Autumn Berries of the North Woods

“On the 20th of September [1835] the snow fell one inch, with quite a severe frost. The bushes were still loaded with whortleberries.”   – Benjamin O. Williams

In late September 1835, Lieutenant Benjamin Poole was completing an arduous months-long survey for the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His crew’s mission was to survey a proposed military road from Saginaw to Mackinac, with a terminus at Dousman’s Saw Mill (now Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park).

Lowbush Blueberry

Poole’s survey crew was guided by brothers Benjamin O. and Alpheus F. Williams on a route “through a trackless wilderness nearly two hundred miles in extent, about which nothing was known, but that it presented obstacles of an unusually formidable character.” In short, the crew encountered long stretches of cedar swamps, shaking bogs, and alder thickets, ran out of provisions, and nearly starved. In his official report, written at Detroit on September 30, 1835, Poole admitted, “The assistants were frequently employed for days, and even weeks, in creeping through thickets and windfalls, where walking was quite out of the question.”

Much of what isn’t included in the official report was later recalled by B.O. Williams in a vivid account read before the Michigan Pioneer Society in February 1878. He wrote, “The density of some portions of the spruce, fir, and cedar lands exceeded any tropical forest I have ever seen…” His account follows their crew as they trek through the wilderness in moccasined feet, enduring swarms of gnats and mosquitoes, suffering illness and injury, and were saved from near starvation after stumbling upon “whortleberries [bilberries or blueberries] in great abundance.” Thankfully, shaking bogs and cedar swamps are excellent places to find many species of wild berries. Yet too much of a good thing caused a different digestive dilemma, as Williams noted, “eating whortleberries had affected some of the men unfavorably.”

As flowering plants bear fruit in early autumn, many species of wild berries ripen, each containing seeds to perpetuate a new generation of plants. While some berries are edible by people, others are inedible or even toxic to humans. Instead, most are best enjoyed with a photograph and left to the birds, squirrels, and other creatures of the north woods as they prepare to migrate south or endure the long, cold months of winter. The berries that follow were all photographed along the trails at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Common Chokecherry

Bluebead Lily

Western Poison Ivy

Starry False Solomon’s Seal

Hawthorn

Staghorn Sumac

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Riverbank Grape

Wild Rose

Common False Solomon’s Seal

Canada Mayflower

White Baneberry (Doll’s Eyes)

What’s in the basement?

For more than 20 years, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse has been restored to its 1910s glory. In that time numerous exhibits, galleries, and tours have been added to the experience, and, just last year, the second floor of the house was opened for the first time in its history. However, we still get one question more than the others: what’s in the basement? Chief Curator Craig Wilson takes us into the basement to show us what’s there:

Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Mid-Season Update

We have reached the halfway point of the 2021 archaeological field season at Michilimackinac and there is progress to report.

Door latch

  The southeast cellar seems to be showing signs of bottoming out. The soil in the southern portion is becoming very sandy with pebbles, like the glacial beach which lies under all of the fort. Some of the wood wall fragments have disappeared. Part of a door latch was found in this area. The northern part of the cellar is becoming somewhat sandier, but the wood planks continue, and it recently yielded a small, plain pewter button and a musket ball.

Pocketknife

  The east wall of the central cellar has become better defined with the burned tops of eight wood posts now exposed. The most interesting artifact of the summer (so far) came from the north edge of this cellar, an intact pocketknife. We hope that future research will help us date it or at least identify it as French or British in order to better understand the construction sequence of the cellars.

  Excavation of 1781 demolition continues further north. We expect to find remnants of the north wall of the house in this area. We have opened the first quad in what we expect to be the final row of squares for this project.

New Quad Opened Up

  The 2021 field season is sponsored by the Mackinac Associates, and we are grateful for their support. Follow MSHP’s social channels and this blog for updates on the rest of the season, or, better yet, come visit the site. We will be excavating every day, weather permitting, through August 21.

Using Cold Frames at Michilimackinac

 Gardeners, especially at the Straits of Mackinac, have always been interested in helping their plants grow despite sometimes problematic environmental conditions. Building walls or planting hedges can protect plants from the wind, which might break fragile stems and leaves, while changing the soil chemistry with manure or compost can make a poor soil rich enough to grow the sweetest melons. But what about the cold? How would gardeners in the 18th century protect tender plants from the snow and frigid temperatures so common in northern Michigan?

 Cold frames may have been the answer. Our gardeners at Colonial Michilimackinac have recently been generously gifted with a very nice cold frame. Built using 18th century specifications, it is essentially a miniature greenhouse. Pots of plants are set inside the frame, or seeds can be planted directly in the soil to get off to a good start in the small, protected environment. The wooden frame is topped with two glass “lights” or windows that can either be kept closed in cold weather to trap heat, vented to release moisture, or completely removed to allow for air flow on sunny and warm days.

 With a bit of work, a cold frame can even be used to generate heat to keep young plants warm and healthy. Historically, frames were placed over brick-lined pits full of animal manure. As the manure decomposed, it released heat, keeping the inside of the frame warm enough to support lettuces, spinach and other cold season vegetables throughout much of the winter, or at least late fall and early spring. Modern gardeners use electric heat mats to produce similar results.

 If you are interested in see our new cold frame and learning more about the gardens and the people that lived at Colonial Michilimackinac visit mackinacparks.com for tickets and more information.

Summer Birds of Mill Creek

Blackburnian Warbler, Alexander Wilson (1808)

  As spring turns to summer, the woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park are alive with birdsong. By mid-June, year-round residents of the park, such as black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmice, have been singing since winter snow gave way to spring wildflowers. Summer residents, many which migrated north for thousands of miles, arrive “finely tuned” and ready to put on a show as they attract mates and defend nesting territories.

  The official wildlife checklist of Mill Creek includes about 130 species of birds, while the list for Mackinac Island contains 190 varieties. Both parks consist of varied habitats, including Lake Huron shoreline, creeks and streams, swamps, open meadows, and forests of conifers and hardwoods.

Robert Ridgeway (1875)

  Finding birds at Mill Creek begins as soon as you step out of your car. Although the tree canopy is filled with green, listen closely for musical notes floating in the breeze. In the pines growing near the visitor’s center, you may hear a “shrill, thin song, which runs up the scale to end in a high z.” If so, pause and search for a blackburnian warbler hunting for insects among the branches. Catching a glimpse of a male’s flame-orange throat may just take your breath away! As they prefer evergreens for nesting, this species was once known as the “hemlock warbler.”

Ernest Thompson Seton (1901)

  Stop for a trail map as you make your way into the park. Next, follow the sound of rushing water and you’ll soon discover Mill Creek. Sitting near the mill pond, patient watchers may enjoy a visit from a belted kingfisher as it scans for brook trout. Kingfishers are memorable birds, with a dry, rattling call that announces their presence long before they fly into view. Occasionally, they even perch on the zip line, as if teasing participants while they glide over the creek. Unlike most birds, female kingfishers are more colorful than males, as they wear a chestnut-brown “necklace” while their mate sports a simple bluish band across their chest.

Thomas G. Gentry (1882)

  As you head into the woods, it’s nearly impossible to avoid an encounter with an American redstart. In 1893, Mackinac Island resident and researcher, Stewart E. White, wrote this was “the most characteristic bird of the island. It occurs in such amazing abundance that it seems as if every tree contained one of these birds.” Thankfully, such words still ring true today as this flashy black, orange and white warbler is still one of our most common summer residents. Plumage of females and immature males consists of light brown tones with yellow highlights.

  Relentlessly persistent, a restart’s repetitive, mellow song begins as soon as they arrive in May and lasts through August. This woodland songster sings for weeks on end, seemingly, as one early 20th century author noted, “to the accompaniment of his own echo.”

  As you continue down the trail, the species of birds you may encounter numbers in the dozens. Almost assuredly, you’ll hear the insistent, rambling song of the red-eyed vireo, the plaintive “peee-weee” call of the eastern wood peewee, and the rapid staccato of “teacher-teacher-TEACHER” from the tiny ovenbird, ringing through the forest. Venture out in the morning or evening for a chance to hear the ethereal, flute-like call of a wood thrush, perhaps the most magical song of the North Woods.

Mark Catesby (1754)

  If you don’t encounter one of our six resident woodpecker species, you’re almost certain to find evidence of their handiwork, hammering trees for insects beneath the bark. Especially watch for huge, rectangular cavities excavated by the crow-sized pileated woodpecker and small, regular rows of “sap wells” chiseled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Sapsuckers maintain wells to drink sap that drips out, but more importantly to capture insects that become trapped in sweet liquid that seeps from the tree. Sap wells in dead wood are evidence of a previous season’s efforts.

  No matter where you wander, watch and listen for birds all around you, each of which varies in color, shape, song, size, habits and habitats. Ancestors of many special species found homes in the forest of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park long before people arrived on the scene. While some are suited to the creek or frequent the shore of a beaver pond, others prefer poking through leaf-litter on the forest floor. Some nearly never leave the tree canopy high above, while others may zip past you on their way to pick a sunflower seed from a bird feeder.

  During your visit, be sure to sit and scan the summer sky. Every day, someone spots a bald eagle floating effortlessly on the wind, high above the forest canopy. As you watch an eagle soar, consider it may also be watching you, with eyesight sharper than its talons. As it finally leaves your view, let your imagination follow into the unknown. At Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the feathered residents of Mackinac’s North Woods are waiting. Here you’ll discover ducks on the mill pond, friendly chickadees at the feeder, tiny hummingbirds sipping nectar, and the majestic symbol of our nation soaring over the Great Lakes. We all hope to see you soon.

Dive into the past at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and learn why ‘shipwrecks don’t just happen’

You may know the story of the Titanic, the luxury ocean liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and quickly sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. But did you know that another large ship met a similar fate off Michigan’s coastline just three years earlier?

“We got around to the men struggling in the water as quickly as possible,” the surviving Capt. Timese Lemay reported in the days following the Eber Ward’s sinking. “Some had grabbed the wreckage. Others were holding fast to pieces of the ice floe. We pulled six into our boat. Then I looked for the others. They were gone. Nothing but pieces of wreckage, some ice and a few bubbles showed where they had been.” (Photo credit: Cliff Roberts, Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve)

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse tells the story:

It was April 1909 when the Eber Ward departed Chicago on its first trip of the spring. The wooden freighter picked up a load of corn in Milwaukee and then charted a course up and around Michigan’s Lower Peninsula toward Port Huron.

The day was calm and sunny as the ship neared the present-day location of the Mackinac Bridge. But as is often the case in early spring on the Straits of Mackinac, the thawing water still was quite slushy. And unfortunately, there were large chunks of solid ice, too.

Going too fast for the conditions, the Eber Ward slammed into an ice floe that ripped a hole in the ship’s bow, filling the peaceful morning with a surge of panic among the 16 crewmen. Within 10 minutes, the 213-foot-long freighter had disappeared.

One of two lifeboats safely launched, while the other was capsized by the sinking ship. Eleven men went into the water. Five were never found.

Shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are ‘usually someone’s fault’

  The Eber Ward is one of more than 100 wrecks that remain on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow passage from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron between Michigan’s Lower and Upper peninsulas. Each one has its own incredible story of human tragedy, from the “Sandusky,” an 1850s sailing vessel that was overwhelmed by waves and is the oldest-known shipwreck in the Straits of Mackinac, to the “Cedarville,” a 600-foot modern freighter that went down after a collision in heavy fog in 1965.

  Each of those three wrecks occurred for different reasons. Yet, they illustrate the museum’s overriding theme: “Shipwrecks don’t just happen,” says Craig P. Wilson, chief curator for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “It’s usually someone’s fault.”

  Museum visitors get to see exactly what caused the various shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac. And there are artifacts from the ships on display, including the original figurehead from the Sandusky, kitchenware from the galley of the Eber Ward and, ironically, a paper safety placard from the Cedarville. There’s even a revolver that was recovered from a wooden freighter that was cut by ice and sank in 1894.

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum also features dive footage from the wrecks. You can see the Eber Ward’s damaged hull, which sits upright and intact about 140 feet below the surface, as well as the damaged lifeboat that went down with the ship. And there are three sets of models that show the Sandusky, Eber Ward and Cedarville as they appeared while in service, and how they look now on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

RELATED: See underwater footage of the Sandusky

Plan a visit to the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

  The “Titanic” movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio still ranks among the highest-grossing Hollywood features ever. And just like the Titanic, the shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are fascinating, too.

  Yet, they’re also sobering. In many cases, people lost their lives. As Wilson notes, “there is a real human cost to these events” as people suffered the consequences of their own or other people’s decisions.

  Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum are open daily through Oct. 10 this year. In addition to the museum, the historic site at the southern end of the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City features a “Shipwrecks of the Straits” movie, daily demonstrations of a fog signal whistle and a lighthouse keeper’s quarters with period settings and exhibits about the science of lighthouses and what life was like for the people who lived there.

  The lighthouse tower itself is currently closed.

Memorial Day at Fort Mackinac

  It’s a crisp morning in late May. Members of the 23rd Regiment at Fort Mackinac assemble on the parade ground in their dress uniforms and begin the slow, somber march out of the North Sally Port at Fort Mackinac and head toward the Post Cemetery. Soldiers muffle their drums as they would for a funeral, and play a cadence. They’re joined by civilians for the walk to the ceremony.

  Upon arrival at the Post Cemetery, short remarks are made, the soldiers fire a salute, and “Taps” is played. If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought you’ve stepped back in time to the 1880s, but this exact scenario will play out at Fort Mackinac and the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery this Memorial Day, May 31, as a way to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers who served at Fort Mackinac. 

  It is a tradition Mackinac State Historic Parks has done for more than 20 years – recreating the Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, ceremony that soldiers had historically done at Fort Mackinac. In 1883, Captain Edwin Sellers suspended duty at Fort Mackinac and held the first Decoration Day ceremony.

Captain Edwin Sellers

  Some additional background on Sellers: he was commissioned second lieutenant, 10th infantry, in October 1861 during the Civil War. He was engaged in multiple battles, including Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, and received three brevet promotions for “gallant and meritorious service” during the war. He took command of Fort Mackinac in 1879, and lived with his wife, Olive, and four sons in the commanding officer’s house west of the fort.

  While he instituted Decoration Day at Fort Mackinac in 1883, it was, unfortunately, the only one he lived to see. One year later he was buried at the Post Cemetery after a brief and sudden bout of pneumonia.

  On this Memorial Day, costumed interpreters will lead attendees from Fort Mackinac to the Post Cemetery and perform a short ceremony and salute, just as the soldiers did in 1883. Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Steve Brisson will speak at the ceremony while interpreters lay a wreath on Sellers’ grave. Afterwards, soldiers will fire a rifle salute followed by “Taps” played by a bugler. Afterwards, the procession will march back to Fort Mackinac.

  The program begins at 8:30 a.m. and will conclude by 9:00 a.m. It’s a free event. Events such as this are sponsored, in part, by Mackinac Associates, friends preserving and sharing Mackinac’s history. More information on the event can be found here.

Shifting Sands

Remains of the lighthouse dock in April 2021.

The high water levels of the Great Lakes in recent years have caused significant erosion along the shoreline, exposing many long-buried landscape features. This year, water levels have fallen slightly, revealing previously-buried or submerged pieces of the past. The dock remains currently visible in front of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse are but one example of how the power of the Great Lakes can alternately hide and reveal reminders of our maritime history.

The dock may have been the first element of the light station to be built, as it would have been necessary to receive materials for the construction of the original fog signal building in 1890. According to the 1894 Annual Report, “the landing crib was carried away by ice.” A replacement was completed the following year. It is depicted on a 1907 map as extending 198 feet out into the straits.

Keeper George Marshall greets a lighthouse inspector on the station dock. 

The dock was gone by 1921, when the District Superintendent explained in letter to the Commissioner of Lighthouses that it was not necessary to construct a new dock because “supplies and fuel can be unloaded at a city dock and transported to the Station.”

The remains of the dock you see today are over one hundred years old and fragile. Please do not disturb them. Archaeological remains such as the dock, whether located on land within Michilimackinac State Park or submerged in the waters of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, are protected by state law.

More information about the Old Mackinac Point Light Station can be found in Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse: A History and Pictorial Souvenir by MSHP Director Steve Brisson, available at MSHP museum stores. Visit our website to order a copy, or for more information about visiting Old Mackinac Point.

 

Porcupines of the North Woods

Porcupine quillwork on a birch bark container, depicting a beaver.

  For thousands of years, Native Americans of the Great Lakes region spent the cold, dark months of winter engaged in hunting and trapping, ice fishing, mending snowshoes, and making things around the hearth fire. Before glass trade beads became available, women perfected the art of decorating clothing, baskets, bags, and other items with dyed porcupine quills. Quillwork takes patience, skill and practice, and has been taught by parents to their children for many generations.

A porcupine curls into a ball before taking a nap at the tip of a branch, high up in a tree.

  Winter is also a traditional season for storytelling. In the Ojibwe culture, certain stories are only meant to be shared when there is snow on the ground. One of these tells the tale of how a clever porcupine, originally covered by just a coat of thick fur, outsmarted a hungry black bear. After placing hawthorn branches with sharp thorns on his back, porcupine rolled into a ball just as bear sprang upon him, offering a spiky surprise. When Nanabozho learned of this clever trick, he took some branches from a hawthorn tree and peeled off the bark until their spines were white. After putting clay all over porcupine’s back, Nanabozho stuck in the thorns, one by one, until it was completely covered. He then made this a permanent part of porcupine’s skin so he and his descendants would always be protected from their enemies.

  Most visitors to Mackinac State Historic Parks learn a great deal about beavers. Beaver pelts fueled the fur trade for centuries, providing jobs for Native Americans, voyageurs, merchants, soldiers and civilians. Guests at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park can even hike the trails to search for fresh signs of beaver activity and look for their dam built across Mill Creek. Only humans alter the landscape more dramatically than this industrious mammal, the largest rodent of North America.

Porcupines usually rest during the day. Activity is mostly nocturnal (at night) or crepuscular (during twilight hours).

  Few people realize that Mill Creek is also home to the second largest rodent on the continent, the North American Porcupine. Growing up to 30 pounds and more than two feet long, a porcupine can live up to 10 years. Porcupines are slow, secretive, and solitary, usually seen sleeping at the top of a tree or walking warily across a road.

  A porcupine is truly amazing in many ways, particularly due to its needle-sharp, barbed quills, which are actually modified hairs. A fully-grown porcupine has more than 30,000 quills, which are loosely attached to muscles just beneath the skin. Despite a popular myth, porcupines cannot throw or shoot their quills. When threatened, they turn their back to an attacker and quickly flick their tail, driving quills into the toughest flesh. As quill tips are barbed like a fishhook, they are very painful and difficult to remove.

  Porcupines can be found many places in the woods of Michigan. As you hike, watch for signs such as chewed tree trunks or branches, as inner bark is especially sought after in the winter months as a source of food. Porcupines even chew on buildings and trail signs looking for salt, glue or paint, and will even seek out sweat residue left on wooden tool handles. Because they are rodents, a porcupine’s teeth continually grow, just like a mouse or beaver’s do. With binoculars or a camera, look closely to see if you can spot the orange coating on their teeth, which is an iron-rich coating of enamel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Visitors to Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park can learn about porcupines and other animals of the north woods during naturalist programs throughout the season, which begins on May 7. To get a treetop view, also join us on an Adventure Tour and climb the steps of the Treetop Discovery Tower. Who knows, you might even see eye-to-eye with a porcupine! Tickets can be purchased here.

Historic Mission Church

  Located in the eastern end of Mackinac Island’s historic downtown, Mission Church is Michigan’s oldest surviving church building. Built in 1829, it is one of the earliest examples of a New England Style church in the Midwest. Now serving as a museum, visitors can walk up and down the aisles of this beautiful church from the past.

  In 1823 Reverend William Ferry and his wife Amanda, missionaries with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission, established a Protestant mission on Mackinac Island. Their mission was to educate indigenous children from around the Great Lakes region.

  Ferry’s work sparked a religious renewal and desire to build a church for the congregation. Lumber cut on the mainland at Michael Dousman’s sawmill (now Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park) was transported to the island and construction of Mission Church was completed in 1829. Mission Church reflects the New England architectural heritage of the Ferrys. Many prominent island residents involved in the fur trade attended the church, including American Fur Company official Robert Stuart and Indian agent Henry Schoolcraft.

  Changes soon came to the island and the straits region. Attendance at the Mission Church declined due to the American Fur Company leaving the island and the mission closed its doors in the late 1830s. The church passed into private hands and was used for meetings, a theater for dramatic productions, and occasionally religious functions over the next sixty years. In 1874 parishioners of Ste. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church worshipped there while their new church was under construction. Unfortunately, Mission Church did not receive proper attention and the building began to deteriorate by the 1890s.

  In the late 19th century, Mackinac Island became a popular summer destination for many people. Summer cottager Reverend Meade C. Williams led a successful effort to purchase and restore the building, which was Mackinac’s first historic restoration project. Mission Church reopened for religious services on July 25, 1895. In 1955 the church was transferred to the state of Michigan. Mackinac State Historic Parks continues to restore, maintain and interpret the church as a public museum.

  Today, couples can host their wedding ceremony at Mission Church, or any of the other sites offered by the Mackinac State Historic Parks. Wedding ceremonies are available for booking from early May through October. Imagine this simple and elegant church as your wedding venue on beautiful Mackinac Island in late spring, summer or early fall.

  More information on Mission Church, as well as the other wedding venues, can be found at www.mackinacparks.com/weddings.