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Two Eclectic and Entertaining Midwest Museums

A family shares their experiences at Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, and House on the Rock.

FORD MUSEUM AND GREENFIELD VILLAGE, Dearborn, MI

With just three hours until closing time when we arrived, all we had time to do was sample the amazing offerings of the Henry Ford Museum. The museum closes at 5; I recommend arriving early in the morning. Bring a picnic lunch and eat it on the grounds.

For most museums, three hours would be more than adequate. At the huge Ford complex, it was just a tease.

The museum complex, while a bit pricey ($20 for an adult combination ticket covering both attractions but not the IMAX), is one of the very best of the many living history museums I've seen.

Of course, you'd expect to find much here for the auto connoisseur-and the collection does not disappoint: Ford's very first car (built in 1896), three Presidential limousines (covering those used by every president from Eisenhower through Reagan, including the famous Lincoln that President Kennedy rode on that fateful day in Dallas), as well as the last horse-pulled carriage used by a U.S. president (Theodore Roosevelt). There are a number of non-Ford cars included, among them a plain old Honda sedan, a mighty Stutz Bearcat, an early-20th century Rolls-Royce, and even several offerings from arch-rival General Motors. The enormous building also houses quite a number of planes, locomotives and tractors, vast collections of farm implements through the years, slices of life in every decade of the 20th century.

And that doesn't even count the clocks, jewelry, furniture, silver collections, the exhibits on power and manufacturing technology, the chair Lincoln was sitting in at the Ford Theater when he was shot-and on and on it goes.

The crowning glory of the indoor collections is the only existing Dymaxion house.

Designed by inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller, this was going to revolutionize the postwar housing industry, converting aircraft factories to manufacture 60,000 UFO-shaped aluminum houses per year, at the very affordable price of $6,000, including delivery and assembly. That might have represented only about two years' income for a lower-middle-class worker of the time.

The house featured such innovations as a central support mast instead of a foundation, the ability to change the look and feel by flipping a lighting switch or unsnapping the side panels to replace them with a different color, space-saving features that made the home feel much larger than its just-over-1000 square feet (for instance, dresser shelves that revolve vertically, much like a dry-cleaner's rack turned on its side), and technological or design advances designed to keep the home easy to clean. Oh yes, and it was designed to be portable; you could move it easily to a new location.

While Fuller's timing was good, with a huge postwar housing boom, investors chose instead to put money into traditional housing. Fuller couldn't raise capital, only two prototypes were ever built, and the inventor went on to other pursuits, such as the geodesic dome.

Both prototypes were bought by the same family, which lived in one of them for twenty years and used the other for parts.

There's more inside the museum, but let's step outside now, to Greenfield Village.

High on the list of "musts" is the glimpse into the amazing mind of Thomas Edison.

Henry Ford had close personal ties with Edison, and managed to scarf up the inventor's entire Menlo Park laboratories-lab buildings, machinery, some of his 1,093 patented inventions, boarding houses for his workers, and so forth-and move them inb their entirety from California.

It helps to understand the size of Greenfield Village to think that not only does the many-acre lab complex not dominate the landscape, but you can miss it entirely if you turn down the wrong street. Instead, you might wander past the birthplace of tire tycoon Harvey Firestone-still a working farm, though transplanted from Ohio-the Massachusetts house where Noah Webster created his first dictionary, a southern plantation house and slave quarters, the Wright Brothers' bicycle shop and home, the Illinois courthouse where Lincoln argued cases as a country lawyer, Ford's own birth home and the school he attended. Various historic conveyances-Model T Fords, a vintage steam train, various horse-drawn carriages, a 1913 carousel-carry visitors for an extra fee.

HOUSE ON THE ROCK, Spring Green, Wisconsin

Another very eclectic collection, quite different from the Ford Museum, is the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

This is one of the strangest museums I've ever visited. It doesn't really know its own identity, offering diverse and very unusual collections: automated musical instruments, carousel horses, weaponry, Oriental ivory and wood carvings and lacquer furniture, to name only a few.

The collection is organized along a series of ramps, stairs and walkways, so everyone sees everything in the same order (though you can bypass certain areas). The entire walk covers 2-1/2 miles and takes around two hours-more if you stop to feed tokens into a few of the music contraptions.

One of the best things is the beautiful, intensely rural surroundings. The expansive grounds are full of flowers, favoring more of a wild and natural look than the manicured grounds at Dearborn (and suburban Detroit surroundings). Large clay pots filled with flowers and covered with sculpted dragons and lizards dot the grounds, and from the Infinity Room, with its 3264 windows,, there's a fabulous view of the lush Wisconsin rolling hills and valleys.

The House was never a residence; it was built by Alex Jordan to display his own extensive collections-and Jordan commuted in by plane almost daily from Madison (about two hours' drive). Perched atop a rock hill, the structure has 14 rooms-most of them very large indeed (such as the one that holds the world's largest carousel-it's flat out gorgeous-as well as several smaller ones with doll riders, or the room with automated music machines representing not only a full orchestra but a brass band as well (playing the same song at the same time, fortunately).

Some of the display areas are organized by category. Others, including the Oriental furniture (many truly beautiful pieces) and the automatic music machines, are scattered around the entire place.

The music machines bear some description. They are collections of string, brass, keyboard and percussion instruments, played with mechanical arms. Some are operated by piano rolls or similar devices, and some are made to look like a full orchestra. However, a lot of them haven't been tuned and are not pleasant to listen to.

My favorite collections were the exquisite Oriental lacquerware and carvings. However, the museum has deliberately chosen to keep almost the entire building in very dim light, making it a touch frustrating if you actually want to examine any pieces in depth.

Certainly, if you're in that part of Wisconsin, the House on the Rock is a unique attraction-and much more interesting than much of the stuff in the nearby, ultra-touristy Wisconsin Dells. Pricing is slightly cheaper than the Ford Museum, at $19.50 per adult. But unlike the Ford Museum, I felt that seeing it once would be enough.

Shel Horowitz is the editor of Global Travel Review, author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and owner of the FrugalFun.com website. His travel articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Walking Journal, and many other publications. He is the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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