Matt Varnum: Benzie History

Matt Varnum: Benzie History

Questions & Answers with community faces

Matt Varnum (38) grew up in Midland and graduated from H.H. Dow High School in 2004.

He then attended Central Michigan University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in history with a minor in museum studies in 2012, followed by a Master’s degree in public administration in 2018, also from CMU.

In 2013, Varnum began working at the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association in Ludington, where he served as museum curator for eight years, from 2015 to 2023. In his work there—which encompasses four lighthouses—Varnum managed and trained more than 300 volunteers, including recruiting, training, scheduling, and overseeing tour operations. He also created new exhibits, cared for collections, developed community partnerships, gave presentations, wrote newsletter articles, and introduced new technology into their operations.  

In June 2023, however, Varnum became the executive director of the Benzie Area Historical Society and Museum. The reason for Varnum’s “change of scenery” was that he was lucky enough to use his undergrad degree for 10 years; now he wanted the chance also to use his Master’s degree.  

The Benzie Area Historical Society and Museum’s mission is to connect people to the past through the vibrant story of our region. By collecting, preserving, and interpreting the history of the Benzie area, the historical society links past with present and inspires future generations. The Benzie Area Historical Museum—located in an 1887 Congregational Church that is owned and operated by the society and is on the Michigan State Register of Historic Sites—collects and preserves artifacts, photos, and stories about our past. 

Over the past 50 years, BAHS has offered walking tours, cycling tours, bus tours, programs, and events throughout our county and has collaborated with other historical societies, libraries, and civic organizations. For instance, more than 700 students have participated in the Junior Historians program by visiting the museum, going on tours, and/or receiving primary source research training. Additionally, every year, the society hosts the Bruce Catton essay contest, in which Frankfort Middle School students share and describe an experience they have had growing up in Benzie County and its impact on them. 

Moreover, BAHS researchers are a community resource providing articles, presentations, research, photographs, and other support to local schools, civic organizations, researchers, the media, and community members. Volunteers also offer research and genealogy services focused on Benzie County history to the public. The society is a nonprofit, and the museum depends solely on donations for its operation.

Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Varnum as he was finalizing the historical society’s 2024 events.

The Betsie Current: What made you want to work in this industry?

Matt Varnum: Growing up, my family and I did a lot of camping/traveling throughout Michigan and other states. We would visit state parks, museums, historic sites, nature preserves, etc. One trip, in particular, is what began my passion for history—we took a trip out East, with one of our stops being East Greenwich, Rhode Island, where we visited the home of a family member who had been a general during the Revolutionary War, General James Mitchell Varnum. His house had been turned into a museum; there was also an armory museum in his name. This trip was the start of my path into history and museums.

Current: In your opinion, why is history so important?

Varnum: I find history important because we can learn from it. Learning from world history—and our own history—helps us to grow or improve our lives. By not learning from the past, one will continue to make the same mistakes and not be able to grow as a country, as a community, or as a person. Learning about local history helps people to realize that the grand scheme of historical change is made up of countless individuals like them, who, in their own ways, contributed to the ongoing story of our community.
Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you? 

Varnum: A typical day for me includes answering emails, answering and returning phone calls, meetings, and what project needs to be worked on next. If we have an event in the evening, I will also attend that.

Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next?

Varnum: My work has changed due to the change I made in my job. Before starting at the Benzie Area Historical Society, I was a curator for the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association, and my job entailed focusing on research, artifact care, exhibit creation, and sharing information. As executive director of the Benzie Area Historical Society, I now focus on the organization—handling day-to-day operations, grant writing, fundraising, data entry, and event planning. I hope this will continue to grow by working with the amazing volunteers that the historical society has as we work toward helping it grow and become the destination in the county for local history research and visitors, both local and far. 

Current: What kinds of things can we look forward to later this season from the Benzie Area Historical Society and Museum? Can you give us a little preview of what you have planned? 

Varnum: Our museum features permanent exhibits showcasing virtually all aspects of life here in Benzie County since its inception in 1869, as well as two to four special exhibits annually. We currently have more than 37,000  artifacts in our collection, including photographs, letters, manuscripts, documents, and other ephemera that are organized and available to researchers, schools, writers, and the general public. We have volunteers who have helped people to trace their family/genealogical history, as well as volunteers who help to maintain the local cemeteries, including the very old headstones. On the second Thursday of each month, we have our Benzonia Academy Lecture Series, which takes place at the Mills Community House and is open to the public. A few of our upcoming lectures include Benzie Ghost Lumber Towns, Crystal Lake Yacht Club, and The Garden Theater, just to name a few. If you miss those events in person, you can always watch them on our YouTube channel afterward. Also, we’re currently asking the community to send us photographs of men and women from Benzie County who served in the military and volunteer services during World War II; our goal is to feature as many veterans as possible, but we need the public’s help locating original photographs—please no copies or newspapers—and biographical information on these people. Our deadline is March 31. This summer, we will have scheduled walking tours in Frankfort, Elberta, and Benzonia; be on the lookout when registering is available for these walking tours, as space is limited. We have other events that we are currently working on finalizing, so make sure to visit our website for details on all of our upcoming events and what is happening with the historical society. We publish a quarterly newsletter, which people can sign up for on our website. We also publish a weekly column in the Benzie County Record Patriot called “100 Years Ago,” which features historical articles from yesteryear. Notably, we have published three books: The Royal Frontenac Hotel, Aux Becs Scies: Frankfort Harbor 1860-1920, and Landmarks of Betsie Bay, and two of our researchers are compiling photographs and research for an upcoming publication celebrating the early history of Thompsonville. The Drake School Museum will be open Saturdays and Sundays in July and August from 1-4 p.m.

Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun when you are not working? What other things are you involved with?

Varum: I enjoy getting outside, hiking, kayaking, golfing, and disc golfing. I also like visiting craft breweries.  Another activity I do is watch sports broadcasts—MLB, college basketball, college football, and NFL.

Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?

Varnum: One of the most significant rewards of living/working in Northern Michigan is the beauty of the area and all of the outdoor activities available, regardless of the time of year. Honestly, I don’t see any challenges with living/working here. The most rewarding part of my job is my contribution toward working to preserve and share the incredible history of Benzie County.

Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more and/or retain talented people in this area? What else does Northern Michigan need?

Varnum: Affordable housing. I know I had difficulty finding a place to live when I was looking.

Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, or hiking spots?

Varnum: A few of my favorite dining spots would be The Lucky Dog and L’Chayim Delicatessen in Beulah and Dinghy’s Restaurant in Frankfort. I haven’t gotten out much since starting in late June, but I look forward to trying out many more local restaurants and hiking spots. 

Current: What does your perfect spring day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?

Varnum: My perfect spring day would be getting outside and hiking. I have heard about the neat hiking trails in the area, so I look forward to taking advantage of them.

The Benzie Area Historical Society and Museum is now open for spring hours on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and also by appointment. Call 231- 882-5539 or email with questions. Visit online, “Benzie Area Historical Society and Museum” on Facebook, or @BenzieHistorical on Instagram to learn more. Watch videos of previous in-person events at ​”Benzie Area Historical Society & Museum” on YouTube.

If you have local historical photos and/or stories to share, call to set up an appointment or mail original photos to Benzie Area Historical Society, PO Box 185, Benzonia, MI, 49616.

Featured Photo Caption: Matt Varnum (38) has spent nearly a year as the executive director for the Benzie Area Historical Society and Museum. Photo courtesy of Matt Varnum.

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Aubrey Parker

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