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Letters 07-25-2016

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Twittering History Posts give insight into the life of a boy at Fort Mackinac

Kristi Kates - June 20th, 2011
What could Twitter possibly have to do with a 10-year-old boy who lived on Mackinac Island in the late 1800s?  Plenty, if you check out web address www.twitter.com/@boyatftmackinac, the “Boy at Fort Mackinac.” 
The Twitter account chronicles several seasons in the life of Harold Corbusier, who was the son of an American commandant at Fort Mackinac. Harold and his family lived in quarters on the west end of the fort, and he began writing his diary on his 10th birthday:
“I am 10 yrs old today. We had turkey and other good things for dinner. The ground has been covered with snow all winter.”
“Harold’s father served as an American Commandant while the Americans were at Fort Mackinac in the late 1800s, towards the end of the time that the fort was still operated by the Army,” explains Diane Dombroski, the membership and grants coordinator of Mackinac State Historic Parks.
“By 1875, the fort had become the country’s second national park after Yellowstone,” she continues, “but the federal government couldn’t maintain it so they turned it over to the state of Michigan in 1895. By that time, the soldiers were leaving the fort, as there was no longer a strategic reason to have a fort there.”
So why Twitter young Harold’s diary? Because Twitter has become a worldwide phenomenon. The online mini-diary messaging forum - via which people type messages  in a mere 140 characters or less - has exploded in its membership and “followers,” providing a new venue via which past can meet present.

YOUTHFUL INSIGHT
The diary entries were actually written by Corbusier himself, running from 1883 to 1884, and have been meticulously copied into the Twitter format chronologically by the staff of the Mackinac State Historic Parks. A second series of diary entries picks up later in Harold’s youthful life, in 1892. It’s a unique idea that provides an eye back into the history of both the fort and of the youth of that time period.
“We have in our collection a number of historic documents, and among them were this personal diary of Harold’s,” explains Dombroski.
“We’ve been correlating the Twitter posts with the actual dates of the diary,” she says, “Harold’s diary entries were so short, they fit perfectly with the Twitter system, so we thought it would be a good way to contrast the Mackinac of the latter 1800s with the Mackinac of today.”
Some of Harold’s entries are fairly simple:
“We went out to the maple trees after sap and brought in a great deal.” 
    While others are indicative of a surprising vocabulary and alertness that seem far beyond the level of today’s 10 year old kids:
”We went down to the Government dock to see the men cut ice. The ice is 17” thick. The Straits have all frozen over again.”
“It was quite windy today.We went to a public meeting of the Mackinac Island Literary Society and enjoyed the entertainment very much.”

A DIFFERENT TIME
While things were of course very different during the late 1800s, Mackinac Island’s character has always been that of preserving time, to some extent, and Dombroski says that it has been interesting to note both the similarities and the differences.
In Harold’s time, Victorian travelers arrived on Mackinac Island on elegant passenger steamboats; downtown Mackinac Island wasn’t quite as polished as today’s version, although there were plenty of dances and dinner amusements - and, for Harold and his friends, there was a lot of ice skating in the winter, which via his diary appeared to be one of his favorite things to do.
“I think what stands out the most are that his descriptions of Mackinac Island have remained so close to what they still are today,” Dombroski says, “showing that Mackinac has stayed in the past, with many of the buildings and horses and such very much the same.”
Harold’s pastimes, Dombroski also points out, were far more “active” than many kids of today - and a little more dangerous, as well.
“Harold’s parents did let him do some riskier things than what we might let our kids of today do,” she chuckles, “such as the sledding down the hills and sliding right out onto the ice of the lake.”

A BOY AT THE FORT
Harold’s second set of diary entries, which began upon his return to Mackinac Island in 1892, show a more mature Harold whose writing topics changed from ice skating, steamboat observations, and weather reports to girls, dances, and more thoughtful concerns. 
“When he returned, he was a little older, and wrote quite a bit more at that point,” Dombroski says. “His entries when he was younger were very short, but later on, his entries became much more verbose, so we may have to shorten a few of those.”
Once Harold’s initial run of entries are completed later this year, correlating with the end of September 1884, Dombroski and her staff plan to begin running the later entries, as well. 
Harold left the island for the last time in August of 1892 - and 100 years later, in August 1992, Harold’s grandson, Warren O’Brien, visited Fort Mackinac and talked about the diary with fort historians, leading to the publication of the book A Boy at Fort Mackinac: The Diary of Harold Dunbar Corbusier, 1883-1884, 1892.
Given Harold’s fondness for the written word, it’s something he would probably have been greatly pleased to see.

View and/or follow Harold’s diary entries via Twitter at http://twitter.com/boyatftmackinac
 

 
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