2005-05-20 / News

Millwright House Opens Its Doors at Historic Mill Creek

By Jessica Delaney

Historical interpreters are a common sight at Mill Creek. Bruce Anderson of Westland takes a break in front of the newly opened Millwright House.
Historical interpreters are a common sight at Mill Creek. Bruce Anderson of Westland takes a break in front of the newly opened Millwright House.

  • Ten years in the making, the millwright house at Historic Mill Creek has opened its doors to visitors, a new exhibit at one of the oldest sites in the area.
  • Lumber milled here was used in the construction of Fort Mackinac during the Revolutionary War. Abandoned long ago, its rediscovery in the early 1970s prompted Mackinac State Historic Parks to explore the decayed ruins and rebuild what is probably the area’s first industrial enterprises.

    Exciting exhibits in the American Millwright House include this original millstone. Millstones discovered in Cheboygan helped archaeologists discover the ruins of Mill Creek.
Exciting exhibits in the American Millwright House include this original millstone. Millstones discovered in Cheboygan helped archaeologists discover the ruins of Mill Creek. Historic Mill Creek was opened in 1984, but archaeological examination of the old millwright house was begun even before that. The last 10 years have been a process of reconstruction, when visitors to the site were able to watch costumed historic interpreters build the log home.

    “It took so long because we used historical methods and historical tools,” said Jeffrey Dykehouse, interpretation supervisor.

    Construction used interlock log framing and the logs were cut by the water-powered sawmill, reconstructed at the site used in the 1700s. Visitors have been able to see the entire process of building the house, from sawing, to hammering, to shingling.

    Work on the exterior was finished last October and the winter was spent installing modern electrical wiring and the various exhibits designed by historians and curators at Mackinac State Historic Parks.

    Exhibits include an original millstone from the Mill Creek site, along with family artifacts from the period, ranging from sewing needles to fishing hooks. There is a small window in the floor through which visitors can view a reconstructed cellar. For detail-oriented visitors, a fake mouse lurks on the earthen floor.

    One exhibit holds the bones of animals that the family once ate. These include otter bones, bear teeth, sturgeon, and even the skeletal remains of passenger pigeons. One of the most exciting artifacts, however, is the family hearth, where the inhabitants burned many discarded items and where modern-day archaeologists now sift clues to the lifestyles of the 18th century.

    This fireplace, said Mr. Dykehouse, is probably the most important repository for artifacts at Mill Creek, and its ruins have turned up many treasures, like buttons, sewing needles, and the remnants of what the inhabitants ate.

    To best display the hearth, exhibit designer David Kronberg came up with an innovative demonstration. A glass case surrounds the fireplace and there is a transparent mural between the glass and the ruins. Lights alternate between highlighting the hearth and illuminating the mural, so that a ghostlike appearance of a family cooking over a fire appears over the actual ruins.

    “It goes back and forth between what it looks like as ruins and what it might have looked like then,” said Mr. Dykehouse.

    An interactive video presentation is also a part of a visitor’s experience. At the back of the house, hidden in a dark niche, is a projection of the millwright family speaking about work at the mill and on the farm. The portrayal is an interpretation by historians based on clues that archaeologists dug up.

    The park uses the narrative to show visitors how different life was then. The family is portrayed by the McMullen family of Cheboygan, who had no previous acting experience.

    Today, Mill Creek includes nature trails and a park area and a naturalist provides presentations about the animals and plants of the forest. While Mill Creek was in operation, however, the area was clear-cut for lumber.

    Established shortly after Fort Michilimackinac was disassembled in 1780-81, Mill Creek was built by civilian Robert Campbell to provide lumber to the British, who were building a fort on Mackinac Island. Many buildings on the Island were constructed with wood from Mill Creek, including Mission Church, which was built in 1829.

    Mill Creek quickly became more than a sawmill. There was a farm, and an orchard and it became a depot for supplies to Mackinac Island and, as the terminus of the old Saginaw Highway, became a drop-off place where people could board boats to the Island.

    Artifacts discovered there, such as a Haitian military button, suggest that Mill Creek was visited by many foreign guests.

    “It was a crossroads of commerce,” said Tim Putman, a spokesman for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “Today it seems like an outpost, but then it was commercial, with people coming through, visiting, and dropping by.”

    Mill Creek was rediscovered in 1972 by amateur archaeologists Ellis and Mary Olson and their friend, Margaret Lentini. Mr. Olson had seen old millstones in the Cheboygan area and research told him that they were originally from Mill Creek. While digging around the area, they discovered a flintlock musket lock and brass from a British soldier’s hat.

    Alerted to the discoveries, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, which operates Mackinac State Historic Parks, began researching the area and, later, reconstructed the old mill house on the creek and developed the park.

    The Millwright House is the latest attraction there. Its grand opening will be June 15, although the house has been open to the public since May 4.

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