Day: May 29, 2013

Dearborn, Michigan: American History on Display

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Dearborn, Michigan, one of the many small towns that gird Detroit, is the world headquarters of Ford Motor Company. Little known to many outside the Great Lakes area except for the occasional news story about clashes between fundamentalist Christian outsiders and the town’s Middle Eastern community, it might not make the short list for vacation spots. And, that’s really too bad, because it’s actually quite a nice place to visit.

The bus that Rosa Parks rode in when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.
The bus that Rosa Parks rode in when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.

Dearborn, in its present incarnation, came into being on January 9, 1929, when voters approved a charter consolidating the towns of Fordson and Dearborn. The new, enlarged Dearborn was on the way to becoming one of the major cities in Michigan. As might be intuited from the ‘Fordson’ name, even then this area was dominated by Ford, which is why, even with a population of only around 250,000, the city still looms large in state affairs.

Located astride I-64, and abutting Detroit’s southwest, Dearborn is only fifteen minutes from Detroit Metro Airport, making it easy to get to be plane or by car.  Once there, you’ll find yourself immersed in history like never before – and, that is the main reason this city is a must for your summer vacation itinerary.

An historical starting point for a stay in Dearborn is the Dearborn Inn, located at 20301 Oakwood Boulevard.  On 23 acres of landscaped grounds, this colonial-style hotel was the first airport hotel in America, built to serve passengers at the now-defunct Ford Airport, which was located across the street on what is now part of the expansive Ford Motor Company campus. A fireplace in the large lobby, complete with oil paintings and period furniture, evoke images of upscale life at the turn of the century. The Edison Room offers modern dining, but still has the table reserved for Henry Ford’s visits.  The spacious rooms, overlooking the tree-covered grounds, have large screen HD TV and wireless internet for today’s business traveler.

Presidential limos: from Teddy Roosevelt's horse-drawn carriage to Ronald Reagan's armored car. On display at the Henry Ford Museum.
Presidential limos: from Teddy Roosevelt’s horse-drawn carriage to Ronald Reagan’s armored car. On display at the Henry Ford Museum.

Within walking distance of Dearborn Inn, are the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. The Henry Ford is a 12-acre museum, built by Ford in 1929 to showcase Yankee ingenuity. Exhibits include Thomas Edison’s laboratory and the bus upon which started civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama. Exhibits from the various world fairs show the visionary musings of past eras in America, and the country’s journey from an agrarian to an industrialized society.  Adjacent to the Henry Ford is Greenfield Village, where many of the actual buildings and shops that figured in American history are on display. At the village, you can take a ride on a steam of diesel train, be chauffeured around in a vintage Model T, a horse-drawn carriage ride, or ride on a hundred-year-old carousel. Volunteers in period costumes operate a farm, workshops, and stores. Admission to the museum and village is a bit expensive, but worth the price for the exposure to aspects of American history that are often left out of school curricula, and the fun for children from eight to eighty.

One doesn’t have to be in Dearborn long to realize that it’s a company town – and, the company is Ford. Members of the Ford family are immortalized in street names, school names, and plaques all over. But, it’s a company town with a difference, reflecting the personality of Henry Ford, a farmer at heart who liked to build things. As Ford built his auto empire (which also included aircraft manufacture before World War II), he provided employment to all regardless of race, nationality, or religion (although Henry Ford was thought to be somewhat anti-Semitic, he also employed Jews in his plants). The most notable community, though, is from the Middle East. Dearborn is home to more Arab-speaking people than anywhere else outside the Middle East. To get a look at this community, a visit to the Arab-American National Museum is a must.

Take a ride in a vintage Ford at Greenfield Village.
Take a ride in a vintage Ford at Greenfield Village.

From the affluent west and south sides to town to the more working class neighborhoods of the north and east, near Ford’s Rouge River Plant, Dearborn has a small-town atmosphere; where people say hello as they pass on the street; with big city convenience. As might be expected, because of the large Arab population from diverse regions of the Arab world, there is an astonishing selection of Middle Eastern restaurants.