The Straits of Mackinac was a center of the fur trade from the late 1680s. Beginning in 1815 activity was centered in John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company (AFC). The company agent’s home, clerks’ quarters and warehouse were located at the center of Market Street. There furs were processed and trade goods assembled.
The Retail Store was established by the company in about 1820 on the corner of Market and Fort Streets as an outlet where the company could sell surplus merchandise. Company employees, community residents and Fort Mackinac soldiers shopped here. It was one of several general stores that served Mackinac Island in the 1820s and 1830s.
On this site in 1822 Alexis St. Martin, a voyageur, was injured by an accidental gunshot wound. The unusual healing of the wound allowed Dr. William Beaumont, Fort Mackinac’s post surgeon, to conduct experiments on how the human stomach worked.
Early History of the Store Building
The early history of the site is not precisely clear. Property records provide information on land ownership, but do not tell us when and who constructed buildings at the location. It is also not known exactly when AFC began its store operation here.
The property at the northwest corner of Market and Fort Streets was originally deeded to Alexander Kay, a French trader in 1781. It is not known if he built anything on the property, although he apparently had the resources to do so. In 1789, following Kay’s death, it was sold to Pierre Grignon through a public sale. Grignon was a minor fur trader whose primary residence was at Green Bay. Following his death in 1796 the land was purchased by John Ogilvy, member of a prominent Montreal trading firm. Again, records are unclear if and when he built anything on the lot. The Gratiot map of 1817 shows two structures on the property, one located at about the location of the present building. Whether these had been built by Kay or Ogilvy is unknown. Ogilvy died in 1819. In 1820 (or possibly earlier) Ogilvy, or his estate, rented a building to the American Fur Company for use as a store. The American Fur Company became the owner of the property in January 1822. AFC apparently continued their store operation here until the Northern Department was sold to Ramsey Crooks in 1834. Whether Crook’s company operated a store here is unknown. They sold the property to John H. Kinzie in 1838.
Who Built the Store Building?
It is not clear if AFC continued to use an existing building, or built a new structure. As noted above, land records are unclear when a building was built and whether or not AFC ever constructed anything. However, there is physical evidence that they did construct a building on the lot:
· A ca. 1820 sketch of Mackinac Island as seen from Round Island by Seth Eastman (later used as the basis for a print by the artist) shows a full, two-story building at the location. While not detailed, the building in the drawing was large and Federal Style in form.
· The stone work of the present structure is original including the fireplace and fenestration. It is similar to the AFC Stuart House. Also, pre-reconstruction photographs of the building show eight-over-eight, double-hung windows in this lower story. These are typical of the 1820s late Federal period and identical to the original windows of Stuart House and the Clerks’ Quarters.
The substantial stonework, windows and the Eastman sketch provide strong circumstantial evidence that the building was built by AFC, or was at least Federal in style.
Later History of the Property
Between 1838 and 1909 the property passed through several owners. The building, used as a dwelling, appears in photographs of the island in the 1860s and 1870s. These show a full, two-story, gable-roof structure. It is sheathed in clapboards with trim typical of the mid nineteenth century. While the building superficially appears Victorian (trim and window styles), the form of the structure could easily be Federal (i.e. the original building as depicted in the ca. 1820 sketch). A two story porch at the Market Street entrance provided exterior access to the second floor. Eventually, three narrow dormers broke the front roofline and a large iron-railed widow’s walk was centered on the ridgeline. Emma Early acquired the house in 1909. The third floor was expanded by the addition of a cross-gable roof shortly after. She operated it as a boarding house, known as the “Early House.” Emma died in 1939.
Members of the Michigan State Medical Society became interested in the property in the 1940s. The society had been long promoters of the history of Dr. William Beaumont and his groundbreaking research on human digestion. The house was then vacant and in disrepair. The property was purchased by Parke-Davis and Company (through funds raised from Beaumont’s heirs) in 1943 who donated it to the Park Commission. In the early 1950s the commission leased it to the Michigan State Medical Society to create a museum honoring Dr. Beaumont. The leader of this effort was Dr. Alfred H. Whittaker. Whittaker was then chairman of their standing “Beaumont Committee” which had been formed by the Wayne County Medical Society in Detroit in 1922.
The Society, then under the direction of Dr. Otto W. Beck, formed a “Beaumont Memorial Committee” chaired by Whittaker to oversee the project and begin additional fund raising. The society hired Emil Lorch, Professor Emeritus of the College of Architecture at the University of Michigan. Lorch conducted extensive research on the history of the building. Warren L. Rindge acted as supervising architect. Rindge had been involved in restoration work at Fort Mackinac in the 1930s and would direct the restoration of the Biddle House in the late 1950s.
Lorch asserted that only the stone walls were original to the AFC period of the building. He provided little evidence for this claim. A close examination of photographs of the building reveals what could be a Federal building beneath later Victorian alterations. Although changed several times between the 1838 and the first quarter of the twentieth century, it is likely that some portion, perhaps the entire superstructure, of the upper floors was original.
Based on his research into the history of the property, Lorch also concluded that Ogilivy had built the structure. As shown above, this is not necessarily so. Regardless, this decision caused him to jump to the conclusion that Ogilivy would have employed carpenters from Montreal to construct the dwelling. The basis of the restoration was habitant cottages along the St. Lawrence River. There is no evidence that such buildings were ever constructed on Mackinac Island. Even if AFC did not construct the building it is unlikely that the original building resembled this fanciful reconstruction. Again, we must point to the Eastman drawing, the stone first floor and the surviving windows. This, along with early nineteenth-century island buildings, provide the best evidence for what the building looked like, as opposed to presumptions regarding what a Montreal trader may have built. It seems likely that the original American Fur Company Retail Store was demolished to make way for an inaccurate reconstruction.
The upper floors of the Early House were removed in the summer of 1953 and the present structure was constructed based on Prof. Lorch's plans. The "Beaumont Memorial" was dedicated and opened to the public in July 1954. The building was returned to the Park Commission when the restoration, which included exhibits, was completed. In 2000 new exhibits were installed, including a recreation of the 1820s retail store space. The lower level windows and door were also restored to their 1820s appearance. The site was renamed the American Fur Company Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum at this time.