The Famous Mackinaw Potato

The best potatoes in the world grow at Mackinac.” – Army and Navy Chronicle, September 1835

 Most people easily recognize two kinds of potatoes. A sweet potato has orange flesh and belongs to the morning glory family. Distantly related, the common potato is large and white-fleshed, being part of the nightshade family. The latter type was domesticated by Native Americans in South America at least 7,000 years ago. Introduced to Europe by the late 16th century, it eventually became a dominant crop, especially in Ireland. Potato plants flourish in a variety of soils, providing more calories per acre than grain. Today, more than 5,000 different varieties are grown across the globe.

A black and white photo of farmland on Mackinac Island, in what is now known as Marquette Park.

Gardens below Fort Mackinac, ca.1890

 Common potatoes weren’t grown in North America until the early 18th century. Brought to New England from Ireland, this variety became known as the “Irish potato.” Potatoes were first planted at the Straits of Mackinac by the British. John Askin grew them near Fort Michilimackinac in the 1770s, keeping meticulous records. As the garrison relocated to Mackinac Island, large gardens were planted below the new fort, near the harbor. When Americans arrived in September 1796, they found a commandant’s garden “filled with vegetables” and an adjacent plot “filled with potatoes.” A government garden provided fresh produce for soldiers for more than 100 years before being transformed into Marquette Park.

 Gardeners at Mackinac discovered these hardy tubers needed little soil to thrive there. In 1820, Henry Schoolcraft noted, “Potatoes have been known to be raised in pure beds of small limestone pebbles, where the seed potatoes have been merely covered in a slight way, to shield them from the sun, until they had taken root.” By this time, several small farms dotted the island where potatoes were a staple crop.

An artist rendering of the Mackinaw Mission in the 1830s, featuring a large white building known as the Mission House surrounded by trees.

View of the Mackinaw Mission, ca. 1830

 Rev. William Ferry operated a Protestant mission on Mackinac Island from 1823–1834. The Mackinaw Mission operated a school and boarding house for Anishinaabek children. Located near the southeast shore, staff and pupils maintained a five-acre garden stocked with potatoes, peas, beans, and other vegetables. In 1826, the mission also purchased the John Dousman farm, along the western shore. There, they grew 10 acres of potatoes and other crops.

 As tourism grew, the reputation of Mackinac potatoes (usually spelled Mackinaw) spread far and wide. In 1835, visitors found a potato patch near Fort Holmes, writing, “There are about eight or ten acres on this summit cleared up, part of them being enclosed as a potato field. The best potatoes in the world grow at Mackinac, and this plat of them looked very flourishing.” They were amazed, observing plants “flourishing among pebbles where there is no more earth than in a stone wall. The Mackinackians do not regard earth as necessary in a garden, and perhaps would dispense with it even in a farm.”

A drawing of a potato plant.

The Potatoe Plant, Its Uses and Properties, 1847

 As tourists departed, some carried seed potatoes to plant at home. In 1837, Solon Robinson experimented with several northern crops in Iowa, including an early variety named Mackinaw blue. By the 1840s, some voiced the opinion that Mackinac Island potatoes rivaled those grown in Ireland. Extolling virtues of the straits, Dr. Daniel Drake wrote, “the potatoes of this region, rivalling those of the banks of the Shannon, and the white-fish and speckled trout of the surrounding waters … render all foreign delicacies almost superfluous.” On July 31, 1847, a correspondent for the Detroit Free Press boldly stated, “The fine potatoes raised on the island are irresistible –all passengers want them, and sailors will have them.” For decades, the Mackinaw potato enjoyed a celebrated status, renowned across the nation.

A historic newspaper ad for Mackinaw Potatoes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 9, 1850

 What made Mackinaw potatoes so special? They grew large, ripened early, and were celebrated for their “mealiness.” A mealy potato is dry, fluffy, high in starch, and low in sugar. These traits make them excellent for baking, mashing, or serving deep fried. The plants themselves were also resistant to potato rot, a disease which decimated crops in Ireland, resulting in widespread famine between 1845-1852. Many Irish immigrant families settled at Mackinac during this period, some fleeing desperate conditions in their homeland.

 By the late 1840s, potato blight had also affected crops in the United States. Disease reduced production by more than one-half, while doubling the price per bushel. Blight resistant varieties, including the Mackinaw, were highly sought after. In 1852, Samuel H. Addington displayed Mackinaw White potatoes at the New York State Fair. Two years later, a report for the U.S. Patent Office noted, “Most of the fine varieties formerly cultivated … have been abandoned, and those less liable to disease substituted, such as the Boston Red, the Carter, and the Mackinaw.”

A drawing of the King of the Earlies, a potato sold for $50.00.

Best’s Potato Book, 1870

 At the same time, hundreds of new varieties were being developed. Fueled by a robust profit motive, “Potato Mania” gripped the farming community. In 1869, George Best wrote, “during the past two years the most intense excitement has prevailed in regard to the Potato, and fabulous prices have been paid for seed of new varieties, which, it was hoped, would more than take the place of old kinds.” An extreme example, King of the Earlies sold in 1868 at the price of $50.00 for a single potato. With such advancements, old varieties, including the Mackinaw, eventually fell out favor. By the 1920s, it had virtually disappeared from the market.

A picture of Mackinaw potatoes ready to be made into chips.

Mackinaw potatoes ready for chipping, Michigan State University photo

 In January 2022, researchers at Michigan State University unveiled several new potato hybrids. One of the most promising lines was named the Mackinaw (MSX540-4). A cross between “Saginaw Chipper” and “Lamoka,” it stores well, and it is highly resistant to several diseases. This attractive variety also performed highly in the Potatoes USA National Chip Processing Trials. With any luck, the new Mackinaw potato may even find its way to your next game-day celebration.

A Closer Look at the Collections: Cameos

One of the next major projects for Mackinac State Historic Parks will be the reconstruction of a unit on the Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. To prepare, MSHP staff have been going over the archaeological records and artifacts from the 1960s, when the unit was originally excavated. Today, our Curator of Archaeology, Dr. Lynn Evans, is looking at a cameo ring recovered in 1962.

Re-opening the Archaeological Site at Michilimackinac

The House E site with all of the squares open.

Map of British features of House D showing House E cellar (F.866) to west of common wall separating Houses D & E.

Late May saw the beginning of the 64th archaeological field season at Michilimackinac. We are continuing to excavate the rowhouse unit we have been working on since 2007. We have opened three new squares where we expect to find remains of the trench for the north wall of the house. This should be as wide as the excavation for this project expands.

 The house walls do not fall exactly in line with the grid. Because of this, when we excavated the rowhouse unit to the east (House D) in the 1990s, we excavated about a foot of the current house (House E) as well. In doing so, we uncovered the edge of the root cellar in the southeast corner of House E. We reached the bottom of the western two-thirds of this cellar at the end of last season. Now we have uncovered the eastern third, which we had protected and re-buried when we backfilled House D in 1997. Our first exciting find of the season came from the east section of the cellar, most of a redware bowl with a green-glazed border. We had found a matching rim sherd in the western edge of the cellar in 2018. 

The dark crescent-shaped area is the cellar. The rocky sand is the beach underlying the fort.

Bowl with rim fragment from 2018 held in place.

Early Lumbering at the Straits of Mackinac

Robert Campbell constructed a water-powered sawmill at Mill Creek about 1790, being the first of its kind in northern Michigan. Prior to the mill, trees were turned into lumber entirely with hand tools for more than 100 years at the Straits of Mackinac.

An artists depiction of a woodchopper from 1804

Felling a tree with an axe
Traite de l’art du Charpentier (1804)

 British troops constructed Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island from 1779-1781. Some buildings were dismantled at Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland and transported to the island for reconstruction. Without a sawmill nearby, new construction relied on chopping down trees, sawing them into logs, squaring them with axes, and hauling them to a sawpit where boards were produced. A glimpse of this work can be found in the Log Book of His Majesty’s Armed Sloop – Welcome, kept by Captain Alexander Harrow.

 Beginning in 1779, the Welcome sailed between the lower peninsula mainland and Mackinac Island, hauling buildings, supplies, and timber. On November 19, 1780, Captain Harrow wrote, “This morning blowing hard. Discharged our timber and hauled it up along side of the sawpit. This day snowing very hard… All this day snowing very hard.”

 The Welcome remained tied to a wharf on Mackinac Island throughout the winter of 1780-1781. The crew lived on board and worked each day hauling firewood, sawing planks, repairing the ship, and constructing a blockhouse at the fort.

Hewing a log

Hewing a log (1804)

 Turning a tree into lumber by hand is demonstrated each summer at Historic Mill Creek. After a log is fixed in place, one rounded side is hewed with a felling axe, then flattened with a broad axe. After these actions are repeated on each side, a round log is transformed into square timber. If desired, timbers could be flattened further with an adze to produce a finer surface.

Flatteninga beam of wood with a broad axe

Flattening with a broad axe (1804)

 To fashion planks and boards, a squared timber is either placed over an open sawpit dug into the ground or hoisted overhead on large sawhorses. To cut boards, a pit sawyer climbs into the hole to pull down on a large saw, while a top sawyer balances above, pulling up on the blade and guiding a straight cut. Despite the unforgiving rocky terrain, several saw pits were dug on Mackinac Island during the construction of Fort Mackinac.

A sawyer using a pit saw

Sawyers using a pitsaw
English Book of Trades (1824)

 Captain Harrow noted his men were at work sawing boards on Mackinac Island more than 50 days from November 1780 – April 1781. He specifically mentioned saw pits many times, including,

… put a log on the pit to saw” (Nov. 29)

“…hauling logs to the saw pit” (Dec. 27)

“…hauling plank from the saw pit to the blockhouse” (Dec. 29)

“…making a saw pit in the woods and getting an oak log on it” (Jan. 16)

“…digging and making a new saw pit” (Feb. 20)

 Warm spring weather finally released the icebound sloop and the Welcome set sail on April 24, 1781. One of the crew’s tasks was making trips to “The Pinery,” a camp located about 15 miles north of Saint Ignace, near the mouth of the Pine River. There, a team of men cut logs then rafted them together on Lake Huron. These rafts were towed behind the Welcome to Mackinac Island, where they were broken up, individual logs hauled to sawpits, and sawn into boards.

The reconstructed sawmill at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park in winter

Water-powered sawmill reconstruction at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 A decade after Fort Mackinac was constructed, sawing boards by hand could not keep pace with local demand for lumber. About 1790, Robert Campbell was granted a 640-acre land claim at Mill Creek, the only stream at the Straits powerful enough to operate a water-powered sawmill. Later owned by Michael Dousman, the sawmill at Mill Creek operated for nearly 50 years before closing in 1839.

 When the sawmill at Mill Creek was abandoned, large trees throughout the Straits region had been harvested for nearly 150 years. As young trees grew in their place, they too were eventually cut in subsequent periods of logging. In 1860, William Johnston wrote, “the trees now seen [on Mackinac Island] are the second and third growth.” In a History of Northern Michigan and its People (1912), author Perry Powers detailed extreme clearcutting from the 1860s–1900s in an aptly named section, “Melting of the Pine Forests.” After pine was cut, hardwood harvest followed, with old growth maples and oaks falling under axe and saw. Commercial logging operations took place at Mill Creek through 1923, with the Cadillac Veneer Co. running a portable sawmill to process hardwood logs, pulpwood, cedar, and stove wood.

Stumps at Mill Creek that serve as a reminder of logging done at the site.

Reminders of early logging remain in the forest at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 Careful observers can still find centuries’ old stumps scattered through many Michigan forests. While methods and management techniques have changed, lumbering remains an important industry in the state, which is about 54% forested today. After a century of responsible management, replanting, and growth, the Great Lakes State now boasts more than 20 million forested acres which provide homes for wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and renewable natural resources.

 You’re invited to explore early Michigan lumbering at Historic Mill Creek. Experience the thrill of a water-powered sawmill, make sawdust fly with a pitsaw, and explore a vibrant Michigan forest along three miles of woodland trails.  For information, visit www.mackinacparks.com.

South Southwest Rowhouse Construction Continues

After starting in October of last year, the construction on the South Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City is making great progress.

Two new exhibits and all new restrooms are planned for the structure, the largest in the history of reconstruction at Colonial Michilimackinac and the first in 23 years.

With the completed construction of the roof, dormers have been added facing what will be the gardens.

The ruins of an original hearth will be featured in a new exhibit about the French presence at Colonial Michilimackinac and the architectural style of the period.

The walls and preliminary plumbing for the restrooms are in position.

Master Map Gets an Update

The archaeological excavation of Fort Michilimackinac has been ongoing for more than five decades and detailed notes and records of each season, each site, and each square are important to our understanding and ongoing research. That accumulated data is presented in one, large document, the master map, which shows all of the major features excavated within the palisade wall from1959 until 2007, when the most recent project was completed.

Much like the time spent in the field excavating artifacts, maintaining those documents can be a time consuming, but fascinating endeavor.

Georgia Wulff updates the Colonial Michilimackinac master map with information from recently completed archaeological excavations at the site.

“The master map shows how all of the features, most of which are structural features such as parts of buildings, relate to each other, tying all of our projects together,” said Dr. Lynn Evans, curator of archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “This is important because we are interested in understanding the community, not individual structures isolated in space.”

Georgia Wulff, an artist from Minocqua, Wisc., met Dr. Evans on a study tour and offered to help update the map. But, this wasn’t Wulff’s first trip to northern Michigan, far from it.

“My family took a number of trips to the Upper Peninsula when I was younger,” said Wulff, noting that her grandfather served as lighthouse keeper in Manistique and her great-grand father served as lighthouse keeper in Traverse City. “I even remember coming across on a ferry before the bridge was built.”

“The master map is also important for planning because it shows where we have and where we have not excavated.  We don’t want to install fences or underground utilities in undisturbed deposit,” said Dr. Evans.

She added that, ideally the map would be updated at the end of each major project, when the important features are better understood. Things such as rodent runs and modern disturbances aren’t generally  included on the master map for the sake of clarity.

King’s 8th Still Present at Michilimackinac

In 1774, between 65 and 70 enlisted men and three to four officers of the 8th, or King’s, Regiment of Foot arrived at Fort Michilimackinac. This detachment comprised two companies of the 8th Regiment: the elite grenadier company as well as the “General’s” company.

Under the command of Captain Arent S. DePeyster, these men protected the combined military garrison and civilian fur trading community at Michilimackinac. Most of the men spent their time on fatigue duty, maintaining the fort’s walls and other government buildings, chopping firewood, hauling supplies, and performing other tedious but necessary chores. All soldiers regularly took part in drills and stood guard. Lieutenant-Governor Patrick Sinclair took command of the garrison and community of Michilimackinac in October 1779.

Interpreters dressed as members of the King’s 8th at Colonial Michilimackinac discuss the duties of the day.

Under Sinclair’s direction, the men of the 8th dismantled the post of Michilimackinac for the move to Mackinac Island. There, with assistance from soldiers from the 84th Regiment of Foot, they began to construct Fort Mackinac. Unhappy with their treatment at Sinclair’s hands as well as their own officers, the men of the 8th publically complained to DePeyster, their beloved former commander. To prevent more trouble, the grenadier company was transferred from Michilimackinac in September 1780, while the “General’s” company was relieved in August 1781. The 8th remained in North America until 1785, having served there since 1768.

Excavated from Colonial Michilimackinac this past summer, the 8 is still visible after more than 200 years on this button.

Bits and pieces of the 8th still remain from the 1700s, including the unique buttons on the regiment’s dress uniform.

This coming weekend, September 22 and 23 2012, the King’s 8th will be back at Fort Michilimackinac demonstrating drill and the other duties of the soldiers. For more information on the encampment, click here or go to Kings8th.com