3 ways to explore the ‘wild side’ of Mackinac

As the name suggests, the Mackinac State Historic Parks are full of history. Glimpses of the past are preserved through original structures such as the 240-year-old Officer’s Stone Quarters at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island and artifacts such as the original Fresnel lens at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City.

  But really, the human history on exhibit at Mackinac State Historic Parks is all recent history. The attractions in Mackinaw City and on Mackinac Island also represent eons of natural history that go back much, much farther in time.

  Some of the iconic rock formations in Mackinac Island State Park, for example, are estimated to have been shaped many thousands of years ago. And the forest of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, as well as the Straits of Mackinac itself, are even older than that.

  In fact, the region’s natural history is the reason there’s any human history to explore in the first place. After all, it was the narrow Great Lakes passage that brought people to the area and it was the forests that provided for them – lumber for homes, animals for food and pelts for the once-lucrative fur trade, for example.

  Mackinac State Historic Parks attractions showcase that mix of natural history and human history. It’s fascinating to tour Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City and learn about 18th-century life on the fort or step inside the old American Fur Company Store on Mackinac Island and discover what it was like to be a 19th-century trapper or trader. It’s also enlightening to get the backstory of those human experiences by stepping way back into the natural “wild side” of Mackinac.

  Here are three of the best ways to get an understanding of the incredible natural history within Mackinac State Historic Parks:

  •  – Did you know that more than 80% of Mackinac Island is state parkland? It was even once a national park! While many visitors rent bikes and pedal all the way around Mackinac Island on M-185, that scenic loop is partially closed in 2021 due to ongoing erosion repairs. All the more reason to pedal up into the middle of Mackinac Island instead and find more than 70 miles of roads and trails through forest that looks much like it did millennia ago. (Get the latest updates on M-185 repairs and detours on Mackinac Island.)

Another popular ride is Mackinac Island’s Arch Rock Bicycle Trail, which takes you out to the iconic Arch Rock overlooking the southeast corner of the island. Arch Rock is a bucket-list natural history destination on its own. But along the way you can make stops on the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail, too. There are several trailside turnouts with interpretive areas where you can learn about the flowers and plants of Mackinac Island.

  •  – If hiking is more your style of exploration, then lace up your boots and take on the trails of Mackinac Island by foot. Many miles of trail aren’t even passable by bike, in fact. Roots and rocks combined with big changes in elevation make some trails within Mackinac Island State Park ideal for a strenuous hike, while the paved roads through the island’s interior offer a more leisurely option for immersing yourself in the ancient forest. Birdwatching on Mackinac Island is another great option for experiencing the wild side of Mackinac.

In Mackinaw City, you can enjoy a stroll along the Straits of Mackinac at the foot of the Mackinac Bridge at Colonial Michilimackinac or walk for miles through the woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. Just as many visitors to Mackinac Island only scratch the surface of all there is to see, so do most people only see a fraction of Mill Creek. Many of the trails into the wilds of Mill Creek are even accessible, and there also are guided hikes scheduled each day.

  •  – Speaking of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the one-of-a-kind Adventure Tour is a fun way for all ages to experience some of the region’s natural history. The high-flying excursion takes visitors not only into the forest, but up to the top of it for a walk over the Forest Canopy Bridge some 50 feet above the creek below. Your tour guide points out natural features along the way, then you zoom back down to ground level on the exhilarating Eagles’ Flight Zip Line.

Before or after your tour, be sure to take the 71 steps up to the viewing platform atop the park’s Treetop Discovery Tower. The panoramic vista from up there offers a spectacular view of the whole region, and a great perspective on the natural features that attracted people to the Straits of Mackinac.

There’s lot of history to experience at Mackinac State Historic Parks, including the wilderness where not many visitors venture. Come explore Mackinac’s wild side!

Cedars and Everlastings: Mackinac’s Amazing Evergreens

Dr. Carlos Carvallo

“The Island of Mackinac, three and a quarter miles long and two miles wide, though not the largest is the most picturesque and inhabited of the small group constituting the archipelago of the Straits of Mackinac… It is girded by limestone battlements and cliffs, which rise abruptly 100 to 150 feet above the surface of the water… The hills are covered with a dense growth of cedars and everlastings, which appear to extend from the water’s edge to the summit of the island.” Dr. Carlos Carvallo, Fort Mackinac Post Surgeon (1873)


Roots of an eastern white cedar span an outcrop of limestone along Quarry Trail in Mackinac Island State Park.

  In every season, visitors to the Straits of Mackinac are amazed by the varied shapes, forms, sizes, and habits of the numerous species of conifers that grow in this region of the North Woods. Venture out and you’ll discover towering white pines, pointed spires of spruce trees, dense thickets of eastern white cedar, and soft needles of fragrant balsam fir. Perhaps you’ll find yourself in the company of hemlocks whose dark canopy nearly shuts out the light of day, or enjoy a sun-filled stroll while prickly juniper bushes scratch at your ankles.

  For centuries, travelers to this region, including Dr. Carlos Carvallo, have commented on such “cedars and everlastings” while documenting their observations of the Island. Below are a few favorites to enjoy during your next Mackinac adventure.

Balsam Fir

  If it suddenly smells like Christmas, you’re likely in the company of balsam fir trees. This medium-sized evergreen may grow 65 feet tall or more, but dozens of saplings may also create impenetrable, brushy stands. Bark of young trees features bumpy “resin blisters” which tend to spray when ruptured, resulting in a sticky (but delightfully-smelling) encounter with nature. Since the mid-1800s, small sachet pillows, filled with dried balsam needles, have been sold on Mackinac Island as souvenir keepsakes.

 Canada Yew

  This native evergreen grows as a low, spreading shrub, especially in wet areas. A shade-lover, yews are common in northern portions of Mackinac Island, particularly under the canopy of cedar and balsam fir trees. Yew cones consist of a highly-modified scale, known as an aril, which ripens to resemble a soft, bright red berry that remains open on one end. Yew seeds are a favorite food of thrushes, waxwings and other birds. Look for them near Croghan Water Marsh.

Northern White Cedar

  If there is one dominant feature of the northern Michigan landscape, it just might be the cedar tree. Early French traders referred to this species as arborvitae, or “tree of life” due to its medicinal properties, including a high dose of vitamin C used to prevent scurvy. Cedar’s fragrant needles, pliable bark, and rot-resistant wood have been utilized by Native Americans for making containers, canoe paddles, medicine, and ceremonial rites for millennia.

  Small cedar cones turn from green to brown as they ripen in early autumn, releasing tiny seeds which are essential for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife. Cedar needles, scaly and evergreen, are the most important winter food for deer and also provide shelter when cold descends and snow blankets the North Woods.

Ground Juniper

  Juniper loves both sand and sun. A low-growing, shrubby evergreen, this species grows very slowly and can live up to 300 years. Their fleshy cones look like small green berries and have been used in the distillery process for centuries to give gin its distinctive flavor. Landowner Michael Dousman (1771-1854) once ran a distillery near his large farm on north-central Mackinac Island, possibly producing this herbaceous spirit. Junipers don’t tolerate shade, but are abundant in the sun near the Island’s airport. Several specimens also enjoy a view of the Straits overlooking Robinson’s Folly.

White Spruce

  Not pretentious, white spruce are comfortable in the shadows. Slow-growing and long-lived, their pointed crowns eventually pierce the tree canopy like church spires dotting a country landscape. Spruce needles, while similar in length to those of balsam fir, are stiffer and project from every surface around each branch. In contrast, fir needles only grow from each side of the branch, like tiny wings.

  Spruce cones are noted for being an especially important food source for birds, including both red and white-winged crossbills. As their name implies, crossbills are named for their unusual beak, perfectly adapted for flicking seeds from ripe conifer cones. Standing beneath a tree as a flock of crossbills feeds above is a memorable experience, as a cloud of discarded seed fragments swirl through the air like tiny brown snowflakes. Red crossbills were once a common nesting species on Mackinac Island. In recent decades, both red crossbills and their white-winged cousins still visit the Island in winter.

 Eastern White Pine

  It would be a sad miscarriage of piney justice if a blog about evergreens failed to include the State Tree of Michigan. Historically, this “King of the Forest” reached 300 years of age, growing nearly 200 feet tall with trunks up to six feet in diameter. While the 19th century lumbering clear-cut the vast majority of old growth giants, a few scattered stands and large individuals remain. White pines mature quickly, sometimes adding more than two feet of new growth per year! This species is less common on Mackinac Island than other evergreens, though scattered specimens (including several large ones) can still be located along many trails and roadsides. Several historic guidebooks referred to Forest King, “a magnificent pine tree which excites the admiration of all who behold it” on the trail to Arch Rock.

  An excellent way to appreciate white pines was expressed by author Anna Botsford Comstock in her Handbook of Nature Study (1911). She wrote, “The needles of the pine act like the strings of an ӕolian harp; and the wind, in passing through the tree, sets them into vibration, making a sighing sound which seems to the listener like the voice of the tree. Therefore, the pine is the most companionable of all our trees and, to one who observes them closely, each tree has its own tones and whispers a different story.”

  The evergreens above represent just a few of the “Cedars and Everlastings” you’ll find while exploring Mackinac Island and the surrounding region. During your next visit, you’ll just need a trail map, your walking shoes, and an adventurous spirit. Trees of the North Woods are ready to whisper their stories to us. We only need remember how to listen.

#thisismackinac

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.

John Askin’s Garden: Lettuce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She Lived Here, Too: Fanny Corbusier

The Fort Mackinac Soldier’s Barracks in the 1880s.

  For a brief time, from April of 1882 until September of 1884, Fanny Dunbar Corbusier and her family lived at Fort Mackinac. She and her family thoroughly enjoyed their time on the island, which was already a tourist destination. While living on Mackinac Island, Fanny and her family took advantage of the island’s natural beauty and social scene to engage in activities familiar to modern visitors.

  Fanny was born in 1838 in Baltimore, but also lived in Louisiana and Maryland as a child. She was an active part of her church, wherever she lived. Public service was important to her and she served as a nurse during the Civil War. At the age of 30 she met and married William Henry Corbusier, a military contract surgeon. He was one of many northern soldiers occupying Mobile, Alabama with the army after the war. Together, they enjoyed a 49 year-long marriage and raised five sons. The marriage plunged Fanny into the transient life of civilians attached to the army, moving from station to station as William was transferred to different posts.

  At various times, Fanny and the family lived in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, the Philippines, the Dakota Territory, Wyoming Territory, Kansas, Colorado, Virginia, Indiana, California, New York, Nebraska, Alabama and of course Michigan. Their extensive travels were facilitated by regular long-distance train trips. The growing national railroad network allowed the army to move troops (and associated civilians like Fanny) quickly and easily around the country.

  Within the small, close-knit army community, William’s position bestowed a level of social prestige upon Fanny. Officers and their families were generally quartered in larger, nicer homes, separate from the enlisted soldiers. Fanny had, and expected to have, servants to help her with cooking, laundry and other chores. She hired a nurse to assist with her first baby and at various times employed off-duty soldiers, Chinese workers, and Indigenous people to work in her household. Fanny hired a woman named Carrie Greatsinger to work as a nurse for the children before moving to Fort Mackinac.

The Hill Quarters at Fort Mackinac.

  Regardless of where she lived, Fanny took the education of her children seriously. As a child, she attended the Hannah More Academy in Maryland, where her mother was principal. While raising her own children, she made sure that they always had access to education. At Mackinac, her younger children attended classes in the Fort Mackinac reading room, where Sgt. Fred Grant and Pvt. Crawford Anderson served as teachers. In addition to school, while on Mackinac Island Fanny also “sent for all of the histories and romances of Mackinac that were ever published” and read with her family about Alexis St. Martin, Dr. William Beaumont, and John Tanner.

  Fanny and William shared a lifelong interest in nature and spent time observing “the superb moonlight night” during their winters on Mackinac. In the fall they ”saw the island in its best array. The woods were gorgeous in the vari-colored trees and shrubbery, and then the aurora borealis in all its splendor would sometimes be seen.” Fall on Mackinac Island is still one of the most beautiful sights in Northern Michigan.

  Fanny Dunbar Corbusier left Mackinac Island in 1884 after experiencing it in much the same way as countless others of the past and present. Her life only brought her back one more time in 1892. She visited with old friends and went for “lovely drives” to see what had changed. If you would like to learn more about the experiences of Fanny Corbusier and the other women who called Fort Mackinac home in the 18th and 19th centuries, check out our website for details on how to visit. Also consider joining Mackinac Associates, a friends group that makes it possible for us to interpret Fanny’s life as well as countless other facets of Mackinac’s rich history.

John Askin’s Garden: Potatoes

Potato Flower

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

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

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

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

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

Digging up potatoes at Colonial Michilimackinac.

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

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

What’s Growing in the Garden? Lovage!

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

Lovage sprout in April.

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

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

Agriculture at Mill Creek

Watching the sawmill operate is one of the highlights of a visit to Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. Seeing the original grist mill stones reunited in the American Millwright’s House is the result of good historical detective work. However, milling was the not the only enterprise at Mill Creek.

   According to the original land claim by Robert Campbell’s heirs, the property was “commonly known by the name of Campbell’s farm.” Among the improvements listed on Private Claim 334 were a house, a grist and sawmill, at least 40 cultivated acres, a large orchard and valuable buildings.

   Michael Dousman purchased the property in 1819. He was a large landowner, with additional property on Mackinac and Bois Blanc islands. He held lucrative contracts to supply Fort Mackinac with beef and hay, which he supplied from these farms. The gristmill closed by 1839, and the sawmill was moved to Cheboygan in the mid-1840s.

Historic Mill Creek Archaeology Map

   After Dousman’s death in 1854, Jacob A.T. Wendell of Mackinac Island bought the property. In 1867 Putman’s Magazine published a story about an unsuccessful trout fishing expedition to Mill Creek. It stated, “there had formerly been a cleared spot of land about the mill, but it was fast growing up again.”

   Also shortly after the Civil War, a man named Young, a tenant of Wendell, built a house at the foot of the Mill Creek bluff and engaged in the manufacture of lime. After two years he moved on to other pursuits. At that point Wendell arranged with Charles Bennett to move into the house and see that no one trespassed on the private claim. In 1916 Angeline Bennett, Charles’s widow, testified in an affidavit that they had “lived upon and occupied said property for upwards of fifty years.” One of their descendants visited Historic Mill Creek in 1993 and remembered a farm on the bluff and apple trees.

   The Wendell family sold the property to the Petoskey Mackinaw Lime Company in about 1902, but apparently the Bennetts continued living there until the house, which Angeline described as “at the foot of the bluff where the quarry is now located,” burned down in 1911. The Petoskey Mackinaw Lime Company mined limestone and clay for road building into the 1920s before letting the land tax revert to the State of Michigan.

Barn Area at Mill Creek.

   Is there any evidence of this agricultural activity visible at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park today? Old apple trees are still scattered among the reconstructed buildings near the creek. Faint traces of two structures are visible across the path from the sawpit at the foot of the hill. They are most visible in the spring before the foliage comes out and in late fall when everything has died back again. Mapping and limited archaeological testing was carried out in 1988.

   The first foundation is a large rectangle, seventy-one feet long by twenty feet wide, with twenty-foot door gaps in the long north and south walls. This would seem most likely to be a barn. Nineteenth- century artifacts, including red transfer-printed ceramic sherds and a metal plate from an instrument case dated 1873, were found here.

Silo area.

   The second ruin is circular, and so has been interpreted as a silo. It is about thirteen feet in diameter. It did not contain as many artifacts, only some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century bottles and tin cans. There was evidence for a thin wood floor about two feet below the ground surface.

   Larger scale excavation at both structures in the future may reveal more about this interesting facet of life at Mill Creek.