State of Michigan

For the second day of my trip, I had the goal of exploring a number of different attractions located outside of Detroit. Michigan is a large state that stretches up to the Great Lakes and the Canadian border, and while I wouldn't be able to see the northern and western parts of the state, I was planning to visit several destinations in the southeastern corner. First I wanted to spend the morning at the Henry Ford Museum in the Dearborn suburbs of Detroit, with the hopes of taking one of the factory tours of the active Ford automobile manufacturing plant. From there, I would drive to the capital city of Lansing to visit the state capitol building and stop over at Michigan State University. Finally, my hotel for the evening was booked in Ann Arbor, which would allow me to cross fandom rivalry lines and visit the University of Michigan. As an alumnus of the University of Maryland, I would have the opportunity to check out both campuses from the perspective of someone who has no attachment to either school. Given the driving needed to reach these separate destinations, it was going to be the usual busy day of sightseeing.

I arrived at the Henry Ford Museum right as the building opened at 9:00 AM on a rainy Saturday morning. This is a sizable museum complex made up of several different indoor and outdoor components, and it's one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Detroit area with roughly 1.7 million visitors annually. There's a specific focus on American innovation and industry, but Henry Ford and his estate ended up collecting all sorts of random artifacts over the years that have no obvious connection to automobiles. Visitors can purchase tickets to several different parts of the complex, but the three main ones are the Henry Ford Museum itself, the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, and Greenfield Village. That last attraction is an outdoor living history museum, with costumed reenactors in period costume demonstrating how Americans have lived from the 17th century up to the present. The highlights of Greenfield Village are the original Wright Brothers bicycle shop (purchased by Henry Ford and moved wholesale to this spot in 1937) and a recreation of Thomas Edison's laboratory. Due to a combination of limited time and the heavy rain coming down outside, I opted to skip the outdoor Greenfield Village and visit the other two attractions. It's supposed to be well worth seeing, but there's never time enough to visit everything on a trip.

Instead, I started out my visit by hopping onto a bus for the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. I figured that it was easy to walk into the museum at any point in time, whereas the factory tour could wind up with long lines if I didn't check it out first. The bus ride took about ten minutes and transported me from the Henry Ford Museum over to the nearby Ford Rouge plant. Visitors were guided into an open space with about a dozen different models of Ford cars on display from various points in time in the company's history. The most interesting model was the partially assembled chassis of a 2017 Ford F-150 truck, which essentially showcased the skeleton and guts of a modern vehicle. I'm not an engineer and I'm not much of a car person, so it was fascinating to see the enormous complexity that goes into creating each new automobile that gets built on the factory assembly line.

Before getting to the actual plant itself, visitors on the factory tour are shown two different videos. The first one is a brief and somewhat sanitized history of the Ford Rouge plant, which was the largest in the world when it was first constructed between 1917 and 1928. There was a lot of footage from the early 20th century and then the video kind of skipped over everything from 1940 to the present day, leaving out some pretty big gaps in the history of the Ford company. I did appreciate that the film included the United Auto Workers as one of its sponsors, which is surely why it included mention of Henry Ford's repeated attempts to stop workers from unionizing with strikebreakers and physical violence. For better or for worse, that was an important part of the Ford Rouge Plant's history. The other video was a walkthrough of how Ford manufactures its trucks, starting with the raw materials up through how they are turned into a finished product. This video was shown in a separate theatre with lots of laser effects and booming sound, and the net effect was somewhat of a ten minute commercial for Ford F-150 trucks.

After watching these videos, the tour group was guided up to an observation tower that looked out across the Ford Rouge complex. I took a picture of the map to demonstrate where we were located; this was taking place in the small building with the name "Factory Tour" on it in the bottom-right hand corner of the map. The portion of the Ford Rouge complex that visitors get to see in person is the Dearborn Truck Plant, the building immediately above the Factory Tour location on the map. In the pictures above, it's the building with the "Ford" logo on it and green moss growing on the roof. We would walk over to the Dearborn Truck Plant building via the little connected walkway. I should point out that the public area of the Ford Rouge is only a tiny portion of the overall complex, just a small corner of the map. The vast majority of the factory is not open for visitors and conditions could be completely different there as compared to what tourists get to see.

The actual factory tour of the Dearborn Truck Plant was easily the best part of the visit. It was a self-guided walking tour that ran in a large loop, with visitors walking around high up on viewing platforms about 30 feet / 10 meters in the air and looking down at the assembly line conveyors where automobiles were in the process of being constructed. This was a real working environment, with Ford employees going about their daily jobs despite the tourists passing by overhead. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take photographs out of privacy concerns for the workers and the proprietary Ford product designs. I went ahead and pulled some images from the Internet to demonstrate what the factory tour looked like. It was fascinating to watch how the automobiles were put together as they went through hundreds and hundreds of individual small stations in the assembly line process. I think that the complexity of the task really hit home when I saw that there were something like 200 distinct stations devoted to putting together just the car doors alone. The conveyor belts that the cars rested upon were gigantic, again roughly 20 feet / 6 meters in width, and they moved very slowly indeed, perhaps 1 mile/hour. Much slower than walking pace; I had always imagined them as being a bit faster.

The Ford employees were generally either listening to music on headphones or talking with colleagues, and most of them seemed pretty happy. Aside from being rather tedious, a union job working on an assembly line is a pretty good job to have. The fact that so many of these jobs are disappearing due to outsourcing and automation is a serious problem than no one seems to know how to solve. On that subject of automation, there were only a couple of robots visible in the Dearborn Truck Plant, a lot less than I expected to see. I'm not sure if the assembly tasks taking place are still too complex for robots to perform, or if this was all a bit of a show for the tourists and there was widespread automation elsewhere in the factory complex. I honestly don't know. Overall, the whole process was amazing to see in person. I spent over an hour walking around the self-guided tour and would have spent longer if I hadn't planned a full day of other activities.

Eventually I caught one of the buses back to the Henry Ford Museum itself, formally titled the "Museum of American Innovation". The main focus of the museum appeared to be different types of vehicles and other large machines associated with industry in some fashion. Aside from cars, there was an area devoted to mathematics that included demonstrations on probability and statistics. There was one ball-dropping exhibit that showcased how a normal distribution works in a way that anyone could understand, really good stuff. Nearby was a section on agriculture that had a whole bunch of different huge farming machines on display, ranging from tractors up to threshers and grain harvesters. That was next to an exhibit on different kinds of power generation, from steam turbines to electrical generators. My home city of Baltimore has a museum of industry, and this felt like a larger and better-funded version of the same concept.

The largest part of the museum was given over to displaying different kinds of vehicles. The bulk of these were Ford automobiles (of course), starting with early Model T designs similar to what I had seen the previous day at the Piquette plant, and then covering each decade up to the present. There were a number of racing cars built by Ford for use in Nascar, as well as some beautiful classic car designs. I tend to like the car designs from the 1930s and 1940s and there were a number of them on display here. There was another section devoted to aviation, which had a reproduction of the first plane flown by the Wright Brothers in 1903 as well as a section describing "wing walking", the insane practice of walking on top of the wings of an aircraft while in flight. No thanks on that one. Finally, there was a sizable area assigned to railroads ranging from the cute designs of the 1820s up to massive diesel-powered locomotives of the modern era. These full sized trains were enormous and took up a disproportionate amount of room in the museum's halls. This area was a favorite with the many kids roaming through the museum.

Still on the subject of vehicles, the Ford Museum has four different presidential cars on display. This starts with Theodore Roosevelt's horse-drawn carriage and concludes with Ronald Reagan's 1972 Lincoln automobile (Lincoln being a Ford-manufactured brand of course). I particularly liked the design on Franklin Roosevelt's "Sunshine Special" car - that was a classic automobile there. In more humorous fashion, the Ford Museum also had an old-fashioned McDonald's drive through sign and the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile. Sadly, the Weinermobile was not open for visitors to hop inside for a bite to eat.

I saved the most important artifact in the museum's collections for last. The Ford Museum somehow owns the Montgomery, Alabama city bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1956 and helped sparked the modern civil rights movement. This isn't one of the same bus models or a replica, it's the actual bus itself. The vehicle has been restored to pristine condition but otherwise left untouched, including retaining the same period advertisements. Visitors not only have the chance to see the bus but get the opportunity to sit in the Rose Parks seat, the one pictured above in the last image. It has been left unaltered without even a sign to identify it, although there was a museum guide present to point out the exact location. I had no idea that the Ford Museum owned this piece of American history when I visited, and I more or less stumbled over this artifact by accident. It was one of the many unexpected things that I discovered on this trip, something exceptional that would be easy to miss and that most non-locals probably don't even know about. I certainly didn't before coming here.

I could have stayed longer at the Henry Ford Museum, but headed out shortly after noon to see my next destination. I was traveling to the state capital of Michigan located in the city of Lansing, about 90 miles / 145 kilometers from the Detroit suburbs where the Henry Ford Museum was situated. While it was a bit of a pain in the neck to drive to Lansing knowing that I would have to come back the other direction again later that day, I did want to stop to see the state capitol building. I had checked and it was open on Saturdays so I was hoping to be able to take a tour of the inside. The rain even tapered off and stopped as I drove to the west, which would keep me from getting soaked as I walked around. Excellent.

Michigan is one of those states where the biggest city (Detroit) is not the state capital, with the aforementioned Lansing hosting the government buildings instead. (Amusingly, Wikipedia states that Lansing was chosen as the state capital out of concern over the threat posed to Detroit by British soliders stationed across the river in Windsor, Canada.) The Michigan State Capitol in Lansing is a beautiful building constructed in the 1870s, the third such building to serve as the Michigan state capital after the previous two proved to be too small. The structure is built in a style that I found to be typical of other state capitol buildings, with two wings on either side of the building devoted to the two legislative chambers and a central classical-themed dome capping the top. The US Capitol building in Washington DC was designed along these lines and many of the state versions follow a similar logic. The Michigan State Capitol was noteworthy for having a more slender dome as compared to other similar buildings, looking a bit delicate from my vantage point. The grounds surrounding the building had the usual manicured look, with Civil War era cannons and public monuments scattered about the green lawn.

The area around the capitol building proved to be deserted on this Saturday afternoon. All of the state employees in the government buildings surrounding the capitol were home for the weekend, and I didn't see the expected tourists coming to see the structure. It turned out that the Michigan State Capitol was officially closed on this day due to construction, which was a real disappointment. There was a notice about some kind of installation taking place taped to the locked doors of the visitor's entrance, even though I had checked and the capitol was supposed to be open. I walked around the downtown portion of Lansing, only to find that the whole city appeared to be deserted. I had the impression that this area gets busy during the work week and then clears out on the weekend when all of the government employees go home. There wasn't much else to see here beyond the exteriors of a bunch of administrative buildings.

Well, if I wasn't able to visit the Michigan State Capitol, then I figured I might as well visit the other place of note in Lansing: Michigan State University. I was used to hearing on sports broadcasts that Michigan State is located in "East Lansing", but it wasn't until visiting that it clicked in my head that the university is situated in an eastern suburb of Lansing. Michigan State students are only a short ride on public transit away from the state capital. I parked a few blocks off campus on the other side of Grand River Avenue and then walked south into the heart of the university. I always enjoy getting the chance to see different college campuses, perhaps because I spent so many years as a graduate student. Michigan State's main campus quad was more wooded that many of the other colleges that I've visited, and didn't have the same large open expanse that I'm used to seeing. On the other hand, the pictured Beaumont Tower in the middle of campus was a beautiful clock tower, and I especially liked how Red Cedar River flowed through the middle of the university grounds. The bridges spanning the water were highly picturesque and I would love to see what this area looks like in the fall. Every college campus should have a river running through it somewhere.

Of course, a big part of visiting any major conference university campus is checking out their sports facilities. Michigan State is in the same Big Ten conference as the University of Maryland, although I still don't feel that much of a rivalry with any of these schools since all of Maryland's historic competitors are still in the Atlantic Coast Conference. I'm still angry that Michigan State knocked Maryland out of the 2010 NCAA basketball tournament on a last-second shot but that's about it. Anyway, the Michigan State athletics buildings are located on the south side of the river that flows through campus, concentrated together on the outskirts of the university grounds. Spartan Stadium can seat about 75,000 fans and Michigan State has been sneakily good at football over the years, better than most people expect. Michigan State football has won six national championships, although admittedly all of them were in the 1950s and 1960s so nothing recent. Still, that's a history that most universities would be happy to have, and the the more recent teams have been good enough to win the Rose Bowl in 2014. It's pretty impressive for a school that's not seen as being a traditional powerhouse.

Michigan State has been better known for its basketball prowess over the last few decades. Under the guidance of hall of fame coach Tom Izzo, the basketball team has made seven different Final Fours since 1999, although they have disappointingly won only one national title over that span. The Breslin Center where the basketball team plays has been a house of horrors for visiting teams, and I wanted the chance to see it in person. The building was unsurprisingly locked but I did get the chance to take a peek inside through the window. I also discovered that there's a statue of Earvin "Magic" Johnson outside the building, who guided Michigan State to the 1979 national title. This was another one of those things that's easy to miss unless you physically visit a place.

I wrapped up my walk through the campus by visiting the Michigan State student union building. This was one place that was still open, and I was able to see the huge quantity of Spartans-themed merchandise on display in the campus store. This might look overwhelming but the store was actually pretty restrained by big college standards; I would visit other universities on this trip with much more lavish official team stores. I also appreciated that one of the benches in the union had this statue of Sparty, the school's mascot, welcoming visitors. I finished up the visit by getting a cone of ice cream from the dairy store in the union. It was delicious - the only problem was that they gave me a little too much ice cream, more than I could eat! My overall impression of Michigan State was that it reminded me a lot of the University of Maryland, more so than any of the other universities that I visited on this trip. The campus was laid out in a similar fashion and seemed to have a similar student body; both fansbases also share the sense of having a chip on their shoulder as compared to more prestigious rivals. Michigan State was even close to the state capital in the same way that Maryland is close to the nation's capital. I just wish that the prestige sports of football and basketball would be as successful at Maryland as they've been for Michigan State.

After leaving Michigan State, I drove another 90 minutes southeast to the city of Ann Arbor. This city is the home of the University of Michigan, and for those who aren't familiar with the Michigan / Michigan State rivalry, the University of Michigan is the older, wealthier, and more famous of the two schools. The University of Michigan is one of the oldest public universities in the country, founded in 1817 and always on the short list of the best colleges to attend in the country. It's the smaller of the two schools in terms of student body but boasts more than triple the endowment. I mentioned before that Michigan State students and alumni often act as though they have a chip on their shoulder, and it's easy to see why.

It turned out that the city of Ann Arbor was hoting an art fair on the weekend that I was visiting. This was interesting in the sense that there were lots of vendors selling different kinds of paintings and other artwork, and the streets were packed with people who had come to see the fair. On the other hand, it made it difficult for me to get a good feel for the Michigan campus with several thousand people strolling about at the same time. There was a jarring contrast between the empty and quiet Michigan State campus as compared to the packed crowds here at the University of Michigan. The weather wasn't helping matters either; while it wasn't raining at the moment, it was clear that Ann Arbor had been drenched earlier in the day and everything was soaking wet. I did my best to explore the campus without ever getting a great sense for the university.

The highlight of the Michigan campus proved to be the area known as the Law Quadrangle. The University of Michigan's law school consistently ranks as one of the top ten in the country, and the law buildings stand out from the rest of the campus due to their ornate architectural style. The law buildings were created in English Gothic form in the 1920s, and were designed to replicate the stone buildings seen at Oxford and Cambridge. This quadrangle has its own little green space unto itself and it was one of the few quiet places in Ann Arbor during my visit. I could practically feel the old money wealth associated with this place as I walked through. The largest building in the quadrangle is the law library, which continues with the Gothic cathedral look on the inside:

The whole second floor of the law library consisted of a long room with a high ceiling, with bookshelves running against the walls and stained glass windows letting in light from above. Outside of the missing religious iconography, it would be easy to mistake this for a small cathedral in some European city. The law library also looks strikingly like the colleges at the Oxbridge universities, and this could have been the grand hall at King's College or the like. One detail that I particularly liked was the design on the stained glass windows. Instead of religious scenes, they contained the coat of arms of different colleges and universities. I looked around and found the window associated with the University of Maryland, which also had Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and Howard universities on the same window. All of the most famous universities in the Washington DC area, what a nice touch.

From the law quadrangle, I walked down State Street to the intersection with Liberty Street in the heart of Ann Arbor. This seemed to be the place with the largest crowds and the most activity taking place as part of the art fair. I've always heard that Ann Arbor is one of the best college towns to visit, but it was a little bit hard to get a sense for the place due to the outdoor festival taking place. It was packed here with people out on the streets for Saturday evening. I walked past the Michigan student union along the way and wanted to check it out, only to find that it was under construction at the time and visitors couldn't enter the building. It wasn't my best day from a construction perspective. Further up the road were a series of stores and restaurants, including a huge retailer of Michigan merchandise named the M Store. This place had two full floors packed full of Wolverines-themed souvenirs of every type imaginable, significantly more than the campus store at Michigan State. Nearby at the same intersection were two different theatres, the State Theatre and the Michigan Theatre. Both of them are historic theatres that continue to show movies as well as stage related cultural events. There were lots of different food options in this area, and I grabbed a quick dinner here before moving on. This was apparently the place to be in Ann Arbor on this particular night.

The last attraction that I spotted on my walk through Michigan's central campus was Burton Memorial Tower, this structure pictured above. Burton Memorial Tower is a clock tower with a carillon built in the 1930s to commemorate a former university president. Somewhat surprisingly, there are offices and classroom buildings associated with the school of music located inside the tower. The 120 foot (35 meter) tall tower is one of the symbols most associated with the Michigan campus, and I saw a number of different depictions of it on sale in the M Store. It was unsurprisingly locked on this evening, surrounded by a bunch of art vendors on the grass of Ingalls Mall. Not to repeat myself, but I had the feeling that this spot would have a looked a lot different on a day when there wasn't an art show taking place.

There was one more place that I had to visit before heading off to my hotel in Ann Arbor: the sports facilities for the University of Michigan. The athletics complex is located about half a mile away from the central campus in an area known as South Campus, within walking distance but clearly a separate area off to itself. This is a setup that I don't particularly like, as I always prefer the athletics buildings to be located on the campus itself, instead of situated at a distance and removed from the rest of the classrooms and residence halls. Since there was no art festival taking place here, the stadium area was almost completely devoid of people, and it was quite a contrast from downtown Ann Arbor. I parked in an empty stadium lot that could have held about 10,000 cars.

The attention-grabbing headliner here was Michigan Stadium, popularly known as the Big House. This is the largest stadium in the United States and the second-largest stadium in the world at the time of writing in 2018. Michigan Stadium typically plays host to about 110,000 people on game days, and the capacity has been pushed as high as 115,000 for special occasions. The stadium has an impressive streak in which more than 100,000 fans have attended every single home game since 1975. It is a massive structure that slopes back at a low angle from the field; I was surprised to find that the stadium wasn't especially tall, instead squeezing in all those seats by having long, wide rows of bleachers. While I wasn't able to go inside the locked stadium, I decided to walk a circuit around the building to get a sense of the size. It took a good 15 minutes to circle back to my car again, albeit with stops to take pictures. I should also mention that Michigan has won 11 national titles in football (although only one since 1948) and has won more games than any other university. Now partly that's due to starting at an earlier date than most other schools in 1878, but 11 national titles and 42 Big Ten championships (as of 2018) do speak for themselves.

Michigan Stadium and Michigan football suck up most of the attention when it comes to sports, but the Crisler Center is located here on South Campus as well. This arena plays host to the Michigan basketball teams and shares the same stadium lots with the football stadium. Just as I did at Michigan State, I was able to peek through the windows and get a glimpse of the entryway, where the university has some of its tournament trophies on display. Michigan basketball has made it to 8 different Final Fours and reached the national title game 6 times... but has only won a single national championship back in 1989. Michigan basketball is most famous for losing the national title game with the Fab Five twice in 1992 and 1993, with the infamous Chris Webber timeout dooming their attempt. (That and the massive cash payments that the Fab Five players were taking under the table; the Wikipedia entry reads: "one of the largest amounts of illicit money in NCAA history.") In the course of walking around the arena, I stumbled across the parking spot reserved for head coach John Beilein who had a plum spot right next to the front door. There was also a youth basketball camp taking place at the Crisler Center that was just finishing up as I walked past, and I briefly thought about trying to pretend that I was there to pick up a kid as an excuse to sneak inside and take some pictures. Since that had the distinct possibility of ending in disaster, I ended up walking back to my car instead and called it a night.

This was quite a busy day overall. I enjoyed getting the chance to see the Ford Rouge plant and the artifacts on display in the Henry Ford Museum, then experience a tour of the two biggest universities in the state of Michigan during the afternoon. There was such a large difference between Michigan and Michigan State that it was hard to compare the two, and I didn't feel as though it would be a fair comparison given the art festival taking place in Ann Arbor. I would have liked to visit the Michigan campus when a little bit less activity was taking place. While it was disappointing that the Michigan State Capitol was closed for construction, at least I did have the chance to see the building, and things could have been a lot worse from a weather perspective too. There was a lot of rain throughout the day but it mostly missed me at the times when I was walking around outside.

My time in Michigan was now coming to a close. The next day would see me head to the second state on my list, as I drove south into Indiana to take another whirlwind tour of the sights in the capital city of Indianapolis.