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Nowhere Celebrates Independence Day Like Greenfield Village

Nowhere does Americana like the heartland. And nowhere does Fourth of July like Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Wright brothers' Dayton home. 

Long one of the top tourist attractions in Flyover Country, The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village near Detroit have become more and more user-friendly over the years, with modernized infrastructure and amenities, and an opening of their tremendous cultural and educational treasure troves to broader communities.

Yet thankfully, some things don’t change at Greenfield Village, which Henry Ford opened in 1933 as a collection of relocated or reconstructed significant buildings from throughout the United States. Ford and his curators arranged these historical and architectural gems, from vastly different locales and vastly different areas, over 200 acres as if they were a contemporaneous village. That set up for Greenfield Village visitors a virtual tour through time that touches on some of the most important people and events in America’s past.

The artifacts include icons from across the heartland, including Wilbur and Orville Wright’s family home and bicycle shop from Dayton, Ohio; an Illinois courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law; and one of Ford’s original factories as well as the house where the company’s founder was born.

Du-wop: 1950s group in front of an old utility building.

Other remarkable sites at Greenfield Village range from the home where Noah Webster wrote his dictionary, to a brick slave quarters from the South, to the reconstruction of the Menlo Park, New Jersey, lab complex where Ford’s good friend, Thomas Edison, toiled for many years.

But while the buildings remained, last year Covid squelched most of the spirit of Greenfield Village, as it did so much else of American life. One thing that the pandemic shut down in 2020 was an annual touchstone: how the place celebrates the Fourth of July. Traditionally, this has involved a full-fledged, unapologetic, patriotic program that culminates on a few evenings in a fireworks display on a broad lawn accompanied by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, tinkling out the 1812 Overture and other favorite songs of the holiday.

As it happened, it’s this Independence Day weekend that Greenfield Village finally has been able to stage what amounts to a post-pandemic return to form. Yet Patricia Mooradian, president of The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village, did so in a new way that satisfied the huge fan base for the Fourth of July celebration at the same time that she continued to pay respect to the Covid-related concerns of her guests.

An American living room, circa 1940.

Instead of a massive crowd on the lawn listening to the entire symphony, for instance, Greenfield Village sprinkled ensembles from the orchestra at various locations around the grounds to set up a strolling effect. Greenfield Village added short musical acts from various historical genres at some buildings, including a string-based folk group, a black gospel group and one performing I’m All Shook Up and other songs from the 1950s.

The result is a satisfying adaptation for Greenfield Village to begin to reclaim an important annual celebration in a way that made everyone feel not only happy but also safe.

Mooradian was touring the grounds on Wednesday evening with some of her top lieutenants and seemed pleased by what was unfolding around her. “It’s a start,” she told me. And a great one at that.

Pickin' and a grinnin' on the Chapman home front porch.

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