Mackinac Island scout tradition goes back to Gerald R. Ford

Each morning during the summer, like clockwork, about two dozen American flags are raised across Mackinac Island. First comes a 9:40 a.m. cannon blast at Fort Mackinac, then the Stars and Stripes go up around the fort, in town and at several other locations.

About nine hours later, at 6:30 p.m., the flags all come back down.

It’s the same routine each day, all summer, every summer. And the same people have conducted the flag ceremonies for the past 90 years: Boy and Girl Scouts.

Black and white photo of President Gerald R. Ford conducting flag ceremonies as a teenager on Mackinac Island

How the Mackinac Island Scouting Tradition Began

The tradition began in 1929 when then-Michigan Gov. Fred Green commissioned eight Eagle Scouts from around the state as honor guardsman on Mackinac Island, home of the Michigan Governor’s Summer Residence. One of those original scouts was Gerald R. Ford, who went on to become a U.S. congressman and, later, president of the United States.

Back then, the scouts stayed at the commissary inside Fort Mackinac. But as more scouts started coming to serve in the Mackinac Island Scout Service Camp in subsequent years, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a Scout Barracks near the fort.

Today, that barracks continues to host about 60 scouts per week throughout the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The scouts eat together in a big dining room and sleep together in a large, second-floor bunk room.

Flag Ceremony Conducted by Boy Scouts Outside Barracks on Mackinac Island
Boy scouts conduct a flag ceremony outside the Scout Barracks on Mackinac Island in the 1950s. (Photo credit: Mackinac State Historic Parks Collection)

What Mackinac Island Scouts Do

Each day the scouts march around Mackinac Island in uniform to conduct morning and evening flag ceremonies at the Scout Barracks and elsewhere including the Michigan Governor’s Summer Residence, the visitors center, Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island cemeteries. They serve as guides at Fort Mackinac and other Mackinac State Historic Parks attractions, assisting paid parks staff by greeting visitors and checking tickets, answering questions and running errands. They also do volunteer service projects such as cleaning and painting.

In the evenings, the scouts bond through activities such as campfires, kickball games and scavenger hunts.

The program benefits Mackinac State Historic Parks, which gets an estimated 30,000 hours of volunteer service from scouts each summer. It also gives scouts the opportunity to experience the history and tradition of Mackinac Island while getting lots of free time to explore and enjoy.

In fact, one reason kids stay in scouting as they get older is because of the chance to serve on Mackinac Island. The Mackinac Island Scout Service Camp is one of the few remaining scout camps in the country and the only place where scouts handle operations at an historical attraction.

“It’s one of the most win-win experiences that we have,” says Phil Porter, director emeritus of Mackinac State Historic Parks. “It’s a great opportunity for us because we have all of these scouts providing great service to help us keep our parks open and service the public, but it’s also a great experience for the scouts.”

Originally, when Ford came to Mackinac Island as a scout in 1929, only Eagle Scouts took part in the camp. That soon changed and now scouts from all over Michigan come to Mackinac Island each summer. Girl scouts started taking part in 1974.

In 1975, when Ford returned to Mackinac Island as president, his helicopter landed near the Scout Barracks and he shook hands with the scouts serving there that week.

Next time you’re on Mackinac Island, keep an eye out for the boys and girls in uniform who are sustaining a very patriotic century-old tradition!

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