Road Trip Through History: The Point Betsie Lighthouse Museum

I should begin by pointing out that I do not come from lighthouse country. I knew very little about lighthouses or life saving stations prior to going to the Port Betsie Lighthouse Museum in Frankfort, Michigan. (1) Those of you who are more lighthouse savvy than I am might not learn as much as I did. But based on the reactions of the people I was with, I’ll bet you would learn something.

The Post Betsie lighthouse was built between 1854 and 1858 and went into service in 1859. A life saving station was added to the site in 1876. One of nineteen lighthouses on the northeast shore of Lake Michigan, its purpose was to help ship captains to chart their course through the treacherous Manitou Passage. (3) The light is still active as an unmanned navigational aid, powered by a 40 watt bulb. (Honest!)

The museum has three parts: the restored lighthouse, the Boathouse Museum, and the fog signal building. The exhibits explain how the lighthouse and the life saving station worked in day to day terms, how isolated Port Betsie was from local communities for much of its tenure, and how important the work was, with lots of detail to bring it all to life.

Here are the highlights as far as I’m concerned:

  • Climbing into the lighthouse tower. Be warned: The stairs are steep and twisty and require even the short to seriously duck going both up and down. (I regretted not giving in to my impulse to leave my bag with the docent.) Once you’re in the tower, the space is tight. I will admit that I panicked about how I was going to get back down the stairs. (4) And it was absolutely worth it. Going up that staircase and standing in that space gave me a sense of lighthouse keeping I wouldn’t have gotten any other way.
  • An exhibit that illustrated the history of lighthouse illumination, from iron braziers and candle chandeliers to Fresnel lenses, a system of multi-faceted lenses in a brass frame which used a combination of reflection and refraction to focus and project light.

A Fresnel lens from the Point Wilson light station in Port Townsend Washington

  • An explicit description of the important roles played by the wives of lighthouse keepers and life saving station “surfmen”. Historical museums, large and small, often fail to consider the roles women played. I appreciate it when someone makes the effort.
  • Don’t miss the film that plays continuously in the fog signal building. It tells the story of an actual rescue, drawing on the lighthouse keeper’s journal and using local people in a number of the roles. No spoilers here, but it’s a real nail-biter.

In short, the Point Betsie Lighthouse Museum is definitely worth your time if you are in the area.

(1) My strongest images of lighthouses come from a book I read as a child, that was probably a couple of decades old at the time. A storm, a wreck, a desperate attempt to save an unidentified woman who spoke little English and left behind a violin that the lighthouse keeper’s daughter learns to play. Which of course proves to be a Stradivarius (2) when said daughter goes to New York to pursue a musical career. Resulting in the identification of the dead woman. Does this sound a chord for anyone? Let me know.

(2) As mysterious violins in fiction so often do.

(3) The fact that the passage is now a prime site for shipwreck diving tells you all you need to know.

(4) The answer: very slowly and with a large calm man standing below me. Thank you, Carl!

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Traveler’s Tips

  1. The Lighthouse Museum is a seasonal treat. As of today, the lighthouse is open May 30 through October 2. Check the website for days and times. It would be a shame to get there and find out it isn’t open.
  2. The keeper’s quarters is available to rent for a night or a week. Expensive, but definitely intriguing.

Road Trip Through History: WWII Glider and Military Museum

Recently My Own True Love and I turned one of my speaking gigs(1) into a road trip around Lake Michigan.  First history stop on the itinerary? The WWII Glider and Military Museum in Iron Mountain, Michigan.

Compromise is the essence of any road trip. As a result, I’ve visited a lot of small aviation museums over the years. (3) Some of them are just accumulations of stuff. But a few are gems. The WWII Glider and Military Museum is definitely one of the gems.

The museum at Iron Mountain is a cut above the average small aviation museum for a lot of reasons. The original CG4A glider that stands at the center of the museum has been impeccably restored and is displayed with imagination. Exhibits illustrate how the glider was constructed and describe how it was used in the war . More importantly, the museum tells the larger story of the men who made the gliders and the town in which they were made.

The story begins, as stories based in Michigan in the early twentieth century so often do, with Henry Ford. In the 1920s, the primary industry in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was logging. Ford had a serious need for lumber because the Model T was built largely of wood (4), so he bought many, many acres of timberland in the area around Iron Mountain. He soon realized that it would be cheaper to build automobiles near the timber than to ship it south to Detroit. In 1925, he built an automotive plant just outside Iron Mountain in what is now Kingsford Michigan. (5)

In December, 1942, the Ford plant in Iron Mountain stopped making wooden-sided station wagons and started making gliders as part of the war effort. The plant produced more than half the gliders made in the United States during the war. Between December 1942 and the end of the war in 1945, 4500 men worked three shifts to produced eight gliders a day. The plant won the E award for excellence in production three times.

The WWII Glider and Military Museum uses a well curated collection of artifacts, reconstruction, and vintage photos and film footage to tell a story of the war on the home front.

Well worth a visit even if you aren’t a aviation buff.

(1)If you belong to a group that needs speakers(2) and would be interested in hearing about women warriors, Civil War nurses, or writing about history, give me a shout at pdtoler@sbcglobal.com. Early 2020 is filling up. Which I find amazing me, but there you go.

(2)Historical society?  Service league? Book club? AAUW chapter? Knitting circle? Revolutionary cell?

(3) And My Own True Love has visited a lot of archeological sites, as close as southern Illinois and as far away as Troy (in Turkey, not Michigan)

(4) This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those of you who are interested in cars, but it was news to me.

(5) The original home of Kingsford Charcoal Briquets, which were made from the wood waste of the plant, including sawdust. Henry hated waste and could squeeze a penny as well as anybody.

From the Archives: Custer’s Last Stand?

On June 25, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry died at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Unlike D-Day, it’s not the  kind of historical event that generates lots of anniversary coverage. (Though I suspect it will garner some attention on its 150th anniversary in 2026.)  And up until a couple of hours ago I had no intention of re-running this post from 2016.  But I’ve spent several hours struggling with a new blog post that just isn’t working–a losing skirmish of a different sort.  Sometimes it makes more sense to make a graceful retreat than to fight to the deal.

And so I offer you a few thoughts on Custer’s defeat and how we report on historical events.  I think they hold up three years after I first wrote them.

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Sometimes I think that no matter how much we may know about history as individuals, collectively we know nothing at all.

Case in point: Custer’s Last Stand.

I am currently working on an article that is about a painting about the event that you and I have always known as Custer’s Last Stand.(1) I went into the piece with only the vaguest sense of the historical event, something I felt no shame about because American history is not my field. Here is what I had going in:

George Armstrong Custer

Custer during the Civil War. The long curls were gone by Little Big Horn.

  • Custer was a Civil War hero, and as problematic after the war as that other Civil War hero, Ulysses S. Grant. Though not the same way.
  • A small group of soldiers under his command died fighting a large group of Native Americans at the Battle of Little Big Horn
  • A vague sense that Custer was at fault(2)
  • A certainty that it must have been a critical battle, because otherwise why would I have heard about it?
  • It occurred after the American Civil War, during the period when the west was “opened”.(3)

None of that is completely wrong. Except for the part about it being a critical battle. It wasn’t. Whether you think the death of the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876 was a military blunder or an act of heroism–or both(4)– the battle changed nothing. It was barely a battle, even by nineteenth century standards. It had no lasting effect on the so-called Indian Wars, or on the drawn-out dreary campaign of which it was a part. The Sioux won the battle, but gained nothing by their victory.

The battle/fight/skirmish is historical fact, but it turns out that the popular image of that skirmish as a “last stand” is an artist’s creation, reinforced by other artists’ creations over the last 140 years.  And the power of that largely mythical image is one reason an otherwise meaningless military encounter became, and remains, an important emblem of a ugly struggle that stands at the root of America’s westward expansion.

When it comes to the the Battle of Little Bighorn, we don’t actually know what happened and the question of whether Custer showed poor judgment continues to be hotly debated among those who care. The Seventh Cavalry, under Custer’s leadership, was intended to be one prong of a three-pronged campaign to encircle the Sioux and drive them from their treaty territory. When Custer’s scouts reported the discovery of a Sioux village, Custer divided his forces into three parts, keeping only five companies with him to face what turned out to be a much larger force than the US Army had originally estimated. Companies under the leadership of Captain Benteen and Major Reno retreated to a defensive position on the bluffs rather than attacking an overwhelming force. As for Custer, the last thing we know of him is his often-quoted final message: “Benteen. Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. W.E. Cooke. P.S. Bring packs.” According to Trumpeter John Martin, who carried the message, Custer was about to charge the village as Martin left.

This is the point at which traditional histories often say that no one survived the battle. In fact, hundreds of people survived the battle–all of them members of the Sioux  and Cheyenne nations. Some of them left their own accounts of the battle, but those accounts disagree about the actions taken by Custer’s troops. (This should come as a surprise to no one. Soldiers in the front line of battle seldom have a sense of the big picture.)

Maybe the battle, from the perspective of the 7th Cavalry, was a heroic last stand.(5) Maybe it was a rout. The one thing we can say for certain is that whatever happened, it probably didn’t look like this:

William Cary’s Death Struggle of General Custer appeared on July 19, 1876

(1) If you’re interested, it appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of American History
(2) Almost a reflex for me. I was twelve in 1970, when Little Big Man hit the screen and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was released, The ironic Western and revisionist examinations of Native American history are deeply rooted in my brain. Possibly the first step in a career based on trying to walk in someone else’s historical shoes.
(3) A phrase that ranges from problematic to horrific. Once you start looking at a period of history with an awareness that there are two sides to every historical event you find linguistic pitfalls everywhere. I have no good answer for how to cope with this other than to type with my eyes wide open and carry a large bag of quotation marks.

(4) The two are not mutually exclusive. Think the Charge of the Light Brigade.
(5) According to the OED, a last stand is “an act of determinedly holding or defending a position against a (more powerful) opposing force; a final show of resistance or protest”. Wikipedia adds a few critical elements from the popular definition: the defensive force usually takes very heavy casualties or is completely destroyed and (most important for the rest of this discussion) the last stand is a tactical choice taken because the defending forced recognizes the benefits of fighting outweigh the benefits of retreat or surrender.