‘A history of overcoming’ in Benton Harbor

Morton House Museum tells stories of pain, triumph and community

By: - December 26, 2021 6:04 am

The Morton House Museum in Benton Harbor. | Anna Gustafson

Sitting in Benton Harbor’s oldest home, a space built in 1849 that’s filled with the echoes of history, Morton House Museum Board President Denise Reeves and Board Trustee Kate Ulrey scanned the rooms in front of them: expansive, tall-ceilinged places filled with concrete reminders of the people who once called the Southwest Michigan city home. 

For Reeves and Ulrey, these are rooms that are not only reminiscent of the past — of the Morton family who built the house and were instrumental in establishing and growing Benton Harbor — but of the future of their museum, which has called the building home since the early 1960s. 

It’s a future, they explained in an interview earlier this month, that involves the space increasingly becoming a cultural hub centered around deep dives into the city’s history — and discussions around what that history means for today’s Benton Harbor, where an entire city cannot drink its tap water because of high levels of lead and where nearly half the population lives in poverty.

In a home that has known the pain of a mother dying from childbirth and parents losing their children, the museum’s leaders want to connect that history, as well as the more uplifting stories, with those who are struggling in the city today. They want people to see themselves reflected in the history of Benton Harbor, and to connect with the themes they see weaving throughout the city’s narrative: perseverance, strength and finding the support of community amid life’s deep trials.

“We’ve had problems; we’ve had struggles,” Ulrey said of Benton Harbor. “But we can overcome them.”

Already, the museum offers permanent and revolving exhibits and lecture series, publishes books about Benton Harbor’s history, and allows the public to access its historical books for research (or pleasure) — and board members dream of it further becoming a site that draws anyone who wants to learn about Benton Harbor.

“We want it to be the home of Benton Harbor history; we want to make sure people know to come here for facts and information about Benton Harbor,” Reeves, who has been working as a volunteer with the museum for 33 years, said, her face framed by an ornate wooden chair that once sat on a ship carrying tourists from Chicago to Benton Harbor. “Hopefully, more people will realize the importance of Benton Harbor’s history.”

It will, the board members explained, be a space filled with inclusive narratives in which everyone in Benton Harbor can see themselves reflected, from Black families whose relatives moved to the area for manufacturing jobs during the Great Migration of the 1960s to those whose ancestors worked on the farms that vaulted the area to being the heart of the Midwestern fruit belt.

“We want to bring recognition of Benton Harbor’s past and say, ‘Hey, it was and is a great community,” Ulrey said. “It’s where we want people to come and talk about their history and be a part of their history. We want to make it someplace people seek out for history and to tell their histories.”

Morton House Museum Board President Denise Reeves and Board Trustee Kate Ulrey. | Anna Gustafson

The Morton family

Originally from the East Coast, the Morton family was drawn to the Midwest for economic reasons — Eleazar Morton, who built the Benton Harbor home with his son, Henry Morton, was one of the first members of his immediate family to head west and worked on the Erie Canal before moving with his wife, Joanna, and their 10 children to what is now known as Benton Harbor in 1835. [Benton Harbor was first founded as Brunson Harbor in 1860 and was renamed Benton Harbor in 1865.] There, he ended up owning 500 acres of land on which he grew peaches.

At first, the Morton family (distant relatives of the Mortons who started Morton Salt and founded the Morton Arboretum in Illinois) lived in a log cabin in Benton Harbor, not far from where they’d build the house that has become the museum. Located on Territorial Road — Michigan’s main east to west artery in the 1830s — the Morton family’s cabin became something of an unofficial inn for countless travelers heading West.

“They wound up adding a second floor on their log cabin because so many people wanted to stay there,” Ulrey said. “They would give food and shelter to people who were traveling.”

In 1849, the family constructed their new house at the address now known as 501 Territorial Rd. in Benton Harbor and members of the family went on to become heavily involved in expanding the city and its industries. James Stanley Morton, Henry Morton’s son and Eleazar Morton’s grandson, for example, helped to co-found a steamship firm, the Graham and Morton Transportation Company, that allowed area farms to ship their vast amounts of produce, as well as bring Chicago tourists to relax along Lake Michigan, upon which Benton Harbor sits.

The house itself was filled not just with the Morton family but often with travelers, as their log cabin had been, and others coming to Benton Harbor. The museum board members noted one such person was a man from Chicago who traveled to Benton Harbor to dig the ship canal that prompted the “city to really boom,” Reeves said.

It was a home filled with growth and entrepreneurship, of all that which comes with family and business and travel: boisterous dinners and laughter and music. But, Reeves and Ulrey noted, the Morton family’s story was also filled with a deep understanding of the fragility of life. Josephine Morton, whose husband was Henry Morton, died of childbirth complications, for example, and James Stanley Morton and his wife, Carrie, had four children — only two of whom survived infancy. They then lived to be adults but died before their parents.

Among a wide array of items from the family in the museum — from photos to journal writings — is the telegram sent to James Stanley Morton notifying him that one of his adult sons, Will, had died.

“The highs were really high, and the lows were really low,” Ulrey said. “But it made for people who were strong, and it made for people who cared for others.”

Members of the Morton family lived in the house until their passing the 1930s; James Stanley Morton died in 1936 and Carrie Morton died in 1937. James Stanley Morton deeded the house to the Federation of Women’s Clubs in honor of his mother, Josephine Morton. The federation was a local philanthropic organization that went on to use the home as a club house before opening it as a museum in the early 1960s. 

‘A history of overcoming’

As Benton Harbor residents now face lead-tainted drinking water — state officials have told everyone in the city not to drink the water because of dangerously high levels of lead — board members hope a connection with the past can bring individuals a sense of pride in the community as they rebuild from a long history of disinvestment and disenfranchisement.

And it’s not just a sense of pride they hope to instill — they want the museum to provide racially inclusive histories of everyone in the community and amplify histories of Black leaders from Benton Harbor. (The board members also noted that while many historical museums have had to deal with racist pasts of slavery and slave owners, there’s written documentation that Eleazar Morton advocated against slavery and the family never owned slaves.) 

They understand there’s work to be done, including within the board itself — a predominantly white group of people in a city that’s 85% Black. And they acknowledge that there can be a disconnect between the history of the Mortons, a white and well-off family, and today’s city residents, nearly half of whom live in poverty.

But they also strongly believe there are important connections that can and should be made, and Reeves said the museum members have been having intentional conversations around this in recent years. To further foster a relationship with the community, Reeves said they held a lawn party before the pandemic that was well attended by a diverse group of residents. Before the pandemic, school groups would also often visit the museum, which board members said provided an important connection to the community.

“It’s harder now, with no field trips, no school close by; there are a lot of stumbling blocks,” Reeves said. “But it doesn’t mean we’ve stopped trying for sure. We all know that connection is important and why history is important. It’s being able to deliver it in a way that gets to everybody. We’ve got people in St. Joe afraid to cross the bridge. We’re facing an uphill battle.”

I think that Benton Harbor has had a history of overcoming. I think the message for Benton Harbor as we struggle is just that: we have a history of overcoming. We have a history of strong, unique individuals here.

– Morton House Museum Board Trustee Kate Ulrey

St. Joseph, where both Reeves and Ulrey live, is Benton Harbor’s wealthier neighbor that’s a predominantly white community. While Benton Harbor was once the city that drew the majority of the tourists, St. Joseph — often colloquially referred to as St. Joe — has now taken that spot. To get to either city from the other, people have to cross a bridge traversing the St. Joseph River.

It’s this idea of crossing the bridge — literally and metaphorically — that Reeves and Ulrey focus on, and the two emphasized that they want the museum to be something of a community cheerleader. They want it to be a place both of joy and introspection, a space that can delve into pain of the past — and connect that to the pain of today — while also focusing on both historical and present accomplishments.

“I think that Benton Harbor has had a history of overcoming,” Ulrey said. “I think the message for Benton Harbor as we struggle is just that: we have a history of overcoming. We have a history of strong, unique individuals here.”

In addition to becoming more racially diverse, Ulrey and Reeves said they’d love to see younger people become involved in the museum. 

“I would love to see more young families enjoy the Morton house, use the Morton house as a gathering place,” Ulrey said. “We want to have more old fashioned socials on the lawn. I have visions of that. For the board, we’ve had a cocktail party — I’d like to see that for the community.”

A Morton family journal. | Anna Gustafson

‘The thing about history is it’s always disappearing’

Walking through the museum itself is a collision with the past; each room is filled with antiques, including items owned by the Morton family and other period pieces reminiscent of the time in which the family lived in the home. 

Among a Morton family journal filled with writings mostly focused on the daily weather, clothing from the 1800s, and black and white photographs faded by time, the museum is an often poignant reminder not just of this specific family but of the inevitable passing of time.

“The thing about history is it’s always disappearing,” Ulrey said. 

Still, some stories live on, even after the people in them are long gone. And, the board members said, they’ll continue to tell them, as long as people want to hear them.

And while the stories are from the past, they’re not static, Reeves and Ulrey emphasized. Each year, the museum’s volunteers research and publish a book about Benton Harbor’s history. They then present an exhibit around that topic and hold a lecture series dedicated to exploring it further. This year, for example, they’re delving into the history of the city’s ship canal and the role it played in growing the area. Last year, they published a book about a fatal fire at Yore’s Opera House in 1896, when 12 firemen — seven from Benton Harbor and five from St. Joseph — were killed trying to extinguish the blaze.

To commemorate the 125th anniversary of the fire, the museum held a ceremony this past September at the site where the opera house once stood in Benton Harbor. At that time, the Engine House No. 5 Fire Museum in Allendale lent the fire truck that was on site the day of the opera house fire for the ceremony. A few actors told the story of the fire from the viewpoint of the fire chiefs, and current firefighters attended the event. 

“The firemen were very touched,” Ulrey said. 

It’s these stories that the museum is determined to keep telling, the board members said: ones that remind us that, amid pain and death, there is community. There will always be people who will jump to help in the midst of flames, who will open the door to their home and say: Welcome. 

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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