Experiencing Northern Michigan: Mackinac Island History Tour at the Stuart House City Museum
Mackinac Island is home to natural beauty and cultural history, set smack in the middle of the Straits of Mackinac, surrounded by the sparkling fresh water of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The epicenter of the American Fur Trade in the nineteenth century, Mackinac Island was known worldwide for its economic vitality, cultural significance, and breathtaking landscapes, which is still true to this day! Now a tourist destination—and the heart of Northern Michigan—Mackinac Island thrives by sharing the stories of its past through demonstrative reenactments of historical events, tours of landmarks and other fascinating structures, and celebrations of tradition, such as the Lilac Festival Grand Parade every summer.
One of the coolest places you can go explore the stories that make up Mackinac Island’s history is the Stuart House City Museum. Open 10am to 4pm daily with free admittance (donations happily accepted), this stately yet charming downtown museum is conveniently located on Market Street between the post office and City Hall. It’s just a block from Main Street, right across the street from the dreamy Lilac House Bed and Breakfast, where I loved staying last summer during my first-ever Island adventure.
The Robert Stuart House City Museum, historically known as the “Agent’s House,” is a prominent example of Federal style architecture, with its side gables sitting on a brick foundation. With a shingled roof and gabled dormers, the attractive house boasts a front facade with a double-sided stairway leading to a small entry porch overlooking Market and Astor Streets. Walking up to the museum, I imagined what it would have been like a century or two ago to step up those stairs, and what the town around this historic building would have looked like back then. In 1965, the Stuart House was designated a Michigan State Historic Site, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1971.
Built in 1817 from hand-hewn timber frame and clad with clapboards, the stoic structure was used to house the resident agent of the American Fur Company. The first resident agent to call the Stuart House home was Ramsay Crooks, who lived there after construction was completed—over 200 years ago!—around which time a four-structure complex for the company’s offices was built around the property. The other three original office buildings included a clerk’s quarters (which has since been demolished), a warehouse built in 1810 (which is now the Mackinac Island community’s City Hall), and a trading post (which has been restored to its nineteenth-century character).
The namesake of this historic museum as we refer to it today originated in 1817 when Robert Stuart arrived on Mackinac Island and moved into the Agent’s House as Ramsay Crooks’ assistant. Three years later, after Crooks moved on, Stuart took over his role as resident agent of the American Fur Company, where he continued to work for 14 years. As a nationally prominent leader, Stuart had lived in the house for so long that it eventually became known as the Robert Stuart House. During the fur trade’s boom years of the 1820s and early 1830s, the house was the center of social activity on the Island.
The fur trade had begun to decline in the 1830s, Stuart moved to Detroit in 1835, and Mackinac Island began growing as a resort community thereafter. The Stuart House became a boarding house during the Civil War, and in 1871 it became the Island’s premiere hotel, known at the time as the John Jacob Astor House. Before the famous Grand Hotel was constructed, the house served as the Island’s social center. I love picturing people long ago meeting, talking, relaxing, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company at this now historic site. It was sold to the city of Mackinac Island at the turn of the twentieth century, a heightened time for radical change.
Walking through the Stuart House City Museum, I got to tour the highlights of Mackinac Island’s fascinating history; learn all about the American Fur Trade, how Michiganders and Native Americans worked together, and how associated economic factors influenced the Island’s social, cultural, and familial experiences; see what family life was like for residents in centuries past; and physically inhabit a space that holds two centuries worth of countless stories, both told and untold. I love how historic buildings hold all the past within their walls, how we’re all just passing through along the way.
One of my favorite exhibits in the Stuart House City Museum is the old schoolhouse setup! The museum has a room in the house staged with vintage desks (some even had adorable teddy bears sitting in the desk chairs to be pretend students) and an antique blackboard. Hanging on the walls are lots of cool framed pictures: historic photos, letters, and other documents offering a taste of days gone by. After exploring the museum, I strolled past the Lilac House (which felt so like home throughout my five-day stay on the Island) toward Market Street to browse tourist shops downtown and pick up a few souvenirs to take home before getting a drink and bite to eat at the impeccable Pink Pony.
Speaking of tourism, it’s almost vacation season! Mackinac Island is arguably the most spectacular place in Northern Michigan to explore nature, history, art, and culture. As soon as you step off the ferry, you’re on Island time, transported to a place where time and space seem to melt together into one familiar feeling of experience. While on the Island, you can let your adventurous side run wild, explore the educational side, or sink into your more laid back side, and let it all in. It’s Pure Michigan—it’s Mackinac magic.
From the fortress walls of historic Fort Mackinac to the culturally significant and celebratory tradition of the annual Lilac Festival Grand Parade, Mackinac Island is a place where wonder exists around every corner, where beauty lives in the lakes and the bud of the lilac flower, where people breathe easy, where the magic of the moment is eternally real. Get a ticket to hop on a horse-drawn carriage for a fun ride around the Island, exploring the forests, cemeteries, Arch Rock, Grand Stables, and the Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory, plus all the fun possibilities in between, from biking to flying kites.
Endless adventures await when you visit Mackinac Island. Whether you love trekking through the great outdoors on foot, bicycle, or carriage ride, socializing with friends over dinner and drinks with a million-dollar view, relaxing at the beach soaking up the sun, or learning about Island history at local museums like the Stuart House, you’ll find your own little slice of heaven anywhere on Mackinac. Have you booked your summer vacation yet? Now I’m daydreaming! I absolutely can’t wait to go back to the Island. There’s so much more to explore!