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?


2014: The Year of Museums

Happy New Year! Yes, I know, I’m a few days late.  Everybody is already sick of talk of new year’s resolutions, but I’m going to talk about mine anyway. My initial thought had been to resolve to “blog more.” But “more” is too vague, and I don’t want to make blogging into a chore. I blog because I like to write about the awesome history of Michigan, and I don’t want to write because I feel like I have to. Which got me thinking – my favorite topic to write about is visits to museums, so instead of resolving to just “blog more,” why don’t I resolve to do more that will then inspire me to blog? Which is why I’m making 2014 The Year of Museums: I want to visit at least one museum a month for the whole year.

First off, reflection. Where did I go in 2013? How many museums did I visit? (I’m counting any kind of museum here – art, science, history, etc; but not other cultural institutions/locations that have museum-like qualities, i.e. the Detroit Zoo. Also, to be fair, I won’t count the museum I work at.)

In Michigan, I visited:

I went to a few out of state museums as well:

  • Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL*
  • Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, DC

*Denotes that it was my first visit to that museum

Seven museums – not bad. Still, it’s barely over half of my goal for this year.

Where do I want to go in 2014? There’s quite a few nearby museums I’ve been meaning to visit:

Those four will make a good place to start. I’m sure I’ll hit a few more Detroit, and I always search for local museums whenever I’m travelling out of town. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to visit museums all over Michigan. I’m sure one or two will be out of state, however, I’ll try to resist writing about those here!

What museums do you think I need to visit this year, both in the Detroit area and throughout the state? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter – I’m always open to suggestions!

At The Henry Ford last May

At The Henry Ford last May

Henry Ford’s Birthplace

I love finding a historical site that is tucked away, almost completely hidden from the busy world around it. I suppose it isn’t great public history when a site isn’t noticeable, but it feels like a hidden treasure when you do stumble upon it. One such site is the Henry Ford Birthplace Park on the corner of Greenfield and Ford Road in Dearborn. The park marks the place where Henry Ford grew up on his family’s farm. The farmhouse itself was moved to Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford in 1944 where it is visited by thousands of visitors each year, but the birthplace park is much quieter. It is on the property of the Henry Ford Village Senior Living Community and is enjoyed by the residents there, but it doesn’t get many other visitors (although I did once see a wedding party taking pictures there). Possibly because it is not well known, but also because it is hidden behind a high brick wall in front of a senior living complex on a very busy intersection. You could drive by the site every day and not even realize it exists. People should stop by, however, because it is a lovely park and includes a number of plaques telling the story of Henry Ford and his many innovations. The plaques are arranged in a circle around a large fountain and are interspersed with benches. The park also has a number of flowerbeds that are in full bloom this time of year, and even has a short path through a beautiful flower garden. It is surprisingly quiet and peaceful in the park, thanks to the large brick wall (clearly, both a blessing and a curse) blocking off the noise of the the intersection outside. My favorite feature is a gazebo (recently redone by a local boy scout) with a rather unique weathervane – take a look in the pictures below!

Historical Marker at the park

Historical Marker at the park

Plaques telling the story of Henry Ford

Plaques telling the story of Henry Ford





Path through the garden - such beautiful flowers!

Path through the garden – such beautiful flowers!

Seriously, that weather vane is amazing

I love that weathervane!

To get to the Henry Ford Birthplace, it’s best to come up Greenfield from the south (turn in at the sign for Henry Ford Village, right before the light at Ford) or from the west on Ford (take the exit ramp off Ford for Greenfield, then drive past the intersection and turn into Henry Ford Village right before the ramp merges back with Ford). Read the plaques, take a seat and enjoy the fountain or walk around the flower garden for a bit. And think about how different that spot would have looked in 1863 when Henry Ford was born. No strip malls, no restaurants, no subdivisions – and obviously, no cars. Just an ordinary old farmhouse and a boy who would grow up to be anything but ordinary.

Out and About

I hate starting every blog post with an apology, but I suppose the only way to fix that is to actually get into a rhythm of regular posting again.  In the past month I took a vacation and started two new jobs, but that’s really no excuse for abandoning Mitten History for this long. I’ve got a couple of longer posts in the works, but this one will just be a short update. I spent the weekend playing tour guide to a few friends from Ohio, which I (and hopefully they) thoroughly enjoyed. We managed to make it to Eastern Market, The Henry Ford and the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as stop at some of my favorite local restaurants: Detroit mainstay Buddy’s Pizza and newcomer Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes. All in all, it was a fun Detroit-filled weekend, and I loved it.

While in Eastern Market, I managed to get a few good photographs of the Flint Faience tiles I mentioned in the Eastern Market: Part II post, and I wanted to share those pictures here. If you are ever shopping at the market, it’s well worth the one block walk over to the corner of Winder and Orleans to check these out on the old E&B Brewery building.



photo (3)

image (2)

I also discovered that my new phone has a panorama function, which I used to take this great shot of the Detroit Industry murals at the DIA:




J.W. Westcott

The J.W. Westcott at work. Courtesy of

The J.W. Westcott at work. Courtesy of

The Detroit River has long been an important passageway for ships on the Great Lakes. Every year, freighters pass though the river on their way to and from places as far west and north as Duluth, Minnesota and as far east as the Atlantic Ocean. The passage through the Detroit River has one perk not found anywhere else on the lakes, or even anywhere else in the country. For the Detroit River is home to a ship named the J.W. Westcott II, the only floating post office in the United States.

The J.W. Westcott Company was founded in 1874 by Captain J.W. Westcott. Westcott was born in 1848 to a prominent shipping family in the Midwest  His parents, David H. Westcott and Mary Ward, were the first couple married aboard a steamer on the lakes. Naturally, Westcott grew up around boats, working in his father’s boat yard as a child and becoming a captain at age 20. He decided to start his business, which originally did not include postal mail, because he saw a need for shipping companies to be able to contact their captains in the pre-radio era. Shipping companies were often very secretive about their routes, so much so that even ship’s captains often did not know where the final destination of their ship would be. Westcott’s business provided a way for the companies to give instructions to captains that were already well on their way.

In the early days, Westcott delivered messages to the ships via rowboat. The passing ship would lower a bucket on a rope to the rowboat, Westcott would put the message in the bucket, and the ship would hoist it back up. Although the modern J.W. Westcott Company no longer uses rowboats, the “mail by the pail” method is actually still in use today!

Westcott’s idea was clearly a popular one, because his service continued to expand and grow. In 1910 the company purchased its first power ship, named the J.W. Westcott, and opened a branch office in Port Huron serving the St. Clair river. It also had competition from other companies, such as as the Independent Marine Reporting Company, founded in 1902.

In 1948 the company became an official U.S. Post Office and eventually was given its own zip code: 48222. In 1949 it commissioned the building of a new ship, the 45 foot J.W. Westcott II still in use today. That particular ship was involved in a tragic accident in 2001, when the ship sank near the Ambassador Bridge while in the wake of a larger ship. The captain and one crew member were killed and two other crew members were rescued. The ship was salvaged and put back together.

Even in this era of electronic communication, J.W. Westcott II is still valuable to the people who work on the freighters, who are often on board for months at a time. The boat delivers much more than just the mail – it also provides supplies including snacks and cigarettes, nautical charts, a bookstore with marine books and manuals, postcards, and water taxi services for those going to and from shore. It’s still a family business, too. The current president is James M. Hogen, the great grandson of J.W. Westcott.

In 2005, the company was given a Michigan Heritage Award for 100 years of unique service to the Great Lakes community. Unique is certainly the right word! I think it is great that the J.W. Westcott is still out there delivering supplies to passing ships, just as it did 100 years ago. Next time you are down by the Detroit River (perhaps on the wonderfully redone riverwalk), be sure to keep and eye out for a small ship darting between the freighters – the local mailman at work!

The Story of J.W. Westcott,” J.W. Westcott Co.
Kozma, LuAnne “The J.W. Westcott Company and Crew,” Michigan Heritage Awards
Bernhardt, Patrick, “The J.W. Westcott Company, the Nation’s Only Floating Zip Code,”
Cockburn, Andrew, “
ZipUSA: 48222National Geographic Magazine

GM Heritage Center

Last week I was invited to a tour of the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights. The Heritage Center is not open to the public, so this was a very exciting invitation. It holds approximately 200 GM cars, including everything from a 1902 Runabout to modern experimental vehicles. Even though I’m from a Ford family (not only do Michiganders love American car companies, but most of us are especially loyal to one of the Big 3), I really enjoyed this visit. Shiny cars are always fun!

Although it isn’t open for drop in tours, the Heritage Center can be rented out for events and pre-arranged group tours are available. If you ever get a chance to go, I highly recommend it.

There were some amazing concept and experimental cars:

1938 Buick Y-Job

The 1938 Buick Y-Job is the industry’s first concept car,. It had many impressive features for the time, including hidden headlamps and electric windows. Its styling, particularly the grill, influenced Buick design for years afterwards.

1938 Buick Y-Job

Front end of the 1938 Buick Y-Job

1951 La Sabre Concept

The gorgeous 1951 Le Sabre concept. GM’s first post-war concept car, the Le Sabre used two separate fuel systems with dual 20 gallon tanks, one for gasoline and the other for alcohol to provide an extra boost when more power was called for. It also had a rain-sensing top!

1987 Oldsmobile Aerotech Experimental

The spaceship looking 1987 Oldsmobile Aerotech Experimental. The Aerotechs were a series of experimental vehicles intended to break automobile speed records.

Plenty of Cadillacs:

1931 Cadillac V-16

1931 Cadillac V-16

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible

The 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible boasted the tallest fins found in a production vehicle.


A row of Caddys

And my personal favorite:

1967 Pontiac GTO

The 1967 Pontiac GTO. What can I say, I love muscle cars.

Once again, I’m sorry about the poor quality of the photos. I’m still stuck with a cell phone camera, although I’m getting closer to actually having something better to take pictures with!


Welcome to Mitten History! I’m a native Michigander recently returned to my home state after going to college and grad school elsewhere. I am a public historian particularly interested in local history, especially if that locale happens to be my favorite Great Lakes state. I love visiting historic sites around Michigan including local history museums, historic markers, statues, and more. I started this blog to share the some of the great stories and fascinating sites I’ve learned about, and also to encourage myself to visit more historic sites even when I’m not on a trip – there’s plenty of history right down the street! Finally, I want to showcase the many different ways history and memory are presented to the public by visiting as many different examples as I can find. I hope this blog will appeal to anyone interested in the history of Michigan or public history. Hope you enjoy it!