MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A museum in a historic Muskegon building shares the rich history of business and industry in the area and how a company came to the rescue of a Grand Rapids furniture factory after a devastating fire.

Opened in 1983 by historic preservation volunteers who acquired a free steam engine, the Muskegon Heritage Museum is housed at 561 W. Western Ave. in a building that began construction in 1905.

“(The) old building was a boarding house, commercial rental property for decades before a fire shut it down in the late ’70s. Now it’s being reused as the museum complex,” Kirk Bunke, site manager, said.

The museum was merged with the Lakeshore Museum Center at the start of the pandemic.

When visitors stop by the heritage museum, they are welcomed by an exhibit about Muskegon’s lumbering origin.

The lumbering exhibit at the Muskegon Heritage Museum. (Courtesy of the Lakeshore Museum Center)

“We started off as a lumber boom town back in the late 1830s, so that seemed like the perfect fit for the first thing that our guests can encounter,” Bunke explained.

As guests move through the main level, several permanent exhibits showcase the various other businesses and industries in Muskegon County.

“When the trees played out, Muskegon transitioned to traditional heavy industries with foundries, machine shops and a lot of heavy manufacturing,” he said. “Over the generations, it’s gradually remade itself, moving away from those bigger polluting industries to more high-tech industries.”

The exhibits showcase Muskegon’s involvement in the aerospace industry, precision investment, casing foundries as well as small businesses in the area.

The working 1890s Corliss valve stationary steam engine at the Muskegon Heritage Museum. (Courtesy of the Lakeshore Museum Center)

Toward the back of the museum, visitors can see a working 1890s Corliss valve stationary steam engine. Bunke said it operates a series of line shafts set up in the museum.

“We also have a number of other demonstrations that we can run. We have a working Brunswick pinsetter from the 1960s that we demonstrate. We have some spring makers, air-powered hoist — all sorts of fun toys to play with,” he said.

On the second level, visitors can explore the products that have been or are being manufactured in Muskegon. The third floor focuses on small businesses in the area.

“We have a Grand Rapids Desk Company rolltop desk that was built in the early 20th century that was originally owned by the founder of a company called Morton Manufacturing that produced machine tools here in Muskegon Heights,” Bunke said.

The desk has a backstory that includes a massive fire that brought the Grand Rapids company to Muskegon.

Bunke explained that in the early 20th century, “(the desk company) had a massive fire that was basically a total loss. It just so happened that (a) Muskegon community organization had a factory that they had helped build for a business that unfortunately went bankrupt, so they had title to a fully equipped furniture factory.”

The next day after the fire, he said, the company called the owner of the Grand Rapids Desk Company.

“He loaded his employees on the interurban street car and they all came to Muskegon on Friday (the second day after the fire) and got back to work. They missed one day of production with a total loss fire because they were able to take advantage of infrastructure over here,” he said.

After the fire, the company included plaques on the furniture that read “Grand Rapids Desk Company, Muskegon, Michigan,” Bunke said.

The Muskegon Heritage Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. May through October. The museum is open by appointment during the offseason. Tickets are $5 for guests 13 and older and free for kids and museum members. Bunke said once a month, the museum also offers a free community day, which is sponsored by a local business.

For more information on the Muskegon Heritage Museum, visit the Lakeshore Museum Center’s website.