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.

The Vacationland Auto Ferry in the icy Straits of Mackinac.

Michigan State Highway Ferries 100th Anniversary

The Sainte Ignace auto ferry at a dock.

The Sainte Ignace

This summer marked the 100th anniversary of the Michigan State Highway ferry service going into operation. The service was started to get automobiles and their drivers across the Straits of Mackinac in a timely fashion. Prior to the service being instituted, the Mackinac Transportation Company and their two railroad car ferries, Chief Wawatam and Sainte Marie carried automobiles across when possible. In 1917 when the first automobiles were taken across, it cost $40 and the car had to be loaded on a railway flat car. On top of that, the automobile had to be drained of gasoline due to maritime regulations. By the early 1920’s, several drivers had complained to Governor Alex Groesbeck, who asked legislators to approve a state-run ferry.

The Ariel auto ferry

The Ariel

The Mackinaw City Auto Ferry

The Mackinaw City

 The first ship purchased by the state was the Ariel which could haul 20 automobiles. On August 6, 1923, she made her first trip and by November when the season ended she had carried around 10,000 cars. The highway department purchased two more vessels that year, the Colonel Pond and Colonel Card which became the Sainte Ignace and Mackinaw City. Along with the purchase of ships, the state bought a dock in St. Ignace and adapted part of the railroad dock in Mackinaw City to load and unload the cars. By 1925, the state had purchased shoreline property in Mackinaw City and had a 1,400-foot causeway built. The state ordered its first ferry in 1927 and it was christened, The Straits of Mackinac, which could carry 50 cars.

The City of Cheboygan Auto Ferry on the water.

The City of Cheboygan

The City of Munising auto ferry.

The City of Munising

 During the 1930’s, the highway department improved the docks on both sides of the straits by making them bigger for the increasing demand in auto traffic. Restrooms, large parking lots for waiting motorists and elevators for lifting cars to the second deck of the ferries were constructed. More ferries were added to the fleet; instead of building new ships, unused Lake Michigan railroad ferries were acquired. The first was the Ann Arbor No. 4 which became the City of Cheboygan in 1937. One year later the Pere Marquette No. 20 was purchased and became the City of Munising. Rounding out the decade was the addition of the Pere Marquette No. 17 which became the City of Petoskey in 1940.

The City of Petoskey Auto Ferry on the water.

The City of Petoskey

 Rationing of gasoline and tires during World War II saw most of the ferries sitting idle but the post-war saw an increase in crossings. Three of the ships were altered by adding seagates to the bow allowing for faster loading and unloading. In 1948, the ferry service celebrated its 25th anniversary with several events including a parade, coronation ball, swimming race to Mackinac Island and a special moonlight cruise aboard The Straits of Mackinac. One of the highlights was models of the new icebreaking ferry the state proposed to build. One year later, construction began on the 360-foot-long, diesel-powered Vacationland. The ship had pilothouses and double propellors on both ends and could carry 150 automobiles.

 The Vacationland arrived in St. Ignace January 12, 1952 and immediately began hauling cars across. Due to her size and power plant, new slips were constructed in St. Ignace and Mackinaw City along with storage tanks to supply the ship with diesel and lubricating oil. As the ship began her service, plans were underway to construction a new way to cross the straits. In 1954, funds were obtained to start construction of the Mackinac Bridge which was completed in 1957. One of the stipulations of construction was that the highway ferries would stop running the day the bridge opened. The ferries were eventually sold, the City of Cheboygan and City of Munising being used to store and ship potatoes from Washington Island, Wisconsin. The City of Petoskey was sold for scrap and The Straits of Mackinac ferried tourists to Mackinac Island. She was the last surviving ferry eventually being sunk as a dive site off Chicago in 2005.

The Vacationland Auto Ferry in the icy Straits of Mackinac.

The Vacationland

 The Vacationland was sold and renamed Jack Dalton hauling trucks between Detroit and Cleveland. The venture lasted only a few months and the state repossessed the ship after failed payments. The vessel was sold again to North-South Navigation Company in 1961 and renamed Pere Nouvel. She returned to her role as an automobile ferry crossing the St. Lawrence River between Rimouski and Baie Comeau, Quebec. In 1967, she sailed to the West Coast of Canada serving British Columbia as the Sunshine Coast Queen until 1977. After an attempt to make her an oil drilling support ship on Alaska’s North Slope, she was sold to a company in Washington for scrap. She was to be towed to China but on December 3, 1987, the tow ran into an early winter storm and the ship began to take on water. The ship sank in the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles offshore in deep water with no loss of life.

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.

Herbert Benjamin examining a horse and carriage in the 1950s.

Herbert Benjamin and Blacksmithing on a Changing Island

Since Europeans settled on the Straits of Mackinac, a few distinct economic eras have affected people’s lives. Aside from the fur trade, tourism has had the most significant impact on Mackinac Island. Tourism affected the entire island, not just the hospitality industry. Islanders adapted to change as the busts and booms of the tourism industry affected their daily lives, and newcomers to the island would bring their skills to improve the community.

A portrait of Robert H. Benjamin.

Robert Benjamin, the founder of the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop.

 After buying the Star Blacksmith in 1885, Robert Benjamin brought his young family to the island for the first time—those first two seasons on the island were very difficult, with little financial gains. Blacksmithing was still a common occupation in the 1880s. Still, it was slowly beginning to decline with industrialization and cheaper, ready-made metal products. What saved Robert’s shop was one of the most ambitious construction projects on Mackinac Island to this day, the construction of Grand Hotel in 1887. Grand Hotel provided Robert with the work he needed to get his struggling shop off the ground and establish his family as a part of the wider island community.

Herbert Benjamin working at the blacksmith forge, taken in the 1950s.

Herbert at the forge, ca. 1950s.

 Robert’s son Herbert would take over the shop in 1900 after Robert was elected Sheriff of Mackinac County. Working in the blacksmith shop for the next 65 years, Herbert witnessed significant changes not only on the island he lived on but also in the kinds of work he did. A blacksmith in the 19th century could count on a steady stream of horses and farming equipment coming through their shop to make money. Working as a farrier, shoeing horses, or creating and repairing tools for everyday work, blacksmiths were common in any city or town. By the early 20th century, cars rapidly replaced horses, and mass-produced tools became the norm. Herbert remained one of the few full-time blacksmiths in the United States thanks to the auto ban on Mackinac Island in the late 1890s. Even on an island with an abundant supply of horses to shoe, it would not be enough to keep Herbert in business; he had to expand his range of work as new technologies and businesses came to the island.

Herbert Benjamin examining a horse and carriage in the 1950s.

Herbert examining a horse and carriage, ca. 1950s.

 Tourism on the island grew significantly following World War Two. The 1950s and ’60s brought even more people visiting the island every summer. New businesses and institutions became a part of the fabric of Mackinac Island, and Herbert would do business with nearly everyone. Herbert shoed horses from Carriage Tours, Gough Stables, the MRA, and many summer cottagers and islanders. He expanded his work to do carriage repair, patent leather work, small engine repair, and even sharpening lawn mower blades. When Mackinac State Historic Parks set about restoring the Biddle House in 1959, Herbert provided $95.00 worth of restoration work.

 Herbert occupied a rare position as a village blacksmith well into the 1960s, long after most blacksmiths had closed their doors and retired. He finally retired in 1965 at the age of 82. His retirement marked the end of a regular village blacksmith on Mackinac Island, though farriers still work there. Following his death in 1967, Herbert’s family donated the shop and its contents to Mackinac State Historic Parks. In addition, the shop was moved from its former location on Benjamin Hill, on the west end of Market Street, to its current location, next to the Biddle House.

A costumed interpreter working as a blacksmith talks with guests at the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop.

A Blacksmith Interpreter in the shop today.

 A blacksmith still works in the shop during the tourist season, from May to October. Though they aren’t shoeing horses, you can often see them working as Herbert did in the 1950s and ’60s on many projects. They use these projects to talk about the changing environment of blacksmithing in the mid-20th century and how Mackinac Island preserved an industry that had once been ubiquitous worldwide for thousands of years. So, on your next visit to Mackinac Island, be sure to stop in at the blacksmith shop, take in the sights and sounds, and learn even more about the changes in blacksmithing and the uniqueness of Mackinac Island. The Benjamin Blacksmith Shop is open from May 12 – October 8.

Mackinac at the Museum (1798)

On February 28, 1798, an article in the Greenfield Gazette detailed plans for an exciting new museum. A veritable “cabinet of curiosities,” the institution would be housed at Deerfield Academy, in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Today, the organization is one of the oldest preparatory schools in the United States. Their eclectic collection included donations from Dartmouth College, Boston area museums, and “many curious articles from many private gentlemen and ladies.”

A portrait of Joseph Priestley by Rembrandt Peale

Joseph Priestley, by Rembrandt Peale (c.1801)

 The late 18th century was a pivotal time in the development of scientific understanding. The “tree of knowledge” flourished during the Age of Enlightenment, with new discoveries by curious scientists, including Benjamin Franklin, William Bartram, and Joseph Priestley. Science also became more accessible as everyday citizens attended popular lectures, read printed works, roamed public gardens, and patronized museums.

 Joseph Priestly, an influential chemist, wide-ranging educator, natural philosopher, and radical theologian, epitomized this spirit of discovery. Priestly published and lectured often, becoming a close friend and collaborator with Benjamin Franklin. Deerfield Museum founders were  influenced by his advice, writing, “Dr. Priestley, in his lectures, shows the importance of such collections, as they respect history; and as the natural history of America is yet very imperfect, gentleman may be of essential service to it, by depositing specimens of minerals the skins of peculiar animals, or whatever may appear to them uncommon…”

 Which Mackinac wonders would you pick to display in this “infant museum” of early America? A unique specimen of Mackinac limestone? Animal pelts from the world-renowned fur trade? The delectable whitefish, or a 70-pound Mackinac trout? A closer look at this fascinating assemblage reveals the following curiosities:

  • Petrifications [fossils] from different parts of the country
  • Stone tools, clay pots, pipes, a bow and a number of arrows
  • Crystals and ores
  • Several fish hooks and lines
  • A spoon and a comb, made by Pacific Island inhabitants, visited by Captain Cook
  • The saw of a sawfish
  • A tooth of the spermaceti whale and jaw of a mackerel whale
  • The jaws of a Shark, with the teeth
  • Bills of a toucan and a pelican
  • The head and egg of an ostrich
  • A puffing fish, a coney, and sea wolf
  • A centipede of the West Indies
  • A young alligator and the egg of the albatross
  • Rare insects and reptiles, including a two-headed snake
  • “Nuts from Michilimackinac, called by the natives Pickens – and Indian rice from the same place”
A beaked hazelnut growing along the trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Beaked hazelnut growing along the trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 “Nuts from Michilimackinac, called by the natives Pickens,” likely refers to fruits of the hazelnut tree. The word pecan originates from the word pakan, meaning “hard shelled nut” in the Algonquian language family. Spelled with many variations over eastern North America, the word translates as bagaan in Anishinaabemowin, spoken by Ojibwe and Odawa people in the Mackinac region. A member of the birch family, there are 15 species of hazels in North America. Beaked hazelnut (Corylus rostrata) grows in the North Woods at Mackinac. In his 1912 botanical report, Charles K. Dodge noted they were common in “rich open ground from Bay County to St. Ignace and on Mackinac Island.”

A painting of people gathering wild rice from 1853.

Gathering Wild Rice, by Seth Eastman (1853)

 Wild Rice is one of the few staple grains native to North America. It belongs to a genus of tall, aquatic grasses of the genus Zizania, which thrived in marshes throughout the upper Great Lakes. Anishinaabek call the plant manoomin. In Ojibwe culture, its importance rises beyond a rich food source, with many related stories, symbols, and ceremonies associated with its use and harvest. While wild rice grew in the eastern Upper Peninsula it was never overly abundant here, often being traded from Green Bay. Draining of marshes and impaired water quality greatly reduced its range in the 20th century.

 In 1800, a large birchbark canoe made its way from Lake Huron to Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia. Founded in 1786 by artist Charles Willson Peale, the institution is considered the most important museum of early America. Peale’s expansive collection featured portraits of prominent individuals, natural history specimens, and cultural artifacts from around the world. The canoe was donated by Dr. Charles Brown, U.S. army surgeon at Detroit, who paddled it to New York. Constructed at Saginaw Bay by “an Indian woman,” the lightweight craft measured 23 feet long, 4 feet in breadth and 26 inches deep. Canoes were indispensable for transportation on the Great Lakes, plying rivers and lakes throughout the U.S. and Canada, including the Straits of Mackinac. It was said the donated craft “carried six persons and 1,200 weight of baggage across the Lakes.”

 The next time you visit the straits, consider which items might be fit for a museum of the 22nd century. Would your futuristic exhibit feature a slab of petrified fudge? A bicycle with pedals? Or fragrant blossoms of a lilac tree? Whatever change may come over the next century, we can rest assured that Lake Huron waters will lap against the rocky shore, welcoming visitors to Mackinac as they have since time immemorial.

Whitefish – Deer of the Lakes

“The great business of life at Mackinac was looking out upon the lake and munching the fish,

and I felt when there that I would not have the heart to look at a fish in the face for years to come.

In fact we all began to feel decidedly fishy before we left the island.”

                                                                                                               – The Venango Spectator, October 21, 1857

Before the Straits of Mackinac became a center of international fur trade, its waters were renowned by generations of Native Americans as an abundant fishery. Of the many species in these freshwater seas, the delicate whitefish, usually weighing 3-5 pounds, was the most prized catch of all. The importance of fish at the Straits was noted early, with French Jesuit Jacques Marquette writing in 1673, “This place is the most noted in these regions for the abundance of its fisheries; for, according to the Indian saying, ‘this is the home of the fishes.’ Elsewhere, although they exist in large numbers, it is not properly their ‘home,’ which is in the neighborhood of Missilimackinac.” Whitefish are called adikameg in Ojibwe or Anishnaabemowin, effectively translating as reindeer (or deer) of the lakes.

Whitefish (left) in the Codex canadensis by French Jesuit Louis Nichols c.1700

Normally living in cold, deep water, lake whitefish spawn on shallow shoals each autumn, where they lay and fertilize their eggs. For centuries, whitefish have been widely regarded as the best-tasting and most important of all fishes in the lakes. Writing from St. Ignace in 1688, Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan wrote, “You can scarce believe, Sir, what vast sholes [sic.] of white Fish are catch’d about the middle of the Channel, between the Continent and the Isle of Missilimackinac. The Outaouas and the Hurons could never subsist here, without the Fishery… This sort of white Fish in my opinion, is the only one in all these Lakes that can be call’d good; and indeed it goes beyond all other sorts of River Fish.” About 1695, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac noted “the pleasure of seeing as many as a hundred whitefish caught in a single haul of a net. This is the most delicate fish of the lakes…”

Many early travelers repeated similar exultations. Although sturgeon and trout were larger, whitefish were most prized. In 1721, Jesuit Pierre Francois-Xavier de Charlevoix, the first historian of New France, wrote, “The Michillimackinac live entirely by fishing, and there is perhaps no place in the world where they are in greater plenty… the most famous of all is the white-fish; it is nearly the size and figure of a mackerel [sic.], and whether fresh or salted, nothing of a fish-kind can exceed it. The Indians tell you that it was Michabou who taught their ancestors to fish, invented nets of which he took the idea from Arachne’s, or the spider’s web.”

This preserved whitefish skeleton, was discovered by archaeologists at Fort Michilimackinac.

While French and British residents preferred domestic fare, they readily ate fish and wild game when necessary, particularly during lean winter months. In 1761, British fur trader Alexander Henry noted high prices of grain and beef “led me to be very industrious in fishing… White-fish, which exceed the trout, as a delicious and nutritious food, are here in astonishing numbers.” Having small, delicate mouths and a habit of schooling, they were most easily caught in gill nets, mainly in fall and winter. Detailing the process, Henry continued, “The white-fish is taken in nets, which are set under the ice… The fish, running against the net, entangle their gills in the meshes, and are thus detained till taken up.”

While important locally for centuries, fish at Mackinac didn’t gain economic importance until the 1830’s, when commercial fishing replaced the fur trade as the predominant industry. In his 1835 Gazetteer of the State of Michigan, author John T. Blois bragged, “The numbers, varieties, and excellent quality of the lake fish are worthy of notice. It is believed no fresh waters known, can in any respect bear comparison… Their quantities are surprising, and apparently so inexhaustible, as to warrant the belief, that were a population of millions to inhabit the lake shores, they would furnish an ample supply of this article of food, without any sensible diminution.”

In 1836, about 1,200 barrels of whitefish and trout were taken at Mackinac. In just 20 years, the number skyrocketed to 20,000 barrels annually at the Straits, with comparable increases throughout the Great Lakes. In 1857, Mackinac’s fish-munching “Viator” wrote, “The staple article of trade is fish… These fish are taken in exceedingly deep water in what are called gill nets…The net is then sunk in 300 feet of water and left over night, when it is drawn up, and the fish are found fastened by their gills. They are then, opened and cured on the schooners, brought to the dock, inspected and barreled, when they are fit for the market. It does not add to one’s appetite for white fish, to see them piled up by cart loads on the dock, and to notice the decidedly filthy odor, that fills the whole atmosphere.”

In his 1860 publication, Old Mackinac, Or Fortress of the Lakes, W.P. Strickland wrote, “White-fish are more highly prized than any other kind found in our waters, being the decidedly the most delicious in a fresh state, and when packed command a higher price than any other by $1 per bbl… They were once so numerous that eight thousand were taken at a single haul. At present a haul of one or two thousand is thought a very good one. In all the rivers they are growing scarce very gradually, but surely. The ratio of decrease cannot be arrived at with any degree of precision.”

The decline, recovery and future threats to Great Lakes fisheries are a long tale for another time. Restocking and other 20th century conservation efforts resulted in stabilized populations, along with efforts to restore Native American fishing rights granted by 19th century treaties. Today’s commercial fishery sustainably harvests more than eight million pounds of lake whitefish each year. Residents and guests alike continue to enjoy this humble, tasty member of the salmon family at restaurants, markets, and fisheries throughout northern Michigan.

Remembering Dr. Beaumont at Mackinac

 In 1955 the “Beaumont Memorial” opened at the corner of Market and Fort Streets on Mackinac Island. Now known as the American Fur Co. Store and Dr. Beaumont Museum, the property is operated by Mackinac State Historic Parks. It was originally funded by the Michigan Medical Society.

 The Beaumont Museum was not the first nor only place that the Dr. Beaumont has been commemorated on Mackinac Island.

Beaumont Monument, Fort Mackinac

 In 1900 the Upper Peninsula and Michigan State Medical Societies placed this monument to Beaumont and St. Martin Beaumont inside Fort Mackinac. It is located next to the Officers’ Stone Quarters, where Beaumont began his experiments.

Dean Cornwell Studies for Beaumont and St. Martin, 1938

Pencil Study for Beaumont and St. Martin

Pencil Study for Beaumont and St. Martin

Oil Study for Beaumont and St. Martin

Donated by Paul Douglas Withington

 Dean Cornwell (1892-1960) was one of the most prominent American illustrators from the 1920s into the 1950s. A major corporate commission was The Pioneers of American Medicine by Wyeth Laboratories. The series of eight paintings commemorated the achievements of America’s medical heroes. Beaumont was one of the subjects chosen.

Oil Study for Beaumont and St. Martin

 The original 1938 painting was exhibited for several decades at the Beaumont Museum but was returned to Wyeth Laboratories in 1999. However, Mackinac State Historic Parks has two original studies by Cornwell in its collection, currently exhibited at The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. They represent preliminary work done for the final painting. Cornwell was a gifted draftsman and master of composition. All his paintings were preceded by extensive research. Nonetheless, true accuracy was often sacrificed for drama and idealism. The rustic cabin setting presents a more “frontier” atmosphere than Beaumont’s own quarters at Fort Mackinac, where the experiments took place. Likewise, Beaumont probably did not conduct his work wearing a full-dress uniform.

Marshall Frederick, William Beaumont M.D. Bas Relief Plaque

 In 1955 the Michigan Medical Society commissioned this bas relief for the Beaumont Museum. It is now also on exhibit at The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum.

 Marshall Fredericks (1908-1998) was one of the most prolific sculptors of the twentieth century, known in America and abroad for his monumental figurative sculpture, public memorials and fountains, portraits, and animal figures. His sculptures can be found in more than 150 public and corporate locations in seventeen states and seven foreign countries.

 Mackinac State Historic Parks is commemorating the bicentennial of the accidental shooting of St. Martin that led to Beaumont’s experiments throughout the summer of 2022. A new exhibit is on display at the American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum, which will be open through August 20. Admission is included with a Fort Mackinac or Historic Downtown Mackinac ticket.

 

Natural Springs of Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island is blessed with a number of natural springs which percolate through limestone bedrock. An 1882 tourist booklet, Mackinac Island, Wave-Washed Tourists’ Paradise of the Unsalted Seas, boasted of “living streams of pure water, cooled down to the temperature of forty-four degrees, gushing from its lime-rock precipices.” A few of these, such as Dwightwood Spring and Croghan Water, are well known by many of today’s visitors. Others, such as Wishing Spring, Wawatam Brook, and La Salle Spring, are less familiar or forgotten. When you do encounter a natural spring, please enjoy the view, but remember untreated water is considered unsafe for drinking.

Sinclair’s map of Mackinac Island, 1779

 A Fine Spring

As the British settled Mackinac Island from 1780-1781, water was viewed as a valuable resource. Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair noted “a fine spring of water” on a map he drew after visiting the island in 1779. He wrote his superiors, “Our Village will be washed on one side by a fine Spring which with some care may be brought to turn a mill at least one day in seven.”

More pressing priorities meant Sinclair never built his water-powered mill on Mackinac Island. The spring he referred to once fed a small trickle of water  named Wawatam Brook for 20th century guidebooks. The brook originated near the Grand Hotel and emptied into a small lake now called Hanks Pond, which serves a water feature on the Jewel Golf Course.

 La Salle Spring

This 1829 survey map shows La Salle Spring

A second natural spring once trickled into Hanks Pond, originating below Fort Mackinac’s West Blockhouse. Eventually christened La Salle Spring, it became a reliable source of water for Island residents and soldiers alike. In his 1895 book, Mackinac, Formerly Michilimackinac, Dr. John R. Bailey noted that log piping was used for feeding water to town, supplying “stores, warehouses, and dwellings of the fur company.”

In 1881, a steam-powered pump was installed which elevated water from the spring through ½ inch lead pipes to a reservoir located in the second story of the North Blockhouse. From this high point, it then flowed through pipes into various fort buildings. In Annals of Fort Mackinac, author Dwight H. Kelton enlightened his readers, “This innovation on the old-time water-wagon was made… in accordance with a plan devised by, and executed under the direction of Lieut. D.H. Kelton, Post Quartermaster. Water was first pumped October 11, 1881.”

 Croghan Water

Croghan Water, 2021

The north-central portion of Mackinac Island once featured the Island’s largest farm. By 1804, Michael Dousman harvested hay, raised cattle, and even built a horse-powered mill and distillery there. In 1814, the Battle of Mackinac Island was fought on Dousman’s hay fields. Today, links of the Wawashkamo Golf Club cover much of the site.

Dousman’s distillery was situated near a flowing spring of cool water. On early maps, it was simply labeled “Cold Spring.”  In 1913, the spring was renamed Croghan Water, in honor Colonel George Croghan, commander of American forces during the 1814 battle.

 Wishing Spring

Wishing Spring, ca. 1910

This spring was the first which became a popular tourist destination. Once located near Devil’s Kitchen, it was also known as Lover’s Rest or Fairy Spring. During her 1872 visit to the site, novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson offered a token knot of ribbon and wished for health during the year.

Rev. Frank O’Brien summarized the site in the 1916 guide, Names and Places of Interest on Mackinac Island, Michigan. He wrote, This Wishing Spring is within a fragrant, fairy grotto. The water, clear as crystal, flows from above, dripping, cool and refreshing. If you drink and wish, and keep the secret for three days, tradition says you will get whatever you wish.”

 Dwightwood Spring

Dwightwood Spring, ca. 1909

This well-known spring is located along Lake Shore Boulevard (M-185), near the southeast corner of Mackinac Island. In 1909, Edwin O. Wood donated funds for a canopy, fountain, and benches in memory of his son, Dwight Hulbert Wood, who perished after his bicycle was struck by a horse-drawn fire engine in Flint, Michigan.

That July, a dedication ceremony was held to christen Dwightwood Spring. During the ceremony, park superintendent Benjamin Franklin Emery noted the site was dedicated “to preserve the work of nature, to make the spring accessible, to prove a shelter in time of storm, to be a resting place for the weary, long to be remembered after leaving the beautiful Island shores.”

 An Invitation

The springs above represent just a few of Mackinac Island’s “living streams of pure water” which bubble up from its limestone bedrock. During your next visit, you’re invited to seek out these peaceful places, enjoy their quiet beauty, and discover special plants and animals that thrive there. Perhaps, like Ms. Woolson, you’ll feel inspired. “Now I am a sensible, middle-aged woman,” she wrote, “but something in the moonlight bewitched me, and I consented, much to the delight of my niece.”

Boats Boats Boats!

 When thinking about the Great Lakes fur trade, most people will imagine French Canadian voyageurs paddling huge birchbark canoes filled with tons of furs or trade goods. Canoes were absolutely an integral part of the fur trade, and provided a vital link between Michilimackinac and other communities around the Great Lakes. However, they were by no means the only watercraft on the lakes, and a great deal of people and goods were moved by a type of large rowboat called a bateau.

 In the 18th century, there were few standardized plans for batteaux. Although the British Admiralty used a standard 30-foot design for vessels destined for military service in Canada, individual batteaux might range from less than 20 feet long to over 30, and there were regional variations in design. All shared a few common features: a flat bottom without a keel, heavier stems at the bow and stern, and butted plank construction. Relatively easy to build so long as appropriate woodworking tools were on hand, a bateau could be knocked together without the need for skill ship carpenters or shipyards. A bateau could be paddled, poled, or propelled under sail, but generally the vessels were powered by large wooden oars.

 While canoes (and sailing vessels) were absolutely workhorses of the Great Lakes in the 18th century, in many instances there were more batteaux on the lakes and rivers than other types of watercraft. In 1778, for example, 374 batteaux set out from Montreal for Michilimackinac and other western posts, while only 152 canoes left the city for the summer trading season. Individual merchants might own or hire several batteaux. Michilimackinac merchant John Askin, for instance, dispatched 10 batteaux in 1777, while  trading partners Thomas Smith, William Taylor, and Edward Ripley sent 16 more to Detroit and Michilimackinac. A 1778 inventory of Askin’s estate included both a “Common batea[u]” and a “Small fish [bateau],” both presumably for personal use rather than heavy trade.

 The British military also heavily employed batteaux to move personnel and supplies around the lakes and connect far-flung posts like Michilimackinac and Detroit. As somewhat disposable craft exposed to relatively heavy work, these batteaux required regular repair and maintenance. In 1771 Capt. George Turnbull received £85 for mending boats, making oars, and burning pitch at Michilimackinac. By 1778, Sergeant Amos Langdon of the 8th Regiment was issued nails from the engineer’s stores to repair the King’s batteaus and the wharf. Although somewhat more cumbersome than a canoe, a bateau could efficiently cover great distance at speed. In late September 1778, an express canoe traveled from Michilimackinac to Montreal in 10 to 14 days, while a batteau rowed by eight “active men” could go to the city and return to Michilimackinac by November 10, making a 6 week round trip. However, supplies to maintain the boats could be difficult to procure, making repairs difficult. In 1779, Major Arent DePeyster, Michilimackinac’s commanding officer, unsuccessfully requested pitch and oakum to repair batteaux. A year later, DePeyster sent pitch and oakum up from Detroit to repair the batteaus at Michilimackinac, telling Lt. Gov. Patrick Sinclair that these materials were previously hard to get. Boat repairs could be a thankless task. In 1774, Lt. Col. John Caldwell, commanding the 8th Regiment at Fort Niagara, complained that “The old ones [batteaus] have been so often repaired since I came here that it is throwing money away to attempt repairing them again.” Apparently the old adage about a boat being a hole in the water is somewhat older than expected.

 Today, a 22-foot bateau is part of the small interpretive fleet at Colonial Michilimackinac (we also have a 28-foot north canoe and a 35-foot Montreal canoe). We use all of these vessels to interpret the vital relationship between Michilimackinac and the surrounding waters of the Great Lakes, and our interpretive staff maintains these boats and utilizes them for special events. This summer, we will have three Maritime Michilimackinac weekends focusing on the roles and chores of sailors, voyageurs, and others working to maintain Michilimackinac’s marine links to the outside world. Weather permitting, our staff will use our bateau and canoes to get out on the water, so we hope you’ll join us for these special events!

 

Mackinaw City’s Petersen Center

While experiencing the cold of winter in Michigan, it’s easy to think of the Straits of Mackinac in warm weather and summer fun. However, you might not realize that there is still plenty happening during the off-season at Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP). During the summer and fall, many staff work out of the 1859 Post Hospital on Mackinac Island or elsewhere in the MSHP park system. In the winter, office staff return to Mackinaw City to the Dr. Eugene and Marian Petersen Center. This tradition has its own history that reflects the ever-changing needs of the state parks at Mackinac. 

The house purchased by the commission in the 1990s that served as a collections office.

The house at 207 W Sinclair which served as office for collections staff.

 Starting in 1958, the park began to work in a form much more recognizable to today. Much of the behind-the-scenes work was spread out, with the museum’s operations at various locations around the greater Lansing area during the winter. The park’s collections were split up, with the archaeological collections being housed in Lansing and the historic collection being kept in a series of buildings on Mackinac Island. The permanent staff was much smaller during those times. As the 1970s and ‘80s rolled in, the park had to make several expansions, most notably in the areas of historical conservation, education, and marketing. This required more office space. In 1988 the park constructed a housing unit on West Central Avenue in Mackinaw City for seasonal employee housing; this also doubled as winter offices for much of the staff. Despite having a building for winter offices, the park’s team were also spread out amongst the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center and Mill Creek Service Center. In the mid-1990s, the park acquired a house and old motel behind Michilimackinac on West Sinclair Avenue, which would initially serve as an office for the collections staff of the park. 

A photo of the Petersen Center being expanded by adding the former housing unit from Central Avenue.

The Petersen Center during its initial expansion in 1998.

A picture of construction of an addition to the Petersen Center in Mackinaw City.

Expansion of the Petersen Center in 2001.

 This motel would be the beginning of a long-term project to centralize MSHP’s offices, library, and collections, as much of that was still located in Lansing. In 1998, the office/housing building on Central Avenue was moved to West Sinclair Avenue and attached to the house. A further renovation was completed in 2001, adding a two-story addition to the building. This expansion would create enough space for the archaeological collection, library, and conservation lab to be moved from Lansing to the new office building. These changes also allowed for new office spaces for the park’s interpretation, education, collections, and archaeological staff. This building was dedicated as the Dr. Eugene and Marian Petersen Center for Archaeology and History. Dr. Eugene Petersen was director of Historic Projects and later Park Director from 1958 to 1985. His wife, Marian, ran the office of the park. In May of 2019, the park renamed the research library after Dr. Keith Widder, in honor of his long service and contributions to MSHP. 

A board table and chairs in the Commission Meeting Room in the Petersen Center, Mackinaw City.

Commission Meeting Room, Petersen Center.

 The latest addition to the Petersen Center was in 2020, when the west side of the building was expanded to accommodate a new meeting room for the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. These changes allowed for a much more centralized, organized,

The Keith R. Widder Library at the Petersen Center.

The Keith R. Widder Library at the Petersen Center.

and professional running of Mackinac State Historic Parks. Now, staff could conveniently do much of their work from their main office, instead of having to travel to do essential research or care for the ever-growing collection. Different departments were able to communicate with each other much more clearly and quickly with the new meeting spaces. The Petersen Center has served, and will continue to serve, as a great tool for the Mackinac State Historic Parks staff in keeping the park up and running. 

A picture of the Petersen Center in Mackinaw City during winter.

The Petersen Center today.