In a 1916 interview with a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, Henry Ford was quoted as saying: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.”
Ford sued the newspaper for libel when they wrote an editorial about him in 1919. During the trial, Ford was cross-examined on the witness stand about what it was he actually meant when he stated that history was “nonsense.”
Just 10 years later, The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation was formally dedicated. Although we’ll likely never know for sure, perhaps the museum was Ford’s attempt to demonstrate contrition. Perhaps it was his attempt to demonstrate to the world that he learned that history did matter.
What we do know is that not unlike Charles Foster Kane, the leading character in what many movie critics believe was the best movie ever made (Orson Wells’ masterpiece Citizen Kane), Ford began collecting things. Not the kinds of things you and I might collect — baseball cards, autographs of famous people, thimbles, or books about a particular topic.
Ford spent a portion of his vast wealth purchasing artifacts such as the Wright Brothers home, their bicycle shop, and Thomas Edison’s laboratory. He then had those artifacts moved to what became the largest indoor-outdoor museum complex in the United States.
Today the museum contains such things as the rocking chair President Abraham Lincoln was seated upon the night he was assassinated, the car in which President John F. Kennedy was riding when he was fatally wounded, the bus on which Rosa Parks was riding that fateful day in Montgomery, Igor Sikorsky’s prototype helicopter, the Fokker Trimotor airplane that flew the first flight over the North Pole, and the most powerful steam locomotive ever built (a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway 2-6-6-6 “Allegheny”-class steam locomotive built by Lima Locomotive Works). Ford also collected a lot more buildings from across the country that were painstakingly moved to Ford’s Greenfield Village, a part of the museum complex.
But I digress. A couple of months ago, I journeyed to Zoar Village, one of the sites managed by Ohio History Connection. Every two years, Zoar hosts Ohio’s largest Civil War re-enactment. In fact, it is the corresponding weekend that Sidney’s fledgling biennial event is held.
I went to Zoar solely to recruit sutlers and re-enactors who were attending the Zoar reenactment this year, encouraging them to attend Sidney’s event next year. While I was there, I watched their reenactment of the Battle of the Wilderness. Fortunately for both the re-enactors and the spectators, the Zoar reenactment lasted just an hour in the stifling heat — the real battle lasted the better part of three days.
Zoar’s version of the battle was fought in a valley along the Muskingum River and I, along with hundreds of others, watched the battle from atop a levy that protects the town from the river’s flood waters. To my immediate left was a young man and his significant other. In an attempt to impress her with his knowledge of history (a conjecture on my part), he explained that “the British burned the White House during the Revolutionary War. It turned out to be fortunate for the Americans, as Washington was so furious that they had torched his home that he was all the more incentivized to defeat the British in battle.”
Of course, this individual’s version was wholly inaccurate. Washington, D.C. did not become the capital of the United States until July 6, 1790. Construction of the White House did not begin until 1792. Washington died December 18, 1799. The first president to live in the White House was John Adams, and he did not move in until 1800. The British burned the White House during the War of 1812 (Aug. 24, 1814). I can only hope that the young lady was more impressed with his knowledge than I was!
Immediately to my right was a young father with his two sons. I’m guessing that the oldest was probably five years of age. He explained to his father that he would be cheering for the “team in blue,” as blue was his favorite color. “The real reason you want to cheer for them is that they were the winners,” his father explained. (In fact, the three-day battle being reenacted was a tactical Confederate victory.)
The younger son (he appeared to be about a year younger than his older brother) said that he would be cheering for the other team, as it appeared that there were more of them (at the time, there were three brigades of Confederate re-enactors assembled in ranks across the wide field; the Union re-enactors were secluded in the woods.) In a voice loud enough that it attracted the attention of everyone in the vicinity, his father retorted: “That’s just bull s_ _t. Only a racist would cheer for those losers.”
There were icy stares from those standing nearby just before fortuitously, the father’s loud voice was drowned out by the sudden roar of Union cannon in the valley below. The heavy smoke from the Union artillery filled the valley and obliterated the ensuing troop movements. Unable to see anything other than a lone butterfly attempting to navigate through the haze, my mind was filled with converging thoughts.
Those thoughts included the conversations on either side of me. I thought about the words of writer and philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I thought about students I had taught who themselves became teachers of history. I thought about the efforts of so many who have worked to tell the story of Shelby County’s history during our bicentennial celebration. And, my thoughts lingered on the modest tax the combined historical societies in Shelby County had asked be placed on the November ballot.
All of this is a prelude to my taking a moment to thank the voters who approved that ballot issue! For the first time in Shelby County’s history, the Shelby County Historical Society will have funds to begin the process of preserving artifacts that have been entrusted to their care. So will the historical societies in Anna, Botkins, Fort Loramie, and Jackson Center.
Thanks to the voters of Sidney and Shelby County, we have taken a small step toward making sure that future generations will have the opportunity to see and learn about people and things that have been important to Shelby County.
I have always believed that history is the ultimate lesson in morality. Those lessons are not recorded by a writer with a fertile imagination. Those lessons are rather the stories of decisions that result in people living and dying. The lessons are also the stories of the people who made those decisions.
History can provide lessons from things that have not gone so well. From just the last century, Leopold II was responsible for the deaths of at least 10 million people. Josef Stalin was responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million. Adolf Hitler caused the deaths of at least 35 million. Mao Zedong caused the deaths of perhaps as many as 45 million.
History can also provide us the lessons of what has gone well. There are lessons as simple as the lever and wheel and as complex as the semiconductors and computers that have transformed our lives. Without doubt, history is important. I again want to thank the voters of Shelby County for realizing that it is.
The writer is the mayor of Sidney.