Managing Mackinac’s Historical State Parks with Phil Porter

Michigan’s historical parks drip with rich history.  Something the Mackinac Historical Parks takes painstaking care to re-enact for millions of visitors each year.  Phil Porter, Director of the Mackinac State Parks, talks to us about how he manages all this rich Michigan heritage and also how they are keeping people safe during the time of Covid-19.

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Transcript

Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:00]  Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the call of leadership podcast, where we interview people from our Michigan community who answered the call of leadership while here they’re powerful stories and get their advice so that we can be better leaders for ourselves, our families and our communities. I am your host Cliff DuVernois

Our guest serves on several committees for the Mackinaw associates. He also serves for the little traverse Conservancy board of directors and the historical society of Michigan, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the show, the director of the Mackinac State Historical Parks and the author of the book, Mackinac, an Island of famous in these regions.

Phil Porter, Phil, how are you?

Phil Porter: [00:00:47] Great. Thanks Cliff.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:49] Thank you for being on the podcast today. We really do appreciate your time. Why don’t you tell the audience where you’re from?

Phil Porter: [00:00:54] Born and raised in Michigan. I grew up in gross point woods and, my parents had a summer home on Mackinaw Island. So from the time I was little, I spent my summers on the Island and my winter is, in, in gross point. And, while I was attending college, Kenyon college in Ohio, I started working at Fort Mackinac in 1972 as a tour guide and I haven’t left the Fort yet.

So it’s been a great career working on Mackinaw and for the Mackinaw state historic parks.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:01:20] Oh, I bet. I absolutely bet. Now why did you decide to go to, Kenyon college in Ohio?

Phil Porter: [00:01:27] Well, Kenyon is where both my father and my grandfather went. They had strong roots in Ohio and, I grew up visiting my grandfather who was,  on the, a trustee at the college when I was a young boy. And I just fell in love with the community and the college and know. It’s a great place to get an education.

I was a history major there. And following that, I went to the state university of New York, the Cooperstown graduate program of history museum studies, where I got my master’s degree in museum studies all while I was working summers Fort Mac and was able to come back in 1976 and began working full time for the Mackinaw state historic parks.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:02] So it’s probably safe to say that a Mackinaw Island really is in your blood.

Phil Porter: [00:02:07] Yeah. It, it really is, next year will be my 50th year working there. So it’s yeah, it’s been, it’s been a part of who I am for a long time.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:14] Now, why did you decide to pursue a degree in history?

Phil Porter: [00:02:17] Well, I’ve always been interested in history. And as I was looking at different potential careers in history, the idea of doing public history of working in a historic site and. Through the different kinds of educational methods that historic sites have, whether it’s live interpretation or exhibits or hands on interactive displays.

I thought that was the most engaging and exciting way of, of teaching. And I think people like to learn history that way as well. So it kind of combined my interest in, in being involved in, in history and, but doing it in a way that shared it with the public in the most broad and diverse way possible.

Yeah.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:54] It is. And I do, I do want to make sure that we explore that topic, but before we, before we move on for that after, after college, then, did you just go to work for the  historical parks?

Phil Porter: [00:03:08] Yes, I did. I, after I graduated and finished my, my classes from my master’s degree, I, I went to work for. McEnroe state district parks. I was first a curator of collections and then curator of interpretation and then chief curator. And then in 2003, I was appointed a director of the, of the agency.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:03:24] that’s excellent. Now I know I mentioned before in my introduction that you wrote a book. Oh, excuse me. Let me try that again.

Now I know that when you’re doing your work on Mackinaw Island, that you also decided to write a book. And I know that writing a book is a very intense labor of love to do. Why did you, why did you decide to write a book on Mackinaw?

Phil Porter: [00:03:46] Well, the Meccano state district parks has a really nice, long and productive history in, in, Publications. We’ve been producing books since 1960. We’re one of the largest museum based publication programs in the country. Yeah. Well over a hundred titles that we’ve put out. So it’s always been a part of our DNA of our organization.

The research that we do for exhibits or for living history programs or for reconstructions or restorations, we try to work that into something that we can share more generally with the public, the particular book that you mentioned, Mackinaw. An Island famous in these regions wa is, is an overview history of Macedon from firs to fish it’s to all the way up to fudge.

It’s it’s the, it’s the full story at macro for prehistoric, native American,  settlement on the Island all the way again, through, through Mackinaw today, including the evolution of the fudge business on the Island. So it’s in one book, it’s a place where we tell the whole story.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:41] I absolutely love that. I’ve never heard that before a fish defers to fudge. Oh, that’s great. And if somebody was interested in perhaps getting a couple of those books, are there other, are there a few titles that stand out that say, you know what? These books here are definitely worth your time reading.

Phil Porter: [00:04:58] The great thing about our publication program is we have a little something for everybody. We have children’s books, we have coloring books. We have a very detailed archeological treatises. We have books on military history on social history, on economic history. And what I would do is encourage people to go to our website.

Which is Mackinaw parks.com and go to books or publications. And there’s a whole list and a description of every one of our books. And they’ll probably find something they would be interested in there and then they can contact us for ordering information. Okay.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:05:31] sure thing. Now, when. For the,

there’s a lot of rich history that is associated with. Mackinaw Island even predating the, the revolutionary war. And I know that you and your staff go through a lot of pains to maintain that authentic feels. So when people come to the parks, it literally feels like they are time traveling. How do you, how do you and your staff maintain that level of authenticity?

Phil Porter: [00:06:03] Well, it begins by doing really a good solid research. And fortunately again, in our organization, we have a strong heritage of. Having people in the position where they can do the research so that we can get the story accurate. And then we do what we can in order to make sure that that accurate history is communicated to the public in a way that is both educational, but entertaining at the same time.

And, it’s just, again, it’s a part of the way that we approach our business every day is to, is to be accurate, informative, educational, but also entertaining. We want people to enjoy themselves while, while they’re at our sites.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:06:37] It’s speaking of which about how many people do you estimate come through those parks every year?

Phil Porter: [00:06:43] Our three parks included a Mackinaw Island, state park, Michelin McEnroe, state park, and mill Creek. They’re all in the streets of Mack and our region. Our total visitation to our parks is about a million people. Every year of that group, about three, 150,000 are the pain customers that come into our historic sites.

And we have a variety of them from Fort Mackinaw and the Richard and Jane Manoukian. Machen art museum on the Island to, the. Colonial Michelin Mackinaw and old MacroPoint lighthouse and Michelin McEnroe, state park and historic mill Creek discovery park at mill Creek. And then our newest one that we’re adding this year is on the Island.

Again, it’s the Mackinaw native American museum at the Biddle house. Those are, are sort of the, the family museums and historic sites that we have for the public every year.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:07:25] excellent. And why did you go ahead and make the decision to, to add the native American park to the Biddle house?

Phil Porter: [00:07:33] It’s part of our strategic planning that’s been going on for about five years. We just felt that we had had undertold. The story of the first settlers in the straits of Mackinac, the native people who had been here for centuries. Yeah. So there was a two part effort. There is a two part effort. The first one is to create something.

We call the Mackinaw Island, native American cultural history trail, and it’s basically the road around the Island. And on that road now we have six different interpretive stops where you can learn about a native American history from. The very earliest connection with Mackinaw Island, right through, their life in this area today, we still do have a, both  and Odawa tribes living in the area today.

So that was the first part that was gonna of an outdoor biking, interpretive experience. Yeah. And then our second part is to, is to create an indoor museum type of experience. And that’s the Mackinaw Island native American museum at the Biddle house, which is right downtown on market street on Mackinaw Island.

It’s a historic home. That was the home of Edward and Agatha Bedell. And Agatha was a native American woman. And we are telling the stories sort of through her life and her experiences as a native American woman. but it’s really the broad story again, told, about why McEnroe has always been significant to native people, both historically and still today.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:52] That’s excellent. And, I, I have to, I have to say that it’s going to add a new dimension to the, the overall story that you’re trying to tell with, with regards to tobacco in Oz history. So, I think that’s really cool that you guys are doing that. With regards to the Mackinaw state parks. And, I know that this year was set to be the 125th anniversary of the Mackinaw state parks.

There was all kinds of festivities that were planned throughout the year. if I read correctly, there was like 125 days of different types of festivities festivals that were going to go on. Even a special beer was going to be brewed. Just for the occasion, but then COVID-19 swept across our country and everything closed down.

Tell us a little bit about what it was like to having, to, having to basically shut down all these parks.

Phil Porter: [00:09:47] Yeah, it’s been a huge challenge. It’s been, been the most, challenging experience that I’ve had in my nearly 50 years of working there. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic we have, we have basically been, been shut down. We typically would have opened on May 1st this year. We are not opening until the middle part of June now.

So for six to seven weeks, we will, we will not be open when otherwise we would be open. And that means that all the school groups that would have come in the spring will not be able to come. That means tens of thousands of visitors. That would be the spring and early summer visitors. won’t be traveling to the sites and when we do open up.

 we will, open up with great, Care being paid to taking care of our staff and making sure that they’re safe and healthy and making sure that our visitors, when they come to work, we’ll stay safe and healthy as well. So much of our planning for the last month or more has been on how we’re going to reopen in such a way.

And we’re still going to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Mackinaw Island, state park. Michigan’s first state bar. There still will be a beer that is being created in honor of that by, the, a brewery and macula. Mackinaw city, and it’s called a beer to Mac is the name of the brewery. And they’re going to be creating a beer for us.

And also Ribas fudge on Machen is going to do a, a, anniversary fudge, a flavor for us as well. So some things are going to continue, but we certainly are, are being very cautious about how we open and why I want to assure visitors that when they come, that the utmost will be done from all businesses on Mackinaw Island, to ensure that their trip there and to all of our sites will be as safe as possible.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:11:18] And speaking of being safe as possible. And, and I know that with, you know, fingers crossed that we’re, we start opening up here within the next few weeks. And I know you talked about opening up the parks, the middle of June timeframe. There’s going to be a lot of families that are going to want to get out.

They’re going to want to travel. They’re good. You know, they’ve been cooped up in their house for two or three months. It is summertime kids are out of school. One of the things that they’re going to be doing is they’re going to be thinking about traveling to state parks, like the Mackinaw historical park.

From your perspective, what, what are like, what would three things be that families should consider when they’re going out to the state parks to keep their families safe?

Phil Porter: [00:11:56] Well, first of all, I would like to say that I think all of the state parks in Michigan offer a great.  travel experience, especially the summer because they are open air places. There’s places where you can easily accommodate the social distancing guidelines that we’ve been given. So I really think that state parks are going to be an ideal place for people who are really feeling cooped up to get away from it all at our three parks.

Not only will you have those experiences, but on top of that, you’ll have the opportunity to experience our historic sites in which we too have created and are creating, an environment where people will be safe. We have canceled some of the things that we normally do because they don’t allow for social distancing, but most of what we do will still be happening.

And we are right now working on all of the procedures necessary to keep people moving in a way that minimizes, you know, gathering together in places that makes it possible for people to enjoy our programs and our exhibits, safely, we have a very robust cleaning program that we are initiating.

And, we think that these kinds of experiences in our parks and in our historic sites will be an ideal. outlet for people this summer where they’re really wanting to get away from it all, but they want that they want to be safe. They want to be at a place where, congestion is down. And I will say up North we’ve been very fortunate so far we’ve we have a really minimal number of cases of, the COVID-19, virus.

And, hopefully we’ll, we’ll stay that way. And, we think that we really have something to offer people when it’s time to travel this summer, that will be safe and enjoyable.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:22] Sure thing and putting together these, these, you know, these cleaning plans, the, you know, how we’re, how are we going to keep everything sanitized and everything else like that? walk us a little bit through kind of what are you, you know, what are you looking at as far as guidelines go, who is helping to make you make those, those decisions, to keep the public safe.

And I asked that question because it seems like every day that I get out of bed, there’s something new or something has changed with regards to COVID-19. So what are, what are some of the sources or guidelines that you’re following?

Phil Porter: [00:13:58] Well, that’s a great question. Cause that’s, that’s really sort of what we’re in the thick of doing right now. So internally, McEnroe state historic parks for about a month has had something called the reopening committee,  is a task force that they put together specifically to look at our sites and the challenges that we have in accommodating visitors and taking care of our staff.

So they’ve been busy at work for over a month now. Figuring out how to safely reopen and welcome guests on top of that, the state of Michigan through our department, which is the department of natural resources is also creating a document called safely returning employees to the workplace. And that gives guidance for our staff and how they can get back to work.

And it’s a very detailed between that plan and our internal and very detailed approach to how we take care of our. staff members in their various work locations and how we try to ensure that when the visitors come to our sites, they will, will be able to minimize the gathering together of guests. So we have traffic patterns that we’re establishing one way traffic patterns, like in the stores around their house.

We have a very robust plan for. Constantly cleaning and sanitizing are more hands-on areas like some of our exhibits are rest areas, restroom areas, and so on. And, also just, making sure that everybody on the staff. Understands that it’s their job to be attentive and aware of these kinds of situations, personal protection equipment, if it’s needed like masks and gloves.

So those are the kinds of details that we’re working on right now. And it involves a lot of time and a lot of planning. But again, I think it’s the kind of thing that if we do it right, and I think we will well that people, when they come to our sites will know that we’ve been attentive to these issues and we’ll feel safe coming into our, into our parks and our museums.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:15:42] Yeah, and I, I have to agree with that. Didn’t and it’s good that you’re, you’ve established this committee to take a look at all those guidelines. One of the questions that I do want to ask is I had. I had Chris Scheppler on the podcast just a few weeks ago, with Schaeffler fairies. And he was talking about how one of the things that he and his business are having to look at is of course, as they can’t fill their boats up all the way to capacity, because they’re looking at things like social distancing, and this is going to directly impact.

Not only the, you know, the number of people that they can take over to a Mackinaw Island, but, you know, let alone, you know, the number of people that they can carry on a boat. So, you know, with that being said, do you, do you see that the, the, the opening of the parks, you’re going to have to figure out some way to either restrict the number of people that are coming in there to observe the social distancing or, you know, what is your, what is your thinking, or what is your plan around that?

Phil Porter: [00:16:41] That’s a great question. First of all, we also have sites on the Island where you don’t have to take a boat to. So the, the challenge of, of, of, limiting the number of people coming into our mainland sites, isn’t Like we have on their own with, with, having the issues with the very boat traffic.

But, yes, we’ve been looking specifically at how our sites will accommodate people in a safe way. The nice thing is that when you come into them by their very nature, they allow for social distancing. So in general, our sites really lend themselves to the kind of, safe distancing that we want to create.

We have a few, visitor experiences that we are. not opening right away because they are more channel.  for example, at old McEnroe point lighthouse, we have a tour of our tower that is a very narrow stairway that goes up and down. And when you’re on the top, it’s a very tiny, there’s definitely no room for a social distancing there, and we’re not going to have the tower open, at least at the beginning part of the season.

Well, we are doing, however, is we’ve created an alternate, we’ll experience where people can get the view and experiences panoramic Vista that you would experience, but without going up there, At historic mill Creek discovery park. we have the adventure tour, which is the high ropes course tour. The problem with that is that our staff has to be very interactive with Pete and putting the harnesses on.

And again, at the beach end of the year, we will not be doing that program because it just doesn’t allow for the social distancing that we’d alike, all our other interpretive activities and programs and exhibits, bits and displays are all open, but that part will not be open.  at Fort Mackinaw where we have a little more congestion, but still lots of open spaces.

We’re creating, traffic patterns so that people will be moving in the same direction, not crossing each other when they’re going through buildings. And again, that will allow for the kind of safe distancing that we want. So it’s that kind of, and some of the kinds of the things that we are postponing doing, at least at the beginning of the year to try and keep people safe.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:18:33] I really, I really love that and it makes me think of all these stores and everything else that have these, you know, arrows on the ground and trying to direct people where they’re walking. So that way they’re not, you know, crossing in each other’s path and everything else like that.

So, it’s actually very clever thinking on your part. And I really do like that.

Phil Porter: [00:18:48] Even when they come to our, our, Admission areas we’ll we’ll have on the floor on the ground. And the carpet will have the distancing markers of the people stay back. We have the plexiglass all ordered to protect the staff from the visitor and vice versa. We have masks and other personal protection devices for our staff.

So now these are the kinds of things we’ve we’ve ordered weeks ago, and we are in the process of installing right now again. So the, when we open in mid June, we will be ready to go and safely welcome our guests.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:19:16] awesome. And I do want to take a step back here of something that you mentioned before, and you, you were talking about how the, there, there is the lighthouse experience that people can experience that virtually. Is there any other areas of the park where you guys are using. A technology to help enhance the visitor experience.

Phil Porter: [00:19:38] Not so much in the park. but what we’ve done while we’ve been closed is,  under the frustration of not being able to share our great history with the world. We have moved a lot of our exhibits and one of our experiences. through videos online, we now have a page on Mackinaw parks.com. That’s called explore at home.

It’s a brand new page that we created specifically during the crisis here so that people can, can learn about us while they’re at home so that we can fulfill our mission of. Presenting Mackinaw history, even though our sites are otherwise closed, it began with an attempt to make sure that the kids who were still in school had access to some of our historic resources.

But now we have all kinds of, videos and, programs online for visitors to learn about it. I think if they watch them, they’ll get excited and hopefully that will entice them to come up, learn more by actually being on the site as well.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:20:29] I actually think that’s a really great idea because you, what you’ve done through technology is, you know, people can’t come to the parks, but the parks can come to them. I love

Phil Porter: [00:20:38] That’s exactly what it is. Yeah.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:20:40] Yeah, exactly. Oh, I love that so much. Great. Well, if people want to learn more information about, you know, the parks and we were just talking about, some of these, virtual exhibits and stuff where, you know, where can they, where can they follow you?

Where can they learn more about this information?

Phil Porter: [00:20:56] Yeah, you can do one stop shopping at our, our website, Mackinaw parks. That’s a McEnroe with a C on the end, Mackinaw parks, one word.com. And there there’s information about when our sites are going to open what programs and activities are going to be open all of our special activities for the summer. there will be information about buying our publications.

All the information up under explore at home for those visitors who would like to learn more about us before they even come up North. So everything’s on Makena parks.com.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:24] Excellent. And for our audience, we will have those links in the show notes down below Phil. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today. I really do appreciate it.

Phil Porter: [00:21:36] My pleasure cliff. Good talking with you as well. 

About The Host

About The Host

Cliff Duvernois

Cliff is the host of “The Call of Leadership” podcast.  He has published over 500 short stories over Facebook, Medium and LinkedIn.  He is a passionate lifelong learner, marketer and philanthropist.  He currently lives in Reese, Michigan with his fiancé Sherry and her two children.

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