Traverse City Record-Eagle


May 26, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Historical Commission survives the decades

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.

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