Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Our Trip to Fort Mackinac

We recently took a road trip up to northern Michigan and a boat trip over to Mackinac Island to explore its historic fort.  The fort was built by the British during the Revolutionary War to defend the strategic island of Mackinac which is located where the great lakes of Michigan, Huron and Superior meet.  At a time when boats were the primary transportation and lakes and rivers were the speediest avenues for getting around, controlling this island meant controlling access to a large portion of the Midwest and Canada.  Fort Mackinac was voluntarily turned over to the United States by the British at the end of the Revolution.  U.S. custody of the island was short lived though as the British launched a sneak attack against the garrison at the start of the War of 1812 and the fort's commander surrendered when realizing his soldiers were surrounded and grossly outnumbered.

Our visit marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Mackinac Island where in 1814 a U.S. force of 700 soldiers fought the British in an attempt to retake the isle.  It turned out to be a devastating loss with 22 American soldiers being killed, including the second in command Major Andrew Holmes, and 55 wounded resulting in a retreat from the battlefield by the United State's forces.  The fort's military cemetery contains the remains of the soldiers killed in that battle and is one of only four national military cemeteries where the Stars & Stripes always flies at half mast....the other three being Gettysburg (Pennsylvania), Arlington (Virginia), and the Punchbowl (Hawaii).  In 1815, the British returned control of the fort to the United States as part of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812.  Fort Mackinac remained an active army base for the U.S. military from 1815 to 1895.

In 1875, Mackinac Island was named the second national park in the United States, Yellowstone was the first, and the soldiers at the fort served as park rangers.  In 1895, the army decommissioned Fort Mackinac and turned the island over to the State of Michigan.  Mackinac Island became Michigan's first state park in 1896.  Mackinac Island State Park over the years had become a popular tourist destination in the Great Lakes region.  In addition to Fort Mackinac as an attraction, the island also features a policy that no motorized vehicles are allowed on it so transportation is primarily by horse drawn carriages and bicycle, which provides a quaint charm...oh and a multitude of fudge shops also dot the island and are popular with tourists.

Fort Mackinac has a great children's exhibit for preschoolers through elementary aged kids.  It has some great interactive features that will both entertain and educate the children who stroll through it.  Dress up as a Victorian era American soldier, pet some of the pelts that made the area the fur trade capital of the 1600s, 1700s & 1800s, play a fife, re-enact military drills on a green screen, and listen to stories about what life was like for a child whose father was stationed at the fort.  These are just a few of the features available to help you provide your child with a history lesson during a family vacation.  The Kids Zone is located in the Officer's Stone Quarters which is Michigan's oldest building constructed in 1780.

Place your hand in each of these dark boxes and try to identify the animal whose fur you are petting.  Afterward push a button and the window lights up showing you the pelt and the name of the animal it belonged to.

Dress up in reproductions of the uniforms soldiers wore while Fort Mackinac was an active military base in the 1800s.

Re-enact military drills on a green screen and have yourself projected on a video monitor with soldiers from the 19th century.

Look out a window at the modern day village below the fort than place a hand held screen over the window and see what the view from that same window looked like in 1880.

Play the giant fife! 

In addition to the Kids Zone exhibit, children can also interact with costumed staffers who are stationed around the grounds.  One costumed lady in Victorian garb demonstrated to my kids how children in the 1800s played games than pulled out a big trunk of toys from that era that she let them play with on the parade grounds.  A young man dressed as a soldier who would have been stationed at the fort in the 1880s played "Old Susana" on a harmonica for us.  We also enjoyed rifle firing and cannon firing demonstrations during our visit.

For the adults in the family, while the things I mentioned above are interesting and fun for everyone in the family, there are also things to check out at the fort that may be of more interest to an older audience.  Fort Mackinac has 14 original buildings that have been restored and filled with period antiques and historical artifacts. Check out the displays and information about how Doctor William Beaumont (the hospital down the street from our home in Metro Detroit was named after him) became known as "The Father of Gastric Physiology" based upon experiments he did at the fort on a fur trader named Alexis St. Martin who had a hole blown into his abdomen from a gun accident.  Beaumont learned how digestion worked by looking through a hole that never healed in the man's stomach during the years 1822 through 1833.  Take a look at the bath house that is filled with antique claw footed bathtubs that were state of the art when they were installed in 1885.  The original guardhouse is still standing with the "hole" that some soldiers were thrown into for bad behavior.  The post canteen is an interesting look at how the soldiers entertained themselves in the 1800s playing games like pool and drinking Schlitz beer.  The fort also has a well-stocked gift shop called the "Sutler's Store".  

If you go to Mackinac Island in addition to enjoying the horses, scenic views, and fudge shops, make sure you also visit the fort.

CLICK HERE for more information about Fort Mackinac.
CLICK HERE for more information about Mackinac Island.

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