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Minutes from the past

Digital records open window on history

September 16, 2012
By KYLE WHITNEY - Journal Staff Writer ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - At a special meeting in 1868 the Common Council of the Village of Marquette - the far-distant precursor to the modern city commission - made a decision that would forever change the look of the city.

On June 13, just two days after a fire destroyed a majority of the burgeoning city, six officials gathered together and took a stand against timber.

"Be it ordained no wooden buildings shall be hereafter erected within that part of the village of Marquette," reads the original ordinance, as recorded in the minutes from that afternoon more than 144 years ago.

Article Photos

Included on the Marquette City Commission in 1919 were, from left, Ernest Pearce, James Sherman, E.J. Sink, Harlow Clark and Jacob Werner. (Marquette Regional History Center photos)

Business owners - who lost everything in the fire - soon inundated the council with applications to build temporary wooden structures in order to get their businesses back off the ground quickly. And though some variances were granted, the ordinance had a far-reaching impact.

"It's funny. That policy was still in place in the late '70s, early '80s," Marquette architect Barry Polzin said. "When I started practicing, I remember that being the case."

That one decision - made in the immediate aftermath of a blaze that began in the Marquette & Ontonagon Railroad shops and did more than $1.5 million in damages while destroying three commercial docks and more than 100 buildings, including the town hall and library - changed the city forever. It's part of the reason downtown Marquette is today dominated by towering structures of brick and sandstone.

"The savings bank building, the Masonic Temple, even buildings like the Harlow block, they have wood framing for floors and the roof, but it's all masonry bearing walls," Polzin said.

And while much of the minutiae is certainly left out of the handwritten minutes of that 1868 meeting, a reader can still glean the mood from those basic notes. It is easy, for instance, to imagine the atmosphere in the room when, just moments later, a communication from the citizens of Negaunee was read, "tendering to the citizens of Marquette their sympathy and offering such assistance to the sufferers as they were able to render."

"You get a sense of the tenor of the times by reading the prose, the way people talked, and the way things came together and their interactions in the minutes," said Marcus Robyns, Northern Michigan University archivist. "Major events that happen in the city always seem to crop up, in some way, in the minutes."

Robyns is behind a recently concluded yearlong project that has brought those historical documents to the masses, digitizing more than 125 years of minutes from the Marquette City Commission and the Marquette County Board.

The project made sense for Robyns, who has been the archivist at NMU since 1997 and completed a graduate school thesis on the history of urban development in the west.

"I've always had a thing for minutes," he said. "But they've always been in like a clerk's office, and hard to get to."

Shortly after Robyns arrived, he helped to establish NMU as a regional depository for local government records. Under that designation, the archives now receives archival records - namely minutes - from township, city and county governments in Alger, Schoolcraft, Menominee, Delta, Dickinson and Marquette counties.

More recently, Robyns got together with the Marquette County and Marquette City clerks, who agreed to transfer their century-old paper minutes to the NMU archives.

At the time those documents began rolling in, Robyns and his staff were nearing the completion of a project to digitize the records of the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co.

"Here I had equipment, I had people, I had resources and we all said, 'Let's do the minutes of the city and county commissions, because we've got everything all set up and ready to go,'" he said.

After receiving a $25,000 Wildcat Innovation Grant from NMU, as well as $10,000 each from the city commission and the county board, the yearlong process began.

The work - scanning, archiving, creating web-based finding aids - was done largely by a project archivist and student assistants. Robyns has spent time with the documents, but said he is in no way an expert on them, at this point.

"One of the things that I find interesting is the professionalism. It all starts in somebody's room in their house and it's the same people. You see the same people - the Philo Everetts, the Peter Whites - who seem to be in the ruling elite, the plutocracy, of the community," he said. "And then it begins to change and becomes more professionalized and diverse as different types of people start to come in. You can see as the minutes start to become more and more professionalized over time. Structured. There is a more formal development to them."

The minutes, when assessed as a whole, offer citizens a long view of a community persevering in the face of adversity, from the 1868 fire to a shifting economy.

"Just the development. How a community changes from being industrial - sort of an industrial working class place - to somehow, with the decline of iron mining, transitioning into more of a touristy, upscale sort of place," Robyns said. "That's all reflected in the minutes, how that happens over time. It's a great record of the history of the area."

Since the CCI records went digital, they have been visited by thousands of people from several different continents, and Robyns said the digitized local government records should only help to bolster the reputation of the NMU archives.

"I would like to think we've come a long in way in 15 years since I've been here. I'd like to think we have collections now that sustain serious scholarship and have proven it by a lot of people using this facility," Robyns said. "I'd like to think that the digital work that we do puts us right up with the big boys. I think our programs and our collections are just as professional as what (Michigan Tech) is doing, or Michigan State, or any of the others."

Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is



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