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Cities: Detroit's Henry Ford Museum a Hit with Young Inventors

When my eldest was in his “inventor-detective” phase, he was constantly dragging things home to take apart. The house could be taken over by bits and pieces from an old radio, the innards of a cast-off computer or springs from an old-fashioned alarm clock. Now I know that he was in good company. Apparently, automobile maker Henry Ford did likewise. His sister remembered that the family used to shudder at Christmastime because young Henry took apart any new gift that moved.

Ford went on to invent the world’s first gas-powered horseless carriage, the automobile, and dabbled in a multitude of innovations. He set up steam-powered bird baths, sported a suit made from soybean (which he ingested daily) and installed his friend Thomas Edison’s new project—the electric light bulb—throughout his 56-room home. Ford was so enamored with innovation and technology that in 1929, he opened a museum to inspire young people and celebrate inventing. Rather like Noah, he set out to find at least one of everything that had ever been invented in America.

The Henry Ford Museum just outside Detroit is now the world’s largest indoor/outdoor museum with millions of artifacts on 9 acres. Voted a top historic site for families by the readers of FamilyFun magazine, the attraction offers a day’s worth of exploration within an easy four-hour drive from Toronto. Car-crazy kids will love the more than 100 year’s worth of automobiles from Henry’s first Quadricycle, resembling a high open-air baby carriage, through the Ford Model T’s and the chrome-plated beauties of the Elvis era to the 1961 Lincoln that President Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated. There are robots and overhead conveyor belts, lunchboxes from the 50’s, a giant group game of balls and tubes, a huge locomotive that used to haul coal trains, and a Hands-On! Interactive area where kids six to 12 can build with miniature logs, weave on a loom or try to create a computerized light bulb.

Just as much fun for parents or grandparents is revisiting a vintage roadside diner, an original Holiday Inn motel room, drive-in movie theatres and an old Texaco sign. Particularly hilarious is a 1940 ad showing a stylish mom and her $495 Speedway Coupe. “No longer a car widow,” it reads. Picking up the kids never looked so glamorous. Other curious display items include George Washington’s traveling camp bed and Thomas Edison’s last breath sealed in a test tube with paraffin wax. Canadian content? One gleaming 1965 Mustang convertible boasts a Newfoundland and Labrador license plate.

The transportation theme doesn’t stop at the museum though. In the surrounding 81 acres of historic Greenfield Village, kids can sail the Suwanee Riverboat paddle steamer, hop aboard a horse-drawn carriage or ride the village train that’s pulled by America’s oldest locomotive in daily operation. In between, stop off for lessons in the schoolhouse where Ford practised his ABC’s, ride a hand-carved tiger on the 1913 Carousel, visit Edison’s invention factory or stop at the Eagle Tavern for refreshment. Although Greenfield Village is in full swing during summer, special family events take place here throughout the year such as the upcoming Black History weekends in February, Family Fun in March or Spring Farm Days in May featuring the wrinkliest sheep you’ve ever seen.

Auto fans may also enjoy the Spirit of Ford attraction across the road, owned by the Henry Ford Motor Company. Part science museum where kids can build cars with K’NEX or be part of a racing team at a pit stop, and part think tank devoted to concept cars, crash test dummies and auto engineering, the building also features a theme-park-style virtual ride through an auto assembly line.

To really understand the mind behind the first wheels, though, don’t leave without visiting the Henry Ford Estate-Fair Lane. The kids may not be as enthralled with this grand Casa Loma-like mansion as they are with the nature trails, tree fort and picnic tables out back (watch however as there are no guard rails near the lake and waterfalls). But the house also contains a small museum of Ford’s personal cars such as a camping truck with a built-in refrigerator or the gasoline-powered miniature cars for his grandchildren and they can watch a good film about Ford and how he developed the greatest invention of the last century. Who knows? Maybe one of yours or one of mine may be inspired to create one for the next.

HOW TO GET THERE: The Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village is located at Oakwood Boulevard and Village Road in Dearborn, Michigan, about a 20-minute drive from downtown Detroit. The Henry Ford Museum is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Greenfield Village is bustling April through December. Note: not all of the historic buildings are suitable for strollers. Call 313-271-1620 or visit www.hfmgv.org. For tours of the Henry Ford Estate—Fair Lane, call 313-593-5590. For other auto-related attractions such as the Motorsports Museum & Hall of Fame in Novi or the Walter P. Chrysler Museum located on the grounds of DaimlerChrysler’s North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, call 1-800-DETROIT or visit www.visitdetroit.com.





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