History of the Benzie Area Historical Museum

Our story is the Ongoing story of the Benzie Community

History of the Benzie Area Historical Museum

Over 50 Years of Serving the Benzie Community

The Benzie Area Historical Museum, owned and operated by the Society, is housed in an 1887 Congregational Church building in Benzonia and is on the Michigan State Register of Historic Sites.

Benzonia Foundation

Benzonia was founded as an educational Christian colony on the model of Oberlin, Ohio in 1858 under the leadership of Charles Bailey. In 1860, the First Congregational Church of Benzonia was formed and organized in his home. Services were held in the Bailey home for two years before moving to the upper floor of the Grand Traverse College building as its place of worship.

It wasn’t until 1884 that construction of the church building foundation was started. Some years earlier, the lowering of Crystal Lake had exposed a wide beach on the north shore, strewn with sizable and accessible boulders. In the summer of 1883, the men of the church joined in a project to collect boulders to make the foundation of the proposed new church building. With the coming of winter snows, heavy sleighs, some drawn by oxen and others by horses, were dispatched to the north shore to bring the accumulation of boulders to the church site.

And so on July 24, 1884, the cornerstone of the foundation was laid. Work continued on the building through 1885 and 1886, and on December 7, 1886, the building was dedicated and used for the first time for a Sunday morning worship service. A new wing was added to the west side in 1913.

A new church building was begun in 1967 in the park to the north of the old building and was completed in 1968. The last church service in the old building was held in March of that year, and the building was formally decommissioned.  The decommissioned building was to become the Benzie Area Historical Museum. In January, 1969, the Congregational Church Board of Trustees negotiated a three-year lease with BAHS for use of the vacated church building, and BAHM first opened to the public on Memorial Day, 1969. After the first year of demonstrated ability, the church trustees presented a quit-claim deed to BAHS.

The decommissioned building was to become the Benzie Area Historical Museum. In January, 1969, the Congregational Church Board of Trustees negotiated a three-year lease with BAHS for use of the vacated church building, and BAHM first opened to the public on Memorial Day, 1969. After the first year of demonstrated ability, the church trustees presented a quit-claim deed to BAHS.

The grand opening of BAHS Museum was held on May 30, 1969, with over 200 people gathering before the old church, now the Museum, for the dedication. The ceremony opened with the Frankfort High School Band playing the National Anthem. Speakers included Allan Blacklock, Chairman of Benzie County Supervisors; Al Barnes, Traverse City area historian who gave the Dedicatory Address; and Rev William R. Catton, who gave a Dedicatory Prayer. Ray Antel, President of BAHS, and Dorothy B. Hensel, Museum Curator, gave remarks before the doors were opened for the first Museum guests to enter.

In celebration of Arbor Day on April 28, 1972, a memorial white pine tree, the Michigan State Tree was donated by Ellsworth Esch and planted by the Lake Shores Garden Club on the Museum grounds. Children from the fourth grade of Crystal Lake Elementary sang patriotic songs.

The Museum building received the State of Michigan Historic Site designation in April 1981.  

Disaster!

Lightning struck the steeple of the Museum resulting in major fire damage to the building and artifacts in 1985.  The entire roof and steeple were destroyed.  Damage to the BAHS collections was not as bad as feared.  Most artifacts had recently been covered with plastic sheeting  in preparation for a renovation so water damage to the artifacts was limited.  Volunteers formed a bucket brigade of debris to uncover and save some of the artifacts.  

Several service clubs, including the Benzonia Township Firefighters and Crystal Lake Kiwanis, donated substantial funds for rebuilding.  Thanks to a fundraising campaign and several generous individuals, the Museum was reopened in two years.  

The newly constructed Mitchell wing of the Museum, dedicated in 2001, provided a permanent home for the Benzie County Archives.  The Benzie County archives include photographs, letters, manuscripts, documents and other ephemera organized and available to researchers, schools, writers, and the general public. Our archivists have catalogued over 29,000 objects in our PastPerfect database, and our research, genealogy, and archive teams use this space to provide research opportunities for the public and primary source research training for local high school students.  

The Mitchell wing also included an administrative office, handicapped accessibility, updated restrooms, a new main entrance, and a meeting room.

The addition of a meeting room enabled the Society to expand its community education programming. Our community’s character is rooted in education; Benzonia began as an educational Christian colony and the Grand Traverse College was founded by Oberlin College in 1863 “to afford all people, regardless of age or sex, the opportunity to receive a liberal education.”   Seeking to carry on that tradition, BAHS strives to support life-long learning.

The Benzie Area Historical Museum is recognized as one of two historic community centerpieces; the other is The Mills Community House, also on the Michigan Register of Historic Sites and a community partner that hosts our monthly lecture series during the summer months.

In 2019, 3,869 guests visited the Museum for tours, monthly and special programming, and to access the Benzie County Archives. Our Museum draws visitors from across the state and country each year.

Exhibits of our life and heritage here in Benzie County are lively, authentic, engaging, and creatively tell our Benzie County story. Our unique history is well represented with exhibits featuring Pulitzer-Prize winning author and Benzonia-bred Bruce Catton, the Ann Arbor Railroad and Carferries, resorts and summer camps, logging and sawmills, agriculture, education, textiles, and the Grand Army of the Republic. The Museum also includes the many tools and materials used in daily life throughout the years including stoves, ice boxes and refrigerators, and other appliances.

An exhibits committee prepares at least two temporary exhibits each year; past exhibits include World War One, Cycles of Yesteryear, and Summer Fun in the Benzie Sun.  Local high school students’ artwork featuring historical Benzie County sites and events is a featured annual exhibit.

The research, thought, and energy put into our exhibits speaks of volunteers’ love of and devotion to our community and its past.  Many of our docents have deep Benzie roots and connections so their experiences add depth, and our remaining volunteers are dedicated, self-professed “history geeks” with a deep passion for Benzie County.

Community Programs & Events

The Benzonia Academy Lecture Series

The Benzie Area Historical Society, in collaboration with the Mills Community House, seeks to carry on the tradition of the Benzonia Academy by offering this free series of lectures on local, national, and international history the second Thursday of each month.  Lectures are held at the Benzie Area Historical Museum October through April and at the Mills Community House May through September in order to accommodate the increased number of attendees. To date, over 134 lectures have been presented in this series.

The Junior Historians Program and Educational Support

Over 640 area elementary school students toured the Museum, Drake School or participated in our Junior Historians program at their elementary school in 2019. High school students from Benzie Central Schools and Interlochen Arts Academy visited the Museum for primary source research training with our professional volunteers, and both projects made video contributions to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project this past year.

Bruce Catton Essay Contest

An annual Bruce Catton essay contest for Frankfort-Elberta middle school students is hosted at the Museum each year.  Following in Catton’s footsteps, students share and describe an experience they’ve had growing up in Benzie County and its impact on them.  The students’ essays are read by members of the community, and a plaque honoring the top essay resides in our Bruce Catton exhibit.  

Benzie Area Genealogical Society

The Museum is home to the Benzie Area Genealogical Society, which hosts monthly meetings here May through October. BAHS also offers free use of our meeting space and kitchen facilities to area civic and community organizations including the Rotary Club, PEO and other nonprofit organizations.  

Benzie Community Band Concert

A concert with the Benzie Community Band on the Museum lawn followed by an open house with Museum tours is an annual community event.

Festival of Trees

A highlight of the year for BAHS and our community is the Festival of Trees, hosted at BAHM on Thanksgiving weekend. A fundraising event for the Benzie County Habitat for Humanity, the Festival of Trees has drawn more than 3,000 guests and raised over $70,000 over the last 15 years.

We Exhibit Amazing Historic Artifacts

Museum Exhibits

Our Museum features permanent exhibits showcasing virtually all aspects of life here in Benzie County since its inception in 1869 as well as two to four special exhibits annually. We currently have more than 29,000 artifacts in our collection.

Our monthly lecture series is hosted at BAHM October through April; during the summer months, it is hosted at The Mills Community House, another historic Benzonia building.

In 2019, 3,869 guests visited the Museum for tours, monthly and special programming, and to access the Benzie County Archives. BAHM draws visitors from across the state and country each year. One of our most loyal supporters lives in Colorado; his first and only visit to the Museum five years ago was so impactful that he became a donor. He has steadily increased his financial support since that time.

Also under the Society umbrella, and housed at the Museum, are the Benzie County Archives, and on-site services include genealogy and research and school/student programming.

The Benzie County Archives

Housed at the Museum are the Benzie County Archives, one of the Midwest’s most extensive community collections of ephemera.

The  Benzie County Archives includes photographs, letters, manuscripts, documents and other ephemera organized and available to researchers, schools, writers, and the general public. Our archivists have catalogued over 29,000 objects in PastPerfect, and our research, genealogy, and archive team uses this space to provide research opportunities for the public and primary source research training to local students.  

BAHS has been the recipient of almost 30,000 artifacts including textiles such as quilts and wedding dresses, photographs, musical scores, tools, and furnishings. Not all artifacts can be routinely shared with Museum guests due to space constraints; more than 2,500 artifacts are stored in a climate-controlled Collections Warehouse, built in 2000.

Our Museum home is the most valuable artifact in our extensive Collection. 

Exhibits of our life and heritage here in Benzie County are lively, authentic, engaging, and creatively tell our Benzie County story. Our unique history is well represented with exhibits featuring Pulitzer-Prize winning author and Benzonia-bred Bruce Catton, the Ann Arbor Railroad and Carferries, resorts and summer camps, logging and sawmills, agriculture, education, textiles, and the Grand Army of the Republic. The Museum also includes the many tools and materials used in daily life throughout the years including stoves, ice boxes and refrigerators, and other appliances.

An Exhibits Committee prepares at least two temporary exhibits each year; past exhibits include World War One, Cycles of Yesteryear, and Summer Fun in the Benzie Sun.  Local high school students’ artwork featuring historical Benzie County sites and events is a featured annual exhibit.

The research, thought, and energy put into our exhibits speaks of volunteers’ love of and devotion to our community and its past.  Many of our docents have deep Benzie roots and connections so their experiences add depth, and our remaining volunteers are dedicated, self-professed “history geeks” with a deep passion for Benzie County.