These are the stories of Muskegon.
Within the walls of the Muskegon Heritage Museum are the stories of the boat and furniture and paper manufacturers, of the people who left for work before dawn and didn’t return until long after the sunset. Of the people who never knew their timesheets from 1900 would end up in a museum, but, like so many people now, knew their long, tiring days were for their families–for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren whose histories are forever intertwined with the city they called home: Muskegon.
These are the stories of the people who shaped the city into the landscape we now know: the stories of immigrants and travelers trying to find a place to call home, of people fleeing poverty in other lands, of business owners rejuvenating sinking economies. They are narratives of people who will never know us, but whose stories are the very ones we find ourselves in now: the joy and laughter and tears and exhaustion that come with this dance we call life.
Preserving these stories has come in the form of the Heritage Museum’s three-story building at 561 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon, where an all-volunteer staff do everything from curate exhibitions to interact with visitors from around the globe and educate the city’s children about Muskegon’s history. Dedicated to showcasing the economic, industrial and social histories of Muskegon, the museum is brimming with the lives of people who have been our country’s makers, the ones who have filled our world with everything from Raggedy Ann dolls and bowling pins to pianos, violins and aircraft engines–and so much more.
With an ever-growing roster of exhibits, as well as swelling numbers of visitors, the museum is gaining quite a bit of attention–which is both positive and challenging. Following Anne and Allan Dake, who run the museum, taking the reins at the cultural institution in 2009, the museum has grown to offer 90 exhibits in a space that has gone from about 2,000 square feet to a little more than 12,000 square feet. To meet the inevitable challenges that come with this kind of growth, the museum kicked off a capital campaign this past spring. On Tuesday evening, the Dakes and the Board of Directors of the Muskegon Heritage Association, which owns the museum, announced they have nearly completed their goal of raising $1.25 million to support the museum’s programs and services, install a new elevator, and add other accessibility modifications to the building’s three floors.
“Excuse me if I get a little emotional because this is an amazing situation, an amazing opportunity for the museum and for all of us that are involved–all 80 of us volunteers that are involved–to take the museum to the next step and into the future,” Anne Dake told a group of supporters who gathered at the museum for a celebration of the campaign’s success Tuesday evening.
Dake announced the museum’s campaign has so far raised $1,202,131, and of the total goal, $1.25 million, $250,000 will go towards the installation of an elevator and $1 million will be added to the Heritage Museum’s endowed fund at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County. The museum volunteers and the capital campaign supporters are now reaching out to the general public to help meet its $1.25 million goal.
The addition of the elevator will allow individuals who cannot climb stairs to be able to access the museum’s second and third floors, as well as make life a whole lot easier for volunteers moving heavy exhibit items throughout the venue. With this money, the museum will also be able to continue to add exhibits and programming, as well as expand its hours of operation. Currently, the museum is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from mid-May to mid-October.
“To make this whole place accessible to everyone has been a goal of ours for a long time,” Anne Dake said. “It’s also a goal for all of us volunteers because, as you go around upstairs, you’ll see some really big things and some really heavy things–and they’ve gone up the stairs.”
During Tuesday’s festivities, Anne Dake also announced the Arconic Foundation has given a three-year, $80,000 grant to the museum for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education purposes. As part of their upcoming educational efforts, Dake said the Heritage Museum will partner with the Lakeshore Museum and Muskegon Community College.
About 200 individuals, couples and companies from throughout Muskegon County have donated to the campaign, with donations ranging from $25 to $250,000. Lifelong Muskegon residents John and Linda Hilt kicked off the museum’s fundraising efforts this past spring with a combined financial gift from themselves, the George and Betty Hilt Fund, and the Hilt Foundation of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.
The Hilt family has lived in Muskegon for generations, and they have played an influential role in both business and politics: they founded Quality Stores, which became the country’s largest farm-store retailer for a time, and John Hilt’s great-grandfather, John Campbell, was the mayor of Muskegon in 1907 and 1908.
“We’re been here all our lives,” John Hilt said, explaining why he and his wife are supporting the museum.
The museum “provides a base for our children and seven grandchildren to better understand the community in which our families have lived for several generations,” John and Linda Hilt said in a press release from the museum.
For the team of volunteers who operate the museum, the financial campaign is about supporting an often deeply moving and poignant space, one that brings to light a history that should not be forgotten.
“It is phenomenal; the first time I came here, I was blown away,” Judith Hayner said of the Muskegon Heritage Museum, where the former director of the Muskegon Museum of Art now volunteers. “This is helping Muskegon understand its own history.”
“That volunteers have done all of this speaks to Muskegon and its character,” Hayner continued.
About 80 individuals provide 4,500 volunteer hours each year, which Paul DeHorn, chairman of the museum’s board of directors, noted ends up being worth more than $100,000.
“This place tells the history of this town in a way you wouldn’t get otherwise,” Char Romanosky, a speech pathologist who taught in the Muskegon Public Schools for 32 years and volunteers at the Heritage Museum, said Tuesday.
DeHorn, who grew up in Muskegon, noted that many of the visitors who come through have close ties to the companies exhibited in the space and frequently share their own stories, or those of family members and friends, of working in the industries showcased at the museum.
“I love it when people come in here and say, ‘My father worked in such and such a place,’” said DeHorn, who grew up in Muskegon and long served as the principal of McLaughlin and Bluffton elementary schools.
As someone involved in education for decades, DeHorn said he especially enjoys interacting with the many students who come through the museum’s doors–as well as visitors from the cruise ships that make their way to Muskegon.
“I love finding out a lot about the visitors; they’re from all over the world,” DeHorn said.
As the volunteers and supporters mingled in the downtown space, Tuesday evening seemed an apt metaphor for the Heritage Museum: people coming together, sharing histories and speaking of excitement over the future–all for a place called Muskegon.
“The museum belongs to all of us, to the community, to the volunteers,” Anne Dake said. “The whole thing is done by volunteers; they’re the heart and soul of the museum. Without them, the museum wouldn’t exist. It’s our story to share and tell. That’s what we’ve tried to do all along–tell and share Muskegon’s story with the community and so many visitors. They’re overwhelmed by what has happened, what is happening in Muskegon. They’re so excited to learn about our community.”
The Muskegon Heritage Museum is located at 561 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon. Its hours of operation are 11am to 4pm Thursday through Saturday, mid-May to mid-October, and the museum is available by appointment all year. To learn more about donating to the museum, please go here. For more information, please call (231) 722-1363 or visit the museum’s website by clicking here.
See more photos of the museum below.