The local history of small-town Hillsdale is full of unexpected artifacts and stories that have been passed on from generation to generation, but the true feat is found in the preservation of this priceless history accomplished by the Mitchell Research Center in downtown Hillsdale.
The MRC, located next to Hillsdale’s public library on Manning Street, is the historical home to thousands of records, maps, newspapers, family histories, yearbooks, and other artifacts from Hillsdale and the surrounding counties.
Charles and Harriet Mitchell willed their house, which was built in 1868, to the city after Charles Mitchell’s death in 1989. After Harriet Mitchell’s death in 1906, a two-year renovation process began and the home transformed into the Mitchell Public Library, followed by a celebration and grand opening gala in 1908.
The MPL catered to many different aspects of the community, providing the city with a men’s club room, a women’s auditorium, a children’s room for musical recitals, and even a ballroom tucked away in the third floor. The ballroom, nicknamed “The Loft,” created a perfect space for dances, card nights, and local parties where jazz bands performed on stage.
The MPL served the community in various ways for 95 years, and volunteers that would later run the entire house as the MRC formed a group during its years as a library, starting research work within one room of the library. Eventually, the building was exclusively operated by the MRC.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the research center began in 1979 in the Louise Hawkes Historical room inside the library, titled through a contest for the naming of the room. Since the MPL was a fully operating library, the research group was only able to work out of the one room, and it did so up until the Hillsdale Public Library opened in 2003. The library fully replaced the MPL, opening up the building for the sole use of the MRC.
Janis Reister, current accession chairman and treasurer of the MRC, began her work there in 1997, before the HPL opened and volunteered during their time in the Hawkes room. The work the group completed up until full accessibility of the house was tedious due to the lack of space and storage.
“If you wanted to make a copy of something, you had to bring your stuff all the way downstairs and copy it and then take it back upstairs,” Janis Reister said. But after the HPL’s opening in 2003, the MRC was given the entire Mitchell building by the city. Their work was no longer crammed into one room, and they had two whole floors to organize their work.
The expansion in space allowed room for immense growth in the amount of work the MRC was able to do.
“We’ve gone from 75 donations a year to over 100 per year,” Janis Reister said. “And it’s not just one item at a time. Most people will come in after cleaning their grandma’s house and they bring in three or four boxes of stuff.”
Because of this growth, the current volunteers at the MRC are busier than ever. The MRC’s annual calendar was released at the Hillsdale County Fair thanks to Debbie Reister, Janis Riester’s daughter and communications coordinator. The calendar, “Hillsdale County Township Pioneers,” features pictures and spotlights of centennial farms in and around Hillsdale, contributing to the historical research the center continues to uphold.
“It was very fun because we got to work with all the generations,” Debbie Reister said. “We would work with many different people and they would bring their stories and pictures.”
The MRC’s quarterly newsletters showcase many local historical highlights of Hillsdale, but one of the MRC’s most recent focal points is their project of digitizing everything within the center. The MRC uses a museum standard system called PassPerfect to scan and identify all of their documents, organizing all of the information right inside their computer system for easy accessibility.
Throughout all the documents they have already digitally archived, the volunteers have “captioned as much as they can so that people would be able to know exactly what they’re looking up,” in the system, Debbie Reister said.
Along with the center’s steps toward modernizing its systems and research, it has big plans for the future. The volunteers hope to raise enough money for renovation of the center, including constructing an elevator which would allow easier access to the ballroom for the center’s visitors.
The MRC may be improving the process of their research and preservation of history, but their original mission of indexing and compiling necessary research has stayed true to their intended purpose. The MRC takes in all different kinds of history, including military records, high school yearbooks, baseball uniforms, hats, dollhouses, arrowheads, and various other objects that many would be willing to throw out.
After 40 years of service, as its slogan states, the MRC remains the place in Hillsdale “Where Your Family History Lives On.”