LANSING — A century ago, Detroit was a prosperous and fast-growing city on the move.
Michigan had about 3 million people, and was about to have many more, thanks to an innovation a manufacturer named Henry Ford was tinkering with and would spring on the automobile industry that summer: the moving assembly line.
The state’s governor at the time, Democrat Woodbridge Ferris, isn’t remembered as a towering figure. He used to admit cheerfully he never would have been elected except for a split in the state’s Republican Party.
But he struck a blow for history in May, 1913, by signing a bill that created the Michigan Historical Commission. The commission has been around ever since.
It has survived several bureaucratic attempts to do it in, has bounced around state departments like a cork in the rapids, but never has given up trying to make Michiganians aware of their legacy.
“The commission has been caretaker of our heritage for a century,” said Jack Dempsey, an attorney, author, and history buff who is the commission’s president.
The commission doesn’t have a high profile. The most visible thing it does is erect and maintain the famous green-and-gold historical markers in front of more than 1,700 storied sites — from the famous Model T plant in Highland Park, to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, to an ancient Gaelic-language Catholic Church on far-flung Beaver Island, to places throughout the Upper Peninsula.
But it does considerably more than that, on a budget that can best be described as nonexistent. Three years ago, it helped renovate tiny Capitol Park in Detroit, site of the state’s first capitol. That effort briefly made headlines when workers at first couldn’t find the coffin or body of Stevens T. Mason, Michigan‘s first governor.
Eventually the remains turned up, each bone lovingly stitched to a mattress. After suitable ceremonies, Mr. Mason was reinterred.
There are a number of people like Mr. Dempsey, who just can’t get enough of the history that shaped the state’s times. He stole hours away from his law practice and his family to write an excellent little book published two years ago, Michigan and the Civil War.
But sadly, most people are pretty ignorant of what came before, which is why Mr. Dempsey and his fellow commissioners face a constant scramble to preserve the state’s history.
Possibly their closest call came four years ago. Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who grew up in California and has returned there, was — to put it mildly — not steeped in Michigan traditions.
When money got tight, she abolished the Michigan State Fair and the Department of History, Arts, and Libraries. She then apparently wanted to turn the Michigan Library and Historical Center into what she called a “Center for Innovation and Reinvention.”
Remarkably, the board she created to do that balked. It said the historical center “should remain … it shelters and protects the heritage of our state, from our first constitution to twenty-first century legislative hearings. Its collections and programs do more than honor our past, they give us the base to build our collective future.“
Although the library has survived, the commissioners have been tossed around. Ms. Granholm made the historical commission part of a new Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Gov. Rick Snyder abolished that change, and sent the commission back to the Department of Natural Resources. More information about the commission is available at michigan.gov/mhcommission.
One thing hasn’t changed: The commissioners get the same salary as in 1913: nothing.
“They used to pay some expenses, but hey, it’s a labor of love,” Mr. Dempsey laughed.
Evidently so — one commissioner, Elizabeth Adams, served for 54 years, believed to be a record for any person on any commission in state, if not American, history.
These days, the commissioners have plenty to do. They managed to save Ulysses S. Grant’s home, which eventually will be moved from the now-closed fairgrounds. They’ve helped improve the Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee, and are deeply involved in a number of programs on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
This month, members past and present, celebrated the commission’s anniversary with bumpy cake from Sanders, the legendary Detroit sweetshop that created that treat a century ago.
They then saluted the pending 100th birthday of Michigan’s only U.S. president, Gerald Ford, and approved four new markers, one celebrating the founders of the Meijer grocery chain.
What they are all about, Mr. Dempsey added, is “preserving and sharing the stories that feed the souls and shelter the hearts of Michiganders, helping them find their sense of place.”
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: email@example.com
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