By Kristin Rose
Special to The Review
If you’ve ever imagined a gathering place that celebrates the rich diverse history of Hamtramck — a meeting place that would also evolve to include the present day cultural fabric of the town — then wish no longer.
The new Hamtramck Historical Museum aims to do all that, and more.
Not only will the museum provide a home base for the vast collection of local resources that has been collected by the Hamtramck Historical Commission, the museum will also provide links to the past and a bridge to the future by offering ongoing workshops, a speaker series, book signings, tours, educational archives and relevant, revolving exhibitions.
The Commission is moving full-speed ahead with the goal of opening during the annual Hamtramck Labor Day Festival.
Since forming in 1998, the seven-person Historical Commission has always maintained that establishing a historical museum was the top priority. In 2004, when the state awarded 19 communities in Michigan up to $100,000 in catalyst grant money and a toolbox of other funding resources, Hamtramck was one of the lucky recipients of the award.
The signature project chosen by Hamtramck was an adaptive reuse of a building that would showcase the vitality of Hamtramck’s history and heritage, and preserve this history for future generations.
According to the Hamtramck Historical Commission website, “Shockingly, almost nothing of Hamtramck’s early days has been preserved. Township records from prior to 1900 are non-existent. There are scant records of the village of Hamtramck (1901-1922) and little has been saved from the early decades of the 20th century. Until the Historical Commission began its operations, there was no formalized system of preserving documents or to chronicle the city’s history.”
The journey to finding a permanent home for the vast collection of Hamtramck-related historical treasures has been a long one.
After being awarded Cool Cities grant money from the state, the Commission purchased the former PLAV Post 1 building on Holbrook.
However, the repairs needed to make the building functional and code-compliant were too costly. The Commission made the tough choice to put the building back on the market for sale.
In the meantime, a local businessman donated a building on Jos. Campau to the Historical Commission. The building is conveniently located in the heart of downtown, adjacent to the Polish Art Center.
Ironically, the building has a bit of history itself. It was the former home of Wister & Schwartz, Hamtramck’s first department store. Any profits made from the sale of the Holbrook building will be used to upgrade this new location.
The Polish roots of Hamtramck are strong, and as such, represent a large portion of the museum’s collection. However, the Historical Commission stresses that the museum embraces — indeed belongs to — each ethnic community within Hamtramck.
With that goal in mind, the Historical Commission is opening their arms to the entire community, providing a welcome mat for all immigrant groups within Hamtramck.
To make this goal a reality, the museum is working with a volunteer team of Museum Studies students from the University of Michigan. Greg Kowalski, Chairman of the Commission, local author of several books on Hamtramck, and Hamtramck tour guide, explains:
“The U of M students are working to identify the cultural, religious, political, and business leaders of the various ethnic groups that add to the vitality of Hamtramck. By actively extending a welcome to all residents, we wish to bridge cultural differences, and celebrate our commonality — the love of the city of Hamtramck.”
A main focus of the museum will also be as a tour anchor for the growing heritage tourism industry. As part of Gov. Snyder’s economic program designed to highlight Michigan’s wealth of natural and cultural resources, Hamtramck fits right in to these placemaking stimulus policies.
The Historical Commission plans on capitalizing on this effort by linking activities and tours with other local historical preservation groups.
“Hamtramck is a hot-spot among tourists,” Kowalski said. “Word has gotten out that Hamtramck is unlike any other town in Michigan. We offer a world of sights in two square miles and the Hamtramck Historical Museum will be an anchor for cultural heritage tours.”
To find out more about the Hamtramck Historical Museum, visit their website at www.hamtramckhistory.org. To help move the vast collection of items, to volunteer at the museum, or to donate items, please check for updates on the Hamtramck Historical Commission Facebook page.
To learn more about revitalizing our communities by creating a “sense of place,” check out the resources at www.miplace.org.