Mackinac State Historic Parks is a family of living history museums and nature parks in northern Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac and is an agency within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment. Its sites—which are accredited by the American Association of Museums—include Fort Mackinac, Mackinac Island State Park, The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, the American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum, and McGulpin House on Mackinac Island, and Michilimackinac State Park, Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek, and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City. Combined attendance is 1.2 million people each year. The living history sites are open daily from early May to early October. The natural history sites are open year round.
At Mackinac State Historic Parks, we protect, preserve and present Mackinac’s rich historical and natural resources to provide outstanding educational and recreational experiences for the public.
National Park Beginnings
The Mackinac Island State Park Commission was created in 1895 to supervise Mackinac Island State Park, Michigan’s first state park, which had been transferred to the state by the United States government. For 20 years prior to this, the federal government administered these lands as Mackinac National Park, the nation’s second such park after Yellowstone. Today, the park includes the 14 original buildings of Fort Mackinac, which were built by the British military starting in 1780, as well as several other historic structures and about 1,800 acres of land. More than 800,000 visitors come to the island each year.
Revenue Bond Program
In 1958, the Commission embarked on an ambitious plan to sell revenue bonds to finance the preservation and development of its historic sites. The program was modeled after financing used for the construction of the Mackinac Bridge. It has allowed for successful restoration and historical programs at Colonial Michilimackinac, Fort Mackinac, Historic Downtown, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and Historic Mill Creek. The bonds are now retired, and museum operating costs are primarily paid from admission revenues and the proceeds of publication and museum store sales. The revenue bond program has created one of the most visited history museum complexes in the nation, with nearly 400,000 visitors each season.
Mackinac Island State Park was created in 1895. In 1904, the site of Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City was added to the Commission’s jurisdiction. From 1715, when it was established by the French, to 1780-81 when it was dismantled by the British and moved to Mackinac Island, Michilimackinac had been a thriving fur-trade community. When deeded to the Commission, the 27-acre site was a popular trailer park and camp site.
Historic Mill Creek joined the park system in 1975. This 625-acre nature park with a reconstructed water-powered sawmill is located on the shore of Lake Huron 3.5 miles southeast of Mackinaw City. In 1972, archaeologists discovered that a sawmill on this site was used to produce lumber and grain. In 2008 it was renamed Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, but will revert back to its original name, Historic Mill Creek, in 2024.
In addition to preserving and interpreting Mackinac’s cultural heritage, the park system focuses on natural history. Summer-season naturalists at Historic Mill Creek lead nature talks and tours to educate visitors about Mackinac’s water, woods, and wildlife. Natural history interpretive signs are located throughout Historic Mill Creek and at Mackinac Island State Park, and park system publications support this message.
Restoration at Fort Mackinac and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse
Since 1958, Fort Mackinac has been the subject of extensive research by professional historians, archaeologists, and architects. Michigan’s oldest buildings have been restored, preserved, and are brought to life through dynamic exhibits and lively interpretive programs depicting American soldier and family life from the 1880s, the height of Mackinac’s resort era. Nearly 200,000 guests visit Fort Mackinac each year.
From June through August, costumed interpreters at five of the parks’ historic downtown buildings tell stories of island life. Topics covered include the fur trade (American Fur Company Store and Biddle House), architecture (McGulpin House), medicine (Dr. Beaumont Museum), religion (Mission Church), and blacksmithing (Benjamin Blacksmith Shop). Additionally, staff present period cooking and craft demonstrations at the Biddle House.
After a period in which it served as the focal point of a maritime park, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse re-opened to the public with a restored interior, new interactive exhibits, and period settings in 2004. A fog signal building (now an admission area and gift shop) and barn also occupy the site: the barn and surrounding landscaping will be the focus of continued restoration in the future.
Reconstruction at Colonial Michilimackinac and Historic Mill Creek
In 1959, archaeological excavation at the site of Michilimackinac revealed the remains of a village and palisades, which had been the center of the upper Great Lakes fur trade. In 1960, the park staff began to systematically reconstruct the village according to archaeological and historical research and, each summer since, a team of archaeologists has continued this work. Colonial Michilimackinac hosts nearly 100,000 visitors each year.
Interpretation at the fort and village focuses on the British 1770s military and fur-trading era. Reconstruction of Historic Mill Creek’s water-powered sawmill and the development of its nature trails began in 1977 with a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and it opened in 1984. Every summer, nearly 50,000 visitors meet interpreters dressed as 1820s sawyers and millwrights who run the mill and use its lumber for such projects as reconstructing the Millwright’s House.
To fulfill its mission, Mackinac State Historic Parks operate programs of archaeological and historical research, environmental and historic preservation, museum collections, publicationsm and interpretation. The parks employ a diverse group of museum and operations staff responsible for the care of 2,700 acres of land, National Historic Landmark buildings, more than 1 million archaeological and historical artifacts, documents, photographs, and museum exhibitions. The Mackinac Heritage Center on Mackinac Island was built for the care of historical collections; archaeological collections are conserved and stored in the Keith Widder Library in the Eugene and Marian Petersen Archaeology and History Center in Mackinaw City. The Petersen Center is also home to the parks’ research library.
Mackinac State Historic Parks currently takes two programs into classrooms around the state: “Historic Mackinac on Tour” allows students to explore the complex cultural relationships that powered 18th century Michigan. “Winter in Michigan’s North Woods: Amazing Animal Adaptations” is an interactive presentation that explores what plants and animals need to survive, the climate of our region, and why the seasons change. In addition, these programs and four others are available in a virtual format. On average, costumed interpreters visit about 10,000 students in 65 schools throughout Michigan each year to teach them about Mackinac history. Mackinac Associates, the parks’ friends and fundraising organization, is an active sponsor of this program. Education packets, videos, slideshows, artifact boxes, and curriculum materials are available to teachers; school site visits to the parks are encouraged as well.
Mackinac State Historic Parks video