Erwin Township museum connects past to future

What started as a simple effort by the Erwin Township Historical Society to find a home for its collection has turned into something much larger.

The building the historical society secured as a museum will also serve as the 
centerpiece of a six-acre park that residents will be able to use for a variety of purposes, says Tom Pelissero, president of the historical society.

“We went from just finding a building to put our historical artifacts in, to building a park,” Pelissero says. “(This building) is our anchor in the park, and we’re calling it – at least for now – Erwin Heritage Park.”

The park, located on Van Buskirk Road south of the city of Ironwood in the far western Upper Peninsula, already features a cross-country skiing trail that connects to a nearby trail system; the plan is to pave the trail this summer for year-round enjoyment.

“It will be a nice walking park trail, it will also be good for young kids with bikes, moms and dads with strollers,” Pelissero says. “Out here on the township roads we have logging trucks and other things flying by – and not the widest streets – (so) we just think this will be a great spot.”

The historical society hopes to install benches and picnic tables, as well as explore the possibility of adding other historic structures and signage to the park.
“So you’re not just having a walking trail, you’re also educating people on the history and the families that settled here,” says Ivan Hellen, one of the trustees on the historical society’s board of directors.

Pelissero praised Hellen for the leading role he has taken over the years in preserving much of the township’s history.

An image of the schoolhouse in 1915.

Regardless of the broader plans for the park, the museum will likely remain the focal point. The structure that will house the museum was formerly the Erwin East End School. That school operated from 1915 to 1927 until the district opened the Erwin Central School in 1928, consolidating students from five one-room schools.

After closing as a school, the building was converted into a private residence and was most recently used for storage prior to its acquisition by the historical society, Pelissero says. The historical society moved the building from East End Road to Van Buskirk Road about 18 months ago, placing it on the site of Erwin Central School.

“East End Road is a little desolate over there, there’s not a lot of homes and it’s a little off the beaten path,” Pelissero says. “Where here on Van Buskirk (Road), we have the (cross-country ski trail) traffic, we have the township traffic, and Van Buskirk leads to so much of the community that we thought, ‘Well, can we move it here?’”

Along with moving the structure, the historical society restored the school to its original appearance. The museum plans to open to the public this summer.
The museum will feature two rooms to display artifacts, a genealogy research room and a space for community meetings.

Hellen says the museum is expected to have a school room display featuring photos of the old one-room schoolhouses; along with old desks, a chalkboard and textbooks, as well as information celebrating some of the township’s early educators. He also plans to have a country store display, a recreation of a local tavern, a section honoring the military, and items celebrating the area’s farming and mining history.

The building also features elements from another former township school.
“(The bell installed on the museum) is from the original Van Buskirk School,” Hellen says. “So, we’re incorporating the Erwin Central School, the East End School and the Van Buskirk School all in one.”

The bell had wound up in the Chicago area after the Van Buskirk School’s closure before returning locally, says Hellen, whose grandmother was the school bellringer and lived across the street from the school.

Although from nearby Bessemer, Pelissero discovered he has a personal connection to the old Erwin Township schools; his grandfather was the Erwin School District’s attorney and was there for the Central School dedication in 1928. His aunt also taught in the district.

“I knew I was drawn here,” he said.

The interior of the schoolhouse has been restored.The historical society has received grants – including a $2,500 grant from the Historical Society of Michigan toward computers and other equipment for the research room, a $10,000 Gogebic Range Health Foundation grant to pave the 0.5-mile trail around the property and a $1,000 Sisu grant for a bike repair station.

The majority of project funds, however, came from private donations. Community support for the historical society, which was founded in 2019 and has about 290 members, shows the depth of the connection people have to the township, he says.

“There’s only 300 people that live in Erwin, so 50% of the people are folks who used to live here and have deep roots in Erwin Township and they’ve been more than happy to support us,” Pelissero says.

Pelissero also credited the support from the businesses working on the project with making the renovation feasible. 

“They all stepped up and gave some sort of donation or donated it 100 percent, depending on what the work was,” he says. 

Ultimately, Pelissero sees the museum and surrounding park as a bridge between the township’s past and the community’s future residents.

“Our mission is to preserve the past and create the future,” he says. “We started out just preserving the past, we thought that was the first thing we needed to do. Once we got here and purchased this property, the opportunity to create the future was laid in front of us and we had the talent to make things happen.”

More information on the historical society can be found at:
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