Thrusting the taxidermied muskrat towards an August sky, Muskegon Mayor Stephen Gawron proclaimed: “Eight! More! Weeks! Of! Summer!”
The crowd—a group donning muskrat-inspired top hats and steampunk goggles and even the occasional inner tube—cheered as said taxidermied muskrat, otherwise known as Fierce Frank, was spun around in victory by a mayor dancing to Louis Armstrong’s “Muskrat Ramble.”
“Isn’t this strange?” Gawron said in the moments leading up to lifting the taxidermied muskrat to see if it would see its shadow (it did—and, thus, now we know we have two more months of summer). “I love it. I love it. It’s weird; it’s wonderful.”
The inaugural Muskegon Muskrat Day on Tuesday, Aug. 27 drew a crowd of about 75 people to BoomTown Market, a relatively new grocery store on Western Avenue in downtown Muskegon that played host to the event. Created by BoomTown’s owner, Dana Precious, the rodent-feting celebration (think something of an edgier Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania) encouraged audience members to wear Victorian/steampunk attire to mark the city of Muskegon’s 150th anniversary and witness whether Fierce Frank would see its shadow.
After all of this, it perhaps goes without saying: the event was something of a surreal one—after all, it centered around a taxidermied muskrat named Frank. And Frank even had a co-conspirator: Muskrat Molly (who was apparently sent by a fan of the event from Wisconsin and has her own story written about her).
But, in that sea of top hats and audience members shouting “Let’s see that shadow!” at a long-gone muskrat, there was something more than just Fierce Frank-inspired guffaws. It was, Precious previously explained to us, a way to lift up community, a way to connect in a world where it’s easy for all of us to fall prey to isolation: our heads buried over cell phones, eyes fixated on the perma-glow of the screens that surround us.
“This event is of the people and by the people; there are no corporate sponsorships,” Precious said during Tuesday’s ceremony. “There’s no government committees. This is about us.”
It was, Gawron said, about forging bridges—from steampunk building blocks—with neighbors you may have never otherwise met.
“It’s these simple, little initiatives that really are the blocks to building a place,” Gawron said. “This is how you go about placemaking. It’s about building a moment of fun and camaraderie, and, in its simplicity, it was phenomenally huge.”
“You could tell by the response of the folks who showed up; it really created that sense of place and community and people coming together to hang out and laugh and experience something weird and wonderful,” the mayor continued.
Outside of the event itself, Muskegon Muskrat Day had quite the following: Fierce Frank and Muskrat Molly have hundreds of social media followers who did everything from vote on the event’s official song, “Muskrat Ramble,” to try to track down a real live muskrat for Precious. The day even landed recognition far outside of Muskegon’s borders: we noticed a Maine paper highlighted Muskrat Day in this article.
“When I first saw mention of this on Facebook, the whole idea caught my attention,” said Richard Didrickson, a Muskegon resident and volunteer at the Heritage Museum who left Seattle for this area in 2010. “I’ve been intrigued by the whole genre of steampunk for years. It started off as a literary genre, and it’s expanded to much more than that now.”
For those who don’t know, steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction rooted in the depiction of modern-day technology, like computers and robotics, as powered by steam in the 1800s. As Didrickson said, it’s a landscape born in literature but which now encompasses everything from fiction to art, design, film, and more.
“It was the steampunk, plus a generous helping of goofiness, that really grabbed me,” Didrickson said of Muskrat Day.
Plus, Didrickson noted, he loved Precious’s take on the celebration.
“She didn’t seek anyone’s permission, and I love that,” he said. “I love that spirit.”
For Precious, that lack of official sanction was something she hopes will inspire other slightly surreal experiences to grow in the city.
“I like the idea of building community, and building community doesn’t always have to be official,” Precious said in a previous interview. “Any person can do it.”
As the event ended, the crowd dispersed, lifting their top hats from heads, shedding their steampunk goggles, and headed to the string of nearby bars and restaurants that were waiting for Fierce Frank aficionados with drinks created just for the day: Muskrat Mules and Freaky Franks and Muskrat in the Marshes, just to name a few.
“To Frank!” one man yelled as he left the crowd and made his way down Western Avenue, top hat in hand.
All photos by Pat ApPaul. A documentary photographer from South Wales, United Kingdom, Pat is now based in Muskegon. His work can be found at www.PatApPaul.com, and he can be contacted by emailing Pat.ApPaul@gmail.com. Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.