Around Ann Arbor, MI – Historic Barns & Henry Ford
We’re getting to the end of our time in Ann Arbor which means I need to get my butt in gear and update you on what we’ve seen and done since we arrived. Despite having spent almost 3 weeks here, we’ve actually not managed much in the way of regular sightseeing. Most of our time has been spent on Polly’s rehab as well as a slew of small, practical items and hanging with old friends. So our “play” time has actually been in limited supply. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to see in the area, quite the opposite.
Founded in 1824, Ann Arbor grew from a slew of mostly European immigrants who settled here in the mid to late 19th century. The town narrowly missed a bid to become the State Capitol, but did become the site for the University of Michigan (1837), a boon that has been a source of youth and progression ever since. In the early 20th century the area boomed with the advance of mill manufacturing, and pioneering in the automotive industry in nearby “motor city” of Detroit. Today it’s a mix of money, diversity and charm and is consistently voted one of the “top places to live” in the US. It’s got a lot going on.
In our limited free time here we decided to focus on two things -> short outings to sample beer & food in the small towns closest to our parking spot, combined with a couple of longer day-trips to see some bigger sights further out. For the latter we decided on a tour of historic barns and a visit to the iconic Henry Ford Museum. Both turned out to be awesome choices.
Historic Barn Tours – Manchester/Chelsea, MI
Directly west of Ann Arbor is deep farm country. Drive just a few miles out of town and you’ll pass through distinctly small, English-sounding towns (Chelsea, Manchester etc.) nestled between rolling hills, long tree-lined dirt roads and historic barns. It’s quite the transformation and makes you feel like you’ve ventured far from civilization despite being right next door.
Large barns dominate the landscape here and you can’t help but notice their presence and varying forms. There’s something intrinsically beautiful about their huge, curved roofs. Something nostalgically inviting about their weathered wood and simple, bright white-outlined doors. I’ve always quite liked barns, but I admit that my interest in photographing them wasn’t peaked until we visited Joseph OR in 2015. That’s where I saw my first stunners and where I first truly admired their unique shapes.
A little internet sleuthing reveals Michiganders are deeply proud of their barns. There’s a well-established Michigan Barn Preservation group which holds a yearly Barn Of The Year contest and, specific to this area, a Historic Barn Driving Tour (pdf download) of 19th and 20th Century Barns around Washtenaw County as well as a separate Quilt Barn Tour (pdf download). If you like barns, this is clearly your place!
In the midst of the crazy heat wave we saw our first 10 days here, the barn tours caught my eye. Not only would this provide a nice, air-conditioned (skeeter-free) auto-hike, but it would also teach me some history and create a perfect photo outing. Fun stuff and good blog fodder too.
I completed the tours over several days, and added a few barn photos from nearby spots too. I learned that most of barns in this area are raised barns, the oldest of which are constructed on a fieldstone foundation. Their classic red color is from a paint that contains ferric oxide, a cheap anti-fungal useful for preventing wood rot. And the roof forms vary from old-type wood shingle gable roofs to more modern rounded metal gambrel roofs. Honestly, once you get into it, it’s pretty interesting stuff.
I didn’t get to see ALL the barns in the area, but I managed a good selection and developed a new appreciation for their history. A worthy experience!
VISIT NOTES/ The Historic Barn Tour (pdf download) and the Quilt Barn Tour (pdf download) are both self-guided driving tours. Most of the barns are along back roads, but some are on busy main streets, so be careful if you plan to stop and photograph. Also all barns are private property, so be respectful and don’t trespass when you stop. If your dog likes to ride in the car, this is a perfect trip to bring him/her along.
The Henry Ford & Greenfield Village – Detroit, MI
One of the “must do” items on our list when we came to this area was the The Henry Ford just outside of Detroit, MI. Henry Ford paved the way for the modern, affordable car with his assembly-line production of the Model T in 1908. He established himself in Detroit and was an iconic part of the automotive revolution that defined that city. But he was also a scientist (a materials scientist specifically, which speaks to my own heart of course), a labor force pioneer (he doubled wages and implemented the 5-day workweek in his time), and a lover of all things technology. We are big fans.
The Complex just west of Detroit is actually a HUGE campus that contains not only many buildings related to Ford Manufacturing and Research, but four giant tourist attractions -> The Henry Ford Museum, Historic Greenfield Village, Rouge Factory Tour and an IMAX theatre. It would take several days to visit ALL the sights, especially if you’re the type that likes to dig in and read every exhibit. In our case since doggie couldn’t come, we only had a few hours to visit so we had to pick a single spot and make do with that.
We settled on Greenfield Village partially because it was a beautiful day (and thus a great day to do a mostly outdoor outing), but also because we were dying to see some of the historic labs on-site.
Greenfield is a “living history” museum that covers 80 acres and contains 83 authentic historic structures, from the lab where Thomas Edison gave the world light to the workshop where the Wright Brothers gave us wings and the building where Abraham Lincoln practiced law. Plus it showcases historic working farms, traditional crafts (glass-blowing, weaving, tin punching, pottery etc.) and classic cars (for an extra fee you can take a drive in an old Model T!).
We had a FABULOUS few hours walking around the site, the highlights of which (for us) were Edison’s Menlo Park Labs (geek out central!), and a Shrub cocktail (drinking vinegar) & authentic mid-19th century lunch at the Eagle Tavern (superb!). We wish we could’ve come back to see the other sights, but that’ll have to be something we leave for a future visit to MI. It’s always good to have a reason to come back, right?
VISIT NOTES/ The Henry Ford is a huge complex and you might need several days if you really want to see it all. Tickets cost anywhere from $21 (for a single attraction) to $75 for an all-access (all attractions) package. You can save 10% if you buy the tickets online before you go. Hours are 9:30am – 5pm daily. NO dogs allowed at any of the attractions, so plan to leave pooch at home.
That wraps up the educational portion of our Ann Arbor stay. For the next post we ditch our minds and exercise our bellies exploring food and beer. Turns out there are plenty of those options around too…
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