While there’s hardly ever a reason not to visit Mackinac Island and the beautiful area that surrounds it, 2020 presents a particularly magical opportunity. Mackinac State Historic Parks is turning 125 this year and, as such, its team has created 125 days of events throughout the 2020 season, spread across its family of sites and parks.
Many people may be unaware that before Mackinac Island became the first of Michigan’s State Parks, it was actually our nation’s second National Park. It was next up after Yellowstone. The idea was initially ingenious, and came from one of the island’s native sons, Senator Thomas Ferry. Like most Michiganders throughout time, Ferry believed strongly in protecting the island’s natural beauty. Since it was already home to Fort Mackinac, Ferry introduced legislation to make Mackinac Island a National Park that could be run and cared for by military personnel who were already stationed on the island.
The affordable idea was warmly received, so President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law. The concept worked for quite a while, around twenty years to be precise, but then came the fatal flaw. Because there was no National Park Service at the time, the personnel running the park fell under the purview, and budget of the War Department. Eventually the department found no sense in allocating personnel and resources to a location that was no longer of strategic military importance.
In 1895 the U.S. Government officially turned the parkland and the fort over to the State of Michigan. It was immediately designated Mackinac Island State Park, but there was still one little hitch. No state park system would exist for another couple of decades, so who would take care of our precious gem in the Straights? Enter Mackinac State Historic Parks.
The agency resides within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, and it oversees the care of a family of living history museums and nature parks in and around Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City. The sites include Fort Mackinac, Mackinac Island State Park, Historic Downtown Mackinac, and The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum on Mackinac Island, as well as Michilimackinac State Park, Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City.
The special events marking the anniversary year will be scattered throughout the venues. Fans of flicks can enjoy Movies by the Bridge in Mackinaw City every Saturday and Movies in Fort Mackinac every Tuesday during the summer. History buffs can check out unforgettable cannon firing events as well as “Hidden History” evenings at Colonial Michilimackinac. There will also be guided and narrated treks to some of the island’s most beautiful natural and historic sites.
New exhibits will also debut as part of the celebration. One highlight on Mackinac Island, will be at the Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, opening May 5. Guests will be able to step into the home of merchants Agatha and Edward Biddle, merchants who moved in around 1830. For Agatha, and other Anishnaabek and indigenous people, the 1830s were a time of critical change. This new exhibit, created in conjunction with tribal partners, explores that story and how it still resonates on Mackinac Island and throughout northern Michigan
Over at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, in Mackinaw City, the public will be able to explore the second floor of the lighthouse for the first time in the storied station’s existence. A new gallery space and two bedrooms have been restored to their appearance in 1910, and will tell the story of the Keeper George Marshall, his wife Maggie, and their extended family as they lived and worked at the lighthouse.
The granddaddy of them all will be the gala celebration on July 25, which is the actual anniversary. It includes glorious music and thunderous fireworks. Like the gala, most of the events taking place throughout the 2020 season will be free. Others will be included with regular admission to the historic sites.
A full schedule of events can be found online. Explore and enjoy the history and wonder that is Mackinac this year.