A wooden maple sugar mold.

Maple Taps at Mackinac

A wooden maple sugar mold.

Maple Sugar Mold
(Canadian Museum of History, 71-359)

For countless generations, Anishinaabek residents have gathered sap from sugar maple trees each spring, boiling it into pure maple sugar. Near the Straits of Mackinac, historical accounts show maple sugaring was especially common at nearby Bois Blanc Island and at L’Arbre Croche, along the Lake Michigan shore. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, which can make about 8 pounds of sugar. Typically, granulated sugar was packed into containers (mokoks), fashioned of birch bark, sewn together with spruce roots. Maple treats were also packed into wooden molds and decorative bark containers, sold for the local tourist trade. Mind-boggling amounts of maple sugar were produced annually at the straits, with records of more than 200,000 pounds (100 tons) being shipped by Mackinac traders at in a single season.

 As the month of April 2023 winds down, Michigan’s maple sugaring season has already come to a close. When maple buds start to open, sap turns cloudy and assumes a bitter taste. As temperatures remain above freezing both day and night, pressure also drops inside trees, causing sap to slow and taps to dry up completely. Historically at Mackinac, colder weather usually persisted later into spring. Most seasons, the straits would not be ice free until mid-April, when ship traffic could finally resume. In the woods, maple sugaring season would often last through April, or even into early May.

A large sugar maple near the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery on Mackinac Island.

Sugar Maple near Mackinac Island’s Post Cemetery

 While most sugaring was done nearby, at least a few maples were tapped on Mackinac Island in the early 1880s. On April 28, 1883, Fort Mackinac’s post surgeon, Dr. William H. Corbusier, instructed his four young sons (along with those of Captain Edwin Sellers) in the age-old practice. Their mother, Fanny Dunbar Corbusier, later recorded the special memory. She wrote, “Father instructed the boys how to tap the sugar maple in the woods, collect the sap, boil it down over an open fire, and test it to learn when it was ready to crystalize into sugar. The pleasure derived by father and sons was very great. One day they tapped eleven trees and caught four gallons of sap.”

 The perspective recorded by their 10-year-old son, Harold, was somewhat more candid. He wrote, “The Sellers boys and we went into the woods at the foot of the hill on the west side of Fort Holmes to gather maple sap. We ate our lunch out here. We taped eleven trees and brought home four galons of sap and would of had more but we wasted a great deal.” One can easily imagine the sticky adventure as eight boys, the oldest just 12 years of age, attempted to collect sap and perform the slow practice of transforming it into sugar. Today, large sugar maples still grow on the west side of Fort Holmes hill, not far from the Post Cemetery.

The headstone of Captain Edwin Sellers at the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery on Mackinac Island.

Capt. Edwin Sellers headstone

 Less than one year later, on April 12, 1884, Captain Edwin Sellers was laid to rest under the shade of Mackinac’s maples. In early April, Fort Mackinac’s beloved commandant fell ill, suffering a sudden and severe bout of pneumonia. “We all loved him,” wrote Captain Charles Davis, “and there will ever remain in the hearts of his friends a recollection of his manly worth, earnest devotion to duty, fidelity in friendship and generous sympathies that will serve to keep his memory cherished so long as one remains.”

 During your next visit to Mackinac, stop at the Post Cemetery and look for the final resting place of Edwin Sellers. Perhaps the maples growing nearby were tapped 140 years ago by eight rambunctious boys. Listen closely, and you just might hear faint echoes of sweet laughter amidst the rustle of sugar maple leaves.

Preserving History and the Natural Beauty of the Straits

Enchanting. Relaxing. Magical. Mackinac evokes so many memories and images of a special place that has allowed individuals and families to create memories and unique experiences. In managing more than 80% of Mackinac Island and the properties at Michilimackinac State Park and Mill Creek State Park, Mackinac State Historic Parks has the unique ability to protect and preserve our most treasured natural and historical resources in the Straits of Mackinac. And through the park’s friends’ group, Mackinac Associates, you can be a part of preserving these wonderful resources for generations to come, too.

 Since 1982, Mackinac Associates has provided over $3 million of support for Mackinac State Historic Parks with funds raised through membership fees, sponsorships, and fundraising campaigns. These funds have supported an expansive and remarkable list of projects both large and small in every area of Mackinac State Historic Parks operation. Gifts made through Mackinac Associates make possible the interpretive programs, publications, new and renovated exhibits, natural history education, and park improvements that visitors enjoy every year.

 How can you be a part of preserving and sharing Mackinac’s heritage?

  1. A cannon firing demonstration at Fort Mackinac. Become A Member

 Mackinac Associates members are passionate about preserving the rich history and natural beauty of the Straits of Mackinac and can treasure the fact that they have a direct hand in helping to protect, preserve, and present Mackinac’s rich historic and natural resources.  There are two branches of membership – Annual Members and Heritage Season Pass holders.

 Annual members receive a wide range of social and education benefits, including:

  •  Unlimited admission to all Mackinac State Historic Parks sites during the operating season
  • 15% discount at all MSHP museum stores and on the Forest Adventure Experience at Mill Creek
  • Guest admission passes at a reduced rate
  • One-year subscription to Curiosities, our newsletter
  • Invitations to Mackinac Associates member-only events and free admission for annual members to special MSHP events and programs such as Fort Fright and A Colonial Christmas

 Heritage Season Pass holders enjoy free admission at all Mackinac State Historic Park sites for two adults and children or grandchildren under age 18 during the current season. Heritage Season Passes expire October 31 of each year and do not include the additional benefits available to annual members.

 Learn more about available member benefits and how to become a Mackinac Associates member today: https://mackinacassociates.com/benefits

  1. Make a Donation

 Every dollar has an impact. Mackinac Associates helps fund projects both large and small and this past year was no exception with nearly $200,000 in projects sponsored across Mackinac State Historic Parks sites and operations, including:

  • -Continuation of the McGulpin House Dendroarchaeology Study
  • -Purchasing of supplies for the blacksmith shop at Colonial Michilimackinac and the repurposing of a barn building to move the blacksmith shop outside fort walls to a more historically correct location
  • -Updates to the Dr. Beaumont Museum exhibition in the American Fur Company building
  • -Colonial Michilimackinac Southwest Rowhouse addition design plan
  • -Sign upgrades and replacements for Mackinac State Historic Parks
  • -Electrical upgrades for Schoolhouse building in Fort Mackinac
  • -Replacement circuit panel in Hill Quarters
  • -Touchscreens within exhibits at Fort Mackinac and Colonial Michilimackinac
  • -New projector for Fort Mackinac Post Hospital
  • -Funding for The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum annual art contest prize money
  • -Support for Mackinac State Historic Parks’ education outreach programs
A trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.The dendroarchaeology study at the McGulpin House.

Entrance to the Dr. Beaumont exhibit at the American Fur Co. Store. A blacksmith at work at Colonial Michilimackinac. With your help, we can continue to support the programs, projects, and park improvements throughout all Mackinac State Historic Parks that will be impactful for many years to come. To make a donation and see other projects we have funded, visit https://mackinacassociates.squarespace.com/current-completed-projects.

  1. Leave A Legacy

 In managing more than 80% of Mackinac Island and the properties at Michilimackinac State Park and Mill Creek State Park in Mackinaw City, Mackinac State Historic Parks has the unique ability to protect and preserve the most treasured natural and historical resources in the Straits of Mackinac. Through the Mackinac Associates Legacy Society, you can help us preserve these wonderful resources for generations to come. Common considerations when thinking about planned giving include remembering Mackinac Associates in your will, designating our organization as a beneficiary, or the gift of retirement assets or stocks. If you have already remembered us in your estate planning, please let us know so that we can extend our gratitude and provide the recognition you deserve.

 Join us in this partnership to ensure future generations will be able to visit and enjoy our special place: https://mackinacassociates.squarespace.com/current-completed-projects.

  1. Support Our Wish List

A view of Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.  If you enjoy the interpretation and programs at Mackinac State Historic Parks, we support an ongoing wish list of items requested by staff for the Parks’ gardens such as plants, seeds and tools, period-appropriate clothing and accessories for our hard-working interpreters, equipment for our blacksmiths, carpenters, and fort soldiers, and publications for the Keith Widder Library. Items on our wish list usually range between $50 and $300 and represent supplies that we can always use more of as we continue our interpretive programs and demonstrations throughout our sites.

A historic interpreter watering flowers at Colonial Michilimackinac.  A gift of any size can fulfill a tangible and essential need, to help us fulfil our current needs, visit https://mackinacassociates.squarespace.com/fund-a-need.

 Mackinac State Historic Parks has the unique ability to protect and preserve our most treasured historic and natural resources in the Straits of Mackinac. Thanks to the generosity of members, donors and sponsors, Mackinac Associates has provided over $3,000,000 in support of programs, projects and park improvements since its inception. Through Mackinac Associates you too can be part of preserving these wonderful resources for generations to come. To learn more, visit https://mackinacassociates.com/.

Artifacts stored at Mill Creek.

Archaeological Collections Management at MSHP and the IMLS

Mackinac State Historic Parks has been conducting archaeological excavations at its sites for over sixty years. This has resulted in the recovery of over one million artifacts and reams of field notes, maps and other documentation of the excavations. Because excavating a site destroys it, preserving these artifacts and records is a crucial part of MSHP’s stewardship mission.

Field books stored in the Keith Widder Library in the Petersen Center in Mackinaw City.

Archaeological field records stored in the Petersen Center in Mackinaw City.

 For many years the artifacts were housed in Lansing, while the records were stored in Mackinaw City. Paper records were microfilmed, with the microfilm stored in a separate location as a physical back-up copy. Today the paper records are scanned instead.

 In the mid-1990s, MSHP purchased a computerized collections database package. We subsequently received a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to enter all the archaeological artifact catalog information into the database. Three data entry clerks were hired for two years to accomplish this task. The biggest gap in the initial data entry project was that the artifacts were still in Lansing, so their exact storage locations could not be entered.

Archaeological artifact cabinet in the Petersen Center in Mackinaw City.

Archaeological artifact cabinets in the Petersen Center.

 With the completion of the Petersen Center in 2001, the archaeological collections were moved north. The vast majority are housed in the Petersen Center, but building materials, such as chinking and nails, which have less strict climate control requirements, are stored at Mill Creek. Once the collection was moved north, staff attempted to update the database with location information, but the task was too big to complete alongside other duties. In 2010 another IMLS grant was secured to hire three inventory assistants. Over the course of two years, they physically inventoried and updated the database record for all the Michilimackinac archaeological artifacts housed in the Petersen Center.

Artifacts stored at Mill Creek.

Building materials stored at Mill Creek.

 While the Michilimackinac collection makes up the majority of the archaeological collection, major excavations have been carried out at Fort Mackinac and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park as well. Last year MSHP received another IMLS grant to inventory and update records for the Mill Creek artifacts and some of the Fort Mackinac artifacts. This grant will also include inventory and re-housing of a portion of the architectural artifacts stored at Mill Creek. This project began in October 2022 and will continue through August 2025.

Staff member Alex Michnick inventorying items.

Alex Michnick inventorying Mill Creek ceramics.

 These grants have assisted MSHP in fulfilling the preservation aspect of its mission. By making the archaeological collection more accessible to staff and researchers, they also have made presenting the results of our archaeological investigations easier as well. Archaeological artifacts are exhibited to the public at all MSHP sites providing a tangible connection to the lives of the people who lived and worked at the sites in the past.

 

Archaeology at Fort Mackinac – Provision Storehouse

The “Store House” is the structure labeled “I” on the west end of the fort on this drawing from 1796. Credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

One of the largest archaeological excavations to take place at Fort Mackinac was at the site of the original provision storehouse. This excavation was carried out during the summers of 1981-82 by University of South Florida field schools directed by Dr. Roger T. Grange Jr. These were part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of Fort Mackinac. Dr. Grange’s final report was published as Number 12 in the Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Archaeological Completion Report Series (Excavations at Fort Mackinac, 1980-1982: The Provision Storehouse – Mackinac State Historic Parks | Mackinac State Historic Parks (mackinacparks.com) and was the basis of this blog post.

 The provision storehouse is an unusual structure because is has been excavated twice, in two different locations. It was originally built by British soldiers just inside the water gate at Michilimackinac (on the south side of the straits) in 1773. Being a relatively new building, it was moved to Mackinac Island when the garrison was relocated in 1781 and appears on early maps of Fort Mackinac.

 The mainland site was excavated in 1959 and the storehouse reconstructed in 1961. Today it houses the orientation film at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Scissors from the early American occupation.

Leather shoe parts from post War of 1812 deposit.

 On the island, the structure served as a storehouse through the first British occupation (1780-1796), the first American occupation (1796-1812) and the second British occupation (1812-1815). After the War of 1812, it was converted into a barracks, with workspace for military tailors and shoemakers, and a hospital. Its use as a hospital (1815-1827) overlapped with the service of Fort Mackinac’s most famous post surgeon, Dr. William Beaumont. A portion of the storehouse appears as a log structure next to the 1827 hospital painted by Mary Nexsen Thompson shortly before it burned down days before completion.

Microscope lens, possibly used by Dr. Beaumont.

Mary Nexsen Thompson painting of 1827 hospital with portion of storehouse. Credit: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

 A completely new hospital building was constructed in 1828, over the middle of the storehouse/1827 hospital, but oriented north-south instead of northeast-southwest like the original. A portion of the west end of the provision storehouse behind the 1828 hospital was the area of the archaeological excavation. No remnants of the provision storehouse are visible today, but you can stand on the original location while touring Fort Mackinac (opens May 4, 2023). You can also visit the reconstruction of the original provision storehouse at Colonial Michilimackinac (opens May 10, 2023) and learn more about Dr. Beaumont’s work at the American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum in downtown Mackinac Island (opens June 3, 2023).

 

2022 Mackinac State Historic Parks Collections Acquisitions

In 2022, the collections committee accessioned 176 objects into the Mackinac Island State Park Commission collection and archives. In addition to several purchases, over 90 items were donated to the collection. The summer collections internship program was restarted and Kendra Ellis, from the Maritime Studies Program at East Carolina University, was hired. She assisted Curator of Collections Brian Jaeschke with the inventory of Fort Mackinac buildings and Special Storage inside the Heritage Center.

 In 2010, five pen and ink drawings of Mackinac Island were loaned to the park for exhibit in The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. The loan was changed to a donation early in the year. The five drawings were done in the early 1840s by Francis Melick Cayley who moved to Canada in 1836. The views are some of the most precise pre-photographic images of the island known to exist. They are so well proportioned that it is believed he may have employed artificial means to prepare the sketches, such as a “camera obscura,” which permitted projection of a scene onto paper for tracing. The drawings continue to be displayed in the main gallery of the art museum.

 During the course of procuring images for the new Dr. William Beaumont Museum exhibit this winter, the park purchased four paintings of the doctor and his wife from the Wayne County Medical Society of Southeast Michigan. Two of the paintings are miniature portraits of Dr. Beaumont and his wife Deborah. It is believed they were done around the time of their marriage in 1821. The other two paintings are reproductions of images showing Beaumont later in life. The portraits need conservation work and will eventually be placed on display.

 The park purchased two black and white panoramic photographs showing Mackinac Island scenes. The first image, by island photographer William Gardiner, was taken from a naval vessel, quite possibly the USS Michigan. The ship is entering the harbor with downtown, Fort Mackinac and Grand Hotel visible. The second image was taken by H.J. Rossiter from the fort pasture and shows the officers’ and commanding officer’s quarters, Fort Mackinac and Trinity Episcopal Church. The images were taken around 1900 and give us a unique historic glimpse of the island.

 Donated to the park collection this summer was a painting with a unique perspective from a path behind Trinity Episcopal Church looking toward Fort Mackinac. The oil on canvas by German-born Curt Bielefeldt was done sometime between 1940 and 1960. He lived in Buffalo before moving to Detroit in the early 1930s. He worked in oils and watercolors and was also known for murals. He was a cousin of German boxer Max Schmeling. Bielefeldt won the grand prize in the 1930 Buffalo Society of Artists in the Albright Gallery. His work was displayed in many locations including the Detroit Institute of Art and the J.L. Hudson Company Gallery.

 This is only a small sample of the type of objects Mackinac State Historic Parks collects during a given year.  We are always looking for donations and items to purchase which will help the commission to continue its mission of educating the public about the history of the region.

What’s New for 2023?

As the calendar flips to the new year, the Mackinac State Historic Parks crew is busy preparing its historic sites and parks for an exciting 2023 season.

 “We are excited to welcome visitors to experience our parks and numerous attractions,” said Steve Brisson, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director. “We have added a variety of new exhibits and programs over the last few years, and our staff is busy preparing to have everything ready for our spring openings.”

2023 marks the 125th anniversary of the automobile ban on Mackinac Island. Mackinac State Historic Parks will mark this occasion with a special event on July 22, complete with an 1886 Benz Motorwagen on the island. The “horseless vehicle” will also be on display outside Fort Mackinac during the day on July 22. A special commemorative logo has been developed and will be found on merchandise at Mackinac State Historic Parks museum stores, as well as on the license plates found on carriages throughout the island. A new vignette, written by former Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Director Phil Porter, will also be published for the anniversary.

“Mackinac Island is famous for many things, but the century and a quarter-old ban on motorized vehicles is truly at the top of why it is such a special place,” Brisson said.

Staying on the island, Fort Mackinac opens for the 2023 season on May 4. The museum store and theater have swapped spaces, with the store now in the Commissary and the theater now in the Soldiers’ Barracks. The swap is part of a larger interpretive plan for the barracks which will happen in stages in coming years. The Fort Mackinac Museum Store will continue to feature publications, apparel, and one-of-a-kind souvenirs.

Additionally at Fort Mackinac, a new program titled “Soldier’s Gear and Quartermasters’ Storehouse” will allow visitors to see what soldiers would have been issued at Fort Mackinac in the 1880s and how that had an impact on their daily lives. Classic programs, such as the rifle and cannon firing demonstrations, will feature fresh perspectives. Other programs will highlight the changing face of Fort Mackinac, the historic residents who called the fort home, a look at Mackinac as a national park, the role women played at the fort, and what happened in the evening at Fort Mackinac.

“We hope to display the unique mix of the military culture and tourism at Fort Mackinac in those last years of Mackinac National Park,” explained Jack Swartzinski, Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Interpretation Coordinator.

The Tea Room at Fort Mackinac, operated by Grand Hotel, will feature new menu items for the 2023 season, and, as always, will feature one of the most stunning views in Michigan. Perhaps the way to make a Fort Mackinac visit most memorable is firing the opening cannon salute, which is available to one guest daily. More information can be found here.

Elsewhere on Mackinac Island, the McGulpin House, one of the oldest residential structures on the island (built in 1790) and a rare and excellent display of French Canadian domestic architecture, will receive brand new exhibits for the 2023 season. The Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, shares the continuing store of the Anishnaabek on Mackinac Island, with daily interpretive programs and engaging exhibits. The Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, located next door to the Biddle House, is a working blacksmith shop that dives into the 1950s and the changing culture of workers on Mackinac Island. The American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum received a new exhibit in 2022. Admission to all of these sites is included with a Fort Mackinac or Historic Downtown Mackinac ticket.

At The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, located in front of Fort Mackinac in Marquette Park, a new juried art exhibition will debut on the second floor – “A Mackinac Day.” There’s always something special about being able to spend a day on Mackinac. The sun seems to shine a little brighter. The sky seems a little bluer. Even days where things don’t go to plan can seem perfect. Everybody has their “Mackinac Day.” The gallery will be on display from May 12 – October 8. An art attendant, new for 2023, will guide guests through the museum and provide a better understanding of the art and artists who have created art inspired by the Straits of Mackinac. Additionally, eight artists-in-residence will stay on Mackinac Island throughout the summer. Each artist will host a special, free workshop on the second Wednesday of their residency.

The Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, and The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum open for the 2023 season on May 12. The McGulpin House and American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum open June 3.

Special events at Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island include Twilight Turtle Treks on January 7, February 7 and March 7; the Fort2Fort Five Mile Challenge May 13; the annual Vintage Base Ball game July 29; special activities for July 4; special history evening programs including a guided tour of Historic Downtown Mackinac as it would have looked in the 1830s and a tour highlighting the creation of the village of Mackinac Island; special nature and birdwatching tours; night sky programs at Fort Holmes and Arch Rock; bike tours looking at Mackinac’s forgotten features and the War of 1812; and much more. More information can be found at mackinacparks.com/events.

The year 1780 will be explored at Colonial Michilimackinac, in Mackinaw City, where mischief and mayhem reigned. 1780 saw this isolated British outpost become a scene of paranoia, military mischief, and, from a certain point of view, mutiny. A special daily program will explore this spirit of dissention and disobedience that destabilized Michilimackinac’s garrison.

Other programs throughout the day explore the rich history of the site and showcase how it was more than a military outpost. Get an up-close look at the merchandise that passed through Michilimackinac during the height of the fur trade; explore dining culture at a Merchant’s House; learn about the enslaved community at Michilimackinac; explore the 5,500 square feet of gardens during an engaging tour; have tea at a British Trader’s home and dive into the complexities of British society; find out what civilians and soldiers were up to; and, of course, feel the power of Michilimackinac’s weapons with musket and artillery firings.

The Mackinac State Historic Parks’ archaeology program will enter its 65th season in 2023. Work will continue in House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. Archaeologists will be out daily (weather permitting) during the summer months. Guests will have the opportunity to see the most recent finds at Colonial Michilimackinac with a new “Recent Excavations” display inside the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center.

Guests now have two opportunities to fire weapons at Colonial Michilimackinac: an opening cannon blast, at 9:30 a.m., or they can fire the full complement of weapons at Guns Across the Straits. Reservations for either program can be made by calling (231) 436-4100. More information can be found here.

Special events at Colonial Michilimackinac include exhilarating “Fire at Night” programs, deep dives into Michilimackinac’s maritime history, a celebration of the King’s Birth-day on June 4, a look at Askin’s Men and Women at Michilimackinac in August, a moonlit Michilimackinac evening, the ever-popular Fort Fright, and A Colonial Christmas. More information can be found at mackinacparks.com/events.

Colonial Michilimackinac opens for the 2023 season May 10.

“Colonial Michilimackinac will continue to provide an interesting and unique look into the early history of the Straits of Mackinac in 2023, and we invite you to explore Colonial Michilimackinac and the exciting history of the great lakes fur trade,” said LeeAnn Ewer, Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Curator of Interpretation.

The ongoing restoration of Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse continues in 2023, as an oil house will be reconstructed on the property. The last few years have seen several gallery openings at the lighthouse – the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum, a Science and Technology Exhibit, and the Marshall Gallery on the extensively renovated second floor. Throughout the day guides will sound the Fog Signal Whistle and provide tours of the lighthouse tower. Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse opens on May 11.

Programs at Historic Mill Creek feature daily demonstrations of a reconstructed 18th century sawmill. With the smell of fresh sawdust in the air, the awesome power of the water never fails to impress as the mill springs to life, fed by the pond and ever-flowing currents of Mill Creek. Near the workshop, sawpit demonstrations and historic farming programs highlight what life was like beyond the sawmill more than 200 years ago. On the wild side, guests will make new discoveries as wildflowers bloom and wildlife flourishes along 3.5 miles of nature trails. Historic Mill Creek opens for the 2023 season May 12.

“The story of Mill Creek links all MSHP sites together,” said Kyle Bagnall, Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Park Naturalist. “Whether you’re watching sawdust fly in the sawmill or perched on the treetop discovery tower, you’re sure to experience Mackinac’s natural and cultural wonders in many unique ways.”

Every museum store will feature new items inspired by the site they represent. The Official Mackinac Island State Park Store, inside the Mackinac Island State Park Visitor’s Center, will continue to have new items inspired by the historic and natural elements of Mackinac Island.

Most major projects were funded, in part, by Mackinac Associates.

Fort Mackinac soldiers clearing a path in front of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s.

Winter for the Soldiers at Fort Mackinac

 Wintering on Mackinac Island has always been a desolate and isolated affair. For much of its history, many well-off merchants, fur traders, and other entrepreneurs would leave the island during the winter months. The soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac though did not have this luxury and found ways to sustain themselves during those harsh months. Soldiers kept busy through various trainings and responsibilities but were often left with the harsh reality of winter in Northern Michigan. Looking at the men of the 23rd United States Infantry, companies E and K, we can see how the soldiers and the army tried to adapt to their Mackinac Island home as winter resources slowly improved.

Fort Mackinac soldiers clearing a path in front of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s.

Soldiers at Fort Mackinac clearing path in Post Garden, 1880s.

 The daily routine of Fort Mackinac changed as the days got colder. In November of 1887, Captain Greenleaf Goodale issued General Order 97, moving the first assembly of the day from 6:00 am to 6:30 am. In this same General Order, less time was allocated towards drill, and more time for fatigue duty for clearing paths, chopping firewood, and general maintenance. The high snow fall on the island could make company and battalion level drill almost impossible, and subsequent orders show a greater focus on smaller scale drills, like signal drill, school instruction, and litter-bearing for the post hospital. The garrison still conducted bi-monthly musters but these were often moved indoors in order to compensate for winter weather. In order to make up for this lack of consistent and high-quality drill, Captain Goodale directed the garrison to conduct regular battalion and company drill as soon as the weather turned warm again. He also assigned recruits to drills created especially for them to make up for lost time in winter.

Plans for a shooting range, gallery and gymnasium from 1889.

Plans for the Shooting Gallery, Drill Room and Gymnasium, which would never be constructed, 1889.

 Throughout the 1880s, the United States Army put a large focus on marksmanship skills. This program required soldiers to visit a rifle range at least twice a week over the four-month training season. Outside of the season soldiers were expected to take indoor practice, called Gallery Practice. Soldiers used 7-10 grains of black powder with modified rounded bullets (much different than the 70 grains of black powder and conical shaped bullets soldiers typically used) and shot at small, metal plates, over 30 to 50 feet. The main purpose of this practice was to improve the soldier’s trigger discipline and aiming skills. Fort Mackinac received a grant from the Army in 1887 to buy targets and lease the island’s ice rink, though it seems the soldiers never used the ice rink and stuck to practicing in the Post Barracks. Gallery Practice seems to have been one of the more effective trainings the soldiers conducted during the wintertime, as is reflected in the high number of Marksman and Sharpshooter designations earned at Fort Mackinac.

 Not only were prescribed drills and trainings inhibited by winter weather, but also the kinds of free time activities the men could enjoy. This became a concern amongst the command staff at Fort Mackinac, as the soldiers not only spent much of their time drinking but also getting out of shape. The snow made it impossible for sports like baseball to be played. The healthiest activities for soldiers to participate in were, as Assistant Surgeon C. E. Woodruff wrote, “those sports requiring expensive apparatus, as snows-shoes and toboggans.” Both Woodruff and Captain William C. Manning recommended building a gymnasium and drill hall on the Fort grounds, but these plans were ultimately denied.

The John Jacob Astor Hotel on Market Street, 1885.

The John Jacob Astor Hotel on Market Street, ca. 1885

 In their loneliness, soldiers drinking downtown risked embarrassing accidents. According to the Cheboygan Democrat, soldiers started their own “social club” in the Astor Hotel in December of 1887. Soldiers could often get a pass to go downtown to one of the saloons, leaving the army vulnerable to embarrassing drunken antics by the men. Luckily, the Army had already been looking to reduce this risk by creating “Post Canteens.” There soldiers could drink and socialize within the walls of their station under the watchful eye of their offices, served by a bartender who had to follow the Army’s regulations. In the winter of 1889, soldiers of Fort Mackinac converted the old wood quarters into a post canteen. This post canteen reduced the public incidents of the soldiers, but it did nothing to relieve the heart of the problem.

 The isolated nature of the island still plagued the men. Soldier’s still lacked activities that kept them active throughout the winter, which not only hurt their personal health but also their skills as soldiers. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Fort Mackinac’s military importance, they did not see the improvements some other stations would during this time. The soldiers of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s  had to do as many of their predecessors had, stay as warm as possible, and wait for the warm and beautiful return of summer on the Straits of Mackinac.

A Fort Mackinac cannon in winter.

Fix Bayonets!

 Throughout Fort Mackinac’s military history, British and American soldiers were issued bayonets to complement their shoulder arms. Bayonets allowed a firearm to double as a stabbing weapon and a pike. Additionally, soldiers advancing with fixed bayonets could be a powerful psychological weapon, frightening the enemy into fleeing before contact. By the 1880s, however, bayonets had lost much of their tactical usefulness. Nonetheless, American soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac and elsewhere continued carrying these secondary weapons, and the bayonets of the late 19th century reflect an interesting time of transition for the U.S. Army.

 When the army adopted the new Springfield .45-70 rifle in 1873, a new bayonet came with it. Featuring an 18-inch long triangular blade, the Model 1873 bayonet utilized a rotating clasp to lock onto the front sight at the muzzle end of the gun barrel. From 1873 to 1878, bayonets were specifically produced for use with the new rifles. However, officials in the War Department, always eager for ways to reduce costs, realized that the government still had large stocks of surplus Model 1855 bayonets. These older weapons, produced in huge quantities to supply federal troops during the Civil War, were designed to fit .58 caliber rifled muskets. Fortuitously, officers at the Springfield Armory devised a method of cold-swaging the larger sockets of the 1855 bayonets down to fit the .45 caliber barrels of the 1873 rifles. The older bayonets could thus be utilized at little cost to the government, and no new bayonets were produced after 1878. So large was the stock of 1855 bayonets that it took a decade for the armory to finally run out of them.

 When the old bayonets were finally expended in 1888/89, the army officially adopted a ramrod bayonet. A sharpened metal rod carried within the stock just under the barrel (the traditional location for a ramrod on all earlier muzzleloading weapons), the ramrod bayonet could be extended beyond the muzzle and locked in place. This eliminated the need for soldiers to carry a separate bayonet and scabbard, since the bayonet was already integral to the rifle. The army experimented with ramrod bayonets for most of the 1880s, continually tinkering with the design and issuing small numbers of the weapon to soldiers for field testing. In 1886, Co. K of the 23rd Infantry, stationed at Fort Mackinac, received rifles with ramrod bayonets for evaluation.

 As bayonet designs evolved, so too did the scabbards to carry them. Although the ramrod bayonet eliminated the need for a separate scabbard, those weapons were not in general service until the middle of 1890. As a result, most soldiers carried their bayonets in metal scabbards hung from their belts through the 1880s. Initially, scabbards for the 1873 bayonet featured a leather frog, which simply looped over the 1¾-inch wide waist belts issued beginning in 1872. However, as soldiers increasingly preferred to wear wider cartridge belts for field service, these scabbards were no longer compatible. As a result, in 1889 the army finally adopted a new scabbard design featuring a long, thin brass hook in place of the leather loop. The hook could still easily be worn with the narrower 1872 belts, but could also be used with a woven cartridge belt.

 Even as the Army continually refined and experimented with bayonet designs, general officers and regular soldiers alike increasingly questioned the utility of the bayonet in an age when troops were trained for exceptionally long-range marksmanship. Noting that in combat the bayonet functioned only as far as a soldier could reach, Commanding General of the Army William Sherman stated that “my experience teaches me that one side or the other runs away before arm’s length is reached.” Sherman and other officers suggested that the bayonet be declared obsolete and dropped from service, but stopped short of pressing the issue as he believed bayonets might still be useful in highly specific circumstances such as riot control. In the 1870s and 1880s soldiers were deployed to suppress civil unrest, usually linked to strikes and other labor actions, and officers felt that bayonets allowed troops to “safely” disperse crowds without firing on them.

 If you would like to see original bayonets up close, feel free to ask our interpretive staff at Fort Mackinac. They carry original bayonets (to go with the original .45-70 rifles used daily for demonstration) and are happy to answer questions about them, as well as the rest of the unique uniforms and equipment utilized by the U.S. Army during the 1880s. This was a time of change and experimentation for the army. If you would like more information, or an opportunity to buy tickets to Fort Mackinac and our other museums, please visit our website.

Three people on bikes heading to the G. Mennen Williams Mackinac Celebration.

Friends Preserving and Sharing Mackinac’s Heritage

Looking back over the last forty years since receiving their official 501(c)3 non-profit designation in 1982, Mackinac Associates has funded an outstanding list of projects supporting Mackinac State Historic Parks. Funds raised through Mackinac Associates from membership fees, appeals, sponsorships, and other gifts assist in in preserving the rich history and natural beauty of the Straits of Mackinac.

Members are welcomed by staff to a special event at Fort Mackinac in the early days of Mackinac Associates’ 40-year history.

 Mackinac evokes so many memories of a special place that has allowed individuals, families, and friends to create memories and unique experiences. In managing Mackinac Island State Park, which encompasses over 80% of Mackinac Island, Michilimackinac and Mill Creek State Parks in Mackinaw City, and all the buildings and sites contained within those boundaries, Mackinac State Historic Parks has the unique ability to protect and preserve the most treasured natural and historical resources in the Straits of Mackinac.

 What started as a group of a dozen local residents and friends of the park in the late 1970s has grown into a friend’s group made up of more than 2,000 members dedicated to our mission: “Friends preserving and sharing Mackinac’s heritage.” Members can be proud they are part of an organization that has provided over $2 million to support projects in every area of museum operation, making possible park improvements, interpretive programs, publications, exhibits, and natural history education over the last 40 years.

A new sign at the entrance to the Dr. Beaumont Museum.

The entrance to the new exhibit at the American Fur Co. Retail Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum.

 Mackinac Associates helps fund projects both large and small and this past year was no exception with nearly $200,000 in projects sponsored across Mackinac State Historic Parks sites and operations. On Mackinac Island, updates to the American Fur Company Store included a brand-new exhibit highlighting Fort Mackinac surgeon Dr. William Beaumont’s famous experiments and the scientific process about the digestive system brough about by the accidental shooting of French-Canadian voyageur Alexis St. Martin in 1822. Additional projects on the island included electrical upgrades for the Schoolhouse building at Fort Mackinac, projectors and touchscreens updates and installations within exhibits, and furthering the dendroarchaeology study on the McGulpin House, one of the island’s oldest structures.

 At our mainland sites, Mackinac Associates’ 2022 Spring Appeal announced the Parks’ newest reconstruction project – the Southwest Rowhouse addition at Colonial Michilimackinac. Originally built in the 1730s and extensively rebuilt in the 1760s, archaeologists excavated the remains of the rowhouse in 1960-63, and a portion of the building was reconstructed in 1968. Continuing with the reconstruction of an addition on the east end of the rowhouse will assist in better interpreting Michilimackinac during the 1770s. This past spring’s fundraising effort completed the first step in this reconstruction process, the creation of an architectural design plan to move the project forward.

 Additional projects were completed at Colonial Michilimackinac with the help of Mackinac Associates included the relocation of the Blacksmith Shop to a more historically correct location outside the palisade walls, and the purchasing of supplies for the shop. Funding was also given toward improvement planning for the Michilimackinac State Park day-use area at the base of the Mackinac Bridge, which will include future updates to this iconic and scenic space. 

 Mackinac Associates was also able to assist with marketing, interpretation, and wayfinding projects this year, including the replacement and upgrading of signage throughout Mackinac State Historic Park sites, new cocktail tables for special events, and digital advertising to welcome new and returning visitors to the Parks.

Three people on bikes heading to the G. Mennen Williams Mackinac Celebration.

Marie Bunker, Adrienne Rilenge, and Lauren Rilenge following the 2022 G. Mennen Williams Member Celebration. Image by Kara Beth Photography.

 As we look back on the 40-year history of Mackinac Associates, members can treasure the fact that they have a direct hand in helping to protect, preserve, and present Mackinac’s rich historic and natural resources. If you have a fondness for Mackinac Island and the Straits of Mackinac, we hope you will consider showing that support by joining Mackinac Associates to help make the next 40 years just as successful as the last.

 Mackinac Associates members receive a wide range of educational and social benefits, including unlimited admission to all Mackinac State Historic Parks sites, 15% discount at all museum stores, a subscription to the Curiosities newsletter, and invitations to member exclusive events*. For more information on membership, giving, and benefits, please visit www.mackinacassociates.com.

*Mackinac Heritage Season Pass is valid towards site admission only and does not include discounts or special events.

The Curious Mind of Thomas Nuttall

“To converse, as it were, with nature, to admire the wisdom and beauty of creation,

has ever been, and I hope ever will be, to me a favourite pursuit.”

     Thomas Nuttall (1821)

 On August 12, 1810, Thomas Nuttall stepped ashore on Mackinac Island, becoming the first trained botanist to explore northern Michigan. A native of Yorkshire, England, Nuttall arrived in America in 1808, intent on learning as much as possible about living things in the New World, whether they had leaves, petals, scales, fur, or feathers. Like many of his European counterparts, Nuttall was interested in Native American culture, North American geology, and the continent’s winding waterways. His wide-ranging travels led him from gardens of America’s leading scientists, through the Great Lakes, along the continent’s greatest rivers, over mountains, and all the way to California, Hawaii, and South America.

Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859)

 This extraordinary explorer kept journals of his adventures (unfortunately omitting his journey from Detroit to Green Bay), and published several books which detailed his scientific discoveries. At Detroit, he recorded the start of his journey to Mackinac, writing, “On July 29th, I left Detroit for Michilimakinak in a birch bark canoe accompanied by the surveyor of the territory.” The surveyor was Aaron Greeley, headed to measure private land claims at the straits, including those of John Campbell at Mill Creek, and Michael Dousman on Mackinac Island.

 Nuttall botanized at the Straits for several days before hitching a ride with a group of traders bound for John Jacob Astor’s ill-fated fur trading post, Astoria, located in modern-day Oregon. In his book Astoria, author Washington Irving described the enthusiastic 25-year-old botanist as he appeared in March 1811, while his group ascended the Missouri river. Depicted just seven months after leaving Mackinac Island, one can easily imagine Nuttall shared similar experiences with Aaron Greeley along the Lake Huron coastline.

 “Mr. Nuttall seems to have been exclusively devoted to his scientific pursuits. He was a zealous botanist, and all his enthusiasm was awakened at beholding a new world… Whenever the boats landed at meal times, or for any temporary purpose, he would spring on shore and set out on a hunt for new specimens. Every plant or flower of a rare or unknown species was eagerly seized as a prize. Delighted with the treasures spreading themselves out before him, he went groping and stumbling along among a wilderness of sweets, forgetful of every thing but his immediate pursuit, and had often to be sought after when the boats were about to resume their course.”

Listed as #13 in his lengthy list of “brambles,” Thomas Nuttall described the thimbleberry, growing “shrubby and unarmed… on the island of Michilimackinak, lake Huron.”

 Nuttall retreated to England to avoid the War of 1812, then returned to Philadelphia in 1815. After three years collecting more specimens and organizing his collections, he published, The Genera of North American Plants, and a Catalogue of the Species, to the Year 1817. This important two-volume work included 60 species of plants from the Great Lakes region, about a third of which were new to science. Those from the Straits of Mackinac included thimbleberry, dwarf lake iris, twinflower, beach pea, and birdseye primrose.

 In March 1823, Thomas Nuttall accepted a position as Curator of the Botanic Garden at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Over the course of his residence, he was encouraged to write about birds, which he had studied since his arrival in America. The result was A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada. Published in two volumes, The Land Birds (1832) and The Water Birds (1834) were affordable and popular, featuring simple woodcut illustrations, which the author lamented were “not sufficiently numerous, in consequence of their cost.” In 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson recommended the work to a friend, writing, “there is a beautiful book on American birds by Mr. Nuttall that every one who lives in the country ought to read.”

Woodcut from Nuttall’s Ornithology (1834). Nuttall saw Wood Ducks near Detroit before his trip to Mackinac Island in 1810.

 The intrepid botanist endured numerous collecting trips over the next decade, often at severe cost to his personal health and safety, as he crisscrossed North America and beyond. In 1841, he sailed back to England to live on an estate, “Nutgrove,” inherited from his uncle. There, he spent the last 17 years of his life before succumbing to illness on September 10, 1859, at the age of 73.

 The complete accomplishments of Thomas Nuttall greatly eclipse his brief visit to the Straits of Mackinac in 1810. More than 200 years later, perhaps the most lasting legacy of this humble, hard-working botanist is his self-described “fervid curiosity” and intense love of nature which continues to inspire curious wanderers in the 21st century.