Menominee, Michigan

Menominee Historical Society

cut river

A visit to Menominee can be a journey back in time, into the history of a unique community where the story of the exploration of Michigan has been preserved. The word Menominee has been translated to mean “wild rice country” or “where food grows upon the waters”. These rough translations refer to the wild rice that grew in abundance in these parts. The rice, the waters it grew in and the fish that also inhabited those waters all played key parts in the history of Menominee. The lands along the river were home to both the Chippewa and the Menominee peoples. Upstream from the modern city of Menominee are extensive ancient burial grounds, dance circles and extremely rare raised garden beds indicating how well-developed rice cultivation was before European explorers arrived here. Important as rice production was, the Sturgeon that spawned in the river every spring were just as critical as a food source. So critical in fact, that a war was fought over control of the river. At one point during the sturgeon run, the Menominee dammed the river. This act made it easier to harvest the sturgeon, but it also prevented the sturgeon from getting further upstream where the Chippewa were dependent on the sturgeon after a long winter had made food scarce. The Chippewa decided to fight, and hundreds of Menominee died in the battle. Those fallen were buried at a spot since known as Burial Ground Point. This conflict was also known as the “Battle of the Pierced Forehead”. Some interpretations claim this is a mythical story, intended to illustrate divisions among the tribes.

The real treasures are in the Menominee County Heritage Museum. The museum is housed in the historic St. John’s Catholic Church building now on the National Register of Historic Places. The church was erected around 1921 and is now a repository of priceless artifacts and rare items from the past. The interior space is packed with exhibits, most of which, are related to local history. One of the first things visitors notice are the breathtaking stained-glass windows. They are huge and the colors are amazing. The windows were manufactured in Munich, Germany and were part of the original construction. There too many objects on display to describe them all. Some noteworthy exhibits include, prehistoric dugout canoes and several objects from the copper culture. There is rare pulp grinder which was misidentified as a grindstone for many years. A large miniature circus is fun when the animation mechanism is turned on. There is a full-size iron lung, one of only five known to exist. Then there is the “Mystery Ship” exhibit. The wreck of the mystery ship was discovered and brought up in the 1970s. Due to a lack of funding for restoration, the wreck languished. The wooden ship was rotting away and disintegrating. A few years after it was recovered the unidentified ship, was bulldozed. The museum has photos, sketches and some of the few remaining artifacts from shipwreck. There is much more to see and the guided tour brings it all to life. A small building next to the church is the M.J. Anuta Research Center. It is a treasure trove of documents. When I was researching the ancient burial grounds and gardens up on the Menominee River, I was only able to provide sketchy details about what I was looking for. The staff was able to locate what I needed out of the thousands of documents, photographs and old maps. The annex is an amazing resource for anyone researching the history of this area.