is an artifact in the United States Postal Museum in
historic Marshall, Michigan.
Mich. — One of the first things that caught my eye as we
drove along Michigan Avenue in Marshall, Mich., was the
Rexall Drugs sign, resplendent in blue, orange and white.
I couldn’t remember having seen one for about, oh, 40
next was the nature of the buildings lining the street,
nearly all appearing to date from the 19th century.
when we parked and I went to put money in the meter, I
knew I wasn’t in Chicago anymore. The meter had two
slots, one labeled "1˘ or 5˘" and the other
"10˘." But when I tried to insert coins, the
meter wouldn’t accept them. One of our guides later
explained that they were kept for display only.
shouldn’t have been surprised. The main reason we came
to Marshall was to spend a day steeping ourselves in
history. The parking meters — like the drugstore sign
and the buildings lining the main drag — were Exhibit A
in a whole town devoted to one overriding theme:
celebration of its past.
first official stop of the day was the United States
Postal Service Museum, housed in the basement of the town’s
post office. Our guide was the genial Michael Schragg,
museum founder and curator and former town postmaster (his
daughter is the current one). He’s also the person for
whom the post office building is named. The private museum
is open by appointment only, with a handful of people
conducting the tours.
soon as we met Schragg behind the post office by a small
garage housing two former mail vehicles, it became
apparent that the postal service has been a lifelong love
of Schragg’s. He has been collecting postal artifacts
from across the country for decades. When he talks about
the postal service, he uses the word "we."
us slowly through the museum’s basement rooms, he
effortlessly unspooled the postal service’s story, and
with it, the story of a country evolving from its largely
rural roots through the major convulsions of war,
industrialization and societal changes.
the historical tidbits:
post offices were in businesses, barns or even private
postal service originated money orders during the Civil
War because many soldiers’ pay was being stolen when
they sent it home through the mail.
city delivery began in 1863 in cities where postal
revenues could pay for salaried letter carriers.
free delivery began in 1896 in West Virginia, after
agitation from farm families unhappy at not receiving the
same service as city dwellers.
were first hired to deliver mail in cities during World
War I.Among Schragg’s treasures at the museum are:
small wooden box from Chas. W. Ryan, M.D., a Battle Creek,
Mich., eye, ear, nose and throat doctor, addressed to
"Mr. Edw Rimmer, Marshall, Mich," in 1933, with
medicine still inside it.
hand canceler resembling a sewing machine, dating from the
curved piece of bark used as a missive by a soldier
stationed in Alaska in 1942 who couldn’t find paper to
send a note to his girlfriend in the Chicago area.
65, retired from the postal service in 2002 after a
32-year career, 23 of those as postmaster. When asked
about the current challenges faced by the service, which
is losing money on a massive scale, he doesn’t hesitate
to express his fears.
Congress would let us run it like a business … we could
make it," he said. But he doesn’t see that
happening. "I do think that in another 20 or 30 years
the post office will be out of business," he said.
"I think we’re like the horse and buggy. … Once
us older people pass away that use it, no one will use it.
I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen."
recommended the nearby Schuler’s Restaurant and Pub for
lunch, and thither we headed.
main dining room’s dark interior suited us well after
the summer day’s bright heat. The building, we were told
proudly by our server, had been a restaurant for more than
100 years and had also at one time or another been an inn,
stables and a bowling alley.
lunch, we headed to the American Museum of Magic. Why
would there be a museum devoted to magic in this small
Midwestern town? The answer, museum intern Ben Page told
us, lies partly with Harry Blackstone Sr., one of the
brightest stars of magic’s golden age (the 1870s through
the 1940s). Blackstone bought property in the nearby town
of Colon, Mich., for a summer home, and his devotees often
visited him there. One man came to the area and
established a magic shop in Colon, which eventually became
a center for the magic business. This year will mark the
76th edition of the town’s magic convention, known as
the Magic Get Together (Aug. 7-10).
Robert Lund, a Michigan journalist and author with a
lifelong love of the magic industry. Born in 1925, he
amassed a huge collection of playbills, props, ephemera
and other magic-related items. In 1978 he and his wife
opened the museum in Marshall to house his collection,
which is believed to contain roughly three-quarters of a
million items, Page said. Lund died in 1995 and his wife
museum’s first floor almost overwhelms the senses.
Virtually every inch of the walls is covered with colorful
playbills of magicians famous and obscure. The eye is
irresistibly drawn to a huge banner hanging from the
ceiling in the space’s center from which a young Harry
Houdini appears to oversee all proceedings.
took care to point out performers whose names are
virtually lost except to magic aficionados. Among the most
intriguing was a Chinese magician named Chung Ling Soo.
Performing in England in the early 20th century, Soo was
one of the first to introduce the dangerous bullet-catch
illusion, in which an assistant fires a gun at the
performer, who appears to catch the bullet in his mouth or
1918 performance, the equipment malfunctioned, and the
bullet hit Soo in the chest, killing him. As Page tells
the story, an autopsy revealed him to be a Caucasian, an
American magician who had performed in the U.S. as William
sources say that Soo’s real identity had been known
before then by a number of people, perhaps revealed before
his death by the Chinese magician he modeled himself on,
Ching Ling Foo. But it probably was not known to the
way, it’s an unforgettable story among many in this
eccentric character was the person responsible for our
last stop of the day, the Honolulu House Museum, which
serves as the Marshall Historical Society headquarters.
Abner Pratt, a prominent lawyer who moved to Marshall in
1839 and later served as chief justice of the Michigan
Supreme Court, was appointed U.S. consul to the Hawaiian
Islands (then the Sandwich Islands) in 1857. He fell in
love with the tropical climate and culture, and when he
returned to Marshall in 1859, he decided to "build
his own little tropical paradise here in the middle of
town," said our guide, Susan Van Zandt.
resulting Honolulu House, therefore, included such
features as 10-foot-high windows that start at the floor,
which in a hot climate would let cooler air in at the
bottom and allow hot air to rise. "Of course in
February in Michigan, this is not a good idea," Van
Zandt noted dryly.
judge applied this kind of impractical thinking to himself
as well, with unfortunate results. He wore tropical
fashions year-round, and this habit is thought to have
contributed to his death, which occurred three years after
the house was built. He had traveled home from Lansing,
Mich., in his tropical white linen suit, encountered a
snowstorm, caught pneumonia and died.
Zandt showed us through each room of the house, describing
its elaborate decor in loving detail. Not much of the
original wall painting remains; a subsequent owner, one of
Marshall’s mayors, hired an artist to redecorate
lavishly in the 1880s. In one parlor alone, for example,
the wall and ceiling paintings contain more than 120
colors and real gold leaf.
of the home’s most striking features is its winding
wooden staircase, with ornate designs painted onto the
walls beside it and the ceiling. It is, however, a
proverbial staircase to nowhere; the house has no second
floor bedrooms, and the stairs lead only to the attic and
roof. Historical society staff believe the judge built it
to make the house seem larger and grander.
only original piece of furniture in the house is a parlor
sofa, but many period items have been donated since the
historical society bought the home in the early 1960s and
made a museum of it.
home’s lower level, devoted in part to the kitchen, the
family dining room and servants quarters, contains some
delicate china that seems to bring the home’s long story
full circle. The home’s last private owners were members
of the Bullard family, starting around 1901.
Annette Bullard was widowed, she took in a young black
orphan she knew, Jesse Graham, in hopes of training her to
become a ladies’ maid. Instead, Graham became like a
daughter to Bullard and lived with her until Bullard’s
death nearly 40 years later.
left her wedding china to Graham, and Graham donated the
china back to the house when she heard it was becoming a
museum. She is buried next to Bullard.
THERE: Marshall is about 105 miles west of Detroit. The
town is within an easy driving distance of Grand Rapids
TO DO: History is the prime attraction here. There are
five museums in the downtown area, including The American
Museum of Magic, americanmuseumofmagic.org; Honolulu House
Museum, marshallhistoricalsociety.org; and the United
States Postal Service Museum, tinyurl.com/d5pg3t4,
is Tourism Day in Marshall, and the museums will be free
from noon to 5 p.m. tinyurl.com/cvo89gr
town, which has a National Historic Landmark District
containing more than 800 buildings, has been neatly
divided into a handful of self-guided walking tours,
including the Historic Homes Walk, the River Walk and the
major event is the Annual Marshall Historic Home Tour,
which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It is
scheduled for Sept. 7-8. marshallhistoricalsociety.org
INFORMATION: historicmarshall.org, battlecreekvisitors.org