Exactly a century ago, Detroit was a prosperous and fast-growing city on the move.
Michigan had about three 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 cheerfully admit he never would have been elected except for a split in the GOP.)
But he struck a blow for history back in May, 1913 by signing a bill creating the Michigan Historical Commission - and they’ve been around ever since.
They’ve survived several bureaucratic attempts to do them in; have bounced around departments like a cork in the rapids, and have never given up trying to make Michiganders 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 currently the commission’s president.
The commission doesn’t exactly 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, an ancient Gaelic-language Catholic Church on far-flung Beaver Island, and on throughout the Upper Peninsula.
But they do considerably more than that, on a budget that can best be described as non-existent. Three years ago, they helped renovate tiny Capitol Park in Detroit, the site of the state’s first capitol. That briefly made headlines when workers at first couldn’t find the coffin or body of Stevens T. Mason, Michigan‘s first governor.
Eventually it turned up, each bone lovingly stitched to a mattress. After suitable ceremonies, it was reinterred.There are a number of people like Dempsey, who just can’t get enough of the history that shaped their 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 Dempsey and his fellow commissioners face a constant scramble to preserve the state’s history.
Possibly their closest call came just four years ago. Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who grew up in California and has returned there, was not steeped in Michigan traditions, to put it mildly.
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, and 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."
While the library has survived, the commissioners have been tossed around. Granholm made the historical commission part of a new Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Gov. Rick Snyder immediately abolished that, and sent the commission back to the Department of Natural Resources. 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,” 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 will eventually 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.
Earlier this month, the commissioners, past and present, sat down to celebrate their anniversary with some bumpy cake from Sanders, the legendary Detroit sweetshop that first created that treat a century ago. They then saluted the coming 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, 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.”For more information, check out www.michigan.gov/mhcommission.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.