How many people can say they would leave the warmth and sunshine of Miami, Florida to move to Jackson, Michigan to live in an old prison, turned Armory, and finally, re-purposed into an artists’ residence community? I did just that. I blame it on four occurrences.
1. WDET National Public Radio, which in April of 2007 aired a report on an old prison being re-purposed into a residence for artists called Armory Arts Village. I heard the report. It excited me. Why? The answer I have come to believe can be found in number 4 of this explanation.
2. When I visited Jackson two weeks after hearing the report, I donned a hard hat and boots and toured the old prison becoming totally intrigued by the vibes I felt and the castle-like 25’ high prison wall surrounding it. As a professional storyteller with a focus on historical programs, an added attraction to Jackson for me were banners hanging along East and West Michigan Avenue saying, “Jackson’s Annual Storytelling Festival.” A town with an old intriguing prison and an annual storytelling festival – WOW – a storyteller’s dream come true!
3. A major sign that I was meant to move to the old prison, soon to be Armory Arts Village came upon my return to Miami. A knock came upon my Townhouse door in the height of the downfall of the housing market. A neighbor, hearing I was “going to prison,” wanted to purchase my place. “Name the price,” he said. I did, and voila – the offer was accepted!
4. I am utterly convinced that the spirits of prison past found me, a divorcee with grown children out on their own, and, of all things --a historical storyteller – “She’s it!” they said. “She will sweep us out from under the rug and tell our stories. After all, it was our prison labor that turned Jackson into a major, thriving industrial town during the Industrial Revolution.
January 5, 2008, I became the 13th artist to move into the unique community called Armory Arts Village. It wasn’t long until 62 apartments filled with people of all ages, walks of life, singles, and some with families. Artists were creating in the studios that are a perk if one rents an apartment. Along the brick and concrete hallways with prison bars still upon the windows, art hangs, cheering up what still reminds one that this edifice once housed hardened criminals.
I researched the spellbinding prison history. It captured my imagination and sent me spinning historical tales of the former penitentiary. These tales ultimately turned into presenting historical tours at Armory Arts. The popularity of these tours of crime, corruption, colorful characters and much, much more, turned into a thriving tourism business going on full-force seasonally from April 1st – October 31st.
When I moved from the Sunshine State to Michigan with its cold and snowy winters, I never imagined my love of history and gift of storytelling would lead me into the industry of tourism. I also never imagined that in 2010, I would write a grant and receive funding from the Michigan Humanities Council. It happened. As historian, I supervised a $15,000 project in which two Armory Arts muralists, Hector Trujillo and Jean Weir, painted seven magnificent murals depicting the history of the old prison. These hang throughout the hallways of Armory Arts accompanied by the history I researched written next to each mural.
I, also, never imagined that Arcadia &The History Press would contact me to write a book about the old prison. They did! It has just been published: “JACKTOWN: History and Hard Times in Michigan’s First State Prison.” It may be purchased in various area and other stores, our Old Prison Gift Shop at Armory Arts Village, on Amazon.com, and through firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michigan’s First State Prison became the largest walled prison in the world. Its past included horrendous conditions and medieval punishments and, as time went on, three major reformers. Their programs and views on the treatment of those incarcerated altered the concept of the punishment and treatment of inmates.
In spite of winter, I am glad that I did move here some nine years ago. What I have learned and accomplished has taken me on an unforgettable journey in my life. It is a journey that tapped upon my creativity and penchant for bringing history to life through both the spoken and written word. I am proud to carry on the legacy of the old prison’s history through the tours, murals, and a published book. I dared to move to an old prison knowing no one in Jackson – or in the state of Michigan, for that matter. I thank the ghosts of prison past for trusting me to bring their stories and the history of the prison they inhabited to life. For them, the Dedication in my newly released book, JACKTOWN, reads as follows:
Dedicated to the Ghosts of Prison Past. Their hard labor built the town of Jackson, Michigan, into a leading industrial city in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Their stories were swept under the rug, ignored and unheard for far too long. I am proud to have swept them out into the open for posterity. Those who spent time on the Inside in what became known as “Jacktown” deserve this final recognition. Likewise so do the reformers of the past who recognized that humane treatment elicits humane response, even from those behind bars.