idyll | noun — an extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque episode or scene, typically an idealized or unsustainable one.
Do you prefer the real thing? Or do you get attached to your idea of what ought to be real, in other words, the idyll?
The push and pull between these two applies to our powers of hindsight. Our memories easily become distorted. Sometimes the idyll of the past becomes an idol.
I idly considered these things as I drove home from a visit to Greenfield Village, where Henry Ford — that idol/icon of American enterprise — built his own version of reality. Ford’s idyll, set in the 1860s, occupies about 80 acres in Dearborn, Michigan, in the area where he grew up. The time-stamped setting is especially interesting/ironic because in a sense it encapsulates the era that Ford helped America leapfrog from.
Henry Ford was born in 1863 and was supposed to take over the family business of farming. But like many smart, ambitious people, he wanted something more than to follow in his father’s footsteps. Ford achieved success on an amazing scale. He did not invent the automobile, but he created The Ford Motor Company, which mass produced automobiles, specifically the Model T. By 1927, his company had produced and sold more than 15 million Model T’s. It’s hard to overstate the significance of 15 million anything in 1927. But automobiles? Automobiles revolutionized the culture and economy of America. In a very real sense, Ford helped America drive into a new era.
And then, it would appear, Ford hankered for the days he had once sprung from and been eager to leave behind. At the apex of his success — beginning in the 1920s and 30s — he began to use his vast wealth to reverse gears a bit. By purchasing historic buildings from around the country and moving them to the Dearborn area, he created a village which would be forever locked in the 1860s. You might even say that he recreated a past he never experienced (except in infancy), and which perhaps never existed.
I couldn’t help but see Greenfield Village with my pastor’s eyes and ponder the idyllic. I prize what is real, and I also prize what is potential. In fact, a pastor’s job is often to move between the two. We call it casting a vision, or doing a mission study, or transforming a congregation. What that amounts to is helping a church come to terms with its real past and move into the possibilities of the future, which are not yet real. This is more difficult than it sounds because church members — like all people — often prefer to cling to an idealized version of the past. Indulging in a past idyll can hamper the building of a future reality. We fancy that the “village” in our memory really was as homogenous, peaceful, and picture-perfect as we remember it to be. Incoming pastors often read golden-toned histories of how the church used to be. See how quaint we were!
Greenfield Village was quaint indeed. The day I was there, the fall weather was perfect and the crowds were few. How fun to wander through a village that’s like Disneyland: exactly real, and, at the same time, completely fake. There’s something about “picture-perfect” that just makes a person happy. Perhaps it pleases our aesthetic sensibilities.
The buildings in Greenfield Village come from many places. They all enshrine American ingenuity, because that’s what Ford prized. Some of the icons present in the village include: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and Orville & Wilbur Wright.
How I loved pushing my father’s wheelchair through the village, knowing that the Model-T Fords and horse-drawn carriages would make way for us. And it was fun to see both of my parents enjoy the day and engage with the many costumed interpreters.
From the buildings around the village square:
From Henry Ford’s boyhood home:
Back home again in the humdrum, I’m still musing over the day we spent at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. I recognize the human tendency to preserve the memory of a life that never quite existed. Perhaps we prefer to enshrine an idea, rather than a reality. Perhaps it’s no different from the idealized versions of ourselves that we create to post on social media. Who wants to mess with the real when we can project an idyll? Real is never picture-perfect.
Since I’m writing a memoir, these questions are all very active in my mind. I in no way exempt myself from the pull and power of the idyll. Memory is prone to a certain gloss.
Have you been to places like Greenfield Village or Disneyland? How did you react to them?