2015-07-25 / News

Historic Downtown Buildings Offer Glimpse of Life in the Past

By Matt Harding


Historical interpreter Hanae Weber holds up one of the furs on the counter at the American Fur Trading Company Retail Store. Visitors in the Fur Trading Company building are allowed to touch the items on the shelves, something not always allowed in a museum. Historical interpreter Hanae Weber holds up one of the furs on the counter at the American Fur Trading Company Retail Store. Visitors in the Fur Trading Company building are allowed to touch the items on the shelves, something not always allowed in a museum. Four historic downtown buildings on Market Street show visitors a glimpse into 19th century Mackinac Island. Historic house interpreters serve as tour guides to the past.

At the American Fur Company Retail Store on the corner of Market and Fort streets, an interpreter helps visitors understand 1820s fur trading.

“The really fun part about working in this particular area of the downtown buildings is that we allow people to touch things that are on the shelves,” said Hanae Weber from behind the counter at the American Fur Company Store. “That’s really appealing to kids. You can see their eyes light up when you say, ‘You can touch anything on the shelves.’”


Mackinac State Historic Parks Curator of Education Katie Mallory in the McGulpin House. Mackinac State Historic Parks Curator of Education Katie Mallory in the McGulpin House. The interpreters also take replica medicine bottles and plates off of the shelves behind the counter for people to get a closer look. Already on the counter are copies of store records that show the accrued tabs of famous Island residents such as William McGulpin and Henry Schoolcraft.

The building also holds the Dr. Beaumont Museum, which recounts William Beaumont’s experiments in digestion on Alexis St. Martin, who was accidentally shot at this site. Dr. Beaumont was the surgeon at Fort Mackinac and treated the fur trader St. Martin, whose wound never fully healed, leaving a hole to his stomach. It was through this hole that Dr. Beaumont studied the digestive process.

The Biddle House on Market Street was built in the late 18th century and owned by Edward Biddle in 1832. He and his wife, Agatha, may have lived in the home even before that time.

An interpreter there knits, quilts, and answers any questions about the house. Adjoining the front room are two side rooms that visitors can also look at. In one, you can see the tiny staircase that leads to the half-story upstairs. The other room holds a bed frame that is original to the house.

Interpreter Kathleen Mc- Carthy said she likes portraying Mrs. Biddle.

“I love it,” she said, “when visitors come in and I welcome them in like it’s my home, like I would at my house.”

The back room features an open-hearth fireplace, where interpreters cook lunch for themselves — and the soldiers who stop in — and bake bread for visitors, much like Mrs. Biddle would have done for the Native Americans. Interpreter Elle Harrison said some people would be surprised by how excited people get about the kitchen area.

“I had a young boy come in earlier,” she said, “and he helped me make the bread. He kneaded it, he formed it into rolls, and then we baked it together. He stayed for the whole process. You’d initially think, ‘Oh, a little boy? He’s not going to be interested,’ but he stayed for almost an hour to help us with that.”

People who come to the Biddle House are interested in the front room’s architecture, said interpreter Diana Nightingale, and fascinated with the kitchen and the blacksmithing shop.

The Benjamin Blacksmith Shop next door was owned and operated by Robert Benjamin and his son, Herbert, from 1885 to 1965. The original shop was several blocks down the street and has been moved to its present location, where Mackinac State Historic Parks continues to operated it as a museum.

“People are always fascinated by the art of bending the metal because that’s not something you see every day,” said Ms. McCarthy.

The McGulpin House across the street from the Retail Company Store could be one of the oldest surviving buildings in Michigan. It may have been built on the mainland at Fort Michilimackinac and moved to the Island when the fort was moved to Mackinac Island in 1881-82.

The history of Market Street is significant, just in these four buildings alone.

“Right here on Mackinac Island, this little spot right here [Market Street], has some of the most important buildings, and some of the oldest buildings, and some of the most historic buildings, not only in the state, but also in the nation,” said Katie Mallory, curator of education at Mackinac State Historic Parks.

Mrs. Mallory, who was a historic house interpreter on the Island in her collegiate years, said there are things from 175 years ago that people can relate to today. People lost their jobs or businesses owing to a declining fur trade, just as the economy has its ups and downs today. She helps the interpreters convey similarities to the public.

Interpreter Stasia Rogers said she tries to capture a visitor’s attention by noticing what they’re looking at and tailoring the conversation to whatever the visitor is most interested in.

“Some people are really interested in history,” said Ms. Weber, “and those people are really, really fun to talk to because they ask a lot of questions and they do a lot of connecting this with other ideas, or other historic sites they’ve been to.”

For Mrs. Mallory and the historic downtown buildings staff, reaching visitors by engaging them is the goal.

“We’re actually interpreting people’s houses and places of business,” Mrs. Mallory said. “I think that really can connect with people. ‘Oh, this is like my house.’ These were people’s lives here, and I think it really connects with people on a personal level.”

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