It was the kind of day in Detroit, late in the course of a temperate summer, when the heat rebounds and the humidity returns with a vengeance. We drove in on the freeway, past marshland and inoperative steel mills and townships whose names—Romulus, Troy—recalled the imperial ambitions of a more hopeful era. We were headed not to the city but to the simulation: the reconstructed historic town known as Greenfield Village. At nine, when we arrived—my mother, my sisters, the children and I—the parking lot was already packed. School had started a couple weeks earlier, and it appeared as though districts across the metro area had chosen the day for their inaugural field trip. Children poured out of Detroit Public Schools buses and shuttles stamped with the logos of Jewish day schools. There were Syrian and Yemeni kids from the Dearborn schools and kindergarteners dressed in the Hogwartian uniforms of parochial academies—all of them boundless and boisterous and shepherded by adults who bore the unexpressive fatalism of people who work professionally with children.
Saddled with diaper bags and water bottles, three small children in tow, we joined the throng at the gates and were promptly ushered into another world. Women in bonnets strolled down the thoroughfare. We passed tinsmith shops, farmhouses, horse-drawn buggies and a man who had been paid, in the name of historical authenticity, to stand in a shadowless field in three layers of tweed, pretending to pick beans. We had come here, supposedly, for the children, who belonged to my two sisters, though we were really here for my mother, who was in the delirious throes of early grandmotherhood and insisted that this was a family tradition. She led the way with the kids, while my sisters and I lagged behind, each of us pushing an empty stroller and redundantly lamenting the heat. We had, in fact, loved this place when we were young, but as adults we became uncharacteristically cynical each time we returned, eager to call attention to the park’s lapses in verisimilitude: the milliner surreptitiously texting beneath her apron; the two men dressed as farmhands, believing themselves out of earshot, discussing cyber-terrorism as they forked hay into a wagon.
Greenfield Village describes itself as a “living history” museum. Unlike most museums, where artifacts are displayed in vitrines, the park is emphatically “hands on.” Not only can you visit a nineteenth-century print shop where a man dressed in overalls operates a proof press with real ink, you can also attend one of the interactive workshops and make antique broadsides with your own two hands. On that summer morning, the Village was alive with the bustle of people making things. There were men tinkering in workshops, bent over bootjacks. There were women in calico dresses peddling flax wheels and kneading actual bread dough to be baked in functional coal ovens.
The park, completed in 1929, was the vanity project of Henry Ford, a man who years earlier had declared that “history is more or less bunk.” Later, he would clarify: written history was bunk, because it focused on politicians and military heroes rather than the common men who built America. Greenfield Village was his correction to the historical narrative. It was a place designed to celebrate the inventor, the farmer and the agrarian landscape that had given rise to self-made men like him. Ford had a number of historically significant buildings relocated to the park, including the Wright brothers’ cycle shop and Thomas Edison’s laboratory, both of which still stand on its grounds. But the park was never really about history—not, at least, in any objective sense. It was a sentimental recreation of the landscape of Ford’s boyhood. To this day, patrons can visit his family homestead, the one-room schoolhouse he attended and the workshop where he built his first car, buildings he not only relocated to the park but also faithfully outfitted with the decorative props he recalled from his youth.
Ford was evidently not alone in his longing for this bygone era. The park’s opening coincided with the Great Depression, a time when many people felt disillusioned with modernity and its narratives about progress. The Village, which evoked a way of life recent enough to have persisted in the memories of older visitors, attracted scores of Americans who felt alienated from the land because of urbanization and factory work, and who longed to return, if only momentarily, to the slower, more satisfying pace of pre-industrial life. In the Forties, park guides began their tours by encouraging patrons to “forget the hustle and bustle of the atomic age and return briefly to the simple, rugged life” their forefathers knew. The irony, of course, was that the way of life the park romanticized was precisely that which Ford had helped usher into obsolescence with the invention of the automobile and the modern factory. The Village was modernity’s elegy for an America that no longer existed, built by its most illustrious titan of industry.