2009-06-13 / Top News

Island Historic Buildings Open

By Jane Alexander

Interpreters in the historic Biddle family house (from left) Claire Herholb, LeeAnn Ewer, and Erin Hemming explain to visitors what cooking was like in the 1880s on Mackinac Island. Interpreters in the historic Biddle family house (from left) Claire Herholb, LeeAnn Ewer, and Erin Hemming explain to visitors what cooking was like in the 1880s on Mackinac Island. A Canadian trapper named Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach while trading furs on Mackinac Island 187 years ago last Saturday. He recovered well, but the wound healed to his skin, creating a permanent opening to his stomach and launching the digestion experiments of Dr. William Beaumont, the surgeon at Fort Mackinac.

Saturday, June 6, on the anniversary of this event, the Mackinac Island downtown historic buildings opened for the season. The date was coincidental, as the buildings always open on the first Saturday of the month, but, according to Mackinac State Historic Parks lead interpreter Amy Pavlov, the date provided an opening for Alexis St. Martin (and his stomach) to become a highlight of interpreters' talks in the Officers' Stone Quarters at Fort Mackinac, where Dr. Beaumont tended to Mr. St. Martin so long ago.

"They'd point and say, 'He stood right where you're standing now,' and the people would all move to the side," she said.

Along with the opening day of the downtown historic buildings, June 6 marked the start of the full season at Fort Mackinac and the other Mackinac State Historic Parks. About 1,830 people visited the buildings during opening weekend.

There are five historic buildings downtown maintained by Mackinac State Historic Parks, including Biddle House and McGulpin House, the 1830s Protestant Mission Church, Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, and the American Fur Company Store and Dr. Beaumont Museum. Mission Church is on Main Street near Mission Point and the remaining buildings are on Market Street and Fort Street.

Volunteer interpreter Ashlee Bueche said visitors get a different experience touring the downtown buildings than they do at the fort.

"There's more one-on-one time," Miss Bueche said. "It's more personal. Up at the fort, there are a lot of demonstrations for large amounts of people, and I don't think many people realize they can walk up and talk to them, whereas when they come in here, they're greeted by one person and they can actually sit here and converse with somebody rather than watching somebody on a field."

Eight people work as interpreters of history, or historic house interpreters at the downtown buildings, including a blacksmith and seven women in 19th century dress. These interpreters must be well versed in the history of each individual building and the fort.

Interpreters act out activities that would have taken place in the buildings in years past. In the Biddle family house on Market Street, for example, interpreters knit, quilt, and cook using only historically accurate supplies. Wool in the Biddle house is cleaned, carved, and spun on site for use in knitting by a crafting interpreter.

Interpreter Claire Herholb said visitors learn different things downtown than at the fort.

"I think you learn more about community life here," she said. "You learn more about the fur trade, about that whole period of history," and more about the average, non-military person's lifestyle on Mackinac Island.

Many interpreters have gone to school for history or museum studies. Interpreter Hillary Pine, a history of art major and museum studies minor at University of Michigan, believes places like the historic downtown are a good way for people to learn about history.

"I've always loved history," she said, " and I just think it's so cool that people really lived here and that we can explain how they lived. A lot of times it becomes very abstract. They don't understand that they were people just like us, that they had to eat and sleep and have jobs. So I like that we get to explain that to people and make them understand."

Miss Herholb said working in the kitchen of the Biddle House is extremely rewarding, although the job may be trying at times.

"Sometimes it's a little hard," she said, trying to impart information to visitors. "They're on a schedule and maybe don't have time to really stop and listen. Plus, it's not a huge room, so you can't really pack them in.

"But it's nice, too. You get to have very intimate conversations with people. There are times when people say, 'oh I've always wanted to know this,' and then you can have a nice 10- to 20-minute conversation with somebody and cause a lightbulb moment for them, which is really great to see."

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