‘Wow, this is Muskegon’: As the Heritage Museum grows, an emphasis on making the region’s history accessible to all

[Left to right] Linda and John Hilt cut the ribbon for the Heritage Museum’s new elevator as Anne Dake, who runs the museum with her husband, Allan Dake, cheers them on. Photo by Anna Gustafson
As community leaders packed the Muskegon Heritage Museum at 561 W. Western Ave. last Thursday, the doors to the venue’s new elevator opened—and cheers rang out. People lifted wine glasses and some even wiped away tears of joy.

This is, as you may have guessed, no ordinary elevator.

“From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank you so much; we asked you to open the doors to the future, and the doors are wide open,” Anne Dake, who has run the Heritage Museum with her husband, Allan Dake, for the past decade, said to museum supporters during the ribbon-cutting celebration for the new elevator—a $250,000 installment funded by the museum’s capital campaign launched almost exactly one year ago.

The elevator itself is certainly something worth celebrating—the 13,000 pound structure will ensure that anyone, no matter their mobility, can access all three floors of exhibit space—but it’s emblematic of something even bigger than that. It is, as Anne Dake said, an entryway to a new future for the cultural institution dedicated to  showcasing the economic, industrial and social histories of Muskegon.

Hundreds of people from throughout Muskegon County contributed to the capital campaign that paid for the elevator; the museum leaders and their community supporters set out to raise $1.25 million and ended up landing about $1.35 million for the museum. Lifelong Muskegon residents John and Linda Hilt kicked off the museum’s fundraising efforts  with a combined financial gift from themselves, the George and Betty Hilt Fund, and the Hilt Foundation of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

“It’s a dream come true,” Dake said of the campaign.

The new elevator at the Muskegon Heritage Museum.

That funding translates to not only a new elevator, but a whole range of additions: new exhibitions, educational programming, and expanded hours. And the campaign paved the way for another big announcement: Dake said the Muskegon Heritage Museum is currently undergoing a “blend” with the Lakeshore Museum Center. In other words, the Heritage Museum will soon be a part of the Lakeshore Museum—think of it as something akin to the way the Lakeshore Museum oversees the Hackley and Hume historic homes, the Fire Barn Museum, and the Scolnik House.

“We’re very excited about it,” Dake said. “It will provide a lot of support for us.”

The partnership with the Lakeshore Museum Center will allow the Heritage Museum, currently manned by an all-volunteer team of about 80 people, to hire its first-ever paid position, a site manager. This new partnership, Dake explained, leads to a secure and sustainable future for the museum, which, since the Dakes took it over in 2009, has seen an ever-growing roster of exhibits, as well as swelling numbers of visitors. Since taking the reins, the Dakes and their team of volunteers have grown the museum to a venue that offers more than 90 exhibits in a space that’s gone from about 2,000 square feet to a little more than 12,000 square feet.

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“Once Anne and Allan came in, they spurred the growth of the museum,” Heritage Museum Board of Directors Chairman Paul DeHorn said during last Thursday’s celebration. “Without them, we wouldn’t be standing here tonight.”

DeHorn noted the museum too is representative of a changing local economy that’s increasingly rooted in tourism: many of its annual visitors are from the cruise ships that dock at Heritage Landing in downtown Muskegon. This means that everyone from those who have grown up in Muskegon to those setting foot in the city for the first time are learning the stories about the people, places and businesses that have built this area.

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. They’re the stories of the places that once dominated Muskegon’s industrial landscape: Shaw-Walker, Continental Motors, Brunswick, the Sappi Paper Mill, and the B.C. Cobb Plant, among so many others. But they are also the stories of the mom-and-pop grocers (like the Kooiman Food Store at 6th and Hackley in Muskegon Heights, which had one of the region’s first meat coolers), of the lumbermen who once populated the city in the mid- to late-1800s (some of whom lived in the building that’s now the museum, which was once a rooming house), of the 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.

“People come in and say, ‘Wow, this is Muskegon,’” Anne Dake said.

It’s this history—and  the accessibility and pride the museum brings to it—that has garnered the institution so much support throughout the community, its team of volunteers emphasize.

“How did this happen?” Dake said, referring to raising $1.35 million in a matter of months. “It hit a spark in the community. It’s a very important story that needed to be told, and people wanted to share it.”

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For Roger Wiitanen and Richard Didrickson, two volunteers who are part of the group that’s affectionately known as the “Thursday guys,” an eclectic group of individuals from all walks of life who have done everything from sand floors to set up exhibits, the museum gives life to the everyday people who once walked the same streets we do now. It’s a space from where we can glimpse a world simultaneously similar and dramatically different from our own: we can peek into the day-to-day lives of people populating a city where horse-drawn carriages and electric streetcars navigated Muskegon’s roads, carrying individuals to a bustling downtown filled with places like the ornate Occidental Hotel.

“We get people from all over the country and world here; they want to know what was made in Muskegon,” said Didrickson, who was born and raised in Seattle and moved to Muskegon in 2010 after retiring from Boeing.

Which brings us back to the elevator: with this new structure, these individuals from throughout the world can now easily traverse the museum, soaking in the stories of Muskegon.

“It makes a big difference,” Wiitanen said as he stood next to the museum’s Corliss valve steam engine, which was built in 1893 and once provided electricity in the Stewart Hartshorn Roller Shade Co. plant in Muskegon through the 1920s.

“Now, all of our guests are able to see the whole museum,” Didrickson added.

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. Admission to the museum is $5 for adults and $2 for students. Admission is free for active duty service personnel and children under the age of six. Free community days (when admission is free for everyone) are scheduled for July 18, Aug. 9, Sept. 21, and Oct. 19. For more information, please call (231) 722-1363 or visit the museum’s website by clicking here.

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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