Museum Round Up: Year of Museums, Part II

2014, my Year of Museums, is winding to a close. In one way, it was a success – I definitely went to more than 12 museums this year. On the other hand, going to more museums did not encourage me to write more blog posts. It was actually a pretty poor year for blogging. Only 10 posts all year! Perhaps 2015 should be the year of blogging.

Well, for all of those out there dying to know, my list of all the museums I visited is below. As you can see, most of the museums are from two big trips: my road trip around Michigan in July and my trip to Washington DC in November.

The first 5, which I wrote about in Museum Round Up Part I:

Mabry Mill (Virginia)
Arab American National Museum (Dearborn, Michigan)
Detroit Historical Museum
Detroit Institute of Arts
Thumb Octogon Barn Agricultural Museum

Then in June, I hit quite a few museums around Michigan while on vacation:

Our first stop on vacation was in Grand Rapids, where we visited friends and drank some beer. We also made a trip to the Grand Rapids Public Museum. I highly recommend a stop here for anybody living in or visiting GR. The museum focuses on the history of the city and region, but it is so much more than your typical local history museum. For starters, it’s huge! There are three floors of exhibits, including many permanent and temporary galleries. The large scale is especially noticeable in the Galleria, an open space using all three floors to display large artifacts including a (replica) whale sculpture, a locally made bi-plane, and a large steam engine. The museum is also very modern in its interpretation of the local history. Rather than a simple timeline that starts with the founding of the city and continues with important events (mostly done by rich white men), you can visit individual exhibits on many aspects of the GR history, including the original Native American inhabitants, the many immigrant groups that make up the current population, and participation in the Civil War. Much as I loved all that, I also loved the nod to the museum’s past with a natural history exhibit designed like an old-fashioned “cabinet of curiosities.” Seriously, I loved this museum. I can’t wait for an excuse to go back!

Exhibits at the Grand Rapids Public Museum: Mammoth skeleton, view of the Galleria, Civil War Camp

Exhibits at the Grand Rapids Public Museum:
Mammoth skeleton, view of the Galleria, Civil War Camp

After a day in Grand Rapids, we took the SS Badger to Wisconsin, camped there for a few days, and then headed north to the Porcupine Mountains. Most of our time in the Porkies was spend hiking (and jumping into the freezing Lake Superior), but we also made a stop at the visitor center to learn more about the area. The visitor center is small, but provides some great information about both the geologic history of the area as well as more recent history, with a few small displays on copper mining in the area. It’s a great complement to the amazing views you will see while spending time in the Porkies.

Our next stop was the Keweenaw peninsula, where we made Houghton our home base for few days while we explored the area. In Houghton, we went to the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum on Michigan Tech’s campus to learn all about rocks, both locally mined and from all over the world. I’ll admit, rocks aren’t really my thing, but I was pleasantly surprised by this museum. There was quite a bit about local copper mining, including a gigantic piece of copper taller than me. I also was excited to find some items from other places in Michigan, including some salt from the Detroit salt mines. The salt mines are on my (long) list of things to write about, as most people don’t even know they are there.

Sheet copper and halite (rock salt) from the Detroit Salt Mines

Sheet copper and halite (rock salt) from the Detroit salt mines

A little farther north of Houghton is Calumet, where we stopped in at the Calumet Visitor Center, a part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park. The Keweenaw “park” isn’t one site – it is a partnership of multiple historical sites in the area along with the National Parks System. The Calumet Visitor Center is the new home base of the park, with a museum on the region’s history as well as information about the different sites. The center was very informative, including exhibits on not only the development of the region based on the rise and fall of the mining industry, but also on the social aspects of life in the Keweenaw.

First floor of the Calumet Visitor Center

First floor of the Calumet Visitor Center

And at the tip of the Keweenaw, we spent an afternoon at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, a living history museum that tells the story of Fort Wilkins, which was built in the 1840s to bring order to the newly populated mining towns in the region. The fort was only occupied for a few years before being abandoned, so the museum is able to focus on one point in history, rather than a broad range. It was interesting, but I have to admit we were a bit tired of copper mining history at that point!

Barracks at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park

In September, I decided to make a random visit to the Michigan Holocaust Museum (at the Holocaust Memorial Center). This moving museum does an excellent job of portraying the vibrant culture of European Jews in the era before World War I, and horrific destruction of the culture and people by the Nazis. The architecture of the museum itself helps to tell the story – exhibits on pre-war culture are on the first floor, and then you descend into the basement as the exhibits tell the story of the rise of Nazism and the ensuing Holocaust. This is a hard museum to visit, but it is an important one. We all know the history, but seeing the artifacts, hearing the stories of survivors, and gaining a better understanding of what exactly was lost makes the story more real, and hopefully ensures that it will never happen again.

If you are keeping count, I’m now at 11 museums for the year. It would have been easy enough to hit one more museum, but it was made even easier by a week long trip to Washington D.C. for work in November. While in DC, I managed to visit 6 more museums: the National Museum of Natural HistoryLibrary of Congress, National Postal Museum, National Archives, National Gallery of Art, and the National Portrait Museum. I won’t write a paragraph about each of these, as this post is already too long and they aren’t focused on Michigan history. My week in DC was fun for many reasons, including the opportunity to finish off my Year of Museums with a bang.

So how about you, readers? What museums did you visit this year? Which ones should I try to visit in 2015?


Road Trippin’ Part II: The Porkies

After our short cruise aboard the S.S. Badger, we spent a weekend in Wisconsin camping with friends. But this isn’t a blog about Wisconsin history (no, your state does not look like a mitten), so we will skip over that. After that weekend, we drove north to the land that us Michiganders stole from Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula (sidebar: it was very strange crossing into the UP from Wisconsin, as I am so used to going across the Mackinac Bridge to get to the UP. It doesn’t feel quite right to not go over any water!). Our first stop in da UP was Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, where we camped for the next two days. We spent the nights right next to Lake Superior and the days hiking Michigan’s only mountain range, the beautiful Porkies.

Mist over the mountains

Mist over the mountains

The Porkies get their name from the Ojibwe people, who lived throughout the upper Midwest. The Ojibwe named the mountains such because the ridges look like crouching porcupines next to Lake Superior.

Sadly, this is the only porcupine I a diorama at the visitor's center

Sadly, this is the only porcupine I saw…in a diorama at the visitor’s center

The Porcupine mountains have a fascinating geologic history. At 2 billion years old, they are part of one of the oldest mountain chains in the world! The most defining feature of the mountains is the 12 mile long basalt-capped escarpment that rises directly out of Lake Superior. On the other side of the escarpment is Lake of the Clouds, the most famous spot in the park and one of my favorite views in all of Michigan (and that’s saying something). If you are interested in a more detailed description of the park’s geology, check out this brochure from the Michigan DNR.

Panorama view of Lake of the Clouds

Panorama view of Lake of the Clouds and the escarpment

The mountains remained a fairly untouched wilderness until the 19th century, when a few attempts were made to start logging and mining operations. Between 1845 and 1910, 45 different copper mines opened in the park. None made enough profits to last long. One example is the Nonesuch Mine, the remains of which can be seen in the the southwest corner of the park. Nonesuch Mine opened and closed five different times between 1867 and 1912. Although copper can be found in the mountains, it was difficult to separate from the surrounding rock, which made all the mining ventures fail. Far more profitable were the mines to the east and north, particularly in the Keweenaw Peninsula – a topic I will cover in a different post!

Copper from the Porkies

Copper from the Porkies

Logging began in the 20th century, and stripped many of the easily reached pines along the shoreline. Logging the interior was more difficult, but some companies intended to try. In 1925, P.J. Hoffmaster, Michigan’s Chief of State Parks, proposed adding the mountains to the state parks system to protect them from continued logging. It took another 20 years, but in 1945 the Porcupine Mountains State Park was formed. Despite this designation,  attempts to industrialize and modernize the park continued. Copper mining was tried again in the 1950s, proposals were made for roads throughout the park, and there was even a proposal to dynamite the falls on the Presque Isle River to help fisheries. Finally in 1972, Michigan passed the Wilderness and Natural Areas Act, and re-designated the park as Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (source). It is currently one of the largest wilderness areas in the eastern United States. There are very few roads in the park, instead it has over 90 miles of hiking trails, including a portion of the North Country National Scenic Trail. Much of the wilderness is still old-growth forest. In fact, the park is considered to be home to the largest northern hemlock-hardwood forests west of the Adirondacks. It is also home to a large variety of wildlife, including black bears. If you want to camp in the back-country, be sure to know how to use a bear pole!

The park is a beautiful retreat from the modern world. We had a great few days at the park, visiting Lake of the Clouds, the Presque Isle River and Summit Peak. We also spent some time at the visitor’s center, which contains a small museum about the park, its history and the current plant and animal inhabitants. Being in the far western portion of the UP, the Porkies are a loooong drive from SE Michigan, but they are definitely worth the trip. They should absolutely be a part of any UP road trip!

And finally, because I love a good collage:

Porkies Collage

Mormons in Michigan: Beaver Island

This terrible winter, and not-so-great spring so far (it was SNOWING two days ago!) has kept me from doing as much visiting of historical sites and museums as I would like. So to satisfy my Michigan history itch, I recently read Women and the Lakes by Frederick Stonehouse, which included many interesting stories of women on and around the Great Lakes. Much as I enjoyed reading about female lighthouse keepers, ships’ cooks and even a few ships’ captains, the story that most stuck out for me was actually about a man – a king, in fact. King James Jesse Strang of the Mormon Kingdom of Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan.


King James Strang (source)

James Strang

The book mentioned Strang when telling the story of Elizabeth Williams, who lived on Beaver Island as young girl and later as lighthouse keeper at the St. James lighthouse. Elizabeth wrote a memoir of her life, titled A Child of the Sea; and Life among the Mormons, which includes her memories of the brief Mormon takeover of the island. In it, she states that her family was driven from their home in the dead of night at gunpoint by the Mormons. To understand what Mormons were doing driving people off an island in Lake Michigan, we’ll need some background first:

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, died in 1844, creating a power vacuum among his followers. Most Mormons followed Brigham Young (and eventually traveled to Utah), but a small minority followed James Strang, a charismatic leader who who had only become a Mormon five months previously. Strang’s followers first settled in Voree, Wisconsin, but he began moving his group to Beaver Island in 1848. They settled on the island because they needed more land and so that they could be more isolated from other white settlers, who they called Gentiles.


Problem was, there were already many of these Gentiles living on the island, including Elizabeth Williams’ family. Although the Mormons started out a small group, they quickly grew as more moved to the island. Within two short years they had become 74% of the population. Tension with the locals was high, and conflicts erupted over land, fishing, and the Mormon religion, especially polygamy. In 1850, the increased Mormon population took over many elected offices, cementing their power on the island.

Also in 1850, Strang proclaimed himself King, with a coronation ceremony that included a crown, robe, shield and scepter. Although Strang claimed not to hold authority over non-Mormon residents, in practice he tried to control them. He clearly wanted them off the island, and the Mormons were accused of forcibly seizing property and physically assaulting locals. Violence occurred on both sides, as the Gentiles wanted the Mormons off the island as well. At one point, Strang was even arrested for obstructing the U.S. Postal Service and taken to Detroit for trial, although the case quickly unraveled and he returned to Beaver Island.

Eventually, Strang and his follows stopped even pretending to follow the laws of the land. He claimed to have a vision from God stating that the islands were to be controlled by the Mormons, and through a process of intimidation and violence, forced the last remaining Gentiles off the island. The Williams family was one of the last to flee. I’d love to read Elizabeth’s memoir at some point to further understand the perspective of non-Mormon settlers on the island at this tumultuous time.

After the Mormons had completely taken over, rumors began to fly on the mainland that the Mormons on the island were engaged in piracy and other nefarious deeds. Stories claimed Mormon ships would troll the shoreline, looking for unprotected towns and farmhouses to raid. Using his faithful Mormon voting bloc, Strang was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1853 , where he used his influence get a Mormon lighthouse keeper appointed to a nearby lighthouse. After the Mormon keeper took his post, lake captains claimed that he would periodically turn the light off so that ships would get stuck on the rocks and then plundered by Mormon pirates. The most vicious tales accused Mormon crews of attacking ships on the lake, killing their crews and stealing their cargo. Most of these stories have no proof, and those that have some basis in fact may have been greatly exaggerated. Nonetheless, just the fact that these stories were told shows the level of the animosity between the Mormons and the Gentiles.

Despite these tales of treachery, the Mormons on the island also accomplished a number of good tasks. They founded the town of St. James, which became the most populous on the island. They also founded first newspaper in northern Michigan, the Northern Islander. Strang himself was instrumental in getting two lighthouses built on the island – one of which would later be kept by Elizabeth Williams. The Mormons built up the infrastructure of the island, including many roads, businesses and public buildings, creating a much more modern community than had previously existed.

Ultimately, conflict within the Mormon community brought down Strang. King Strang had some strange ideas and tried to dictate the minutia of his followers’ lives, which they did not always appreciate. In 1856, he proclaimed that all women must wear bloomers, a garment many hated. When one women dared to refuse the order, he had her husband flogged in public. In retaliation, the husband and a friend shot Strang in the back. Neither man was ever convicted of the crime and Strang died a few days later on July 9, 1856.


Young girl in bloomer outfit, mid 1800s (source)

Example of a bloomer outfit on a young girl, mid 1800s

After Strang’s death, people from nearby islands and the mainland drove the Mormons off Beaver Island. Although many were former Beaver Islanders, the leaders were likely speculators interested in the land cleared and cultivated by the Mormons. These Gentiles showed no kindness and mercy to the Mormons – most were forced on to boats without any possessions, ending up in Detroit or Chicago with nothing but the clothes on their backs and losing everything they had built on Beaver Island. The settlers took back their own homes as well as those built by the Mormons, thus ending the strange and sad tale of the Mormons on Lake Michigan.

Most of the Mormon buildings are gone from the island, including the “King’s Cottage,” Strang’s home, which was allowed to fall to ruins after his death. However, a print shop built by the Mormons still stands and contains the main museum of the Beaver Island Historical Society (they also run a marine museum and a historic house museum). Guess I need to add another museum to my list!

I hope you found this story as fascinating as I did – who knew there was a Mormon Kingdom in Michigan!


Unexpected History: Up North Edition


Clear Lake from the trail

I think my favorite way of finding new historical spots is when I literally run into them. You may recall that a few months ago, while out jogging in Brighton, I happened to run by an old school house with a historical marker. Well, a few weeks ago it happened again. I was spending the weekend at a friend’s cabin on Clear Lake, which is in the northeastern part of the state about 40 miles east of Gaylord. Clear Lake is a beautiful small lake, with impressively clear water (hence the name), surrounded by private homes as well as a state park which has both camping facilities and a day use area. There are also number of trails around the lake, which make for a much more pleasant run than Detroit’s suburbs do, if you ask me. Sunday morning, while out for an early run, I went through the day use area and discovered that the park had added a new feature this year: a disc golf course. Even better, at the start of each “hole,” there was an interpretive sign with information about the history of the area as well as the animals and plants that live in the park. History as a part of a fun outdoor game? I love it!


Click to enlarge

The course is titled “The Memory,” and many of the signs relate to the nature in the park. I learned, for example, that the lake is stocked with splake, a cross between brook trout and lake trout; that Clear Lake is a sinkhole; and that the endangered Kirtland’s warbler has been spotted in the park. Other signs give bits of history, such as information about the lumbering business in northern Michigan, and the fact that Michigan’s native elk disappeared in the 19th century but have been repopulated with transplants from out west. Most fascinating to me was the first hole, which stated that the park was the site Civilian Conservation Corps Camp V1670 from 1933-1942.  The men at the camp constructed a nearby airport, a campground, several local roads and bridges, planted trees and fought forest fires.


I’ve always found the CCC to be an interesting piece of history. Part of FDR’s New Deal, the Corps provided jobs to millions of young men during the height of the Great Depression. Similar to the WPA, the CCC participated in public works projects, but with a specific focus on the land. It brought men together in remote camps to improve parks with upgrades in shelters and roads as well as conserve the nature itself through combating erosion and forest fires as well as planting new trees. In the beginning, nearby towns objected to the camps, as they feared strangers coming into their communities. Eventually, as their work became known, the CCC became one of the most popular New Deal agencies as it not only provided young men with jobs and a sense of purpose, but also increased awareness of the national treasures found in our parks and ensured the availability of these treasures for years to come.

There is plenty of information about the CCC on the internet, but I haven’t been able to find out much about the particular camp at Clear Lake. The signage itself it confusing – another nearby (and probably older) sign at the park call it “Camp Presque Isle 4612” and gives the years 1933-1939, three years shorter than the disc golf marker. Not only are the numbers different, but Presque Isle is on the shores of Lake Huron, more than 50 miles east of Clear Lake. I was a bit confounded by the whole thing, but after some more research, it the appears the older sign is partially correct – according the CCC Legacy website, V1670 was 19 miles south of Onaway and known as Presque Isle (according to Google Maps, Clear Lake State Park is 17.5 miles south of Onaway – close enough). The number isn’t right, however, as camp 4612 appears to have been in Grand Haven, on Lake Michigan. The years are a mystery as well, as the legacy website only gives the starting date in 1933, but I would lean towards believing the newer sign, which likely had access to better research materials than I.


I was able to find a few pictures of the camp, which show a drab landscape of barracks and other buildings surrounded by pine trees. The park looks very different today, thanks in a large part to the work of the men in the camps – the barracks have been replaced by a lively and clean campground, easily accessible by local roads (I’ve stayed in the campground in the past, it’s great), many more trees, and an extensive trail system. And in the summer time, many, many people, enjoying all that Northern Michigan has to offer – peaceful retreat in the woods as well as fun in and on the water. Without the CCC, this area, and many others throughout the nation, wouldn’t be in as good of condition or be as accessible to to public. And for that I am very grateful.

CCC Camp, 1935. Courtesy of the Forest Historical Society

CCC Camp Presque Isle, 1935.
Courtesy of the Forest Historical Society

The Day Use area today. I swear, it is often packed with people - this photo was just taken at around 8am, so nobody was there yet.

The day use area today. I swear, it is often packed with people – this photo was just taken at around 8am, so nobody was there yet.

Last thought: I really love that the DNR put all of these history and nature facts on disc golf signs. A simple informational marker would not be able to include nearly as much information, and if it did nobody would read all of it (and fewer people would look at it at all). By spreading the information out, and inserting it into a fun game, it feels less like a history or science lesson and more like just learning a few fun facts about the area. I’m sure everybody who plays disc golf on the course won’t read every sign, and some may not ready any at all, but I bet more people come away with at least one fact about the area than would have otherwise. The idea of “edutainment” – entertainment mixed with education – is big right now, but isn’t always done well, and can come off as gimmicky. I think this is a great example of when it is done right. Simple, low-key, just a few facts about the land around you included in a casual game of disc golf. Perfect.

I’d love to hear about other examples of public history being snuck into other activities or locations. What surprising places have you run into history?

CCC Camps Michigan,” CCC Legacy
History of Michigan CCC Camps,” Presque Isle Advance
New Disc Golf Course Open at Clear Lake State Park,” Michigan DNR

Crazy town names

I have some bigger posts in the works, but since none of those are ready, I thought I’d look into a favorite subject of mine: weird place names. I love looking at maps and finding towns with names that make me laugh, but they also make me wonder – where did the name come from? And why did it stick? Today, I’ll give you the histories (or theories) of the origins of six of the weirdest town names in Michigan: in the Lower Peninsula, we have Bad Axe, Hell, and Climax, and up in da UP there’s Paradise, Christmas and Vulcan.

Bad Axe

In 1861, Rudolph Papst and George Willis Pack took a trip through the wilderness of the thumb to survey the region. At one of their overnight campsites, they found an old, damaged axe. Pack suggested they use the name “Bad Axe Camp” in the survey and placed a sign along the trail. Oddly enough, the name stuck. The town incorporated as a village in 1885 and as a city in 1905. Now the second largest city in the thumb (after Caro), the city is also the county seat of Huron County. It’s a nice little town that provides many services to residents of the thumb. Oh, and they have an annual hatchet festival in honor of their name. Awesome!


There are a number of stories of how Hell, Michigan’s best known weird town name, got it’s name. Many stories revolve around George Reeves, who moved to the area in the 1830s and soon set up a sawmill, gristmill, distillery and general store/tavern. In one version of the story, when asked what he thought the town should be named, Reeves answered either “I don’t care, you can name it Hell for all I care” or “Name it Hell, that’s what everyone calls it.” Another version claims that when local men would go to help with the work in the (illegal) distillery, their wives would explain their absence by saying they had “gone to Hell.” A few other stories don’t involve Reeves at all. One story states that the name comes from two German travelers, who, when exiting a stagecoach at the location, were heard saying “So schön hell,” which translates as “So beautifully bright.” Finally, some folks claim the name just comes from the hellish conditions encountered by early settlers – it was very swampy and full of mosquitoes.

Today, the “town,” which was never incorporated,  fully embraces its name.  It has turned into a year-round Halloween themed tourist attraction, with Screams Diner and mini-golf and a few small shops selling kitschy souvenirs. You can even get married in Hell, at a tiny 8 seat wedding chapel. Best of all, all mail sent from Hell is burnt around the edges by workers at the tiny post office.


A small town just minutes north of I-95 near Kalamazoo, Climax’s name is not exciting as it sounds. According to the Kalmazoo Public Library, “When Judge Caleb Eldred came to Climax in 1834, ending months of weary travels to find a farm site, the area was a vast prairie for miles in the newly-formed county. To get a better view, his son Dan climbed a tree and said, ‘this caps the climax of everything we saw.’ So they named the place Climax Prairie. ” Despite this boring story, the town induces giggles to just about everyone who finds it on the map.


Not only do we have Hell, but we also have Paradise, Michigan, in the northeast part of the Upper Peninsula. I couldn’t find any information of how it got its name, only that is was founded in 1925. I would guess, however, that whoever gave the town the name really, really liked the place. Like Hell, Paradise capitalizes on its name for tourism, employing the slogan “Regardless of the season, wouldn’t you rather be in Paradise?” Close to many Northern Michigan attractions such as Whitefish Point Lighthouse, The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and Tahquamenon Falls, Paradise receives a great deal of tourists interested in saying they vacationed in Paradise.

Also, I find it hilarious that the bottom the Wikipedia page for Paradise says  “See also: Hell, Michigan”


Another odd Upper Peninsula place name is the community of Christmas, Michigan. The history of the unincorporated village is not very long – in 1938, a factory was built in the area to manufacture holiday items. The factory burned down in 1940, but the name stuck and it has become a typical kitschy tourist trap, ready to stop visitors heading to nearby Munising and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  Christmas consists of a few of gift shops, restaurants and, of course, a 35 foot tall Santa Claus statue.


Perhaps the least well known of the odd town names on this list is the small town of Vulcan, in the western Upper Peninsula. Sadly, this town is not made up of logical thinking, pointy-eared aliens. Rather, it is named after the now-defunct Vulcan mine, which was in turn named after the Roman God Vulcan, the god of fire, who was often depicted as a blacksmith. The Vulcan mine was one of many that mined iron from the Menominee Iron Range from the 1870s to 1978. The names of many towns in the region were taken from the local mines that provided jobs for the residents. The mines were named by their owners, who occasionally used intellectual names like Vulcan in an effort show off their education. Another example of this is the Cyclops mine, named for mythological creatures who forged armor and weapons for the gods. Most mine names, however, came from the names of people involved in the operation, the mining company itself, or local landmarks.

This list really just scratches the surface of weirdly named towns in Michigan. I haven’t even touched on the towns of  Acme, Fruitport, Colon (named after the shape of a nearby lake. No, really), Paw Paw, Gay, Temperance, and Slapneck. And then there’s the many melodious Native American and letter-dropping French names that trip of out of state (and sometimes in-state!) visitors: Ishpeming, Negaunee, Mackinac (always pronounced Mackinaw), Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Sault Ste. Marie (Soo-Saint Marie – why we say “Sault” the French way but Americanize “Detroit,” I’ve never understood) and Point Aux Barques, just to name a few!

What are your favorite crazy town names, in Michigan or elsewhere?


About Us,” Paradise, Michigan Chamber of Commerce
Blouin, Lou, “The Devil May Care: One Man’s Quest to Save Hell, Michigan” Found Michigan, October 12, 2012
Carlsen, Judy, “Where Did Norway Get Its Name?” Norway, Michigan (city website)
Christmas, Michigan Welcomes You,” Exploring the North
Climax,” Kalamazoo Public Library
Exploring Paradise, Michigan,” Exploring the North
Hell, Michigan,” H2G2
History of Hell,” Go to Hell, Michigan
Local History: How Bad Axe Got It’s Name,” Huron County Historical Society
Mining in Michigan,” Michigan Historical Museum
Stiffler, Donna, “The Iron Riches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” Michigan DNR
The History of Christmas, Michigan

Past Travels: Traverse City

I don’t know about you, but I’m just about done with winter. I’m very much so ready for warm weather and sunshine. So to combat these end-of-winter blues, I thought I’d write a post that made me think of summer. To me, summer in Michigan is weekend road trips up north, swimming in the Great Lakes, going camping and, of course, going to the local historical sites of whatever town I’m visiting. So I dug into my photographs of summers past and found a (digital) album of a camping trip to Traverse City from 2010. Besides tubing down a nearby river and visiting the local wineries, I also visited the Museum of the History Center of Traverse City and the Mission Point Lighthouse on Old Mission Point.

The Museum of the History Center of Traverse City has a complicated name due to its complicated history. According to the museum’s website, the idea behind the museum dates back to 1934, when Con Foster, the Traverse City Park’s commissioner, wanted to create a large park/tourist attraction at the southern tip of the West Grand Traverse Bay. He wanted a zoo, a beach house and a museum. A year later, the Works Progress Administration built a building for the museum, named the Con Foster Museum. Foster himself began to travel around the Midwest searching for Native American and pioneer artifacts for his collection. The collection and museum continued to grow, eventually being run by a group called the Friends of the Con Foster Museum.

This is where things start to get confusing. By the end of the century, the Con Foster collection had outgrown its original building and in 2002, it moved into a grand building originally occupied by the Traverse Area District Library. The building also housed other local historical organizations and was dubbed the Grand Traverse Heritage Center. In late 2010, apparently soon after I visited the museum, the Heritage Center merged with the Traverse Area Historical Society and was renamed the History Center of Traverse City. As the museum is only part of the entire history center, it is known as the Museum of the History Center of Traverse City. That’s a long name.

The museum contains a number of exhibits on local history topics such as Native Americans, logging, railroads and the cherry industry. It includes a replica of a Victorian parlor to represent Traverse City’s heyday during the logging boom of the late 19th century. The museum also provides a gallery for temporary exhibits. Although I remember enjoying the museum, I can’t speak much about the exhibits as my visit was over two years ago. I was very amused when I went back through my photographs from my visit, as I clearly had no intention of capturing the museum as a whole but rather only took pictures of single items or displays that jumped out at me as strange, shocking, or amusing. Here’s a  few examples:

Hair wreath from the Victorian parlor. While hair wreaths were a popular and often homemade decoration meant to serve a keepsakes of friends and loved ones, today we tend to see them as rather strange.

Hair wreath from the Victorian parlor. While hair wreaths were a popular and often homemade decoration meant to serve a keepsakes of friends and loved ones, today we tend to see them as rather strange.

Rules for Teachers

Rules for teachers: This is an interesting list that not only tells us how teachers were to act in 1872 but also prominently displays the strict gender roles and conventions of the era.

I’m not a huge fan of mannequins, but I find this guy (with a limb shaker used for cherry harvesting) to be particularly creepy.

I’m not a huge fan of mannequins normally, but I find this guy (with a limb shaker used for cherry harvesting) to be particularly creepy.


The final photograph shows items swallowed by one patient over several years at a local state hospital. According to the label, she would swallow them when she was upset with her surroundings because it would cause her to go to surgery and then stay in the hospital’s infirmary for a time, providing a change of pace. Besides the obvious shock value of this display, I can’t help but wonder about its origins. Why were these items saved? Why and when were they given to a museum, and why did the museum decide to display them? I’m inclined to believe this is an old display, because it feels more like an old-fashioned “cabinet of curiosities” display than a part of a modern exhibit. A more modern take might use it as an example of the the poor treatment of the mentally ill in that period and the lengths they went to just to get their doctors to DO something. However, I can’t read the entire label from my picture (and it took a bit of zooming and squinting to read any of it) so I can’t be sure of how it is currently presented. Pondering the many different ways a museum might interpret these objects does make for an interesting exercise though!

Mission Point Lighthouse

Mission Point Lighthouse

My second historical stop near Traverse City was the Mission Point Lighthouse. The simple white wooden structure was built in 1870. It is actually a twin to the Mama Juda Lighthouse in the Detroit River, built in 1866 (an earlier lighthouse had been built on the same spot in 1849). These two lighthouses are the only two of that style. Interesting side note – the Mama Juda Lighthouse sat on Mama Juda island, a small island off the northern tip of Grosse Ile. It’s not clear when the lighthouse was abandoned, but the structure was destroyed by the encroaching river by 1950 and the entire island was underwater by 1960. Today, only a few large boulders can be seen above the water.

Back to Mission Point, that lighthouse’s biggest claim to fame is its position a few hundred yards south of the 45th Parallel, halfway between the equator and the north pole. A sign indicates this location at the lighthouse, although the sign itself isn’t on the line. Nonetheless it makes a great photo op!

Would you believe I was in graduate school, not high school when this photo was taken? Because wow do I look 17.

Would you believe I was in graduate school, not high school when this photo was taken? Because wow do I look 17.

The lighthouse was deactivated in 1933 and currently houses a small museum, but it was closed when I visited so I was unable to go inside. Nonetheless, the drive up Old Mission Point is lovely and the area around the lighthouse fun to explore, so it was definitely worth the trip.

The rest of that trip wasn’t very historical, but here’s a couple more shots keep you dreaming of warmer days:

TC Collage copy