Friday, June 04, 2010

Getting Around Greenfield

Henry Ford's industrial enterprise was all about getting around, so it's fitting that Greenfield Village includes a number of conveyances, such as the Weiser Railroad, which follows a three-mile course around the museum. Its main depot -- the 1850s-vintage Smith's Creek Depot, moved from elsewhere in Michigan -- is next to the museum's main entrance, so it was easy enough to make a ride around the grounds one of the first things we did.

The locomotive was a smoky bastard, but it got the job done. There's more than a hint of authenticity in that. The conductor narrated along the way, but at least he (and once, she) didn't make a lot of bad jokes, thus bucking tradition among tourist conveyances that offer narration. A surprising amount of the museum grounds is undeveloped. Most of it, in fact, with the train snaking through wooded areas and wetlands that have been the object of restoration efforts in recent years.

We looped all the way around Greenfield, getting off where we started. Not far away, we spotted a horse-drawn omnibus, which we impulsively decided to ride too.

"The omnibuses in Greenfield Village were styled after an omnibus operated by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the early 20th century, and are pulled by teams of Percheron draft horses," explains the Greenfield web site. It doesn't explain how tight the inside of the omnibus feels, with two rows of seated people facing each other and away from the open windows. Then again, people were generally smaller 100 years ago.

But Lilly and I didn't ride inside during that first omnibus ride. As Yuriko and Ann were getting in, the inside seemed full, so the driver said to that the two of us could ride up front with him. I was surprised -- your insurance allows that? -- but I wasn't about to say no, so we hopped up next to him. The Percheron draft horses were completely focused on their task, but there was still something a little unnerving at first about sitting a few feet behind these enormous animals, listening to them huff and rattle their harnesses and clop their shoes on the street. Nothing remarkable for omnibus patrons in 1910, but a century has reconfigured all the everyday sounds for the inhabitants of 2010.

All through the day on the streets of Greenfield, Model Ts could be seen going here and there. I didn't take a picture of one. Even now, most people can imagine roughly what they look like, which is some kind of testament to their success.

Toward the end of the day, when we were pretty much exhausted and didn't want to walk anywhere else, we did line up to ride in a Model T. Besides our cafeteria lunch, it was the only thing we waited for, but it wasn't a Disneyland- or Six Flags mass line. After only about 15 minutes, we boarded a Model T Depot Hack, one of the larger of the Model Ts (seats six), and spent about five minutes plying the streets of Greenfield while the driver told us about the vehicles.

A knowledgeable tour guide ought to tell you things you didn't know, and our driver, a gentlemen of distinguished gray in period driving clothes, did so. I didn't realize, for example, that hundreds of thousands of the cars are still in existence and in running order (I've forgotten the exact number), enough to support an active aftermarket in Model T parts. Also, their famed black color was standard only after assembly-line mass production started in 1915. Before that, it was a different color every year.

I asked whether the Model T still needed leaded gasoline, guessing that there might be some kind of grandfather clause for the grandfather of autos. No, the carburetor has been reconfigured to use modern gas formulas, the driver said. Environmental regs trump to-the-marrow authenticity in this case.

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