2009-05-16 / Top News

In-ground Map of Lakes, Canoe Exhibit Are New Features at Colonial Michilimackinac

By Karen Gould

A $42,000 outdoor addition to Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City will be completed in three phases and will include a large ground map, a small fort with a palisade wall, a gazebo, and a rowhouse. (Rendering courtesy of Mackinac State Historic Parks) A $42,000 outdoor addition to Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City will be completed in three phases and will include a large ground map, a small fort with a palisade wall, a gazebo, and a rowhouse. (Rendering courtesy of Mackinac State Historic Parks) Children will be able to step onto a 36-foot diameter inground map of the Great Lakes and trace the long-ago route of the region's fur traders at a new $42,000 outdoor addition designed to entice families to Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City.

The map is featured along with interpretive exhibits, hands-on activities, and a playground.

"If it actually had water in it, they would be wading pools," said Steve Brisson, Mackinac State Historic Parks' chief curator and chairman of the playground development team.

The new Kids' Rendezvous Interpretive Playground will open in June and is designed to entertain children, from toddlers to preteens. This year the first phase of the three-phase development, limited by funding, will be completed.

Mackinac Associates, the nonprofit support group for Mackinac State Historic Parks, raises funds for education and is funding the first phase of the development.

The Great Lakes region was the center of the North American fur trade, and children standing on the map will be able to walk the route of the fur traders, from Montreal to Michilimackinac. Exhibit panels will tell the story of the fur traders and their canoe travels, and show the fur trade routes.

Several structures will be constructed to look like trade and freight canoes, designed for people to sit in. For durability, the boats will be constructed of wood, but the original canoes were sheathed in birch bark. The vessels, said Mr. Brisson, are to show visitors the size of the canoes used by the fur traders. A small canoe was more than 15 feet long, a North Canoe was 25 feet long, and the Montreal Canoe 36 feet long. The Montreal Canoe will be the first one placed at Rendezvous Park.

"The large trade canoes were massive," said Mr. Brisson. "This will implant in their minds they weren't these three-person camping canoes you go on, they were massive."

The canoes had a row of paddlers on each side with furs and goods stored in the middle of the boat.

Using available outside space, a small fort with a palisade wall will be constructed to include a gateway into the area. Inside, children will find a climbing structure, interpretive elements that explore the life of a voyageur, and a miniature cannon that can be fired and will sound a big boom. The centerpiece will be the map.

"We often use maps to set the tone, to set the stage of what we are talking about," said Mr. Brisson. "We'll be talking about the voyageur, their lifestyle, how they were the transportation labor of the fur trade, and how they lived, how they got here, what routes they took, how they operated the fur trade, and what they used as trade goods."

The interpretive area also will include information on canoe making.

Phases two and three, to be completed next spring, will focus on toddlers. A toddler area will include climbing toys and a sandbox. A gazebo will be built near the map to provide a shaded area for parents to watch as children play.

The project will include an expansion of the play structure and the construction of a playhouse that will be designed as a rowhouse, once a part of Fort Michilimackinac. An Indian home also will be built.

"We want to cover all of the groups that were involved in Michilimackinac," Mr. Brisson said.

Children's activities are not new at the park, with children's tours, a discovery room, and children's programming already available, he noted.

The Voyageur Cafe near the play area and will offer snacks.

As attendance began to fall a few years ago at Colonial Michilimackinac, a strategic planning process got underway with park staff, and the idea for the new addition began to take shape.

"We're hoping that this will do a better job to educate our young visitors on the themes that we explore at Michilimackinac," said Mr. Brisson, "and we, indeed, hope this will give a bump in attendance."

In the mid-1960s, Colonial Michilimackinac had a miniature play area called Fort Rogers' Rangers. In the late 1960s, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission acquired Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and recently developed the lighthouse park. The commission also oversees Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park just west of Mackinaw City.

Park attendance at Colonial Michilimackinac was climbing in the late 1960s, and a needed Welcome Center replaced Fort Rogers' Rangers.

The park here has found only one similar outdoor site, in a national park in Pennsylvania, said Mr. Brisson.

"They reported it was a rousing success," he said. "It did for them exactly what we hope ours will do for us. It really gave a place for families with children a place of their own, a place to focus on."

Probably in 2010, after the completion of phase two, staff will evaluate the success of the playground by surveying children about their experience at the site to see if they understand the story of Michilimackinac, the fur trade, and voyageurs.

Team members include Mr. Brisson, director Phil Porter, exhibit designer Dave Kronberg, curator of education Katie Cederholm, interpretation supervisor Kate Arbogast, public relations officer Jolene Priest, and park manager Mike Sutton.

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