Step Back In Time at Walker Tavern in Michigan’s Irish Hills

It’s amazing how much history there is to explore in Pure Michigan! And if you head towards Michigan’s Irish Hills, there’s plenty to uncover. Today, the team at the Michigan Historical Center shares the story behind one of the area’s historic gems – Walker Tavern Historic Site.

The Irish Hills of southern Michigan, formed by glaciers millions of years ago, have been home to Native Americans for thousands of years and to Europeans for a little more than three centuries. Located within a two-hour drive of most of Michigan’s major metropolitan areas, they are a great place to bring a picnic, enjoy swimming in a local lake or camp at one of several campgrounds. One of the area’s long time summer destinations is Walker Tavern Historic Site at Cambridge Junction, near Brooklyn.

Passing through kettle lakes and rolling hills, two Irish Hills roads meet at Cambridge Junction. One road, a worn Indian trail surveyed in 1825, joins Detroit with Chicago (now US-12); the other the La Plaisance Bay Pike (now M-50) joins Monroe on Lake Erie to Alto in west Michigan.

High traffic on these two roads in the 1830s created the need for a wayside tavern where people traveling by stage, wagon or foot could rest, take a meal or stay the night. Cost for a meal and lodging was 50 cents — the cost for an acre of land was $1.25. Most travelers on the two roads were looking for farms to purchase. Today’s travelers looking for rest, relaxation and the excitement of learning something new still find Walker Tavern Historic Site an enjoyable stop along the road.

The historic site includes three buildings and 80 acres of park land. Walker Tavern and the barn focus on the 1840s and 50s with artifacts and exhibits about people, travel and work. The Hewitt House is undergoing restoration as it tells stories of early auto tourism. Sundays are the busiest of all the days at the site, with visitors coming by to purchase locally-grown produce at the onsite Farmers Market or to take in a baseball game played by 1869 rules.

Railroads built in the 1850s turned Cambridge Junction from stagecoach hub to community gathering place. For many years the site was a farm. With the advent of the automobile at the beginning of the 20th century, life at Cambridge Junction began to change.

In 1922, the Rev. Frederick Hewitt purchased the old frame tavern, once owned by early settler Sylvester Walker, as well as its counterpart, the brick tavern he built across the road in 1853. Hewitt loved the Irish Hills as a place to hunt and fish, and now he saw opportunity to follow his passion for antiques.

Opening the taverns as antique store, hotel, restaurant and museum, Hewitt capitalized on the automobile tourism that brought a boom to the Irish Hills economy. A day’s ride by car from Detroit, the Irish Hills drew thousands of vacationers, who came to enjoy the lakes, hills and other tourist attractions. In 1929, Hewitt built a colonial revival home on his property. His visitors included Henry and Clara Ford and Michigan Governor Woodbridge Ferris. In 1965 Hewitt’s daughter sold the frame tavern and the land around it to the state, and it became Cambridge Junction State Park.

Today, the park offers visitors the opportunity to explore the natural beauty of the Irish Hills and imagine a time of stagecoaches and one of early automobiles.  New this year in the newly painted red room of the Hewitt House are photos and the scrapbook of the family that recognized the historic value of Walker Tavern and preserved it.

To close out summer, why not find the road that takes you to the Irish Hills? Cambridge Junction State Park is open for picnics and gentle strolls seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The three historic buildings on site are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Park activities include a local Farmers Market on Sundays through Oct. 6, vintage baseball and various educational programs sponsored by the Friends of Walker Tavern.  To check the site’s events schedule please visit michigan.gov/walkertavern.

What’s New at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park

Fort Wilkins is a restored mid nineteenth century military outpost and lighthouse museum on the rugged shores of Lake Superior. If you’re visiting the Upper Peninsula this summer, it’s a must-see with friends and family! Today Barry James, a history specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, fills us in on what’s new this summer at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park.

If you drive north near the very tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, you’ll be in Copper Harbor, Michigan’s northernmost village. Known for scenic views, excellent hiking and biking trails, this picturesque town also boasts Michigan’s northernmost fort.  Just a mile from the village is historic Fort Wilkins State Park.

The park is unique because it is bordered by water in a setting virtually undisturbed by modern intrusions. Overlooking Lake Superior’s rugged shoreline, nearly 600 miles from their regimental headquarters at Detroit, soldiers built Fort Wilkins in 1844 to keep law and order during Michigan’s copper rush.  If they could return today, the men, women and children who once lived there would still recognize this wilderness outpost, where 19 buildings survive – 12 of them original structures dating from the 1840s.

A perfect place for children to explore and learn, most of the fort’s buildings are accessible. Some have period room settings, others have hands-on displays. The Michigan Historical Center recently completed renovation to exhibits in the Married Enlisted Men’s cabins. Located outside of the fort’s wooden stockade, the four log cabins once housed married soldiers and their families. Known as “Suds Row,” this is where the post laundresses washed clothes. The cabins now introduce visitors to Fort Wilkins through a new audio-visual program, exhibits and a cabin where kids can compare the past to the present.

The new Married Enlisted Man quarters where kids can play and see how people lived in the mid-1800s

When entering one of the cabins children can play in a mid-nineteenth century log cabin exhibit. They learn about period cooking, games and keeping house by measuring period ingredients to “Make a Meal,” learning the “Steps of Laundry” and playing period children’s floor games. The open exhibit allows kids to touch objects, climb on a period bed, and play house.

Another noteworthy improvement is the nine-minute orientation program, “Beyond the Wilderness: The Fort Wilkins Story.” The program details the fort’s history and helps park visitors understand the origins of Michigan’s copper rush. The Michigan Historical Center carried out the renovation project in collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division with additional funding support from the Keweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Commission.

If you are traveling the Upper Peninsula this summer, be sure to visit Fort Wilkins Historic State Park and check out the new log cabin exhibits, as well as the other fort displays. You may even meet a laundress or a soldier in full costume. The fort presents an engaging experience that educates both adults and children about life at this remote outpost. Fort Wilkins State Park is open now through the end of August.

Are you visiting Fort Wilkins State Park this summer? Share with us below!

Barry James is a history specialist for the DNR’s Michigan Historical Center in the Upper Peninsula. He works out of the Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee.

Uncover History with Iron Ore Heritage Bike Tours in the Upper Peninsula

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is full of rich history to uncover. And with heritage bike tours available throughout July, there’s no better time to explore the area. Troy Henderson, a historian with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, gives us an inside look at what bike tour attendees will discover.

The iron industry on the Marquette Range is a big story to tell. There are museums like the one I work at, the Michigan Iron Industry Museum, which exhibits the iron industry in Michigan from its pioneer roots to the present.  There are also many physical historical sites connected to the iron industry that you can actually stand in front of and observe.  We are offering iron ore heritage bike tours that give visitors the best of both worlds.

In July, the Michigan Iron Industry Museum will host several iron ore heritage bike tours along the new segment of the Iron Ore Heritage Trail.  We will start each tour at the museum with an orientation of the Carp River forge site, where the first ore was smelted on the Marquette Range in the 1840s.

From the museum, we will bike westward on a crushed limestone aggregate trail toward the Jackson Mine in Negaunee, where miners broke up and transported the ore that was smelted at the Carp River forge.  This forested portion of the trail grades uphill to Negaunee.

Before reaching “Old Towne” Negaunee, a segment of town that was once abandoned and relocated due to the caving potential of the underground mine shafts, we will see some good examples of the iconic sandstone architecture of the Lake Superior region.

Today the trail from “Old Towne” Negaunee westward toward Ishpeming looks like a park, but it was once a mixed residential and industrial landscape.  We will pass by foundational remnants of that landscape on this segment to the tour, including a stop at the historic Jackson Mine pit.  Here, drill markings can still be seen on the walls of iron ore that were bored over a century ago.

Before the turnaround point we will pass an old stone hoist house, the curious circular foundation of a railroad turntable, and Jasper Knob.  Within view of Cliffs Shaft, the iconic pyramidal shaft head frames that dominate the Ishpeming landscape, we will turn around for the return trip.

Bikers will have all earned a delicious lunch on the return trip from Negaunee’s Midtown Bakery and Café, where we will have a chance to explore “Old Towne” Negaunee in a little more detail.  After lunch, it is downhill back to the Michigan Iron Industry Museum.

The Iron Ore Heritage Bike tours will take place July 11, 18, and 25.  Each tour will start at 10 a.m. and the total route is approximately 15 miles.  The fee is $20 per participant, which includes lunch and a Michigan Iron Industry Museum souvenir.  Pre-registration is required, and space is limited per tour.  Find the registration form at michigan.gov/ironindustrymuseum and view the online calendar for July.

For more information about the tours or the Michigan Iron Industry Museum, contact the museum office at 906-475-7857 or e-mail Troy Henderson at hendersont7@michigan.gov.

Troy Henderson is a DNR historian with the Michigan Historical Center.  He is the site historian of Fayette Historic Town Site and his headquartered at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum.