Boom! Any museum that blasts cannons all day will definitely hold a child’s attention.

Fort Mackinac sweeps visitors back in time 240 years, when Michigan was part of the western frontier. Built in 1779-81 on Mackinac Island to protect British property from pesky American Revolutionary rebels, today it aims to entertain and teach families—and provide lots of room to run, march, dance and laugh. History slips in while visitors are enjoying themselves.

“We have 125 days of events coming up for this summer, and they range from themed weekends to guided hikes along various trails, to stargazing events and everything in-between. Fort Mackinac is serving as the hub,” said Dominick Miller, spokesman for Mackinac State Historic Parks, which this year will celebrate the fort’s 125th anniversary as a state park.

With shimmering white walls and Old Glory flying, the fort sits high atop a bluff with a vista of Lake Huron. It has one of the most beautiful views in the state. Back in

Colonial times, that view was a strategic asset, because sentries could see their enemies coming. The fort was won by America, then retaken by the British in the War of 1812, then later restored to the U.S. It’s a hike uphill to the entrance, but once there, it is a family-friendly exploration. Impeccably restored, it looks as fresh as the day the ramparts were built.

Fort Mackinac features 14 original buildings, plus a tearoom and store. Historic cannons are blasted every 90 minutes on the parade grounds, where costumed interpreters also demonstrate rifle shooting, dancing, music and marching that would have been typical in the 1800s. Take a guided walk and tour and be rewarded by incredible views from every window.

Across the straits in Mackinaw City, Colonial Michilimackinac (also part of Mackinac State Historic Parks) adds to the experience. The rebuilt fort originally dates from 1715, when the French built a great fur trading post there. It passed to the British in 1759 and was later destroyed. Today, it has 16 buildings, and visitors can witness ongoing archaeological digs there.

“At both forts we have what’s called the kids’ quarters. You can learn to play the fife (similar to the piccolo), try on uniforms and learn how to march in a drill,” Miller says. “At Colonial Michilimackinac we have a new interpretive space in the soldiers’ barracks. You can see what soldiers’ rations were. You can climb into the British military bunk beds and check them out. There were four to a bunk—and they slept head to foot.”

The park’s other open-air attractions include Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, both in Mackinaw City.

Mackinac Island, which allows no motorized vehicles, is essentially an open-air museum itself, showing people what life was like before the automobile was invented. This summer, Mackinac State Historic Parks has one more surprise: a new Native American museum about the region’s indigenous people that will open at Biddle House, the 1830’s home of Mackinac Island merchants Edward and Agatha, who was an Anishnaabek woman.

Miller says the parks are a fresh, outdoors way to keep families entertained through the long, hot summer until October: “We’ll have events on a daily basis.”

If you go:

Admission to Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island also gets you into the new Mackinac Island Native American Museum at Biddle House and other park museums. At both parks, wear good walking shoes and dress for outdoor weather.

For more information on Fort Mackinac and Colonial Michilimackinac see mackinacparks.com.

MORE OPEN-AIR MUSEUMS TO EXPLORE

Michigan has two other forts steeped in history. Fort Wilkins, the 1844 stronghold at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in Copper Harbor, has 19 buildings that show what military life was like on the shores of Lake Superior in the Civil War era. Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit, built in a unique star- shape that dates back to 1845, potentially could be a significant outdoor museum. It has tours—but it is deteriorated and awaits the touch of restorers.

However, forts are just one type of open-air attraction. As the 21st century flies by, Michigan is dotted with historical villages and farms that aim to show what daily life was like in the golden—or not so golden—olden days. They preserve architecture that is vanishing. They save historic schoolhouses, log homes, old barns and even newspaper offices whose days are waning.

Greenfield Village, Dearborn: The outdoor living history part of The Henry Ford museum compound boasts nearly 100 historical buildings brought from around the nation, including the Wright Brothers’ Cycle Shop where the first airplane was built. thehenryford.org

Windmill Island Gardens and Nelis’ Dutch Village, Holland: Western Michigan’s Dutch heritage is showcased at both the public park and private attraction. A working windmill grinds flour you can buy. See tulips galore and typical, old Dutch streets, plus learn how to make wooden shoes and cheese. cityofholland.com/471/windmill-island-gardens; dutchvillage.com/learning.html

Crossroads Village, Flint: Stroll amid 35 buildings that show 19th-century daily life. Ride vintage amusement rides, board the Huckleberry Railroad and take the paddle wheel riverboat ride. geneseecountyparks.org/crossroads-village

Hanka Finnish Homestead Museum, Askel: Original homestead showing the hard but ingenious life of Finnish immigrants. Drive a mile through the woods, and you’re there. hankahomesteadmuseum.org

White Pine Village, Ludington: See 30 historic buildings related to the lumber industry and early history of western Michigan. historicwhitepinevillage.org

Wellington Farm USA, Grayling: A living, open-air museum that depicts life on a farm during the Depression in the 1930s. A “crafters row” has a blacksmith shop, loom, basket makers and more. wellingtonfarmusa.com

Smaller historical villages across the state preserve local stories in Bad Axe, Eagle Harbor, Okemos, Fallasburg, Northville, Delton, Hastings, St. Clair, Houghton Lake, Port Sanilac, Caspian and Vicksburg.


Photo courtesy Mackinac Island Tourism

Author

Ellen Creager lives in metro Detroit and writes about Michigan travel destinations and other cultural topics. She is author of a new four-book series, “One Nation For All: Immigrants in the United States.”

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