May 24, 2010 at 2:42 pm

EMU rescues Michigan's historical markers program

Cash-strapped state allows EMU students to take over program

EMU graduate students Elizabeth Palmer and Andrew Wilhelme check out historical marker requests. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Michigan's budget crisis has left students as the caretakers of state history. When shortfalls prompted lawmakers last fall to abolish a $50,000 subsidy for the Michigan Historical Marker Program, many feared the effort that commemorates the state's noted people, places and events would itself become history. Instead, Eastern Michigan University stepped in and agreed to let students handle marker requests as part of their final project. That has many relieved the 55-year-old program will live, but some disappointed it's outsourced to historians in training.

"The state of Michigan, with all of its economic problems, no longer feels it can carry out a responsibility for the citizens," said Frank Wilhelme, former executive director of the Historical Society of Michigan and father of an EMU student who is playing a key role in the program. "Maybe that's the way it has to be. Thank goodness (EMU) is here to be the safety net."

The program has placed 1,630 of its iconic green metal markers statewide, commemorating everything from the Roseland Park Mausoleum in Berkley to the Michigan Central Railroad Depot in Grass Lake and the Calumet Theatre in Houghton County. There's even a marker in Littlefield Township for passenger pigeons, at one time North America's most common bird.

A single staff member working half-time kept it going, but it became a budget casualty when Gov. Jennifer Granholm abolished the state's Department of History, Arts and Libraries.

The marker program receives 20 to 30 requests annually from individuals or communities that foot the bill for the markers, which cost $2,000 to $3,000. The staff, which was whittled down in recent years, was responsible for verifying the history and writing a summary to be engraved on the marker before the Michigan Historical Commission gave final approval.

"It really is a wonderful way for communities to celebrate their history and to let children, tourists and citizens learn about their community's history in a very accessible way," said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center, a state agency that oversees the historical commission and museum system and archives of Michigan documents.

Officials approached EMU, which says it has the only historical preservation program in the state and the largest in the nation. It agreed to house the program and oversee graduate students, two of whom are involved this year. The students need to find primary source documents -- such as tax records and deeds -- to support what is written on the marker.

Meanwhile, the Michigan History Foundation, a nonprofit that raises private funds for state history programs, will serve as the administrative agency.

"It's a great opportunity for students to be involved in an applied aspect of the historical preservation world," said Ted Ligibel, EMU's Historic Preservation Program director.

It also boosts the stature of the university's program, said Elizabeth Palmer, a graduate student who is conducting research and writing language for the markers this year.

Many historians were concerned when funding was cut. "The story of where we have been, who we are and what came before us is an essential part of who we are today," said Edward Surovell, president of the Michigan Historical Commission, which gives final approval to the markers.

EMU could use the program to encourage more communities to promote heritage tourism, Clark said. Communities on the west side of the state, for instance, worked together to place five historical markers along the West Michigan Pike, a road along Lake Michigan that was built in the early 1900s for those traveling to Chicago. The communities will begin promoting the history this summer.

"The world has changed," Clark said. "Our job is to try to keep the good things that we have had going."

Most states have similar programs, and Michigan's move could be a model as more legislatures face funding shortfalls, said Terry Davis, president and CEO of the American Association for State and Local History in Nashville, Tenn.

"When an opportunity like this presents itself to partner with some other organization, especially to benefit the education of young people, it sounds pretty entrepreneurial and a good move," Davis said.

"Coming up with new partnerships and collaborations to address the ongoing economic concerns is absolutely the only way to go."

Michigan Historical Markers, like the one identifying the home of Henry ... (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)
EMU graduate students Elizabeth Palmer and Andrew Wilhelme check out ... (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)