Historian’s Twitter feed brings Michigan’s past to life

LANSING, Mich. (AP) – On a recent morning, the photos posted on the Twitter feed Michigan’s Past included a moody, rainy take on Lansing’s Allegan Street, circa 1948; and a postcard from the early 1900s featuring gigantic winter squash.

Mason Christensen, its creator, has shared 14,000-plus posts with the Twitterverse over the past year. Also among them: beautiful black-and-white pictures from the early 1940s of Michigan farm life, a news clipping from the defunct Kalamazoo Telegraph detailing the sad story of a boy who died after somehow being impaled by a cornstalk and a nifty photo of a long-gone lumber mill on the Flint River.

Christensen, 27, who has a master’s degree in history, started his eclectic feed of photos and news tidbits last January because, well, no one else has one.

“There are these awesome Twitter feeds for other states,” Christensen told the Lansing State Journal. “I thought, ‘I can create a really great Twitter feed for Michigan.’”

The first week, he amassed about 100 followers. Shout-outs from people across the Twitter-sphere helped boost that number quickly.

Michigan’s Past now has more than 6,000 followers and an average of 10 to 20 posts a day.

What Christensen posts depends on how he’s feeling: “It really started as kind of an entertainment thing,” he said. “Whatever entertains me goes up.”

The state Historical Museum and the Archives of Michigan each have their own online presence, said Mary Dettloff, senior communications adviser for the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the museum and archives.

The Michigan Historical Center, which includes the Museum and Archives, has its own Twitter account ((at)seekingmichigan), but it is not often used, Dettloff said. It tends to use Facebook and the Website seekingmichigan.org more often to share news and events.

Christensen is “doing a great job,” she said. “We’re thrilled that anyone promotes Michigan history and finds a creative way to do it.”

Christensen, 27, grew up in Delta Township and graduated in 2006 from Grand Ledge High School. He earned an undergraduate degree in history and geography at Pennsylvania State University. He started a master’s degree in history at Western Michigan University, finishing it at Middle Tennessee State University last year. His master’s thesis: a look at Nashville’s saloon history.

Several years ago, Christensen did an internship as an archival technician for the museum division of the Keweenaw National Historical Park.

“For being an urban, southern Michigan person, it’s very different,” he said of the Upper Peninsula. But the region’s rich history makes it popular on Michigan’s Past. About 5 percent of Twitter users who follow the feed are from the Upper Peninsula, but Christensen said many more than that ask for posts about the rugged, history-rich peninsula.

“I get an insane amount of U.P. requests,” he said.

About 10 percent of Michigan’s Past followers are from the Lansing area; the bulk are from the Detroit area. Others are from all over the country.

“It’s interesting where some of these Michigan expatriates have gone,” he said. Key concentrations: Chicago, New York and Washington D.C.

Christensen keeps Michigan’s Past vibrant by trying to fulfill content requests, theming content on certain days (for example, he recently highlighted Washtenaw County) and by seeking new sources of photos and clippings as he goes along.

Not all of those photo sources are based in Michigan. For example, he has found a trove of Marquette-area mining pictures in an online archive created by the Colorado School of Mines and Michigan resort photos and letters to Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb in a digital archive at the University of Alabama.

Christensen is actively seeking a full-time job that will let him use his history skills. He also volunteers with the Eaton County Museum in Charlotte, developing a social media presence. He likes to poke through the Virtual Motor City site hosted by Wayne State University and the Detroit Public Library’s online archive, which recently expanded. Its Burton Historical Collection includes thousands of images from photos to magazine illustrations to postcards.

Asked how much time he spends on Michigan’s past, he chuckles. “Too much,” he replies. “I spend a fair number of evenings on it.”


Information from: Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com

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