Br’er Wolf of Greenfield Village

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When Henry Ford died and drifted – presumably – to heaven, he had to have been disappointed. It wasn’t Greenfield Village.

A collection of period homes, shops, and factories painstakingly acquired from across the country by Ford and reassembled in Dearborn, Michigan, Greenfield Village serves as a pristine tribute to a world that his invention destroyed. There’s George Washington Carver’s cabin; an old boarding house that Menlo Park workers slept at; a windmill from the 1600s; Ford Motor Company’s original Mack Avenue plant; and that’s just for starters.

It’s arguable, probable even, that Ford took more pride in Greenfield Village than he did in his company’s massive River Rouge operations. The attention to detail is, in a word, astonishing. It’s like you’ve literally walked into the past. That’s the wallpaper they stared at. Those are the teacups they drank from. It’s all there, preserved as it was then.

Reenactors cook, clean, tend to gardens, and take evening strolls on streets designed to resemble the America of ol’. Only the hoarse purr of the Model T brings to mind the America you and I are more familiar with.

It’s a rite of passage in Michigan to take a field trip as a kid to Greenfield Village. Or two, or three, or four. You’re led in big groups from one attraction to another, the reenactors overwhelming you with their historical trivia. It’s their job, you see, but they treat it like it should common knowledge for an eight-year-old. Oh, you don’t how irons worked before electricity? Let me tell you, silly.

The best reenactors find a shtick with a simple hook and stick to it.

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For a moment, it’s as if you’ve left the 21st century behind. (Photo by F.D. Richards).

Anthony (otherwise known as “Tony”) Lucas certainly gets it. He’s a local actor and has worked for over a decade at “the Henry Ford”, which includes not just Greenfield Village, but a museum modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. If you ever visit, you’ll probably find him outside of the Susquehanna Plantation, a white house from Maryland with a great wide porch and dormer windows.

To many of us, he’s simply the Br’er Wolf. He yelps and howls in front of us in plain slave’s clothes, giving color to the old Uncle Remus African-American folk tales. The first time I saw him bring the Br’er Wolf to life, I was a teenager. The last time, I was 26.

“Ah, ah! Ah, ah! Ah, ah!” He grunted as punched the air with his “paws”. He was furious, having heard that Br’er Bear had insulted him yet again.

“Now this made the wolf mad. It was the biggest insult he ever had. Well, he took off…!” And off goes Lucas, darting through the mostly white crowd. People laughed as he let out a few salutatory growls.

“Give me a howl!” He yelled, and we howled.

He’d done this a thousand times before, I’m sure, in almost the exactly the same way. Still, he performed with complete conviction, a true professional. You’d think he’d just debuted the character a few weeks ago. He made it as fresh as ever despite having been around the forest more than once.

That last time I watched him confront the Br’er Bear, I was hiding in the shade of a tall tree, far from the action. It was hot and sunny, the way I always remember Greenfield Village. As he grunted his way across the grass, I couldn’t help but wonder how Tony Lucas – the man – felt. Is he sick of his job? Or does he love every second of it?

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the heart to ask him.

I also couldn’t help but trace, in my mind, a weird lineage from the old methods of plantation storytelling Lucas’ drew his inspiration from and modern rap, as well as the role of blacks in our society as entertainers.

Compare and contrast the two videos below. One his Lucas doing his thing, as it were. The other is Kanye West rapping in 2010 at Facebook’s headquarters, a man infamous for complaining about society’s inability to see him as more than an entertainer.

I don’t know. It was a strange thought.

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2 thoughts on “Br’er Wolf of Greenfield Village

  1. One summer in the early ’60s we traveled from Ohio to Greenfield Village and spent a day there. It was heaven, even if my whole family in Ohio worked for GM.

    Last month we watched a very good PBS documentary on Henry Ford and they spent some time on this very subject. Good post, good memories.

  2. Y’know, Henry Ford’s last years were very interesting. For some reason he was very jaded, even before his son Edsel died. You get a sense that he’d lost a lot of his faith in humanity. I think he stuck on with the River Rouge plant and the “new” cars that replaced the Model T only because he felt an obligation to protect the wealth he’d generated for his family.

    To imagine that the man that had once formed a committee to make sure workers weren’t excessively drinking and carousing was now hiring goons to threaten his workers into submission is quite an odd turn. I believe his foremost idea was to improve the lives of farmers, and when he saw that his car was in fact moving us towards an urban society, it bothered him a lot.

    It’s a fascinating story.

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