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Commentary: Celebrating a century

On a pleasant spring day in Lansing, exactly 100 years ago today, then-Governor Woodbridge Ferris struck a blow for history. He signed a bill creating the Michigan Historical Commission.

Today, the current commissioners are celebrating the commission’s 100th anniversary. Governor Ferris is long forgotten and the original commissioners are all long dead.

But the commission is still hanging in there, trying to make us conscious of our state’s fascinating past. They are the folks, by the way, behind the Michigan Historical Marker Program. Nearly everyone has seen some of the more than 1,700 green and gold markers in front of buildings from the old Model T plant in Highland Park to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

You might say it‘s been quite a century. When the historical commission first got going, there were still people living who had been alive when Michigan was just a territory.

Michigan had about three million people then, compared to 10 million now. Henry Ford was getting ready to try a great experiment called the moving assembly line back in 1913, and they were still building the Michigan Central Railroad Station, once one of the most magnificent and elegant train stations in the world.

That stuff is interesting, at least to me. But why should we care about the anniversary of a commission? I asked Jack Dempsey, who is, by the way, no relation to the boxer of a century ago.

This Dempsey is an attorney and lawyer who is currently president of the Michigan Historical Commission. The group, he told me, “has been caretaker of our heritage for a century now -- publishing Michigan History magazine, administering the state historical marker program,” and doing other good works.

Those include helping revitalize Detroit Capitol Park, a tiny urban space where the state’s first capitol was, and where today rest the often-moved bones of Stevens T. Mason, our state’s first governor.

Dempsey, the author of an excellent recent book called Michigan and the Civil War, also has led the commission to take the lead in celebrating the state’s sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Or as my Latin teacher might have said, that‘s the 150th anniversary to you.

Staying in business hasn’t always been easy for the commission, even though its members never were paid and these days don’t even get expenses.

They’ve been buffeted from department to department. Perhaps their biggest crisis came four years ago, when then-Governor Jennifer Granholm abolished the Department of History, Arts and Libraries, and wanted to turn the state library itself into a “center for innovation and reinvention.”

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The commission has since been working on preserving the history of the state fair, and saving the home of Ulysses S. Grant, which currently sits at the fairgrounds.

But the real work of the commission, Dempsey told me, is “sharing the stories that feed the souls and shelter the hearts of Michiganders, helping them find their sense of place.”

This afternoon, the commissioners are getting together to celebrate with some chocolate bumpy cake from Sanders, a company which is a century old this year as well.

My sense of history is that they more than deserve it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.