Timber for Mission Church, April 1830

Looking up at a large white pine tree.

Huge white pine logs provided ample lumber for construction projects

In October 1796, Major Henry Burbeck, the first American commander of Fort Mackinac, estimated the lumber required for repairing and upgrading the fort’s palisades and buildings. Among the planks, boards, pickets, shingles, and scantling, his estimate included 1,420 logs measuring 20 feet long by 15 inches in diameter. If they were white pine (one of the lighter species), this single portion of his order would have weighed over 1,249,000 pounds, or nearly 625 tons.

 To transport such heavy loads, logs were often stacked on stout sleds and skidded over ice, pulled by oxen or horses. For many years, turning logs into boards at the Straits of Mackinac was either done by hand with a pit (whip) saw or at a water-powered sawmill which operated at Mill Creek from 1790-1839. Originally constructed by Robert Campbell, the mill was purchased in 1819 by Mackinac Island businessman Michael Dousman. Both owners filled lumber contracts for Fort Mackinac and other island projects. The following account recalls events that took place nearly two centuries ago, in early 1830.

The Carpenter-Schoolmaster

A pencil black and white sketch of Mission Church on Mackinac Island.

Sketch of Mission Church, 1835

 Martin Heydenburk came to Michigan in 1824 after accepting a teaching position at the Mission School on Mackinac Island. Also an experienced carpenter, his skills as a craftsman were utilized for construction of the Mission House, completed in 1825. During the winter of 1829-1830, Heydenburk was called upon to lead a crew in felling and cutting timber on the mainland for building a Protestant church for the mission. Today, Mission Church is Michigan’s oldest surviving church building.

A large brown building on stilts in winter in Mackinaw City.

Water-powered sawmill reconstruction at Mill Creek

 In early 1830, solid ice didn’t form in the Straits of Mackinac until the end of January. In February or early March, Heydenburk and his crew spent several cold weeks along the Lake Huron shoreline. He later recalled, “in three weeks’ time we had all the timber hewed, fifty pieces flattened to be made into scantling and joist with the whip-saw, and three hundred saw-logs hauled out of the woods to the shore ready to be moved home or to the saw mill when the ice should prove favourable. A few weeks afterward a heavy rain flooded the snow upon the ice and then froze. Michael Dousman had a saw-mill about two miles from our logs and we soon had them there …”

French Trains to Mackinac Island

 Heavy rain proved to be a mixed blessing for the timber project. After it refroze, the flooded lakeshore offered a smooth surface to haul logs to the sawmill. Rainwater also filled the creek and mill pond, providing an ample supply of water power to cut 300 logs into boards. Once the order was completed, word was sent to Mackinac Island and horse-drawn sledges were sent over the ice to pick up lumber from the sawmill.

A black and white photo of large horses pulling a sleigh of firewood on snow.

Horse-drawn sledges were commonly used to haul firewood to Mackinac from nearby Bois Blanc Island

 Heydenburk continued, “On the eleventh day of April, with the thermometer at zero, and the wind blowing strong from the east, all the horses and French trains on the Island started at daylight for the timber; we crossed safely, loaded up and started for home.” A French train was a narrow, deep box sleigh, pulled by one or two horses, which slipped easily over ice and snow. Dogsleds were also used for winter mail and hauling smaller loads to Mackinac Island. Sleighs and sledges were used well into the 20th century for hauling goods such as hay, groceries, and firewood from the mainland or nearby Bois Blanc Island.

 As they trudged along hauling heavy loads of lumber, news reached the teams that rain had degraded the ice, making the journey unsafe. Heydenburk recalled, “when about half way across the straits we were met by messengers and guides who told us that the ice which was two feet thick had become porous and we could not cross the channel. We left our loads on Round Island, then put rope on the necks of the horses and started across the treacherous channel … We all got home safe.” Thankfully, such dangerous spring journeys are now but distant memories at the Straits of Mackinac.

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.

From the Archives: Sunday School Minute Book

From the Archives: Sunday School Minute Book

Mackinaw Mission Sunday School Minute Book, 1825 1955.217.1 Donated by Austin G. Packard

Mackinac States Historic Parks archival collections preserves thousands of items documenting all aspects of Mackinac history. In this ongoing series we highlight some of these treasures. (more…)

Historic Downtown Mackinac

Historic Downtown Mackinac

An interpreter working inside the Biddle House.

Visiting Mackinac Island during the summer months brings another level to the history that makes the island what it is today. The historic downtown buildings, including the Biddle House, McGulpin House, American Fur Company Store/Dr. Beaumont Museum, Mission Church, and the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, most located on Market Street, opened June 9th, bringing the rich history of Mackinac to life.

The blacksmith hard at work at the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop.

The fur trade is highlighted throughout the buildings scattered downtown on the island. From architecture to medicine, family life to the fur trade business, religion to native life, the 1820s and ’30s fur trade era is addressed. Each building offers an intimate setting with costumed interpreters where visitors can ask questions, experience demonstrations, and learn more about what made Mackinac great! Admission to these historic structures is included with tickets to Fort Mackinac or The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. Historic Downtown Mackinac is open through August 25. More information on the downtown buildings can be found by clicking here.

The Hanging for the Murder of Hugh Flinn

The Hanging for the Murder of Hugh Flinn

Private James Brown entered the mess room of the Soldiers’ Barracks at Fort Mackinac the evening of December 5, 1828. A loud blast filled

Muster roll for Comapny G, 5th Infantry with entries for Corporal Hugh Flinn and Private James Brown.

the room and Corporal Hugh Flinn fell to the floor, bleeding from his neck. The fifteen witnesses in the room saw Pvt. Brown lower a musket to his hip and exclaim, “My God, what have I done?” (more…)