Tucked into a light grey archival box on a shelf in the Archives of Michigan, organized neatly in manila folders, the yellowing onion skin typing paper represents the loving correspondence of a Michigan man and woman, a World War II soldier and his wife.
“Dearest, You know now that the invasion has started …” starts a letter from Charles Westie, a Michigan solider, writing to his wife Ardith on June 6, 1944 – D-Day. During the coming weeks, Westie would serve in combat in France as part of the invasion force that turned the tide in Europe in the Allied Forces’ favor.
The Westie correspondence, between two ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, shows the difficulty of the life of a soldier, waiting in England for his orders to go to battle in Europe, and his wife, waiting anxiously in Michigan for any news from her husband. In the days before email, mobile phones and Internet, letters had to carry the news across the ocean, from mundane daily observations to the idealism of the greatest generation.
These letters, along with hundreds of thousands of documents, maps, records, photographs and other ephemera, make up the Archives of Michigan. The Archives holds more than 120 million records that tell the story of Michigan from the encounters of Europeans and Native Americans to records from Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
The Archives, the Michigan Historical Museum, and the Michigan Historical Commission all mark their 100th anniversary this year, coming into existence in 1913 with a law signed by then-Gov. Woodbridge N. Ferris. The law created the Michigan Historical Commission, and directed the body to collect, arrange and preserve historical material related to Michigan and the old Northwest Territory.
”The Archives of Michigan serves as Michigan’s memory. It holds the historical documents, maps and photographs of state and local governments and private citizens,” said Mark Harvey, state archivist. “The Archives collections document the tragedies and triumphs of the government and individuals of the great state of Michigan.”
With documents dating back to 1792, the Archives of Michigan holds a vast selection of historical documents ranging from the original blueprints and architect’s drawings of the Michigan Capitol Building to the papers of former state legislators, to naturalization records from the turn of the century, to more personal collections, such as the Westie letters and a rare diary from a Michigan soldier who witnessed the Philippine-American War in 1899.
Many of the items in the Archives were donated by families or individuals who wanted to preserve documents and grant access to them for research or educational purposes. Not everything donated to the Archives has to be from someone famous, says Bob Garrett, a 13-year employee of the Archives who processes collections large and small for inclusion in the Archives.
“We often look for items that are from a historically significant time, such as during a war, that tell a Michigan story from that time from the point of view of one or more people,” Garrett said. “Letters or records that show how people experienced World War II or the immigrant’s life in the early 1900s or the Civil War or lumber camp experience of the late 19th century are often very telling to historians and researchers.”
Families interested in donating materials can ask the Archives staff to review the materials before making their donation.
Records come to the Archives in varying degrees of condition and organization. State government records often come in filing cabinets and are fairly well organized, Garrett says. Records from an individual or family often come more loosely organized, but even that tells the Archives staff something about the person who collected and held on to the materials.
“People tend to hang on to things from the time in their life they feel was most important,” Garrett said, noting an individual’s personal records tend to be organized around their career or family events.
The majority of the records kept at the Archives of Michigan are available for the public to use for research, but some records are restricted, such as mental health or adoption records that are sealed under law.
The public can access materials from the Archives in a couple of different ways.
First, you can visit the Archives of Michigan, located in the Michigan Historical Center, 702 West Kalamazoo, in Lansing. The Archives has a reference room open to the public from 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. The reference room is always manned by two Archives staff members, who are available to assist visitors with records requests. Information can be obtained before a visit by calling 517-373-3559, and pressing 3 to reach the reference room. A call prior to your visit is not necessary, but archivists can often have the records you wish to review ready for your arrival if you call in advance.
Researchers of all ages are welcome, and typically include attorneys, academics, graduate students, staff from legislators’ offices or state agencies, persons doing genealogy research or younger students. Archivists ask that young students be accompanied by an adult during their time in the reference room.
If you cannot visit the Archives and reference room in person, staff can answer questions through email firstname.lastname@example.org, generally responding within 24 hours.
Garrett said the Archives is currently looking for volunteers who are available weekday afternoons to come to the reference room to help with indexing records for online use. If you are interested, send staff an email or give them a call.
Some of the more popular records in the Archives have been digitized and are available to the public on the website www.seekingmichigan.org, which is a partnership between the Archives of Michigan and the Michigan History Foundation. Seeking Michigan features 1.2 million records, including items such as searchable Michigan census records from 1884-1894, death records from 1897 to 1920 and a lot of Civil War material. New digitized records are added as funding allows.
Seeking Michigan also features an online shop called Michiganology that offers unique products with a tie to the Archives, such as T-shirts and prints featuring brewery labels from early Michigan breweries, which were required to register their labels with the state. The store also sells notecards featuring old trout stamps, items highlighting the Proud Robin (once a symbol of Michigan Week) and many other items. There is also a blog maintained by archivists and staff from the Michigan Historical Museum featuring stories from Michigan’s past.
Image courtesy Michigan DNR