The George Matthew Adams House
Author: Grace Shackman
How a Saline parsonage wound up at Greenfield Village
Seventy years ago, Henry Ford moved Saline’s former Baptist parsonage to Greenfield Village. These days it’s being used to demonstrate what a typical Victorian residence of the 1870s looked like. But that wasn’t the reason Ford wanted the house in his outdoor museum in Dearborn: for him, the important thing was that it was the boyhood home of the inspirational newspaper columnist George Matthew Adams.
The original Baptist church in Saline was built in 1837 on land donated by town founder Orange Risdon, at Henry and Adrian (now South Ann Arbor) streets. The parsonage was built directly south of it two years later. Adams was born there on August 23, 1878, the son of Lydia Havens Adams and minister George Matthew Adams Sr. One of five children, Adams bragged in later years how his parents raised a family of five on an annual salary of $600.
After his father changed ministerial positions several times, Adams ended up going to high school in Iowa. After graduating from Ottawa University in Kansas, he went to Chicago to work at an advertising agency. He started out operating the elevator and worked his way up to writing copy.
In 1907 Adams borrowed money to rent and equip an office and started a syndicate to provide copy for newspapers. His stable of writers would eventually include poet Edgar Guest, children’s author Thornton Burgess, and Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”
But Adams’s biggest claim to fame was his own column, “Today’s Talk,” syndicated in hundreds of newspapers all over the United States and in Canada. According to the Greenfield Village website, “It was influenced by his religious upbringing, and its inspirational tone appealed to the average American.” Adams’s writing was full of aphorisms, such as “We cannot waste time. We can only waste ourselves” and “It is no disgrace to start all over. It is usually an opportunity.”
“Henry Ford himself loved to give advice,” notes Greenfield Village curator Jeanine Head Miller. “He was very opinionated. You could see how he would love Adams.” Also, Adams, like Ford, had a strong religious background and his own rags-to-riches story.
Most of the buildings Ford moved to Greenfield Village meant something to him personally. Buildings from his own past included his boyhood home, two one-room schoolhouses he had attended, the home of one of his teachers, a jewelry store where he worked, and the barn on Bagley Street in Detroit where he developed his first car. Other buildings, like the Saline parsonage, were associated with people he admired. Ford moved Thomas Edison’s pioneering research laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, to Dearborn--where it joined the courthouse where Lincoln practiced law; the Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop where the Wright brothers built the first airplane; the Ann Arbor house that Robert Frost lived in when he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan; and homes or workshops belonging to Harvey Firestone, Luther Burbank, and Noah Webster.
Adams was still famous in 1937 when Ford decided to include his boyhood home in Greenfield Village. It had been a private residence since 1918, when the Baptist congregation where the elder Adams had ministered merged with the local Presbyterian church. (Separate Baptist congregations were reestablished in later years.)
In its first decades at Greenfield Village, the George Matthew Adams House was repainted all white, the most common color for homes in the 1830s, when premixed paint was not available. Today, it’s called the Adams Family Home, and the outside is painted as it was in the 1870s, off white with forest green trim. The house is furnished like a typical middle-class residence of the era, even though the Adams family, who were not prosperous, likely furnished their home with hand-me-downs.
“We’re trying to create a typical Victorian residence of the eighteen seventies,” explains Miller. “Mass-produced furniture would have been available to middle-class people. There were a variety of consumer goods, lots of new choices.”
Two paintings by Lydia Havens Adams, Seascape and Little Ducks, hang in the house. There are also a silver cake basket and numerous books written by either George Adams or his twin sister, Edith, who was interested in early childhood education, plus other books from their libraries.
Though Henry Ford removed one of Saline’s historic homes, he did preserve other parts of the area’s history. In 1935 he bought the old Schuyler Mill, moved it farther back from Michigan Avenue, and added a factory behind it; both are now part of Wellers’ banquet facility. In 1943 Ford moved a one-room school from south of town to a site across the street from the mill; it’s now used for offices.