History Museum in the Old City Hall

In 1885 citizens of the Village of Harbor Springs proposed to the Board of Supervisors of Emmet County that the village commission a building that would house both the county offices, the circuit court and meetings of the Board of Supervisors. In addition, the proposition insisted that the building would be “superior to the building now used for said purpose.”

The group of citizens rallied the community which supported the new courthouse in a November 1885 vote. The land on East Main Street was purchased for $1,000 and the citizens contracted Charles W. Caskey to build the courthouse for $4,000. By April 1886, Emmet County had a new courthouse and residents of Harbor Springs had a shining new jewel on Main Street.

And so our story begins. The courthouse would serve the citizens of the county until 1902 when the county seat was moved to Petoskey. In the intervening years, 349 East Main Street served as an opera house, a shooting range, a fire station and, for most of those years, Harbor Springs City Hall. When the city moved its offices to Zoll Street in 2003, City Hall’s future was uncertain.

In 2003, the Historical Society organized a Museum Planning Committee to look at the possibility of opening a history museum in town. In October 2004 the Historical Society signed an agreement with the City of Harbor Springs for a long-term lease of the historic City Hall building. The plan for the future was that a museum would grow in Harbor Springs.

And grow it did. The Harbor Springs History Museum officially opened to the public in 2008 and history found a permanent home in Harbor Springs.

Click here to view a gallery of restoration photographs and other images related our magnificent building. 

West Vault

The West Vault was added to the former city hall building prior to 1896 and was used to store important records. The space currently features a display of Native American quill boxes.

East Vault

The East Vault has been transformed into a small recording space for oral histories. Guests must ask for assistance if they want to use the space during their visit the museum. Guests can also set up appointments to use the space and equipment.


Local History Gallery

The first of our two permanent exhibits, the Local History Gallery guides visitors through a multi-layered chronology of the Harbor Springs region. Using text, photographs and artifacts, this gallery celebrates the various chapters in our history beginning with the Odawa Indians and concluding with a look at the post-World War II community and the emergence of the ski industry. Harbor Springs’ traditions throughout history are featured in the Celebrations exhibit which includes images of parades, regattas, the natural landscape and, of course, Fourth of July fireworks.

Discovery Gallery

The Discovery Gallery is the second of our permanent exhibit spaces and is filled with hands-on activities for children and their families or teachers. Organized around the history of four area residents, visitors learn about locomotive inventor Ephraim Shay, Chief Andrew J. Blackbird, lighthouse keeper Elizabeth Whitney Williams and downtown merchant Rose Rosenthal. Trains, a fishing shanty, a play grocery store and more will engage and instruct children of all ages.


Don’t Miss the Boat

Step back in time to an era of steam whistles and fluttering flags and explore the history of passenger ferries on Little Traverse Bay! As early as 1875 the first ferries began making daily trips between Petoskey and Harbor Springs, later adding stops at Wequetonsing, Roaring Brook, Bay View and Harbor Point. At the height of the resort season as many as 5,000 passengers took the ferries every day.

It was not until the rise of the automobile that ferry traffic declined. In 1930 the last regularly running ferry, the America, was sold and the service was discontinued. This exhibit features original watercolors and giclees by local artist William Talmadge Hall and will be on display until the end of September 2021.

Past Exhibits

Homecoming: A History of the Harbor Springs High School – 2019/2020

This exhibit is filled with Rams memorabilia, artifacts and photographs and includes activities that let visitors become a part of the story. Visit the display to learn more about the history of our community’s iconic school on the bluff and while you are there, be sure to sign the yearbook and take a photograph with the class of 1900!

The Life and Work of Ephraim Shay – 2018 (moved to Shay Hexagon House)

The Life and Work of Ephraim Shay shares the story of one of Harbor Springs most famous citizens, Ephraim Shay. The exhibit chronicles Shay’s life, from his service in the Civil War to the invention of the geared locomotive that made him a household name in the lumber industry. Shay retired to the Harbor Springs area in 1888. During his “retirement” he created over twelve miles of water mains to bring running water to the city, designed and built his unique Hexagon House and started a logging railway known locally as the Hemlock Central.

Just the Artifacts, Ma’am – 2016/2017

This exhibit showcased unusual and never-before-seen artifacts from the Historical Society’s Collections. The Historical Society is home to thousands of documents, photographs and objects, and this exhibit serves as an opportunity to share those items with the community. Highlights in this exhibit include a collection of dental tools belonging to Dr. Frank A. Graham and several loaned artifacts from the original Petoskey Brewing. Long after memories fade, these artifacts remain to enrich our understanding of the unique history of this special place. The Historical Society is honored to be a steward of this history and hopes you enjoy viewing some of the unique items brought out from behind the archive’s door.

Anishnaabek Art: Gift of the Great Lakes – 2015

The Harbor Springs History Museum’s newest temporary exhibit, Anishnaabek Art: Gift of the Great Lakes, is on display now through August 27, 2016. The exhibit showcases Anishnaabek (Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi) art from throughout the Great Lakes region, focusing on various media, styles and tribes. Using handcrafted items such as wooden tools, quill boxes, baskets and beadwork, the exhibit explores the political, religious, cultural, and social changes the Odawa and other native groups navigated throughout their history.

Anishnaabek Art was developed primarily from the private Robert W. Streett Collection. An avid collector, Streett loaned the majority of the artifacts for this unique exhibit. The exhibit also features work from contemporary native artists and artifacts from the Historical Society and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians collections.

View the PDF version of our exhibit catalog

A Shadow Over the Earth: The Life and Death of the Passenger Pigeon – 2014

Created to commemorate the centenary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction, this exhibit featured two rare taxidermied birds courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum as well as educational panels created by Project Passenger Pigeon.

Turning Point: The War of 1812 from the Native American Perspective – 2013

Turning Point: The War of 1812 from the Native American Perspective was produced in collaboration with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and its Repatriation, Archives and Records Department. The exhibit examined the War of 1812 and its impact on the Odawa people of Little Traverse Bay region. Though the exhibit is closed, you may still download a PDF file of the exhibit text with bibliography here.

Download Exhibit PDF with Bibliography

Delightful Destination: Little Traverse Bay at the Turn of the Century – 2012

This exhibit was created by the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University and explored the Little Traverse Bay region’s transportation, cultural, and economic growth during the period between 1890 and 1920. During this time tourists and seasonal residents flocked to waterfront communities around Little Traverse Bay including Petoskey and Harbor Springs. Luxury hotels opened, railroad and steamship companies created elaborate advertising campaigns and an economy and way of life still visible today were created.

Ivan Swift, Artist and Poet – 2011

This exhibit was created by HSAHS with support from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Cheboygan Area Arts Council. The display offered guests a rare opportunity to see the original works of artist and poet Ivan Swift, who was a resident of Harbor Springs throughout much of his life.

Earl H. Mead, Architect – 2010

Produced by HSAHS, this exhibit explored the life and work of architect Earl H. Mead. Mead was a practicing architect in Lansing, Michigan, in the 1890s who began his connection to Harbor Springs by designing summer cottages for resorts such as Harbor Point, Roaring Brook and Wequetonsing. Mead also designed a number of public and commercial buildings during his career including the Harbor Springs High School, Erwin building, Stein building and more.