2007-06-16 / Top News

Interpreters Tell Story of Island's History, Culture

Frost, Spranger Appointed Lead Interpreters
By Sean Ely

Lead interpreter Joe Frost stops for a portrait Monday, June 11, at Fort Mackinac. While the hot and sticky weather makes wearing a soldier's wool uniform tough, he enjoys the opportunity he has been given with Mackinac State Historic Parks. Lead interpreter Joe Frost stops for a portrait Monday, June 11, at Fort Mackinac. While the hot and sticky weather makes wearing a soldier's wool uniform tough, he enjoys the opportunity he has been given with Mackinac State Historic Parks. Joe Frost, 24, and Maria Spranger, 20, have been interpreters at Mackinac State Historic Parks for a combined 10 years, but they are considered rookies because they have been promoted to "lead interpreters."

As general interpreters, the two gained knowledge and experience that helped them acquire the head spots. For the remaining weeks of summer, they will be responsible for making schedules, training and managing crews, issuing memos to the staff, confronting anyone who is struggling, bestowing praise for jobs well done, and manning their posts at Fort Mackinac and the downtown museums.

"I was a scout for six years with the Gross Point troop and I determined that I absolutely loved the Island and that I wanted to work up here when I got the chance," said Miss Spranger, who is originally from Warren. "I applied to be a 'crafty,' or a Historic House Interpreter, and got the job. I was the only new person my first year, and I absolutely loved the job, and I've been coming back ever since."

In the Biddle House on Market Street, lead interpreter Maria Spranger cooks beef stew and corn fritters over fire, one of her favorite activities as an interpreter. She enjoys working at Fort Mackinac, but loves the downtown museums, especially when she gets to prepare food for visitors.  In the Biddle House on Market Street, lead interpreter Maria Spranger cooks beef stew and corn fritters over fire, one of her favorite activities as an interpreter. She enjoys working at Fort Mackinac, but loves the downtown museums, especially when she gets to prepare food for visitors. Mr. Frost, from Davison, had never been to Mackinac Island before his first summer working as an interpreter, so the motivation to put in an application came from an outside source.

For two seasons in high school, Mr. Frost worked for a park.

"I really got into talking about history, and a friend said they were hiring soldiers at Fort Mackinac on the Island, so I applied, and I've been here ever since," he said. "This is the start of my seventh season, and I absolutely love it."

Being an interpreter for Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP) is more than wearing a historic uniform or dress.

"MSHP sends us a stack of books, with two manuals, and we have to read them all," Miss Spranger said. "We are quizzed throughout the summer on them to make sure we keep up our skills. There is also a week of intensive training. During orientation, we have to learn how to cook over an open fire and work in the blacksmith shop, as well. It's quite a process, but it's an absolute blast to do."

Mr. Frost commented that the books he and his crew read have to do with soldier lifestyles and what it takes to get started. The park does not require the interpreters to stay in character all day long, however, like some believe.

"We do what is called third person interpretations," he said. "We can technically say we represent the soldiers of the 1880s, we can talk about the 1880s or the 1780s, or even the modern day. We don't have to simply act like them at all times. Sometimes during the day, though, we are first-person interpreters. We take on the persona of a soldier from a time period. It really depends on what we are doing."

A typical workday for an interpreter lasts 6.5 hours, with a 30-minute lunch break. The time of day an interpreter works depends of what building or activity he or she is assigned to on that day of the week. Everyone works 5.5 days a week, with a day-and-a-half off.

"Each pay period is broken into two separate weeks. During one week, we work on marching, facing movements, and firing," Mr. Frost said. "Then, the opposite week, we have an interpretive staff meeting, where we talk about how things are going and what we need to work on."

Katie Cederholm, curator of education at MSHP, is in charge of choosing the lead interpreters for the summer. She couldn't be more thrilled about her choice, because of the solid backgrounds that both Mr. Frost and Miss Spranger have.

"Both of them really have a strong commitment to the sites that they work at and MSHP," she said. "They've been here for a number of years. Maria has her scouting experience, so she knows the parks and she knows the commitment this job takes. These qualities make them good leaders, and that's their end goal, to put the visitors first. They have a love for these sites and our organization in general. They always keep the visitors in mind, having a strong sense to serve the public."

The qualities that it takes to do this job are not found in everyone. Miss Spranger realizes that it takes organizational skills, dedication, people skills, and the ability to be in charge of people, both workers and visitors.

Being a leader does not intimidate these interpreters. Both have been in leadership roles in their lives, and both have a strong desire to continue to learn.

"I've been to leadership camps and I've held leadership positions at my school. I've been in these types of roles before, but was never paid to do it. That's a plus. It takes determination and the willingness to put in over 40 hours of work every single week, because, so far, I haven't worked even close to 40 hours; it's always been quite a bit more. But you don't realize it, because it goes by so fast. I'm organized, and I'm a neat-freak. I just have so much fun doing this job."

Mr. Frost agrees the time flies during the work days. He's accustomed to the routine, after seven years with the agency.

"It's really not that hard," he said. "The hardest part as a new person is all the knowledge that you gain. I've been here a long time, and each year I learn something new, and each time you learn something else, you think of new questions, and you immediately have more questions and you want to learn something else."

Both enjoy the company of people, especially younger children, whose minds they can reach more easily. Mr. Frost loves getting children up to the cannon so he can interact with them. Miss Spranger simply lives for the expressions the younger children after she teaches them a game or tells them an interesting fact.

"I absolutely love kids," she said. "I lead a children's tour, and they are just so funny. I get to teach them about a child's life at the fort back in the 1800s, and they really enjoy hearing it. They play children's games, and it's just a riot. The really little kids are adorable when they are trying to do the cup and ball game, or when you're showing them Jacob's ladder and all the different animals with it. Their faces are priceless."

She also enjoys the moments when tourists can't help but be amazed at the facts she rattles off each day.

"It's a lot of fun to do this job, and you get to meet a lot of interesting people," Miss Spranger said. "At the Biddle House, I was with a couple out in the herb garden, and they were truly fascinated by the things I was saying. They would enthusiastically say, 'I didn't know that was used for that.' It's really cool to get the 'ah-ha' moment from them. You don't always get it, but every once in a while you'll get the very interested people. We talk to everybody, but the interesting people who give certain reactions are the best to work with."

Mr. Frost and Miss Spranger realize that it's necessary to take the good with the bad. Although people can be friendly, there will also be individuals who need to be spoken to, and that is one of the challenges of the job.

"I like people and I like helping them," Miss Spranger said, "but one of the challenges for me is confronting people on certain things. I never want to be anyone's enemy, but you have to have that respect factor, you have to be their friend, but they have to have a certain amount of respect in you as a supervisor. Sometimes that is a fine line that you're drawing, but so far so good."

Even in bad weather, the interpreters stay fully alert and ready to entertain and assist those visitors at Fort Mackinac. A little rain won't ruin an outing.

Demonstrations stay the same. People may move into the Commissary building if rain is heavy. Rifle and cannon firings are still done, as long as thunder and lightning holds off. It would take pretty severe weather for Mr. Frost to cancel a cannon firing because, after all, it's his favorite activity. It's just a matter of people coming out to the platforms.

Even the concerts of military music keep are held, but are moved to the front porch of the barracks where people can stay dry and enjoy the sounds.

Miss Spranger knows the serious people will still show up on unpleasant days.

"We try to make it fun," she said of rainy days. "Those are the days you get the best visitors. They are the most interested. We are given the opportunity to talk to people for longer. We can give more information than the general, 'This is the Biddle Kitchen, this is what I'm making today.' Rainy days can be very slow, but they are some of the best, as well."

One of Miss Spranger's favorite activities is cooking over the open fire in the Biddle House on Market Street. She makes a meal that would have been eaten hundreds of years ago, such as corn fritters.

All of the interpreters working for MSHP become a family, because of the extensive amounts of time they all spend together.

"You don't realize it as much when you're here, but when you leave it's like I used to talk to them all the time, and then all of a sudden they're not there," Miss Spranger said. "We'll stay in touch and go on [the Internet] to talk."

Mr. Frost will be returning to Michigan State University in the fall for his fifth year, where he is majoring in history and geography. He plans to pursue a master's degree in history or historic preservation.

Miss Spranger, a senior at the University of Detroit- Mercy, is majoring in economics. In the fall, she will head to Washington, D.C. for an internship with the agency overseeing the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Both lead interpreters see the opportunity to have a serious role for Fort Mackinac as an honor and a blessing.

"It feels really good to represent the organization," Mr. Frost said. "It's great to go back home and say, 'I work for the Mackinac State Historic Parks in the summer.' They preserve this place really well, and it's just a great place to work for, overall."

Miss Spranger even finds herself getting recognized hundreds of miles away from Mackinac.

"A woman came up to me when I was in the dining room at my school and asked, 'Do you work on Fort Mackinac?' I replied 'Was I wearing a pink dress?' and she said, 'Yeah, and a big hat, too!' People recognize you all over the place. It's just incredible."

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