MARQUETTE - With a nod to its past and an eye toward the future, the Marquette Regional History Center marked its 95th birthday Wednesday with a gathering on a snowy night under the lighted dome in the group's modern Spring Street museum facility.
"Ninety-five years is a significant amount of time," said Marquette Regional History Center Executive Director Kaye Hiebel.
The genesis of the group occurred in 1917 when a petition signed by a handful of Marquette, Ishpeming and Negaunee residents circulated the notion of organizing an effort to preserve Marquette County history.
The side entrance to the former Front Street Marquette County Historical Society Museum is seen in 1951. (Marquette Regional History Center photo)
An organizational meeting drew 40 people and by the next year almost 100 people had signed on to the cause. The group's first regular meeting was held on June 10, 1918.
From there, the first gathering of books, photographs, artifacts and manuscripts commenced. The new historical society was the only one in the Upper Peninsula at the time.
"The county was really fortunate to have what was the historical society here to start saving," Hiebel said. "I'm sure that a lot of those pioneer families who had been here in the 1860s could see that there were parts of our history that were beginning to disappear and they were far-sighted enough to think that they needed to do something to save it."
As a result, a good deal of the history of Ishpeming, Negaunee and Gwinn was first gathered in Marquette.
"It was here for them to be able to learn from and then start their own history museums in their own communities," Hiebel said. "We were like the seed for all of that."
In 1937, the society's first building was purchased through a bequest from the estate of Mary B. Longyear. John M. Longyear had been the society's first president. The Fraternity Building - built in 1891, formerly a site for lodge meetings and formal balls and located along Front Street in Marquette - was completely remodeled and fireproofed.
The museum room first opened to the public for the Marquette City Centennial in 1949. At that time, the J.M. Longyear Research Library was still being organized. By 1954, the library had more than 6,000 volumes containing material detailing the days of early Indians, explorers and missionaries, as well as regional, state and county histories.
Rosemary Michelin, head librarian at the J.M. Longyear Research Library, said the facility today has at least 16,000 volumes of books, more than 900 maps and more than 10,000 photographs, in addition to postcards and photo albums and an expanse of archival documents including journals, business ledgers, letters and other primary source materials.
Despite the changing technology of the digital Information Age, historical research remains popular with patrons at the library.
"They are just contacting us in different ways. People are expecting more help from long distance via the Internet," Michelin said. "The people that come in the door, I would say that we're not helping more people that way, but the people that do come to us have great success in finding what they're looking for."
On Oct. 19, 2009, groundbreaking took place at the former Marq-Tran building in downtown Marquette for the society's new $3.8 million museum complex construction project.
The name of the group was changed to acknowledge the society's collections and focus had extended beyond Marquette County to the region; and that the organization and facility was a comprehensive center "to archive, preserve, interpret and explore the unique history of the Upper Peninsula."
In spring 2011, the Marquette Regional History Center moved to its new location.
"There are wonderful, great changes and really what has happened, with this museum and this structure today-it isn't fully developed obviously, but it is a drawing point," said Dan Hornbogen of Marquette. "It's a destination point. It's one of the finest small museums or large museums in Michigan and the John Longyear Research Library upstairs is just outstanding."
Hornbogen has been a historical society member for many years and served on the organization's board for two terms. He received the Helen Longyear Paul Award Wednesday, which is presented to individuals to honor and acknowledge personal contributions to the preservation and enhancement of local history.
Looking ahead to the next century for the center, Hornbogen grinned and said "a hundred years is a long time."
"But I think that the history museum has always been under reasonably good management, right now, under excellent management," Hornbogen said. "And so, if they can just continue drawing working people to the board, people that will be productive and help, I think things will always happen here for the positive."
Hiebel said the center bought green space near its facility looking to the future.
"You have to have room to expand because history is happening every second and we're adding to the collection constantly," Hiebel said. "So I can foresee the day when we either have to build another floor on this building or we have to build another wing."
Moving forward, the center's volunteers, members, programming and other events will remain greatly important to the mission.
"What we learned was that it's an incredible amount of work to market and to staff and to make this place vital," Hiebel said. "We have to be at the center of our community. That's the way that we're going to ensure our long term survival is to be relevant and to seek people's input."
Before the frosted birthday cake was cut Wednesday -and historical performances by Chip Truscon as doctor and dentist Charles Chambers Thomlanson and Bob Mercure as blacksmith and English immigrant William James Pomeroy- the center's Peter White Award was given to the Negaunee Historical Society, City of Negaunee and Negaunee Lions Club for their joint effort to restore, reconstruct and relocate the historic "Collins Cabin" to the Olde Town area.
The award is given annually to a business or organization to honor and acknowledge their preservation and enhancement of local history.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.