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Living History – the Future Historians program
This article was originally published in June 2018 as part of the weekly Showcasing the DNR series. Check out more Showcasing the DNR articles.
Each summer, at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park in Copper Harbor, the history of the 19th-century fort comes alive.
More than 40 youth dress in historic costumes to play the roles of real people who lived at the fort during the 1870s.
The students, who hail from all over the central and western Upper Peninsula, are participating in this interpretive acting exercise as part of an innovative educational program called “Future Historians.”
For nearly three decades, students in grades 4-12 have been involved in the year-long extracurricular history program, which is sponsored by Michigan History Center, part of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Administered out of the Center’s Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee, the program consists of monthly meetings during the school year.
Group members learn about history through presentations, special programs and “hands-on” activities. As a history club, the primary goal is to learn and make history fun for students of all ages.
Gabrielle Roberts of Houghton has been a member of the group for five years.
“I love learning about local history, and being able to learn more about it through a program with a lot of presentations is awesome,” she said. “I like the different presentations and being able to learn a bunch of things about where I live that I never knew before.”
The monthly Future Historians meetings focus on Michigan and Upper Peninsula history-related topics. Presentations include natural and cultural history, archaeology, and genealogy.
Past presentations have featured lamps and lighthouses on the Great Lakes, the origins of professional hockey in the U.P., immigration to the Upper Peninsula and living history with a Great Lakes schooner captain from 1875.
The meetings are open to everyone. For the past several years, the group’s make-up has been about 30 percent home-schooled students.
Maria Chizek has been a member since 2014. She and her family travel two hours each way from Lake Linden in Houghton County to come to the meetings at the Iron Industry Museum.
“My favorite part of the Future Historians program is getting to learn so many interesting things about the past,” she said. “The topics are varied, and you always learn something new at the meetings.”
Since 1990, group members have been trained as costumed interpreters and participated in the role-playing program at Fort Wilkins. Trained group members also have joined programs at Fayette Historic Townsite in Delta County and the Iron Industry Museum.
Barry James, a Michigan History Center historian, has mentored the Future Historian program since 1996.
“The first year we offered the living history workshops we had 18 students register. The next year it doubled to 35. We’ve averaged over 45 students each year for well over a decade,” he said.
The summer program at Fort Wilkins takes place during four, three-day Living History Camps each July and August. Students are assigned a character – based on an actual person – who lived at the fort or Copper Harbor during the summer of 1870.
Throughout the day, the actors talk with visitors, play games of the period and portray the past as the present.
“This program is run in cooperation with the adult role-playing program – now in its 42nd year – which runs from mid-June through mid-August,” James said.
The Future Historians often use activities as props, like hauling water with yoke or grinding coffee, as a hook to get visitors engaged with what they are doing.
Sixteen-year-old Kaitlyn Millin of Trenary has participated in the Future Historians program for seven years.
“I love the role-playing program because it gives me a chance to live like they did in 1870,” she said. “And I get to share my knowledge with others in a fun and conversational way. Watching people learning about something is a great experience.”
Millin’s sister, Miranda Millin, shares similar thoughts.
“On role-playing, I can't pick one specific thing (that I love the most). There are so many good memories from the Fort,” she said. “But (to pick) something out of the hat would be the sense of ownership we get for the Fort. It's like a second home, we know it so well.”
Training is an important part of the program. There are several requirements for participants. Students must:
- Attend at least three, monthly meetings during the school year. The meetings are usually held at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday at the Iron Industry Museum.
- Attend three training sessions in the spring to learn role-playing basics, techniques, do’s and don’ts, and details about Fort Wilkins, Copper Harbor, the Civil War era, and daily life in the 1870s.
- Write an autobiography about themselves to prepare for their living-history experience.
“This is a unique program in a sense because we have kids teaching kids about history,” James said. “Each participant gets a manual to study, and they really work hard to prepare themselves.”
Due to the high number of participants, the students usually work in shifts of two to three hours each day. As part of the last day of each session, the students play games and provide visitors the chance to try their hand at 1800’s board games, stilts, hoop and stick, and snap apple, among others.
While participation in the monthly history program is free, there is a $15 per-student annual fee to participate in the role-playing program. The fee helps with the costs associated with obtaining quality and accurate historical costumes, which the program provides to students.
“The students come in all shapes and sizes, but we’ve been very successful in fitting most everyone with the appropriate attire,” James said.
Participating families are responsible for housing, food and travel while at Copper Harbor. Most of the families involved camp at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park.
For more information on the program, contact the Michigan Iron Industry Museum at 906-475-7857 or email historian Barry James at JamesB@Michigan.gov.