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Would you know a historically significant site if you saw one? In many cases, you may not. Such oversights can be prevented with a simple marker. In Michigan, the state’s historical commission has been involved with a marker program since 1955.
In the Beginning…
In 1941, the Michigan legislature authorized the Michigan Historical Commission to begin an historical marking program. This program was abandoned when the United States entered World War II. Finally, in 1953, Willis F. Dunbar led an investigation of Michigan historic sites (Dunbar was a professor at Western Michigan College – now Western Michigan University – and a Michigan Historical Commission member.). Backed by Dunbar’s research, the Commission again asked the legislature for authority to mark historic sites.
The marking program officially began in 1955. Fifty-five years ago this month – on October 22, to be precise – the very first Michigan historical marker was dedicated. It was placed at Michigan State University, during that institution’s centennial year.
From then until the present, over 1,600 state historical markers would be erected. Some trends can be noted. In her book Traveling Through Time: A Guide to Michigan’s Historical Markers, Laura Rose Ashlee states that the historians since 1955 have placed more emphasis on “common people” and local history. Thus, she notes that there are now markers recognizing important women, minorities and “lesser known pioneers,” as well as markers recognizing more prominent citizens. Ashlee also explains that the marking program initially focused on pre-twentieth century events but that more recent markers sometimes commemorate events from World War II or even later.
Today, Michigan has one of the country’s largest privately-funded historical marker programs (Marker applicants pay for the markers’ creations.). The Michigan Historical Commission, the Michigan History Foundation, the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Program and the State Historic Preservation Office all play roles in the marker process.
The process begins when someone submits an application to the Michigan History Foundation. If the application pertains to a site not listed on the Michigan State Register of Historic Sites, then the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) evaluates it. Once an application has been accepted, graduate students in the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Program work with applicants to prepare marker text. The Commission ultimately approves the text and the placement of the marker.
For more information on the marker application process, click How to Apply for a Michigan Historical Marker
Sources consulted for this article:
- Books and Articles:
“Michigan’s Historic Marking Program” by George S. May. Michigan History , vol. 40 (1956), pp. 447-450.
Traveling Through Time: A Guide to Michigan’s Historical Markers by Laura Rose Ashlee
- Web sites:
Thanks to Andrew MacFarlane of absolutemichigan.com