A vision for Sault Ste. Marie's children's museum

Children learn in so many ways — through reading, hearing and observing, and perhaps most importantly, through hands-on experiences.

If you are a child living in the Sault Ste. Marie area, the nearest children’s museum is a daunting 150 or more miles away, in either Marquette or Traverse City. For families without transportation or gas money, this is challenging and discouraging. 

Good news is on the horizon for Sault Ste. Marie, however.

Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers and community support, the Soo Locks Children's Museum will soon unveil innovative exhibits at its location in  Sault Ste. Marie's downtown historic district, a block from the famous Soo Locks. 

Unlike traditional museums where a “no touch” rule is prevalent, a children’s museum is made specifically with interactive exhibits for children to touch and explore. The museum will provide another educational and recreational outlet for children in the eastern U.P.

The museum began taking shape in 2016, following a community survey and a feasibility study that showed a children's museum would succeed in the community for a variety of reasons, including tourist interest in Sault Ste. Marie. A board was incorporated and space was leased for the museum. That space, undergoing renovation, has been open with some exhibits and for events.

When renovations are completed, the museum will have 10 exhibits for children ages two to 12 years old. The museum will have both historical and cultural significance, and exhibits are being created with input from the area's two tribal communities, the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Bay Mills Indian Community. 

Dr. Raquel Fernandez-EarnsIn a question-and-answer, Dr. Raquel Fernandez-Earns, who is president of the Soo Locks Children’s Museum’s board of directors, shares some details about the exhibits and the museum, emphasizing that the vision extends beyond encouraging children’s curiosity and learning in science, technology, engineering, art and math. 

“The (museum) will offer children an outlet in this underserved area, providing hands-on experiences that have the potential to heal and inspire,” she says.

Q: What can you tell us about the exhibits and the museum?

Dr. Fernandez-Earns: The museum will have 10 exhibits. Our science water exhibit will have a boat-building station and a miniature lock so that children can experience the locks in their own way. This offers a wonderful opportunity given that the Soo Locks are only one block away on the same street. 

The nature exhibit and interactive trees will teach visitors about the history of St. Mary’s River with its own rapids and the steam that rose from the waters — all of which held special significance to the Anishinaabe people. Since we have the most fish species in the Great Lakes, we offer a fish-matching station with names in both Ojibwe and English. Our interactive trees will offer seasonal and cultural education and hands-on activities.

The Nature Exhibits will include a Northern Lights display with color-changing lights.We will also have a Northern Lights display. Our Sensory Room is planned for those children that might get overwhelmed with the sounds and lights of the museum and will provide a place of calm. This will assure that all families have a chance to experience something different and give them a chance to get out of the house as well. 

We will have a rope climber and toddler area where parents can meet as well as a maker space, Main Street, and a Jacobsville Sandstone building -- that will also teach kids about the unique stone that made up many of our historic buildings and can still be seen today.

Q: What is the museum’s vision and mission?

Dr. Fernandez-Earns:  Our region in the Eastern Upper Peninsula covers over 4,000 rural square miles in an area that has a 30 percent child poverty rate, where parents have a hard time making ends meet despite working two jobs.

Our location is perfect in its ability to provide developmentally responsive programming and activities to a rural childhood population that does not have the rich access to activities that children in or near larger urban areas have, nor can they afford to engage in sports that call for expensive equipment or clubs. Having a museum located in Sault Ste. Marie’s historic downtown district is a win for local parents and will contribute to the local economy.

Q: How is the project coming along?

Dr. Fernandez-Earns: In 2021, we leased the former Soo Brewery at 223 W. Portage Ave., which was about 3,000 square feet. This January we added to our space and leased the neighboring and adjoining storefront, formerly Second Childhood and Adults Too. This expanded our museum space to approximately 6,000 square feet. Demolition of both sides started in March and it’s a very sweet mess to see.

Our next goal is to complete the demolition and construct what we refer to as a white box or ‘blank slate’ onto which our exhibits can be installed. This means that lighting and electrical outlets will be where they should be. HVAC needs will be planned accordingly and basic flooring will be installed. This will allow us flexibility when the larger exhibits are manufactured and installed yet provide us with all that we need to open our doors to available exhibits in the meantime.

Q: Will you be working with schools?

Dr. Fernandez-Earns: The (museum) will be open for field trips during the school year and summer camp programs. As tourism slows down during the late fall and winter seasons, these are prime times for schools to plan field trips to the museum. Many of our exhibits, once installed, can be incorporated into school curricula. We also plan on providing visitors with take-home activities to extend learning and improve quality family time.

Q: How is fundraising going?

Dr. Fernandez-Earns: We’ve done and continue to do a great deal of grant writing and fundraising. As a result, several foundations and local financial institutions have provided significant support. Last September we received a matching capital improvement grant from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council that allowed us to hit a major milestone — to start the interior demolition of our space.

A train table has been one of the exhibits available at the museum.This has springboarded us to continue the effort and we’re now working with exhibit developers, an architect, and a construction crew to carry out the next steps. We just held our second annual Dueling Pianos fundraiser and surpassed last year’s mark of $19,000. We held a Halloween House last October that accommodated all ages over three weekends. We had so many families come through, a scary side for the older kids and a fun side for the younger ones. We held a Christmas Burger Bash and are planning a Patriotic Burger Bash on May 23. J. Ranck Electric named us as their 2023 Community Sponsor Winner. 

We’ve raised approximately 15 percent of our $1.5 million-dollar goal.  We continue to seek ongoing funds, have exhibits manufactured and installed, and hire staff so we can fully open our doors. We’re planning a soft opening that will allow us to offer several exhibits as we raise funds for our more technical pieces.

Q: What other activities or plans are in the works?

Dr. Fernandez-Earns: During the past year, seasonally-based arts and crafts activities called Saturday Morning Artoons were held. Small exhibits were donated from The Discovery Center in Macomb and from a local therapy practice. Laura Berens launched her book, “Boats Can’t Jump: The Story of the Soo Locks,” at the museum. 

A Birthday Party Room is planned which will help produce revenue. This space will also be available to businesses and organizations for meetings, lectures on topics such as parenting, Coast Guard water safety classes, etc. and even story-telling. 

A Main Street, complete with a grocery store, clinic and bank will be built. As the winner of a national competition, the museum was awarded $3,000 worth of big blue blocks from Imagination Playground to be used in exhibits with foam dinosaur bones and smaller foam blocks as the start of Makerspace. 

Anyone interested in donating should visit the museum’s website

Ann Dallman has lifelong roots in Michigan’s UP. She started out as a newspaper reporter/photographer and returned to journalism after retiring from teaching. Her first Middle Grade novel, Cady and the Bear Necklace, received a State History Award (Books/Youth) from the Historical Society of Michigan as well as a Midwest Book Award, New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, was a Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist and a UP Notable Book. Her second book, Cady and the Birchbark Box, also received the Historical Society of Michigan State Award and is also a UP Notable Book.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.