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 years.
The next was the nature of the buildings lining the street, nearly all appearing to date from the 19th century.
Finally, 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.
I 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.
Our 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.
As 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."
Leading 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.
Among the historical tidbits:
Early post offices were in businesses, barns or even private homes.
The postal service originated money orders during the Civil War because many soldiers' pay was being stolen when they sent it home through the mail.
Free city delivery began in 1863 in cities where postal revenues could pay for salaried letter carriers.
Rural free delivery began in 1896 in West Virginia, after agitation from farm families unhappy at not receiving the same service as city dwellers.
Women were first hired to deliver mail in cities during World War I.Among Schragg's treasures at the museum are:
A 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.
A hand canceler resembling a sewing machine, dating from the early 1900s.
A 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.
Schragg, 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.
"If 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."
Schragg recommended the nearby Schuler's Restaurant and Pub for lunch, and thither we headed.
The 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.
After 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).
Enter 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 in 2006.
The 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.
Page 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 hand.
At a 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 Robinson.
Some 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 general public.
Either way, it's an unforgettable story among many in this magical museum.
Another 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Van 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.
One 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.
The 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.
The 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.
After 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.
Bullard 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.
If you go
Getting there: Marshall is about 180 miles east of Chicago, or roughly three hours of driving, much of it along Interstate Highway 94. It is about 105 miles west of Detroit. The town is within an easy driving distance of Grand Rapids and Lansing.
What 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, 269-979-2719.
Saturday is Tourism Day in Marshall, and the museums will be free from noon to 5 p.m. tinyurl.com/cvo89gr
The 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 Downtown Walk.
A 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