Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

Dreams Beckon Inspiration at Michigan City Lighthouse

By Rick A. Richards


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The 1858 Michigan City Lighthouse Museum. (Photo ...

The Michigan City Historical Society, based in Indiana’s 1858 Michigan City Lighthouse, is pressing ahead with restoration and improvement plans that could transform the property into a major tourist attraction.

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Michigan City Lighthouse volunteer Dave Spencer ...

It already attracts between 4,000 and 6,000 visitors a year, but museum officials want to lure more to the museum and the adjacent Lake Michigan shore, which includes Washington Park beach, the Washington Park Zoo, a marina, splash pad for children, and a classic car and art museum within walking distance.

A small part of thats effort is restoration of the historic Hutchinson Fountain that was moved by the city to the museum campus in 1981. The century old red granite fountain’s lights and fountains no longer work, and Laura Shields, who took over as director of the museum this year, dreams of seeing it restored.

Dave Spencer, a volunteer and handyman at the museum, sees the fountain as becoming a real asset. Spencer points out the various troughs where birds, dogs, horses and pedestrians could get a drink of fresh water.

“I don’t think it would be all that difficult to fix it up,” said Spencer.

Shields agrees and thinks a restored fountain could be the first step in creating a series of outdoor attractions at the museum, including a paved or brick walkway that would guide visitors around the perimeter of the museum grounds past statues, gardens, anchors from Lake Michigan ships and shipwrecks, and the 1927 rescue boat that was used by the U.S. Lifesaving Service, a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Before arriving at the museum on June 27, 1981, the fountain had colorful past. It was designed “to serve man, bird and beast,” and commissioned to honor the memory of William B. Hutchinson, a two-term mayor of Michigan City who later served as a state senator.

It was built of red granite in 1910 with prison labor at the nearby Indiana State Prison by the Mt. Airy Stone Co., which employed 200 inmates, who made tombstones and decorative fountains for towns and cities around Indiana.

Hutchinson was born in 1840 in Ontario, Canada, and came to Michigan City in 1867 because of the thriving lumber trade. At the time, Michigan City was a thriving port and the 1858 lighthouse was the beacon that guided ships into the mouth of Trail Creek, around which Michigan City grew.

He was elected mayor in 1876 and re-elected in 1878. In 1880 he was elected state senator and served for four years. He founded Lumberman’s Bank and went on to found Citizens Bank, which today is part of Horizon Bank, one of the largest banks in Northwest Indiana.

The family home on 10th Street is now a bed and breakfast and when the fountain was dedicated, it was placed near there at the northeast corner of 10th and Franklin streets.

A restored Hutchinson Fountain could help revitalize the museum, says Shields, who envisions a walkway, a fully restored rescue boat sitting inside a pole barn to protect it, an interactive center for children inside a storage building that has been repaired and restored by Spencer and other community volunteers.

Inside, Shields wants to separate Michigan City’s history from that of the lighthouse and Lake Michigan history by using a storefront downtown where a museum focusing on Michigan City could be opened.

“Some people think that is too much to take on,” said Shields. “I’d like to keep it simple here with something else downtown. We’re dreaming, but if you don’t dream it will never happen. It really is a wish list.”

Right now, with only about 130 members (at $10 a year for families), there isn’t enough money being generated to realize those plans. And with the paid admission from visitors of between $3 and $4 per visit, barely enough money is generated to keep the lights, heating and air conditioning on.

To help stretch dollars at the museum, members of the Hoosier Lighthousing Club assembled at the museum recently for a weekend of volunteer work. Everything from edging sidewalks to planting a memorial garden were on the agenda, says President Dave Hannum of Kokomo, Ind. The memorial garden honors former club member Frank Olivera of North Vernon, Ind., and Jackie Glidden, the recently retired museum director.

Hannum, a former chief in the U.S. Navy, began collecting Harbour Lights a few years ago and his hobby led to his interest in lighthouses. Through the Internet, he met others with similar interests and that led to creation of the Hoosier Lighthousing Club. And since the formation, of the club, Hannum said there has been no disagreement over adopting the lighthouse as their own.

Club member, Judy Roth of St. Louis visits the Michigan City Lighthouse Museum twice a year. She is joined on her trips by Carolyn McBee, also of St. Louis. Both said they love visiting lighthouses, but they especially like the old lighthouse in Michigan City. They agreed that as soon as they saw it on previous trips here, they wanted to come back.

Also pitching to create the memorial garden was Doyne Cole of Highland, Indiana, (soon to be a resident of Sunlakes, Arizona). “I used to come here as a kid to Washington Park,” said Cole. “Coming back to work at the lighthouse brings back a lot of memories.”

While work was going on outside, Shields says volunteers have been working on the museum building, too. The cupola (built in the 1970s) needed major repairs, but thanks to volunteers, that work is being completed this year.

“We want people to realize this is the place to bring your friends from out of town,” said Shields. “There is a lot more information here than appears at first glance. We want to make people realize that since this place opened 40 years ago, there’s a whole generation of activities that have happened in the community that isn’t reflected here.

“Our message is that this is a place to feel a real sense of accomplishment. We have tremendous respect for this building and for what people have contributed over the last 40 years,” said Shields. “We are in better shape than some of the other lighthouses on the Great Lakes. We watch our budget and try to be very responsible with what we’re spending.

“We want to encourage people to get involved to make this place shine,” Shields said.

Ultimately, the museum would like to put up rotating historic displays featuring people, events or places in Michigan City, but there simply isn’t room for that.

“We just don’t have the space,” said Spencer. “In as much as it is a lighthouse museum, the entire theme of this is built around water. I would like to see a little more along the lines of marine stuff available. I would like to see all the records displayed, but we’re packed. We don’t have the room. That’s why another museum is needed to take care of the Michigan City stuff we have here.”

Volunteers recently completed cleaning every display in the building. Artifacts were carefully removed and cleaned and then the display cases were washed. It was painstaking work, but Shields said that since the museum opened for the season in April visitors have noticed a difference.

Downstairs where valuable city records and marine artifacts are stored, room is at a premium. In a small workshop, Spencer is restoring a variety of warning lights used on the Great Lakes.

The lights, some dating to the early 1940s, have now been moved to a nearby storage building that has been refurbished. Volunteers from Brickmaster Construction from nearby LaPorte, Ind., and Twisted Monkey Builders of Michigan City, have repaired brickwork and the antique doors on the building.

Spencer said the harbor and small buoy lights are being set up in an interactive display so that adults as well as children be able to turn them on and off during tours of the museum. When the project is finished, Spencer said details on each light – how it was used and how it was serviced – will be part of the program. The idea, says Shields, is to make the museum more user friendly.

Shields and Spencer agree that among the most pressing and important work to be done outdoors is restoration of the 1927 surf boat. The 26-foot wooden boat sits under an awning, but remains exposed to the elements which haven’t been kind to the 84-year-old boat.

The boat is missing its 4-cycle Kermath gasoline engine, but short of that, Spencer said the boat, which served the city from a dock where today’s Coast Guard station sits, is a part of the city’s history and worthy of preservation.

Help in restoring the boat will come from the Coast Guard, which sits just across the parking lot from the Old Lighthouse Museum. Chief Rebecca J. Polzin has agreed to made members of the 20-person crew at the station available to scrape, sand, paint and caulk the 84-year-old wooden boat. The goal is to get it looking as much as possible as it did in 1927.

Although work hasn’t yet started on the rescue boat, Shields said volunteer work like that is invaluable. As more volunteers from the Coast Guard and Hoosier Lighthousing Club get involved, she said she hopes more volunteers from the community will notice and want to get involved, too. “We want to encourage people to get involved to make this place shine,” she said. “People from other places who come here, they’re in awe of what’s here. This place shows that history is not dull and dry. History reflects a sense of place.”

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This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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