The only prison museum within a walled, operating prison in the nation is in Jackson, Michigan, a town Hillsdale College students typically associate with sushi pilgrimages.
Bryan, Ohio, a town smaller than Hillsdale, manufactures Dum Dums, candy canes, and circus peanuts (yes, you read that right).
“It’s not really true that we live in the middle of nowhere,” Professor of History David Stewart said.
More than 40 historical sites are within driving distance of Hillsdale — not just creaky homes with beautiful architecture and memorabilia, but also a restored park with summer concerts in Hillsdale, a railroad museum with three functioning steam engines, a one-room schoolhouse in Litchfield, a schoolhouse with 99 working organs in Adrian, and a library donated by Andrew Carnegie — that Carnegie.
“You’ve probably been to some sort of historical village growing up,” Stewart said. “But have you been to a candy factory? A prison? Probably not.”
Local history exhibits allows us to step outside the typical Hillsdale bubble, Stewart said. Some exhibits, like the Cell Block 7 Museum in Jackson, Michigan, take visitors out of their comfort zones and challenge their perspectives by placing them where they’d never imagine finding themselves: prison.
People have lived and worked within and around the walls of Michigan’s first prison, Michigan State Prison, for more than 175 years, since it opened as a handful of log cabins in 1839. After the completion of the walled prison in 1934, it could house 6,000 inmates, becoming (briefly) the largest walled prison in the world. Prisoners lived in Cell Block 7 until 2007.
Penny Shanks is the daughter of Perry Johnson, a retired deputy warden of the Jackson Prison. She jokes that she grew up in prison because the prison would provide its wardens with housing.
During the ’80s, riots in Detroit put the city in marshal law. As a young girl, Shanks remembers seeing busload after busload of rioters who were arrested without due process and carted off to prison, where the overflow forced them to build tent cities.
“Cell Block 7 is definitely worth the day trip for people to go see and experience,” Shanks said. “They walk you through like you’re a prisoner being processed.”
Visitors give up their belongings, and depending on the tour guide, might even hear all the doors clang shut either at once, or one at a time — a sound that made a lasting impression on Shanks.
Within these walls, history has practical implications on debates about imprisonment and punishment.
“Why is recidivism so high?” Stewart asked. Adopting the persona of a Hillsdale student visiting and encountering the reality of jail for the first time, he said: “Oh, at least now I can understand. That doesn’t necessarily change my view, but now I can understand criticism of conservative views.”
These prison walls do talk, telling stories about famous events like one of Jackson’s biggest prison riots, in 1952, and Dale Otto Remling’s infamous helicopter escape in 1975.
“I could feel the depression oozing out of these walls,” he said.
Not only does history challenge opinions, but small-town historical sites surrounding the college embody the values Hillsdale instills through Western and American Heritage readings and the principles students learn from them.
Spangler Candy Factory, Bryan, Ohio:
Love Dum Dums? Ever wondered, ‘How do they make lollipops?’
A $5 trolley tour through the Spangler Candy Factory, which smells like heaven if heaven includes lollipops, will tell you, and more importantly will give you free samples.
Stewart keeps a limited-edition bag of Dum Dums with summer flavors, like s’mores and funnel cake, in his desk drawer. He pulled them out and asked: “Everybody’s heard of Dum Dums, but did you know they’re made in a small town in Ohio that’s smaller than Hillsdale?” Each day, the factory produces 12 million Dum Dums, 500,000 Saf-T-Pops, the loop-handled lollipops, and 1.5 million candy canes — including Jelly Bean and Smarties.
“It’s not all Chicago, New York,” Stewart said. “This is a small town that did something big.”
Mrs. Stock’s Park, Hillsdale, Michigan:
Mrs. Stock’s Park is a local gem with a history.
Dianne Miller, a master gardener with her own local design business, has been involved with the park for 13 years.
Despondent over the loss of three children, Mrs. Stock decided she needed a project.
She looked at the “snake-infested, mucky, nasty” swamp she could see from her house, and resolved to pull on her boots over her turn-of-the-century skirts, clean the swamp up, and make a park. And so she did.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, when MaryAnne MacRitchie decided it was time to clean the swamp again — this time, of all the building supplies, old Christmas trees, tires, branches, and clippings townspeople had dumped in the park, and the wild, overgrown trees and shrubbery that had seeded everywhere.
“For a place that had been taken care of for a long time, when no one takes care of it, it reverts back to the wild,” Miller said. “Seeds come in, and it doesn’t help that people dump their trash there, it goes to pot.” The first cleanup took 15 dump truck loads.
Miller got her hands dirty once MacRitchie approached her for help designing the park and choosing the plants.
The current project involves clearing trees and shrubs from the back of the park, which originally was too dense to see through.
“We’ve made very good headway,” Miller said. “We even hired a part-time man to come in and do some of the heavy digging. A bunch of grandmas get tired after a few years of working in the park.”
Little River Railroad, Coldwater, Michigan:
Dedicated to the restoration and preservation of historic railroad equipment, the Little River Railroad offers 90-minute rides in early nineteenth-century passenger carriages pulled by a 4 – 6‑2 Pacific steam locomotive. They occasionally have themed rides, including train robberies, murder mysteries, and seasonal crafts.
Passengers can take a ride on one of three working steam trains at Little River Railroad. Stewart recommended it as a “little laidback date thing, something different than just going to a museum.”
For Stewart, students can learn lessons from the local historical sites, which venerate the everyman’s labor and thus, humanize history.
“There’s a tendency at Hillsdale to see the epic — the founders, the men of World War II — but those building the railroads also made history,” Stewart said. “We lose sight of the both-and: We see presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and then nothing happens.”
Litchfield one-room school house, Litchfield, Michigan:
Like many of the country schools, the Litchfield one-room schoolhouse was abandoned as school systems consolidated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“It sat there, was bought and made into a home, and turned into a dump before we bought the property in the ’60s,” Rosemary Chapman said. She had purchased the property that included the schoolhouse, and went to work ridding the yard of junk.
Chapman helped form the Litchfield Historical Society and eventually, the Michigan Historical State Commission approved the building as a museum in the ’90s.
Now, fourth graders from local schools visit and spend the day learning as they would have more than 100 years ago, using slates and the McGuffey reader — and an outhouse. The boys don’t mind using it, but the girls do, she said.
But interest in the Litchfield Historical Society and the school has been waning, Chapman said, a larger trend that Stewart also noted.
“Nationally, museum attendance is a huge concern,” Stewart said. “Attendance is actually up at offbeat or large museums, but locally, attendance is dropping. The bigger concern, however, is that funding is down.”
Chapman agrees, lamenting that it takes so much money to get anything done.
“Everyone has different interests,” she said. “We’re trying to keep people interested in preserving the history. There aren’t that many schoolhouses that remain — a lot were made into homes.”
Finally, local history adds nuance to general statements about historical periods. Stewart said the introductory courses treat history in broad, sweeping generalizations — we did Charlemagne in 30 minutes — but local history exhibits and museums allow us to encounter what makes Adrian different from Coldwater, for example.
At first, history major junior Jacob Petersen wasn’t sold on Stewart’s idea of seeking to find what distinguishes one small Michigan town from the other.
“It’s a conservative thing,” Stewart said.