2009-06-13 / Top News

New Displays at Stuart House Focus on 'Everyday Person's' History

By Ryan Schlehuber

The historic Stuart House Museum is evolving into a center of grassroots community history, with displays to be added to the 1817 building this summer.

History on Island military veterans, the Island's former health facility, and the former Thomas Ferry School will be the new additions to the museum, which served as the headquarters for John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company and the living quarters for his agents, Robert Stuart and Ramsey Crooks, and their families.

The fur company existed on the Island until the mid-1830s, when the company moved west. The building was then converted into a hotel and changed ownership several times until it became city property in the 1930s. The city eventually turned the vacant building into a museum. One piece of furniture from the fur trading days supposedly remains, a piano, which city operators believe has survived in the building since that time.

Since the City of Mackinac Island reclaimed day-to-day operations of the museum three years ago, having previously leased it to Mackinac Island Carriage Tours as one of its tour stops, community volunteer Candy Smith and City Clerk Karen Lennard have been working to keep the doors open longer, create fundraisers, and, with the help of other volunteers this summer, add new displays and more historic information about the Island's community.

It enjoyed a successful season last summer, attracting more than 12,000 visitors and earning a profit of $8,931. The museum does not charge an admission fee but depends on donations. Last summer it received $17,427.25 in donations. Its lone employee is Sylvia Perault, a former Thomas Ferry School student.

"It's going really well," said Mrs. Lennard. "We're making money on it and it's going to get stronger, especially with these new displays coming in."

For this summer, Paul Wandrie is decorating a military veterans display room and Dale Gensman will coordinate displays about the former school and health center history, which will include photographs and information about former lay health nurse Stella King.

All three displays will have their own room on the second floor of the Stuart House. The rooms were unused by the museum last year.

"The majority of people that visit the museum, at least the ones I see when I volunteer, like to talk about the people from the Island," said Ms. Smith. "They always want to know more about us."

Mr. Wandrie plans a display of photographs, flags, military paraphernalia, and biographical information about military veterans from the Straits of Mackinac area. He has collected several military flags and information relating to Civil War veterans from Mackinac Island who served in the 7th Michigan Infantry. He hopes to add uniforms, military weapons and equipment, and other items.

"We're looking for donations, artifacts, or any kind of military display items, and we will include anything and everything from any war," he said.

Items loaned temporarily will also be welcome.

Of visitors, he said, "Many of them I've talked to have wondered why we didn't have a veterans room. We want to honor our veterans any way we can."

Over the past several years, Mr. Gensman, of Rochester, has been installing some of his Mackinac building replicas to the museum, including the Indian Dormitory, which was later used as the Island's public school named for Mackinac Island Protestant minister and state legislator Thomas Ferry.

Mr. Gensman also plans to display a miniature replica of the transatlantic steamship Titanic, on which Mr. Astor met his fate when the ship sank in 1912. when the ship sank in 1912.

Mr. Gensman was also a student at Thomas Ferry School, which was closed in 1962 when the public school was moved to its present location below Grand Hotel. His home on Market Street, where Mackinac Island Realty is now, is where Miss King once offered health services before a permanent medical center was built in 1953.

Mr. Gensman has several items he is eager to share with visitors and residents.

"Amazingly, most Islanders are not as familiar with what's in the museum," said Mr. Gensman, a retired construction foreman. "All of these display items are part of my life on the Island. I think when people, visitors and Islanders, come here this summer, they are going to see the kind of atmosphere the people here grew up with. It's a depiction of the everyday person that lived here."

Included in his displays will be rare photographs of the school, student desks, and even a school ledger.

"There will be a story behind every item that goes on display," said Mr. Gensman. "The great thing about it is that many of the Islanders will have their own stories when they come in. I think the people of the Island, those who grew up there, those are the kinds of people that should be telling the story of the history of the Island."

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