Dubroff’s life cut short, and about ourselves in the midst of a thawing state of disbelief … and more beautiful footage of brand new kids has rarely been captured, I’m sure.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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