Experiencing Northern Michigan: Cultural Day at the Historical Society Museum with Cadillac Leadership

Consider our culture in Northern Michigan: what does it look like Up North? Defined as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively,” culture is created through our social learning with other people living in a place through time. The culture of a community is its heart and humanity—and while the word culture might seem more synonymous with Michigan cities like Detroit, Ann Arbor, or even Traverse City than smaller towns like Cadillac, it’s always true that we, the people, have the power to create culture, to bring forth our own ideas for shaping the spaces where we live, work, and play.

In an effort to help support community and create culture, I joined the year-long Cadillac Chamber of Commerce Leadership Program this past fall. We’re a close-knit group of 16 professionals—employees at local businesses and small business owners alike—in the Cadillac area who are passionate about leadership development and dedicated to growing and improving Northern Michigan. Throughout the year, our Leadership “class” takes monthly all-day excursions out in the communityEducation Day, Economy Day, Media Day, Government Day, Cultural Day, Health and Human Services Day, and Justice Daywhere we get to learn about the various industries and most important aspects of the Cadillac area.

Our most recent immersive experience was Cultural Day, when our class visited the Wexford County Historical Society Museum at 127 Beech Street in Downtown Cadillac. I absolutely love this beautiful old building! Its charm and character are remarkable—and its story fascinates me. Formerly the Cadillac Carnegie Public Library, the 5,000 square foot museum is “one of the most historically and architecturally significant structures in Cadillac.” It became a Michigan State Historic Site in 1980 and joined the National Register of Historic Places list in 2007. The landmark is now a time capsule of Cadillac area history as well as a lively space for community events, where area residents can gather with family, friends, and neighbors.

In a “truth is stranger than fiction” twist, the historic building boasts an intriguing interrogation room, dating back when the museum and former library and had an eight-year stint as a police station from 1969-1977. Shortly thereafter, the building was considered for demolition to make way for a parking lot. Thanks to the successful efforts of Historical Society members, over 1,700 signatures opposing the tear-down were collected across Wexford County. The Cadillac City Commission agreed to save the building and lease it to the Society for operation and maintenance as a county historical museum. Thank goodness! Through the hard work of volunteers and generosity of local donors, the Historical Society repaired the building, and it opened in the summer of 1978 as the county museum it is today.

As a nonprofit committed to the “preservation and presentation of the history and culture of Wexford County,” the Historical Society Museum displays a unique variety of artifacts, photographs, maps, paintings, documents, and exhibits of daily NoMi lifefrom their “School in Session” one-room schoolhouse exhibit to the People’s Savings Bank vault to the Old Country Store and morereflecting the community’s history since the 1870s. I love that feeling like you’re casually strolling through time, the way museums let you explore history visually, viscerally. Our tour guide, a dedicated museum volunteer, was incredibly knowledgeable about every exhibit, photo, and item on display! What a joyous experience learning all about Cadillac’s wonders.

I learned that Cadillac’s original public library was built in 1905-1906 (the same age as my house!) thanks to matching funds from the City of Cadillac and the Carnegie Foundation, whose awe-inspiring mission was to “ensure that small, rural towns such as Cadillac would have access to a tool for education.” A sign that reads “Open to All” still stands above where the original front doors to the museum are located. It is the same sign that appeared on most Carnegie libraries across America, and it promoted the idea that public libraries are free communities, open to all.

Over a century ago, on September 7, 1906, the Cadillac Public Library hosted a grand opening event attended by over 1,000 people in the local community and beyond. It’s fascinating to imagine what the construction of this library did for a place like Cadillac, and how it impacted this community some hundred years ago. One of 1,600 Carnegie libraries built in the United States between 1886 and 1917, the Wexford County Historical Society Museum building today is a prime example of classical revival architectural style and is known to be one of the most expensive and elaborate of the 53 Carnegie libraries that were built in the state of Michigan.

This past holiday season, the museum hosted its first annual community open house, a free event with festive decorations and fun activities for Cadillac area families. A phenomenal turnout of hundreds in the community echoed the energy around this historic building when it first opened 113 years ago! You can support the Wexford County Historical Society through volunteering, donating historical items, or giving money to help preserve the old Carnegie Library building and remember the fascinating legacy of Cadillac’s leaders and local residents. 

The Cadillac Chamber Leadership Class of 2019 has been working together over the course of a year to select and raise money for a local nonprofit that will benefit people locally. Our class this year chose to support the Footliters, Cadillac’s community theatre troupe for youth and adults, by fundraising $30,000 toward our “Leadership in the Spotlight” service project. This project culminates with a special “Leadership & Friends Dinner” at the Cadillac Grill on April 26, starting with cocktails at 5:30pm and dinner at 6:30pm. All proceeds will benefit our Leadership project supporting the Footliters, so get your tickets now!

The public library is also teaming up with Cadillac Leadership to help support the Footliters with a used book sale on April 5 from 12-7pm and April 6 from 10am-4pm at the Old Naval Reserve Building at 601 Chestnut Street. Come check out both events, meet the Cadillac Chamber Leadership Class of 2019, and get involved to help create the culture of your own community! Visit the Wexford County Historical Society Museum’s website for more information on how you can be involved in the historic preservation and cultural development of the growing Cadillac area.

Categories: Experiencing Northern Michigan, the four