An Inside Look at the Archives of Michigan

If you’re a Michigan history buff or just love to discover new things at Michigan museums, then a visit to the Archives of Michigan or the Michigan Historical Museum  in Lansing is sure to pique your interest! Today, Mary Detloff from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources takes us deep inside the Archives of Michigan for a look at Pure Michigan way back when. 

Outside the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing, MI

Tucked into a light grey archival box on a shelf in the Archives of Michigan, organized neatly in manila folders, the yellowing onion skin typing paper represents the loving correspondence of a Michigan man and woman, a World War II soldier and his wife.

“Dearest, You know now that the invasion has started …” starts a letter from Charles Westie, a Michigan solider, writing to his wife Ardith on June 6, 1944 – D-Day. During the coming weeks, Westie would serve in combat in France as part of the invasion force that turned the tide in Europe in the Allied Forces’ favor.

The Westie correspondence, between two ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, shows the difficulty of the life of a soldier, waiting in England for his orders to go to battle in Europe, and his wife, waiting anxiously in Michigan for any news from her husband.

Archivist Bob Garret sorting through a photo collection recently donated to the Archives of Michigan.

These letters, along with hundreds of thousands of documents, maps, records, photographs and other ephemera, make up the Archives of Michigan. The Archives holds more than 120 million records that tell the story of Michigan from the encounters of Europeans and Native Americans to records from Governor Jennifer Granholm.

The Archives, the Michigan Historical Museum, and the Michigan Historical Commission all marked their 100th anniversary this past year, coming into existence in 1913 with a law signed by then-Governor Woodbridge N. Ferris.  The law created the Michigan Historical Commission, and directed the body to collect, arrange and preserve historical material related to Michigan and the old Northwest Territory.

”The Archives of Michigan serves as Michigan’s memory.  It holds the historical documents, maps and photographs of state and local governments and private citizens,” said Mark Harvey, state archivist.  “The Archives collections document the tragedies and triumphs of the government and individuals of the State of Michigan.”

Archivist Bob Garrett with an original blueprint for the Michigan State Fairground from 1922.

With documents dating back to 1792, the Archives of Michigan holds a vast selection of historical documents ranging from the original blueprints and architect’s drawings of the Michigan Capitol Building to the papers of former state legislators, to naturalization records from the turn of the century, to more personal collections, such as the Westie letters and a rare diary from a Michigan soldier who witnessed the Philippine-American War in 1899.

The public can access materials from the Archives in a couple of different ways.

Archivist Bob Garrett assisting a researcher in the Archives of Michigan Reading Room.

First, you can visit the Archives of Michigan, located in the Michigan Historical Center, 702 West Kalamazoo, in Lansing. The Archives has a reference room open to the public from 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. The reference room is always manned by two Archives staff members, who are available to assist visitors with records requests. Visitors of all ages are welcome, and typically include attorneys, academics, graduate students, staff from legislators’ offices or state agencies, persons doing genealogy research or younger students.

Some of the more popular records in the Archives have been digitized and are available to the public on the website www.seekingmichigan.org, which is a partnership between the Archives of Michigan and the Michigan History Foundation. Seeking Michigan features 1.2 million records, including items such as searchable Michigan census records from 1884-1894, death records from 1897 to 1920 and a lot of Civil War material.

Seeking Michigan also features an online shop called Michiganology that offers unique products with a tie to the Archives, such as t-shirts and prints featuring brewery labels from early Michigan breweries, which were required to register their labels with the state. The store also sells notecards featuring old trout stamps, items highlighting the Proud Robin (once a symbol of Michigan Week) and many other items. There is also a blog maintained by archivists and staff from the Michigan Historical Museum featuring stories from Michigan’s past.

Have you visited the Archives of Michigan or the Michigan Historical Museum? What interesting items did you see during your visit? 

Mary Dettloff is senior advisor for communications for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and a native of Northern Michigan.