Fort Mackinac {midwest wandering}

Last summer I had the chance to spend three full days on Mackinac Island, Michigan.  It was my first visit to this lovely place and I have to admit I found it, well, magical.   There are many places to fall in love with on this 3.7 square mile island, but as is typical for me, I was most smitten with the Islands largest historic site, Fort Mackinac. 

When I was a young child my mother would fill long summer days by taking us on tours of our local surroundings, stopping at any place that seemed even remotely interesting: small museums, a nearby mining town turned visitor destination and of course parks and lakes and sometimes the playground by the river where we could also feed the ducks.  We thrived on day trips and I learned almost by default that connection to place was gained through experiencing nature and history.  I suppose I had a predisposition to the nerdy love of looking at old farm implements though the glass walls of a display case and asking volunteer docents where the bathroom was located in a nineteenth century farm house.  But even if that is true, my mother’s resourcefulness and eagerness to get out and see something instilled in me a lifelong wanderlust that continues only to be satisfied by a breath of fresh air and a good dose of the past.  In early college when my sister and I began making our own summer road trips from our home in Southern Oregon to visit aunts, uncles and cousins in Southern California, I easily fell into the role of instigator and tour guide, always eager to stop at some old place along the way.  My sister, not nearly as keen as I, humored me most of the time, biting her tongue when we stopped at coastal missions and took detours down defunct main street strips.   

Today I am the mom who takes the detour and makes sure we stop at the local museum or walk through the natural history exhibit in a visitor center.  I want my children to grow up with a curiosity about where they are, what a place was before they witnessed it and why that matters.  The facts are the basic ones these days, age appropriate for three kids under ten. But as I have learned it is not necessarily the details of a place that stay with us, but the experience of it.  So that is why with only three days to experience everything Mackinac has to offer I made sure we spent one of those afternoons wandering the fort’s historic grounds; that, and because I will always be a history nerd at heart.     

Fort Macinac is a late eighteenth century military post that in 1875 became part of the Nation’s second national park, Mackinac Island National Park, commissioned just three years after Yellowstone.  It was built by the French in the late eighteenth century during the height of the great lakes fur trading era and was held by the British during the Revolutionary War, not surrendered to the U.S. until nearly twenty years after the new nation was officially formed.  Over the next century the fort made its transition from military stronghold to tourist attraction.  In 1895 the twenty year old national park was decommissioned at the request of Michigan’s then governor and became Mackinac State Park, Michigan’s first state park. 

The fort’s collection of historic buildings, which includes the oldest standing building in the state of Michigan have been restored to the appearance of the grounds during their final years of military occupation.  They represent a decisive era in early American history and tell the story of those on both sides of the walls.  The grounds offer interpretive and interactive experiences for visitors of any age.  On a visit to the island it should not be missed.   

Below is a photo tour from our afternoon visit in late July of last year.  Follow along using a map of the grounds, here

Thanks for joining me!

Fort Mackinac from Marquette Park 

Entrance to the front gates of the park, known as the south sally port, from Marquette park overlooking Lake Michigan

Ramp leading from Marquette park to the south sally port

18. South Sally Port,
One of the fort's original features constructed more than 225 years ago

7. Soldiers barracks, 1859

Wooden boardwalks connect the past and the buildings that tell its story.

20. East blockhouse,1798
A fortified lookout post with a view of Lake Michigan and the Straights of Mackinac, a strategic point of defense

12. The west blockhouse, 1798 
and two of my little explorers 

View looking east toward the straights of Mackinac the fort's primary defense point, today it overlooks a thriving tourist community

View looking north east across Marquette park onto Lake Michigan 

22. Parade grounds, 
open space at the center of the grounds as it looked in the 1890s

Daily reenactments demonstrate life and training at the fort 

14. Officers Stone Quarters, 1780
Interactive exhibits for children are presented within the buildings historic walls, making history tangible for young visitors.  The Kids Quarters are housed in the old Officers Stone Quarters, the oldest standing building in the state of Michigan.

14. Officers Stone Quarters, 1780
The Officers Stone Quarters, constructed in 1780, is the oldest standing building in the state of Michigan, a photograph above a fireplace illustrates the daily scene in the late 1880s.  For over one hundred years officers and their families occupied this building as their domestic quarters.

14. Officers Stone Quarters, 1780
Living room in the Officers Stone Quarters as it would have looked in the 1880s

9. Post School House, 1879
Children of those stationed at the fort were provided an education within its walls

5. North sally port, 1875
Visiting a historic site can leave us with the impression that a place always functioned as a finished whole, static in time, designed to serve a specific function.  But this is rarely an accurate reflection of sites that more often than not were transformed over time to meet changing needs.  Fort Mackinac is no exception. 

3. Quartermasters Storehouse, 1860
The exhibits in the old store house likely represent a scene much lovelier than what one would have encountered in the hustle and bustle of a nineteenth century fort commissary, but I found this modest presentation to be so engaging, I was left considering the space long after I left it.

3. Quartermasters Storehouse, 1860

Looking across the Parade grounds toward the officers quarters, with Lake Michigan and the Straights beyond

17. Guard House, 1828
Exhibits in this modest building tell the story of court proceedings and jailings at the fort

17. Guard House, 1828
Name and date carved in a wooden windowsill by a prisoner in 1889

Wherever it is you wander, remember to take a few steps into the past.

With gratitude,


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