5 Things For Kids to See at Historic Fort Mackinac

Visiting historic Fort Mackinac on Michigan’s Mackinac Island is less of a lesson in history than it is an experience of it. After all, guests don’t so much learn about history by walking around quietly and reading stuff on the walls as they do step into that history for a completely interactive experience.

 No wonder kids love the fort so much!

 Of course, adults enjoy Fort Mackinac, too, whether they’re history buffs or not. Some visitors just come to see the incredible views from the bluff, go shopping in the museum store and have lunch at the Fort Mackinac Tea Room (which has an amazing kids’ menu, by the way).

 But while people of all ages have fun at Fort Mackinac, there are a handful of exhibits that are especially entertaining for kids.

Here are five places to see on a visit to Fort Mackinac with the family:

  • Kids’ Quarters – Located in the Officers’ Stone Quarters, which dates to 1780 and is the oldest surviving building in all of Michigan, the Kids’ Quarters is one of the newest exhibits at Fort Mackinac. The exhibit space features hands-on displays and interactive games that give visitors of all ages a look at what soldier and civilian life was like at Fort Mackinac. For example, there’s a dress-up area where kids can try on uniforms from all eras of the fort’s history and a music area where guests can listen to the music that was played at Fort Mackinac.
  • Post Hospital – The way people live has changed a lot over the past 200 years, and perhaps medical practices have changed as much as anything. That’s why it’s an eye-opening experience to check out the “Military Medicine at Mackinac: 1780-1895” exhibit at Fort Mackinac’s Post Hospital. You can see what it was like for soldiers and civilians at the fort to go to the doctor, and there’s a lot of interactive gadgets for kids to play with including microscopes and stethoscopes.
  • Guardhouse – While Fort Mackinac was “a desirable station” for many soldiers who lived there in the 19th century, everybody didn’t always get along with each other even during times of peace. A visit to the Guardhouse offers a glimpse into military justice at Fort Mackinac. For example, you can hear actual court martial cases and feel like you’re right in the same room as the accused. It’s pretty interesting to find out some of the things that soldiers were put on trial for in the 1800s!
  • Drill Program – Back in 2022 after a two-year hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Drill Program invites visitors of all ages to participate in basic soldier drills on the Parade Ground at Fort Mackinac. Can you march in a straight line? Turn about-face 180 degrees? The Drill Program is an engaging way to experience history at Fort Mackinac. And it’s especially fun for kids, who often are better at the drills than their parents!
  • Reading Room – New for 2022, the Reading Room at Fort Mackinac offers guests an immersive experience in the educational aspects of life as a soldier in the 1880s. Visitors can page through newspapers of the time or use interactive touch screens to scan through the kinds of periodicals that Fort Mackinac soldiers read. Both kids and adults can step back into history and get a sense of why the Army thought it was so important to have Reading Rooms at its forts in the late 19th century.

 There are 14 original buildings preserved at Fort Mackinac, and each of the rest of them also have something of interest for kids. There’s a movie in the North Blockhouse that puts visitors amid the confusion, fear and drama of the British capture of Fort Mackinac during the War of 1812, for example, and period settings and galleries in the Office that showcase the training and duties of Fort Mackinac’s officers.

 Both kids and kids at heart also love watching and hearing the daily cannon blasts from Fort Mackinac. In fact, kids and other visitors ages 13 and up can even sign up to fire the Fort Mackinac cannon on the morning of their visit!

 Fort Mackinac opened for the 2022 season on May 3 and will welcome guests daily through Oct. 23. Buy tickets here for your entire family to visit to Fort Mackinac this year.

View from the Tea Room

A Perfect Day in Mackinac Island State Park

There’s no wrong way to enjoy Mackinac Island. But what would a perfect day look like if you spent it ONLY in Mackinac Island State Park? Here are some ideas and a sample itinerary to help you start planning your Mackinac Island State Park trip:

Fire the Cannon at Fort Mackinac

A soldier at the cannon platform at Fort Mackinac Start your day off on Mackinac Island with a blast! Every morning, from May to October, one lucky individual gets to fire the first cannon volley of the day at Fort Mackinac. Firing the Fort Mackinac cannon involves going through the very same steps the fort’s soldiers took many years ago. You will load and prime the cannon, then wait for the signal, and … fire!

 Be sure to book this unique experience in advance by calling our office, (906) 847-3328. More information about this unforgettable opportunity can be found on our website.

 Keep your Fort Mackinac ticket handy, as you’ll need it again later.

Take a Hike Through Mackinac Island State Park

 After the excitement of firing the cannon, take some time to enjoy Mackinac Island’s more serene sights. There are more than 70 miles of trails and paths in Mackinac Island State Park with extraordinary limestone rock formations, breathtaking lake views, and beautiful wildflowers to discover along the way.

 To get started, exit Fort Mackinac through the Avenue of Flags and start towards Anne’s Tablet Trail. Within the wooded surroundings, you will find the gazebo from the movie Somewhere in Time starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve, and filmed mostly on the island. Upon arriving at Anne’s Tablet, you will find a bronze plaque honoring author Constance Fenimore Woolson. Mackinac Island is the setting for her 19th-century novel, Anne. The view from Anne’s Tablet is one of many amazing overlooks on Mackinac Island.

 Continue along Garrison Road past the Rifle Range. Here on this 600-yard range, Fort Mackinac soldiers practiced shooting at targets located on the side of the hill below Fort Holmes. After a few turns, the road will straighten and lead you to Skull Cave. This is the cave in which British merchant Alexander Henry, in his recollection of the event, hid during Pontiac’s Uprising in 1763. Make sure you read all about Henry’s experience in our Historic Mackinac Island Visitor’s Guide. A few hundred feet ahead you will see three cemeteries including Mackinac Island’s Post Cemetery, the final resting place for Fort Mackinac soldiers, their families, and local officials. The earliest known burials in the Post Cemetery date to the mid-1820s.

Fort Holmes At the north side of the Protestant Cemetery, Fort Holmes Road come in from the right. When you are going up, be sure to make a stop at Point Lookout where you will see Sugar Loaf, a limestone rock formation rising 75 feet from the forest floor. Take the stairs if you want a closer look at Sugar Loaf or continue the summit to Fort Holmes. Fort Holmes sits atop the highest elevation on Mackinac Island with spectacular views of Lake Huron, Round Island Lighthouse, and the Mackinac Bridge. Take your time touring Fort Holmes and learning all about the War of 1812 and the spot’s historical significance.

Cave of the Woods

Cave of the Woods on Mackinac Island.

 After leaving Fort Holmes, follow the road to the left for the most direct route back to Garrison Road. Experienced hikers may want to continue straight down to British Landing Road. Beyond a large clearing, featuring the Mackinac Island Airport, State Road branches to the left. Make sure you spot the short trail that leads off State Road to the Crack-in-the-Island and Cave in the Woods. While these geological formations may not be as well known, it is still worth discovering. That being said, if the hike to Fort Holmes was enough for you, it might be best to return to Fort Mackinac at your own leisurely pace.

Explore Fort Mackinac

 After traversing the interior of Mackinac Island, it is time to return to Fort Mackinac! More than just a military outpost, Fort Mackinac served as a home for soldiers and their families. It eventually became the headquarters for Mackinac National Park, where tourists to the island visited the great fortress on the bluff, much like they do today. Take your time exploring the 14 historical structures which feature exhibits explaining everything from military training, medical treatments, and family life within the fort.

 While the historic aspects of the fort are fascinating for adults and older kids, everyone will get a kick out of the daily demonstrations provided by costumed interpreters.

Have Lunch at the Tea Room

View from the Tea Room

The view from the Tea Room at Fort Mackinac.

 Once you are done exploring Fort Mackinac, take time to relax at the Tea Room located on the porch of the Officers’ Stone Quarters. The Officers’ Stone Quarters is the oldest public building in Michigan and provides the best view of any restaurant on the island along with offering a wonderful menu.

The Tea Room has been a memorable part of a visit to Fort Mackinac for decades. Whether you are craving a delicious lunch or a quick refreshment, grab a spot on its terrace and just relax. Reservations are not required but can be made by calling Grand Hotel at (906) 847-6327.

Discover Historic Downtown Mackinac Island

 After finishing tasty refreshments at the Tea Room, take the South Sally Ramp or the stairs from the Tea Room to Market Street. Just one block over from busy Main Street, visitors can step inside several historic buildings. The best part – these historic sites are included with your Fort Mackinac admission!

 First stop on your list is the American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum. 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of Dr. William Beaumont’s famous achievement. Make sure you talk to the historical interpreter to learn about the building and the significant medical breakthrough that happened here, and explore the brand new exhibit. Right across the street is the McGulpin House. This house is one of the oldest private residences in Michigan. Built in the late 1700s, the house is an excellent example of early French-Canadian architecture. Look inside and imagine what it was like to live on Mackinac Island in the 1820s.

 Continue further down Market Street to Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum. The Biddle House has two exhibits inside the house, as well as a parlor restored to its historical appearance, that will tell the story of Agatha and Edward Biddle, the Anishnaabek of northern Michigan, and the critical decade of the 1830s. Stay and listen to stories from several members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

Working at the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop Within the same area, you can visit the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop. This shop is maintained today in a similar fashion to how it was in the 1950s, during the latter years of the Benjamin’s ownership. There you can watch live demonstrations and learn about traditional blacksmithing techniques. If you are looking for a cool souvenir to take home, ask the blacksmith if they have anything available from small nails to giant dinner bells.

 Once you complete everything on Market Street, make your way to The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. Nowhere else does a collection of Mackinac-related art and photography come together to tell Mackinac Island’s story. Multiple galleries focus on fine and decorative arts throughout the years – from hand-beaded Native American garments and 17th and 18th-century maps of the Great Lakes to one-of-a-kind pieces from the height of the island’s Victorian era. If you are visiting with kids, then they will love the hands-on activities at the Kid’s Art Studio as well!

Bike Highway M-185

Arch Rock Since cars are not allowed on Mackinac Island, one of the most scenic ways to take in the natural beauty is by bicycle. Bring your own bicycle or rent one from one of the many bicycle shops located on Mackinac Island. M-185 encircles the island, and is the only state highway where cars are banned. The 8.2-mile loop will take about one hour to complete at a leisurely pace, but you will definitely want to plan more time for stops. Make sure to start at “Mile Marker 0” located in front of the Mackinac Island State Park Visitor’s Center.

 There are many historical and natural sights to see during your bike ride. If you do not want to bike around the entire island, there is one spot you do not want to miss. Arch Rock is one of the most famous rock formations on the island. You will see a pull-off area with bicycle racks and benches on the east side of M-185. It is a steep 207-step climb to Arch Rock, but the views are worth it!

 If you continue the M-185 loop, another popular stop is British Landing. This location has several historical markers, picnic tables, and great spots to take photos of the Mackinac Bridge. Do not forget to visit the British Landing Nature Center during your stop. Experience the wildlife, plants, and geology of Mackinac Island in this interactive nature center. Inside you will find a large cedar tree trunk, native animals on display, and more information about the natural history of Mackinac Island. Also, there are 24-hour accessible restrooms, a water fountain, tables, benches, and a bike repair station if needed.

 Once you get your second wind, continue riding your bike through downtown Mackinac Island to complete your 8.2-mile journey.

Picnic in Marquette Park

 End your fun-filled day in Mackinac Island State Park relaxing at Marquette Park. This beautiful greenspace at the foot of Fort Mackinac is where soldiers in centuries past tended a garden. These days, the park is the perfect picnic location. Pick-up a meal from one of the many nearby restaurants and enjoy the flurry of horses, bicycles, and ferries that go by.

 Marquette Park is a popular venue for performances. Check our calendar of events to see what exciting events are scheduled in 2022.

Bonus – Stargaze at Fort Holmes

 While it is not as dark as the nearby Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Fort Holmes is a great location for stargazing. If you are staying overnight on Mackinac Island, you should consider a night hike to Fort Holmes. The fort sits atop Mackinac Island’s highest point, 320 feet above lake level, and is accessed by either Fort Holmes Road or climbing 141 stairs from Rifle Range Road. At the top of the island, not only can you see stars, but also the Mackinac Bridge illuminated, and if you are lucky, the Northern Lights. Just remember to bring your flashlight to navigate the trails at night.

 With so much rich history and natural beauty, it is easy to see why Mackinac Island State Park is a popular destination. Whether you follow this guide or plan your own journey, there is no wrong way to explore Mackinac Island State Park!

Natural Springs of Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island is blessed with a number of natural springs which percolate through limestone bedrock. An 1882 tourist booklet, Mackinac Island, Wave-Washed Tourists’ Paradise of the Unsalted Seas, boasted of “living streams of pure water, cooled down to the temperature of forty-four degrees, gushing from its lime-rock precipices.” A few of these, such as Dwightwood Spring and Croghan Water, are well known by many of today’s visitors. Others, such as Wishing Spring, Wawatam Brook, and La Salle Spring, are less familiar or forgotten. When you do encounter a natural spring, please enjoy the view, but remember untreated water is considered unsafe for drinking.

Sinclair’s map of Mackinac Island, 1779

 A Fine Spring

As the British settled Mackinac Island from 1780-1781, water was viewed as a valuable resource. Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair noted “a fine spring of water” on a map he drew after visiting the island in 1779. He wrote his superiors, “Our Village will be washed on one side by a fine Spring which with some care may be brought to turn a mill at least one day in seven.”

More pressing priorities meant Sinclair never built his water-powered mill on Mackinac Island. The spring he referred to once fed a small trickle of water  named Wawatam Brook for 20th century guidebooks. The brook originated near the Grand Hotel and emptied into a small lake now called Hanks Pond, which serves a water feature on the Jewel Golf Course.

 La Salle Spring

This 1829 survey map shows La Salle Spring

A second natural spring once trickled into Hanks Pond, originating below Fort Mackinac’s West Blockhouse. Eventually christened La Salle Spring, it became a reliable source of water for Island residents and soldiers alike. In his 1895 book, Mackinac, Formerly Michilimackinac, Dr. John R. Bailey noted that log piping was used for feeding water to town, supplying “stores, warehouses, and dwellings of the fur company.”

In 1881, a steam-powered pump was installed which elevated water from the spring through ½ inch lead pipes to a reservoir located in the second story of the North Blockhouse. From this high point, it then flowed through pipes into various fort buildings. In Annals of Fort Mackinac, author Dwight H. Kelton enlightened his readers, “This innovation on the old-time water-wagon was made… in accordance with a plan devised by, and executed under the direction of Lieut. D.H. Kelton, Post Quartermaster. Water was first pumped October 11, 1881.”

 Croghan Water

Croghan Water, 2021

The north-central portion of Mackinac Island once featured the Island’s largest farm. By 1804, Michael Dousman harvested hay, raised cattle, and even built a horse-powered mill and distillery there. In 1814, the Battle of Mackinac Island was fought on Dousman’s hay fields. Today, links of the Wawashkamo Golf Club cover much of the site.

Dousman’s distillery was situated near a flowing spring of cool water. On early maps, it was simply labeled “Cold Spring.”  In 1913, the spring was renamed Croghan Water, in honor Colonel George Croghan, commander of American forces during the 1814 battle.

 Wishing Spring

Wishing Spring, ca. 1910

This spring was the first which became a popular tourist destination. Once located near Devil’s Kitchen, it was also known as Lover’s Rest or Fairy Spring. During her 1872 visit to the site, novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson offered a token knot of ribbon and wished for health during the year.

Rev. Frank O’Brien summarized the site in the 1916 guide, Names and Places of Interest on Mackinac Island, Michigan. He wrote, This Wishing Spring is within a fragrant, fairy grotto. The water, clear as crystal, flows from above, dripping, cool and refreshing. If you drink and wish, and keep the secret for three days, tradition says you will get whatever you wish.”

 Dwightwood Spring

Dwightwood Spring, ca. 1909

This well-known spring is located along Lake Shore Boulevard (M-185), near the southeast corner of Mackinac Island. In 1909, Edwin O. Wood donated funds for a canopy, fountain, and benches in memory of his son, Dwight Hulbert Wood, who perished after his bicycle was struck by a horse-drawn fire engine in Flint, Michigan.

That July, a dedication ceremony was held to christen Dwightwood Spring. During the ceremony, park superintendent Benjamin Franklin Emery noted the site was dedicated “to preserve the work of nature, to make the spring accessible, to prove a shelter in time of storm, to be a resting place for the weary, long to be remembered after leaving the beautiful Island shores.”

 An Invitation

The springs above represent just a few of Mackinac Island’s “living streams of pure water” which bubble up from its limestone bedrock. During your next visit, you’re invited to seek out these peaceful places, enjoy their quiet beauty, and discover special plants and animals that thrive there. Perhaps, like Ms. Woolson, you’ll feel inspired. “Now I am a sensible, middle-aged woman,” she wrote, “but something in the moonlight bewitched me, and I consented, much to the delight of my niece.”

Boats Boats Boats!

 When thinking about the Great Lakes fur trade, most people will imagine French Canadian voyageurs paddling huge birchbark canoes filled with tons of furs or trade goods. Canoes were absolutely an integral part of the fur trade, and provided a vital link between Michilimackinac and other communities around the Great Lakes. However, they were by no means the only watercraft on the lakes, and a great deal of people and goods were moved by a type of large rowboat called a bateau.

 In the 18th century, there were few standardized plans for batteaux. Although the British Admiralty used a standard 30-foot design for vessels destined for military service in Canada, individual batteaux might range from less than 20 feet long to over 30, and there were regional variations in design. All shared a few common features: a flat bottom without a keel, heavier stems at the bow and stern, and butted plank construction. Relatively easy to build so long as appropriate woodworking tools were on hand, a bateau could be knocked together without the need for skill ship carpenters or shipyards. A bateau could be paddled, poled, or propelled under sail, but generally the vessels were powered by large wooden oars.

 While canoes (and sailing vessels) were absolutely workhorses of the Great Lakes in the 18th century, in many instances there were more batteaux on the lakes and rivers than other types of watercraft. In 1778, for example, 374 batteaux set out from Montreal for Michilimackinac and other western posts, while only 152 canoes left the city for the summer trading season. Individual merchants might own or hire several batteaux. Michilimackinac merchant John Askin, for instance, dispatched 10 batteaux in 1777, while  trading partners Thomas Smith, William Taylor, and Edward Ripley sent 16 more to Detroit and Michilimackinac. A 1778 inventory of Askin’s estate included both a “Common batea[u]” and a “Small fish [bateau],” both presumably for personal use rather than heavy trade.

 The British military also heavily employed batteaux to move personnel and supplies around the lakes and connect far-flung posts like Michilimackinac and Detroit. As somewhat disposable craft exposed to relatively heavy work, these batteaux required regular repair and maintenance. In 1771 Capt. George Turnbull received £85 for mending boats, making oars, and burning pitch at Michilimackinac. By 1778, Sergeant Amos Langdon of the 8th Regiment was issued nails from the engineer’s stores to repair the King’s batteaus and the wharf. Although somewhat more cumbersome than a canoe, a bateau could efficiently cover great distance at speed. In late September 1778, an express canoe traveled from Michilimackinac to Montreal in 10 to 14 days, while a batteau rowed by eight “active men” could go to the city and return to Michilimackinac by November 10, making a 6 week round trip. However, supplies to maintain the boats could be difficult to procure, making repairs difficult. In 1779, Major Arent DePeyster, Michilimackinac’s commanding officer, unsuccessfully requested pitch and oakum to repair batteaux. A year later, DePeyster sent pitch and oakum up from Detroit to repair the batteaus at Michilimackinac, telling Lt. Gov. Patrick Sinclair that these materials were previously hard to get. Boat repairs could be a thankless task. In 1774, Lt. Col. John Caldwell, commanding the 8th Regiment at Fort Niagara, complained that “The old ones [batteaus] have been so often repaired since I came here that it is throwing money away to attempt repairing them again.” Apparently the old adage about a boat being a hole in the water is somewhat older than expected.

 Today, a 22-foot bateau is part of the small interpretive fleet at Colonial Michilimackinac (we also have a 28-foot north canoe and a 35-foot Montreal canoe). We use all of these vessels to interpret the vital relationship between Michilimackinac and the surrounding waters of the Great Lakes, and our interpretive staff maintains these boats and utilizes them for special events. This summer, we will have three Maritime Michilimackinac weekends focusing on the roles and chores of sailors, voyageurs, and others working to maintain Michilimackinac’s marine links to the outside world. Weather permitting, our staff will use our bateau and canoes to get out on the water, so we hope you’ll join us for these special events!

 

Archaeology at Fort Mackinac – Three Blacksmith Shops

The third blacksmith shop is the building on the front left of the photo.

One of the “missing” buildings at Fort Mackinac is the blacksmith shop. Military records, maps, and even a photograph indicate that a series of three blacksmith shops was present just inside the north sally port for most of the fort’s military service.

 An archaeological project to search for their remains was undertaken as part of the centennial celebration of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 1995 and the bicentennial of the arrival of American troops in 1996. The excavations were carried out as University of South Florida [USF] field schools under the direction of Dr. Roger T. Grange, Jr. Ford Motor Company sponsored the project. Information for this post was drawn from Dr. Grange’s unpublished reports and Sheila Stewart’s USF master’s thesis on the third blacksmith shop.

 Although the services of a blacksmith would have been required during the construction of Fort Mackinac, the location of his shop is not known. Based on the dates and nationalities of the military buttons excavated during this project, it appears that the first shop near the sally port was built by the Americans in the late 1790s. The remains of the first shop, especially the forge base, were preserved well enough to determine the basic layout of the shop. In addition to making and repairing tools and hardware for the construction and maintenance of fort buildings, and keeping arms in good repair, the blacksmith would have provided services to the Indian Department. The services of a blacksmith were commonly included in treaties with Native American nations.

USF field school students excavate around the stone foundation of the second blacksmith shop.

 By 1828 the blacksmith shop was in poor condition, so it was dismantled and rebuilt in approximately the same location. Of the three shops, the second had the most substantial foundation, stone walls which are preserved below the fort’s sod today.

 The second blacksmith shop was destroyed by a major fire, which started in the nearby bakehouse, in 1858. The clearing of the fire rubble removed most of the artifacts and features from this era.

 Almost immediately after the fire, a third blacksmith shop was built in the same area. It sat on cornerstones, two of which survived, and its dimensions were partially determined archaeologically by the dripline in the gravel indicating the roofline. By analyzing artifact distribution and soil chemistry, Stewart was able to determine the shop layout, including the forge area, anvil mold, work area, and coal and metal storage areas. The artifacts from the third shop also reflect how the role of the blacksmith changed with the Industrial Revolution. By the 1870s the U.S. Army was using mass-produced weapons with interchangeable parts, so gun repair was no longer a major component of a military smith’s work. Hand-forged tools and hardware were replaced by cast iron and steel. Across the continent, not just in military garrisons, farrier work (shoeing horses) became the main task of blacksmiths. In 1875, this change led to a new blacksmith shop being built near the fort stables, which were located in what is now Marquette Park. The shop in the fort was used for storage for a few years but was dismantled by 1879.

Although this “spread eagle with shield” button design was used from 1854-1902, its back mark of HORSTMANN BROS & CO/PHILA dates it to 1859-1863, within the date range of the third shop.]

 Today there are no visible remains of the blacksmith shops within the walls of Fort Mackinac, but the stone foundations lie below the grass just outside the barracks restrooms. Stop and imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of the blacksmith the next time you visit. Fort Mackinac opens for the season on May 3, 2022.

Maple Sugaring at Mackinac

As winter snow and frigid temperatures finally give way to spring, maple sugaring season begins in northern Michigan. For many centuries, Native American families living at the Straits of Mackinac moved each spring from small winter hunting camps to groves of maple trees. There, they gathered and processed the first plant-based food of the year, harvesting maple sap and boiling it into sweet, calorie-rich maple sugar.

  Early origins of maple sugaring are preserved in oral traditions of Anishinaabeg and other tribes of northeastern North America. When European missionaries and traders became established at Mackinac in the 18th century, local accounts of sugaring also began to appear in letters, journals, and other documents. Several such records offer a glimpse into historical methods and customs of sugar making in northern Michigan.

Sweet Science

  No matter which specific methods are used, the basic science of converting maple sap into syrup or sugar remains the same. As temperatures rise above freezing during the day, liquid sap within trees thaws and starts to flow through sapwood. Sapwood is a living layer of wood within a tree which serves as a pipeline for moving water up to leaves so they can grow. The hard center of a tree, called heartwood, contains dead cells which provide rigidity but lack the ability to transport water.

Maple leaves  While sap is mostly water, it’s not 100%. In trees, sugar maples contain the most sugar, from 2-4%. In a sense, trees plan ahead, as these complex carbohydrates were created last year, when green leaves converted sun’s energy into food through photosynthesis. Stored through winter, this energy flows to tips of branches in spring, stimulating buds to open. In late spring, when temperatures remain above freezing at night, pressure within a tree equalizes and sap stops flowing. If buds start to open, it also turns cloudy and tastes bitter.

  When sap is freely flowing, a hole is made in a tree and a spout or spile inserted, directing drips into a waiting container. Traditionally, these containers were called mokuks, made of birch bark with sealed seams. When enough sap is gathered, it’s boiled over an open fire. Averaging about 2% sugar, sap must be boiled until it concentrates to 66% sugar in order to make syrup, with further boiling required for granular sugar. Generally, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, which can make about 8 pounds of sugar.

Maple Sugar Making in 1763

  Alexander Henry, a British trader at Fort Michilimackinac, was one of the first to describe the Anishinaabeg method of sugar making in Michigan’s north woods. He recorded the following as he recalled a visit to an Ojibwe encampment near Sault Ste. Marie in March 1763:

“The next day was employed in gathering the bark of white birch-trees, with which to make vessels to catch the wine or sap. The trees were now cut or tapped, and spouts or ducts introduced into the wound. The bark vessels were placed under the ducts; and, as they filled, the liquor was taken out in buckets, and conveyed into the reservoirs or vats of moose-skin, each vat containing a hundred gallons. From these, we supplied the boilers, of which we had twelve, of from twelve to twenty gallons each, with fires constantly under them, day and night. While the women collected the sap, boiled it, and completed the sugar, the men were not less busy in cutting wood, making fires, and in hunting and fishing, in part of our supply of food.

The earlier part of the spring it that best adapted to making maple-sugar. The sap runs only in the day; and it will not run, unless there has been a frost the night before. When, in the morning, there is a clear sun, and the night has left ice of the thickness of a dollar, the greatest quantity is produced.

  Henry noted that work ended on April 25, resulting in 1,600 pounds of maple sugar, 36 gallons of  gallons of syrup, and “…we certainly consumed three hundred weight. Though, as I have said, we hunted and fished, yet sugar was our principal food, during the whole month of April.” If his calculations are correct, this single camp collected about 16,640 gallons of maple sap. With an average of about 15 gallons of sap per tap, this would have required well over 1,000 taps to produce.

The Maple Sugar Trade

  By the turn of the 19th century, maple sugar had become a regular item of trade at Mackinac, frequently appearing on manifests of trading vessels. In 1803, records from the U.S. Customs House on Mackinac Island included many dozens of kegs and mokuks of maple sugar transported by schooner and canoe. Traders such as George Schindler, Michael Dousman, Joseph Bailly, Jean Baptiste La Borde, Pierre Pyant, and many others appear time and again on such records. On July 19, 1810, for example, 489 “makaks” of sugar left Mackinac Island on the schooner Mary, bound for Detroit. There, advertisements for the newly arrived resource were published in newspapers, including the following example at the “Commission Store,” printed in issues of the Detroit Gazette throughout the winter of 1817-1818.

Bois Blanc Sugar Camp

  A lengthy account of a maple sugar camp at the Straits of Mackinac was recorded by Elizabeth Therese (Fisher) Baird. Born in 1810, to parents of Scottish, French and Odawa ancestry, Elizabeth spent much of her youth on Mackinac Island. Fond childhood recollections of her family’s maple sugar camp were first published in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, on December 29, 1886. In part, she wrote,

Indian Sugar Camp by Seth Eastman, 1853.

“A visit to the sugar camp was a great treat to the young folks as well as to the old… All who were able, possessed a sugar camp. My grand-mother had a sugar camp on Bois Blanc Island, about five miles east of Mackinac.

About the first of March nearly half of the inhabitants of our town, as well as many from the garrison, would move to Bois Blanc to prepare for the work. Would that I could describe the lovely spot! Our camp was delightfully situated in the midst of a forest of maple, or a maple grove. One  thousand or more trees claimed our care, and three men and two women were employed to do the work

  After describing methods and materials for making maple syrup, Elizabeth recalled the process of sugar making. In part, she described,

The modus operandi thus: a very bright, brass kettle, was placed over a slow fire…containing about three gallons of syrup, if it was to be made into cakes; if… granulated sugar, two gallons of syrup were used. For the sugar cakes, a board of bass-wood about five or six inches wide, with moulds set in, in form of bears, diamonds, crosses, rabbits, turtles, spheres, etc. When the sugar was cooked to a certain degree it was poured into these moulds. For the granulated sugar, the stirring is continued for a longer time; this being done with a long paddle which looks like a mush stick. This sugar had to be put into the mokok while warm as it was not pack well if cold…”

  Today, many Michiganders still enjoy the smell and taste of pure maple products each spring. Though methods have changed, we can all give thanks for trees which produce such sweet sap (with extra to spare), and for many generations of Native Americans whose skills in making maple products were passed down for thousands of years, ensuring we can still share these sweet gifts of the North Woods during this special time of year.

Baking Bread at Michilimackinac

Visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac have no doubt noticed the bread oven situated outside the Southwest Rowhouse. See the process from start to finish with our volunteer and baker, Jeff Pavlik. Be sure to visit the bread oven on your next visit! Colonial Michilimackinac opens for the 2022 season on May 4. 

A Closer Look at the Collections: Brass Saw

It’s time for another deep dive into the collection! Today Dr. Lynn Evans, Curator of Archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks, shows us a brass saw that would have possibly used by fur traders making stone items such as stone smoking pipes or other small items.

 This brass saw was originally recovered from the Southwest Rowhouse. Mackinac State Historic Parks will, in the near future, reconstruct a unit of the Southwest Rowhouse. For more information on archaeology at Mackinac State Historic Parks, click here. 

An image from the 1980s showing archaeological work at the Wood Quarters

Archaeology at Fort Mackinac – Officers’ Wood Quarters

An image from the 1980s showing archaeological work at the Wood Quarters

Archaeological excavation under the Officers’ Wood Quarters in 1986. 

One of the more unusual archaeological projects to take place at Fort Mackinac was an excavation that took place under a standing structure. When the Officers’ Wood Quarters was restored in 1986, the floorboards of the west room were removed and an archaeological excavation took place. Some excavation also took place outside the building during the restoration of the south porch that same summer. The excavation was carried out by a University of South Florida field school directed by Dr. Roger T. Grange, Jr. The resulting data was analyzed by Laura Dee Clifford for her master’s thesis, Excavations at the Officers’ Wooden Quarters at Fort Mackinac, Michigan. This blog post is based on her work.

Plan of Fort Mackinac drawn by Major Charles Gratiot in 1817. Credit: National Archives

 The main question the project was designed to answer was when and by whom was the Wood Quarters built? It first appears on a plan of the fort drawn in 1817 by Major Charles Gratiot.

 In addition to serving as an officers’ barracks, with three apartments, the building later housed the post hospital, a sutler’s store, laundresses’ quarters, a reading room and library, general storeroom, billiard room, and canteen. After the military period it was remodeled into an artist’s studio in the 1920s. It was restored back to its military appearance in 1933-34 and housed museum exhibits.

A button dating between 1812 and 1815 recovered at the Officers' Wood Quarters.

U.S. Infantry button that dated the construction of the Wood Quarters. 

 Clifford was able to answer the puzzle of the building’s origin through the presence of a United States Infantry button in the construction layer. The button dates from between 1812 and 1815. Since the British occupied Fort Mackinac throughout the War of 1812, this button could not have arrived at the fort until the Americans returned July 18, 1815. The Wood Quarters were present by the time Gratiot drew his map in 1817. Therefore, the building must have been built in 1816 by the Americans.

The Wood Quarters today. 

 After the 1986 restoration was complete, the west room was furnished as the 1880s billiard room. Like all the buildings inside Fort Mackinac it, is open to the public from early May through late October. In 2022, Fort Mackinac will open for the season on May 3.

Mackinaw City’s Petersen Center

While experiencing the cold of winter in Michigan, it’s easy to think of the Straits of Mackinac in warm weather and summer fun. However, you might not realize that there is still plenty happening during the off-season at Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP). During the summer and fall, many staff work out of the 1859 Post Hospital on Mackinac Island or elsewhere in the MSHP park system. In the winter, office staff return to Mackinaw City to the Dr. Eugene and Marian Petersen Center. This tradition has its own history that reflects the ever-changing needs of the state parks at Mackinac. 

The house purchased by the commission in the 1990s that served as a collections office.

The house at 207 W Sinclair which served as office for collections staff.

 Starting in 1958, the park began to work in a form much more recognizable to today. Much of the behind-the-scenes work was spread out, with the museum’s operations at various locations around the greater Lansing area during the winter. The park’s collections were split up, with the archaeological collections being housed in Lansing and the historic collection being kept in a series of buildings on Mackinac Island. The permanent staff was much smaller during those times. As the 1970s and ‘80s rolled in, the park had to make several expansions, most notably in the areas of historical conservation, education, and marketing. This required more office space. In 1988 the park constructed a housing unit on West Central Avenue in Mackinaw City for seasonal employee housing; this also doubled as winter offices for much of the staff. Despite having a building for winter offices, the park’s team were also spread out amongst the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center and Mill Creek Service Center. In the mid-1990s, the park acquired a house and old motel behind Michilimackinac on West Sinclair Avenue, which would initially serve as an office for the collections staff of the park. 

A photo of the Petersen Center being expanded by adding the former housing unit from Central Avenue.

The Petersen Center during its initial expansion in 1998.

A picture of construction of an addition to the Petersen Center in Mackinaw City.

Expansion of the Petersen Center in 2001.

 This motel would be the beginning of a long-term project to centralize MSHP’s offices, library, and collections, as much of that was still located in Lansing. In 1998, the office/housing building on Central Avenue was moved to West Sinclair Avenue and attached to the house. A further renovation was completed in 2001, adding a two-story addition to the building. This expansion would create enough space for the archaeological collection, library, and conservation lab to be moved from Lansing to the new office building. These changes also allowed for new office spaces for the park’s interpretation, education, collections, and archaeological staff. This building was dedicated as the Dr. Eugene and Marian Petersen Center for Archaeology and History. Dr. Eugene Petersen was director of Historic Projects and later Park Director from 1958 to 1985. His wife, Marian, ran the office of the park. In May of 2019, the park renamed the research library after Dr. Keith Widder, in honor of his long service and contributions to MSHP. 

A board table and chairs in the Commission Meeting Room in the Petersen Center, Mackinaw City.

Commission Meeting Room, Petersen Center.

 The latest addition to the Petersen Center was in 2020, when the west side of the building was expanded to accommodate a new meeting room for the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. These changes allowed for a much more centralized, organized,

The Keith R. Widder Library at the Petersen Center.

The Keith R. Widder Library at the Petersen Center.

and professional running of Mackinac State Historic Parks. Now, staff could conveniently do much of their work from their main office, instead of having to travel to do essential research or care for the ever-growing collection. Different departments were able to communicate with each other much more clearly and quickly with the new meeting spaces. The Petersen Center has served, and will continue to serve, as a great tool for the Mackinac State Historic Parks staff in keeping the park up and running. 

A picture of the Petersen Center in Mackinaw City during winter.

The Petersen Center today.