Jim Evans – 50 Years at Michilimackinac

It would have been very easy for Jim Evans to take a victory lap during the 2020 season.

2020 was his 50th season at Colonial Michilimackinac (as in, half a century), and he made the decision during the 2019-20 offseason that it would be his last. He’d be turning 70 after the season, and he wanted to get out and take some well-deserved time to fish, hunt, and be outdoors.

He could have announced his retirement early, took that victory lap, and rode off into the sunset. But, despite possibly being the most photographed man in Michigan, he wanted no part of the spotlight. He just wanted to be part of the team, like he has every summer since 1970.

So, in typical fashion, Jim worked the season and then quietly announced his retirement to staff in November, effective January 22, closing the book on an incredible career of teaching, entertaining, and being a stabilizing and welcoming presence at Colonial Michilimackinac.

In addition to being a constant at Colonial Michilimackinac, Jim was also one of the driving forces of the award-winning and Mackinac Associates-funded Historic Mackinac on Tour educational outreach program that has visited classrooms across the state for more than 30 years. Oh, and those cannon, mortar, rifle, and musket firings that are as much a part of the Mackinac tradition as anything else? Jim spent his winters making the powder charges for them.

It’s estimated that Jim saw nearly 6,500,000 visitors during his time at Colonial Michilimackinac. Additionally, it’s estimated he saw more than 250,000 kids in classrooms across the state in the winter months. The numbers are truly staggering.

“It went pretty quick,” Jim says. “I’ve worked with a lot of great people. You remember your coworkers, supervisors. You really think of the people. I truly did have the best job, and I mean that seriously. It is truly a hard job to leave, which is why I worked here as long as I did.

“This was a hard decision,” he continued. “Things got a little harder as I got older, and I want to have a little quality for a few years. I didn’t want to say goodbye on my last hurrah, I really wanted to enjoy that last season, and I did, immensely.”

“Jim has been an example and leader for the interpretive staff at Michilimackinac, as well as an important part of the Michilimackinac experience for visitors,” said Craig Wilson, Mackinac State Historic Parks Chief Curator. “People ask if he’s at work all the time because he has been such an important part of a visit to Michilimackinac for so many people over the years.”

Jim grew up in Mackinaw City and volunteered at the Michilimackinac Pageant every summer from 7th grade through high school. After his freshman year at Lake Superior State University, he came home for the summer and got a job as a seasonal interpreter at Michilimackinac. He’s been back every summer since. He was promoted to lead historic interpreter in 1977.

“I believe I was meant to do public service,” he says. “It’s rewarding to give an interesting, educational, but making it real, program. When I first started, as a young college student, it wasn’t where I’m at now. As I got older I think I got better. You have to try to feel out how much they (the guest) want to know, then give it to them. Craig (Wilson) made us a lot better. We know so much more, and we gear it to the people that I’m talking to.”

The Historic Mackinac on Tour program started going on the road in 1989. Along with Dennis Havlena, who served as Lead Historic Interpreter at Fort Mackinac, Jim spread Michilimackinac’s history to thousands of classrooms around Michigan.

“To do that program was a joy,” he says. “I had the chance to work with Dennis until he retired, which was pretty special. We did a lot of hands-on stuff. Dennis would do a dance, we’d do activities. To see those kids’ eyes light up…it was pretty neat stuff.

“Those teachers, who are gifted at what they do, they thank us, even now, and I thank them for what they do and allowing us in,” Jim continued. “It’s really special to get thank-yous from teachers when we appreciate so much what they do.”

Any conversation with Jim about his career usually moves toward talking about those that worked with him. While he’s loved that he’s been able to meet and interact with so many people, he worries that the interpretive staff gets too much attention because they’re the most public face of the organization. “It’s a team. I never tried to lose that. It’s a team. I sometimes feel bad that I’m the one they recognize, because there are lots of others,” he said.

“A skilled and dedicated interpreter, Jim has always provided our guests with outstanding programs and presentations,” said Phil Porter, Director Emeritus for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “He used those same assets to serve students throughout Michigan in our Education Outreach Program, Historic Mackinac on Tour. Hundreds of thousands of visitors and students have a better appreciation and understanding of Mackinac history as a result of Jim’s great work.”

Jim is comfortable with the state of the organization and Colonial Michilimackinac, which is another factor allowing him to retire comfortably. He mentioned the entire staff at Michilimackinac, with Wilson and Interpretive Assistant LeeAnn Ewer mentioned in particular.

The other reason Michilimackinac is in good hands is the presence of Dr. Lynn Evans, Curator of Archaeology, and Jim’s wife. She’ll be in the fort overseeing the archaeological field season. Jim and Lynn met in 1989 and were married in 1997 – at Michilimackinac, of course.

“The fort has done everything for me – I even met my wife, Lynn,” Jim said. “She’s the best thing to ever happen to me. I owe the park more than the park owes me.”

“Through all of the decades his love of this place remained evident,” said Steve Brisson, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director. “His great legacy, the wonderful thing about working with him is his changeless-ness, in that he was always so positive and always so committed to this place. He will truly be missed.”

So, what’s next for Jim Evans? He actually has a pretty strict schedule that will feature some variation: first it will be ice fishing, followed by steelhead fishing season, then turkey season, then walleye fishing, followed by goose season, then small game with his dog, followed by bow season, and then firearms season.

“I’ll have to pace myself,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll have the opportunity to rest up and do activities, do the chores, have some more responsibility with cooking. It’s a cycle.”

Jim was leery of trying to start giving names of people he’d like to thank or remember, as he was nervous he’d miss some. He did reach out and call Keith Widder, who originally hired him. “I thanked him, and I need to thank him more.” He also very fondly remembers the time working with Havlena on outreach, and thanked Porter, especially for his support with education outreach.

Jim was also very appreciative of Mackinac Associates, especially for support of the education outreach programs. “I thank them so much for their support. They need to know that a lot of those students come to our sites, and we build on that history when they come. We make these great connections with these groups that come from across the state. Thank you, Mackinac Associates, for helping us educate these young people in a fun, entertaining way.”

While Colonial Michilimackinac will open next spring as it always does, it will, undoubtedly, be different. There is no easy way to replace someone like Jim Evans, and his legacy will not be forgotten.

“It’s nice to be remembered – I guess you’re doing something right if they do remember you,” he said. “It truly has been a joy, and I’m leaving with no regrets. It’s been such rewarding work, and I really mean that. I’ve been blessed.”

Row Covers and Bell Jars

As many visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac know, we have a lot of gardens inside the palisade. The walls of the fort, as well as the geography of northern Michigan, create a unique climate at our site. But what if we need more protection from the weather? In the 18th century, gardeners devised a number of creative ways to extend the growing season and control the climate to shelter their garden plants.

Starting in the 17th century, some gardeners began using a tool called a bell jar, or cloche. Resembling a small bell, glass cloches functioned as a miniature greenhouse. Gardeners placed jars over an individual plant, occasionally with one side propped up to allow air circulation. Sunlight passing through the glass warmed the air inside. While it may be cool outside, the plant underneath the glass stayed cozy and warm, and continued growing where otherwise it may not have survived. This method is useful at Michilimackinac today when we are setting out our warm-weather crops, such as melon and cucumber, which need warm temperatures to grow well.

Another tricky tool that gardeners used was a row cover. Row covers were inexpensively built with paper, glue, a wooden frame, and linseed oil.  Although seemingly fragile and susceptible to damage, even from a heavy rain, paper row covers were surprisingly resilient. Gardeners could expect to get a full summer’s use before the paper would need to be replaced. If we can keep the chickens away from them, our row covers at Michilimackinac usually last from April to October.

The most labor-intensive way of protecting plants in a small garden involved the use of cold frames and hot beds. These wooden boxes needed to be built with “lights” or windows on the top, and were usually oriented toward the southern sky to catch as much light as possible. They worked by trapping heat from the sun under the glass, similar to a cloche but on a larger scale. Gardeners could further heat the interior of their frames by placing them over a pit filled with fresh manure. With a layer of soil on top of the manure, these hot beds could reach temperatures high enough to start planting lettuce outside in a Michigan March.

Various gardening how-to books from the 18th century suggest the use of an assortment of strategies and tools to protect important plants from the cold and the wind. Stop by Colonial Michilimackinac to see if you can spot the cloches, row covers and frames that are keeping our plants happy. Many elements of our gardens, including the cloches, were provided through the generosity of Mackinac Associates. If you would like to contribute to the Michilimackinac gardens, or any other Mackinac State Historic Parks’ project, consider becoming a Mackinac Associate today.

John Askin’s Garden: Lettuce

 As we know, from 1774 to 1775 John Askin used his journal to record activities in his garden. Another of his frequently-mentioned vegetables remains a staple of meals everywhere today: lettuce.

Growing food of any sort at Mackinac was not always easy. Jonathan Carver wrote in 1766 that “The land about Michilimackina for some miles has a sandy, dry barren soil, so that the troops and the traders here can scarsly find sufficient for gardens to raise greens on.” The sand meant that the soil was rather poor at the fort, and that made growing many plants very difficult. We know that the people here who chose to garden had to add soil amendments to succeed, and most people relied heavily on whatever foodstuffs they could import. However, certain foods, like lettuce, did not transport well and had to be grown near where they were to be eaten.

In 1775 Askin mentioned planting lettuce on May 2. Shortly after that, on May 10, he “sowed some more lettice.” This sort of staggered planting meant that his household had a steady supply of good lettuce, and did not have had to deal with a surplus at any one time. It was, and quite often is, the common way of growing these sorts of foods. Practicing succession planting ensures that the plants mature one after the other, rather than all at once. It makes it much easier to manage the amounts of produce and avoids any sort of gluts.

Askin never specified the type of lettuce he was growing but there were generally two types: those that would form heads, and those that modern gardeners call “cut and come again.” The “cut and come again” varieties were valued for a steady production of leaves that could be harvested two or three times from the same plant.

Some of the tougher and more bitter lettuces were often blanched in the garden. Blanching is a technique that makes them sweeter by tying the leaves together or covering them with an upturned bucket or flowerpot, or even burying the plants completely to exclude the light. Keeping the light away from them causes them to stop producing chlorophyll and improves the taste, generally making them whiter, sweeter and more tender.

Garden writers from the time recommended that all types of lettuce be planted in a sheltered location to protect them from the wind. At Michilimackinac we certainly get a lot of wind, so we are careful to protect lettuce by placing the plants strategically. Removing the dead leaves and keeping them free from weeds were also common recommendations for a successful crop.

Lettuces were among the most popular vegetables of 18th century English and French gardens. When Pehr Kalm visited Canada and described the food on the table, he mentioned meat, certainly, but also noted that it was eaten “together with different sorts of salads.” He also observed that “carrots, lettice, Turkish beans, cucumbers, and currant shrubs” were “planted in every farmer’s little kitchen garden.” It sounds charming, to be sure, but it was also perennially practical. Easy access to fresh produce is every cook’s dream. Besides salads, some lettuces would be used in soups or sautéed as a tasty side dish.

John Askin’s journal is used as a valuable source of information that can help us understand what it was like to have a garden at Michilimackinac. Be sure to visit Colonial Michilimackinac to see how our plants are growing. Please also consider joining Mackinac Associates, a friends group which supports our gardening activities and programs and exhibits throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks’ sites.

Support Mackinac Associates Fall Appeal on Giving Tuesday

  Mackinac Associates’ mission is simple and encompassing:  Friends Preserving and Sharing Mackinac’s Heritage.

  Mackinac Associates is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports programs at Mackinac State Historic Parks through membership dues and other gifts. Mackinac Associates has supported needed projects in every area of museum operation, and make possible interpretive programs, publications, exhibits, natural history education, park improvements and more.

  Unless otherwise designated, donations received on Giving Tuesday will go to support this year’s fall campaign raising funds to ensure we can continue the archaeology field project at Colonial Michilimackinac. With your help, 2021 will be the 63rd consecutive season for the Colonial Michilimackinac archaeology field project. Every summer from mid-June to late August, visitors can watch archaeology in progress at Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City, the site of a reconstructed 18th-century fort and fur-trading village. An interpreter is on site to answer visitor questions, explain the process and show sample artifacts.

Brass sideplate from a British trade gun.

  Started in 1959, the excavation at Michilimackinac is one of the longest ongoing projects of its kind in North America. Structures there are built on previously excavated areas and interpretation is guided by what was found at the site in addition to available records documenting that time period. Over a million artifacts have been recovered since 1959, providing valuable information regarding diets, trade goods, firearms and recreation, helping identify between French and British, military and civilian. A pause in this program could leave artifacts exposed and cause deterioration at the site. The longer the project takes, the more the integrity of the site is threatened.

  While public support is always valued and appreciated., it is especially critical during these challenging times. By supporting the upcoming season of the archaeology field project, you will help Mackinac State Historic Parks continue to protect, preserve, and present the rich historic resources of the Straits of Mackinac and make history come alive for all of us!

  2020 has been a challenging year for many and Mackinac State Historic Parks is no exception. We hope you will participate in the fall appeal and Giving Tuesday and help us fund the archaeology field project in 2021.

  To donate to Mackinac Associates on Giving Tuesday or any other day, please visit

http://mackinacassociates.com/donate.htm.

#preservemackinac

#givingtuesday

#thisismackinac

John Askin’s Garden: Potatoes

Potato Flower

Although most food was purchased and shipped to Michilimackinac, local gardens provided an important source of fresh produce for the community’s 18th century residents. We currently maintain over 5,000 square feet of gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac, guided by a variety of historic sources. One of the most interesting 18th century documents at our disposal is the journal of the Michilimackinac merchant John Askin, who recorded his garden activities in 1774 and 1775. In this semi-regular series, we’ll examine some of the plants Askin (or more likely the free and enslaved employees working for him) was cultivating at Michilimackinac in the 1770s.

Askin really liked growing potatoes. They are the most-mentioned vegetable in his journal. If he wrote about his farm or garden, it was highly likely that he was writing about potatoes.

They are first mentioned on April 27, 1774 when he “Sett potatoes at the farm” and once more the next day “sett potatoes at the farm.”  The next month he planted more potatoes on four different occasions. It appears they grew well over the summer, and he was able to dig most of them on the 8th of November just a couple of days after a 4-inch snowfall. We finally see the last mention of in 1774 on November 14 when he “dug the last of my potatoes.”

With one season of cultivation under his belt, Askin decided that he could perhaps get a better potato crop if he changed the ways in which he was planting them. In 1775 he decided to try some experiments. Experimenting in the garden or on the farm is something that growers love, no matter the time period. In the 18th century there was a huge interest in how things grew and the various ways of improving crops. Gardeners around the world were developing new methods for growing plants and it is no surprise that it was happening at Michilimackinac as well.

On August 29, 1775, Askin wrote that the potatoes were put into the ground “with a little dung in the holes.” This is different from his previous entries where he does not mention planting with any sort of manure at all. Gardeners like Philip Miller wrote pages and pages about the worth of various sorts of animal and vegetable manure in the 18th century. Even George Washington experimented with various types of muck to see which would grow the best beans, etc. While Askin does not tell us the sort that he used, he did have a small number of cows and horses. Both animals produce excellent dung with superb growing qualities.

Digging up potatoes at Colonial Michilimackinac.

He also “Set three hills of potatoes near the pease” on October 28. In each of these hills he employed a different method of planting. In the first hill he put “one potatoe cut in 3,” and in the second and third hills he put “3 whole potatoes” about “4 inches deep.” Modern gardeners still debate over the necessity and results of planting potatoes whole versus cutting them into pieces. It seems like cutting the potatoes can potentially leave the pieces more vulnerable to disease. However, if you have a small amount available to plant you will get more by dividing the tubers that you do have. Unfortunately, John himself did not tell us which side of the debate he stood on after his experiments.

No matter how you plant them, potatoes are a welcome addition to any garden. They are an easy and reliable vegetable to grow whether it is 1774, 1775 or 2020. The next time you come to Colonial Michilimackinac see if you can spot the potatoes growing in our gardens in the same way they were being grown nearly 250 years ago. Check back for future entries about other parts of John Askin’s garden, and consider contributing to Mackinac Associates, which makes our gardens and many other activities possible.

18th Century Elections

With Election Day 2020 upon us, let’s take a look at British elections over two centuries ago.

In most of Great Britain and its growing empire, as well as in the rebel American colonies, the franchise, or right to vote, was very limited. In general, only white men over age 21 who also owned a specific amount of land (upon which they paid taxes) were allowed to vote. As a result, with few exceptions women, Native Americans, free and enslaved Black people, and the poor or anyone who did not own enough property were all excluded from voting. Catholics were also generally denied the right to vote. Election practices and timing also varied between Britain and the various American colonies.

William Hogarth, The Polling, 1758. William Hogarth cynically satirized the voting process in this view of a rural British election in 1758. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, New York Public Library

Despite the limits of the franchise, British citizens at home and abroad were well aware of the civil rights theoretically extended to all Britons, and acted accordingly to protect what they felt were their inalienable rights and privileges. These feelings were especially pronounced when dealing with the British army on election days. Many Britons viewed the small standing army with suspicion, believing it to be a potential agent of tyranny. As a result, in Britain and the American colonies, troops were usually sent away from polling locations, or out of towns and cities entirely, on election days. In some ways this was a merely practical matter, as voting often took place at roadside inns. In Britain, troops were also quartered in these inns, so sending them away during an election freed up space for voters. However, stationing troops near polling locations could quickly inflame the local population with accusations of voter intimidation, especially in the American colonies. In New York City in 1768, for instance, General Thomas Gage, who commanded all British forces in America, confined troops to their barracks and prohibited them from having “entirely any intercourse with the inhabitants during the said election.” A year later in Boston, troops were again restricted to their barracks during the May 1769 election, but voters still complained. They requested that the British commander completely remove his troops from the city so that voters “should be in the full enjoyment of their rights of British subjects upon this important occasion.” When the officer refused, colonial authorities claimed that “armed men, sent under the pretense indeed of aiding the civil authority” had in fact meddled with the election.[1]

People at Michilimackinac regularly discussed politics, even if their newspapers were out of date.

In Quebec, which included Michilimackinac after the colony was significantly expanded via the Quebec Act of 1774, there was no elected legislature as there was in other American colonies. Instead, a royally-appointed council comprised of civil, military, and church officials assisted the governor with colonial administration. However, that did not prevent Michilimackinac residents from remaining engaged with colonial and national politics, even following Parliamentary races in Britain. Although sometimes months out of date, newspapers and letters carried updates on developments in the Atlantic colonies and Great Britain. The political world in which Michilimackinac existed in the late 18th century was complex and evolving, reflecting the combined political and civil traditions of Britain and French Canada (many of which were carried over into the political theories and framework of the new United States). Although elections likely did not take place here, politics were just as much a part of daily life at Michilimackinac as they are today. Ask about 18th century politics next time you visit Colonial Michilimackinac, and consider joining Mackinac Associates, which makes many of our programs and exhibits possible.

[1] John McCurdy, Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution, (Cornell University Press, 2019), 171, 185-86

2020 Archaeology Wrap-Up

Lead seal stamed with the mark of the Compagnie des Indes.

The second half of the archaeological field season had similar themes to the first half (see the first half recap here). Again, the most interesting artifact came from the central root cellar. It was a lead seal stamped with the mark of the Compagnie des Indes. The CDI was a French colonial enterprise chartered by the king. The seal would have been attached to a bolt of cloth or other textile imported by the company. It dates to between 1717 and 1769. This, combined with the stratigraphy (layers of soil) surrounding it, indicates that this cellar was in use during the French occupation of the house (mid-1730s to early 1760s) as well as during the later British occupation.

Possible French wall trench.

During the final week of the field season, we saw the first possible evidence of the north wall of the house. It is a strip of gray sand cutting through gold sand. In other units of the southeast rowhouse, the French house is a few feet narrower along the north wall than the British house, but has a porch, which the British house does not. The square the possible trench appeared in is the deepest in its east-west row (the row 210 feet south of the water gate), so it remains to be seen if it extends to the east and west. We do not expect to find the British wall trench and French porch joists until we open the row of squares to the north (the row 205 feet south of the water gate). After the excitement of removing the deep post in the first half of the season, we did not find the bottom of any more squares this summer. We opened the final two squares in the 210 row in the second half of the season. The easternmost is currently at the modern/colonial interface. The westernmost is in the layer of rubble created during the 1781 demolition of the fort. As was the case elsewhere in the house, there were a variety of ceramic sherds present. These included a fragment of a creamware handle, possibly from a pitcher, and a fragment of a polychrome tin-glazed earthenware teacup, similar to one found late last season.

Site packed for the winter.

We have now packed the site for winter and returned to the lab. Watch for a blog post in late winter to see what we learn as we clean and research this season’s finds.  

Michilimackinac’s Artillery

Over the past few years the staff at Mackinac State Historic Parks has diligently been adding reproductions of Michilimackinac’s artillery throughout the site to provide visitors an accurate representation of what the site looked like in the 1770s. Join Curator of History Craig Wilson as he takes us for a tour of Michilimackinac and its artillery.
 

Archaeology Update

Trade ring with what can be interpreted as a “V.”

Halfway through the archaeology season we have found some interesting artifacts, the end of some features, and more questions.

Cufflink, or sleeve button, with an image that could be a classical or religious figure. 

The root cellar in the southeast corner of the house has yielded exciting artifacts for several seasons. This summer began the same way, with a button and part of the bone handle from a knife. Now some horizontal planks are appearing, possibly evidence of a wood floor. We tentatively identified a second root cellar in the center of the house late last season. This still seems to be the case. Several interesting artifacts have come from this area. The first was an intact engraved brass “Jesuit” trade ring.

Iron breech plug from a flintlock muzzleloader. 

The design can be interpreted as the letter “V,” the Roman numeral “V,” or something more abstract. The second part was part of a cufflink, which would have been called a sleeve button by its eighteenth-century owner. It has a glass or rock crystal set with an intaglio bust. The bearded man could be a classical or religious figure. More research will be done on this piece over the winter. The final artifact, so far, was an iron breech plug from a flintlock muzzleloader. It blocked the end of the barrel where it connected to the wood stock. It was discarded because the tang broke off. It is only the fifth gun part found in the house. We are eager to see what else this area has in store for us.

Interior post, located about five feet below the colonial surface. 

For six seasons, we have been excavating around a post in the interior of the house. We have finally reached the bottom, six and a half feet below our datum, probably about five feet below the colonial surface. It is sitting on a flat rock. Located near the southeast root cellar, it could have been a structural support for the rowhouse unit. Given its depth, it could also be a remnant of the first (1715) fort. We are exploring both possibilities. What will the second half of the season hold? Stay tuned to this blog and the MSHP social media channels to find out. If visiting Mackinac is in your plans for the summer, come out and visit the site in person. We are excavating in the middle of Colonial Michilimackinac, and work will continue daily (weather permitting) through August 22.

What’s Growing in the Garden? Lovage!

   While lovage is not seen much in gardens today, our ancestors would have likely been familiar with this useful plant. It appears in gardening books, cookbooks, and medicinal recipes dating as far back as the Roman Empire. Today, we grow it in the gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Lovage sprout in April.

   Lovage tastes something like a cross between parsley and celery, with a very strong flavor. All parts of the plant can be used for a variety of recipes. The dried seeds are delicious when they are used like caraway in breads or cakes. The roots can be chopped up and added to soups, the stalks are delicious when candied, and the leaves are great in soups and salads or with cheese and eggs. In addition to being used as a food, medicinal recipes claimed that lovage could help with hysteria, reduce freckles, cure stomach aches, and even help with bladder issues.

   This perennial just started to make its way out of the earth in April. Those little sprouts are now 5-7 feet tall and tower over every other plant in the garden. The flowers draw pollinators, which are incredibly beneficial to the garden. We are using lovage in our foodways programs, so stop by and see this interesting and valuable plant. Visit our website for more information, and be sure to check out Mackinac Associates, a friends group which makes many of our activities, including the gardens, possible.