2012-01-26 / News

Barnhill Established Museum, Aquarium at St. Ignace

By Mary Petrides


Jack Barnhill ran Treasure Island Museum in St. Ignace for 55 years. The back of this postcard indicates that it carried “world famous pirate treasure, pieces of eight, golden doubloons, pirate cannons from sunken galleons of the 16th century, thousands of Indian relics, including world’s largest Indian war canoe.” Mr. Barnhill also operated an aquarium and Argosy Boat Line, a ferry service to Mackinac Island that later became Star Line Ferry. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Jack Barnhill ran Treasure Island Museum in St. Ignace for 55 years. The back of this postcard indicates that it carried “world famous pirate treasure, pieces of eight, golden doubloons, pirate cannons from sunken galleons of the 16th century, thousands of Indian relics, including world’s largest Indian war canoe.” Mr. Barnhill also operated an aquarium and Argosy Boat Line, a ferry service to Mackinac Island that later became Star Line Ferry. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) In his more than 50 years in St. Ignace, Jack Barnhill operated a museum and an aquarium, which showcased his lifelong interest in historical artifacts and sea animals. Mr. Barnhill established Argosy Boat Line, which later became Star Line Ferry after he sold it. He now resides in Tallahassee, Florida.

A Florida native, Mr. Barnhill, 93, spent much of his boyhood in New Mexico, where his father owned a trading post. He began his own business when he was 16 or 17 years old, he said, buying and trading Native American pottery. He scoured Florida and its nearby waters for artifacts, bringing cannons and anchors up from the sea floor and finding other artifacts on land. A friend of his father suggested he bring his collection to St. Ignace, so he did. Shortly after World War II, he moved north and opened a museum in the building on North State Street where Star Line Ferry is now. He operated Treasure Island Museum for 55 years and ran a souvenir shop along with it.

For 15 years of the museum’s operation, Mr. Barnhill also kept an aquarium in the parking lot. While in Florida, he captured sharks and turtles and brought them to a friend’s aquarium. The sharks and turtles captured Mr. Barnhill’s interest and he brought them to St. Ignace.

“I became so interested in fish that I built the tank that I had. It was a 10,000-gallon tank. I built it in Florida,” he said. “I cut it in half and put it on the railroad car and shipped it to Michigan.”

He shipped the animals, including sea turtles weighing 350 to 400 pounds, back to Florida every winter.

Tom Pfeiffelmann and five other businessmen purchased Argosy Boat Line in 1977 and started Star Line the following spring.

Mr. Pfeiffelmann remembers when one of Mr. Barnhill’s sharks died.

“He took the shark and just dumped it out in the lake and it washed ashore, maybe around Mackinaw City. … They were speculating all sorts of things as to how that shark got into the Great Lakes,” Mr. Pfeiffelmann said. “Jack never told.”

Mr. Barnhill left St. Ignace to pursue another passion: painting. Throughout the 1950s, he had been flying to Mexico three or four times a year, staying for a month and returning for three or four months. He had previously studied painting in Costa Rica and spent two years studying in Cuba, Mr. Barnhill said, at the recommendation of his father’s friend, the writer Ernest Hemingway. Remaining in Florida allowed Mr. Barnhill greater freedom to travel to Mexico. After selling the boat line, he eventually sold the museum building and many of the artifacts.

In 2009, he displayed his work along with that of three other artists in an exhibit called “Artfully Aging: Lifelong Learning through the Arts” at the Gallery for Innovation and the Arts in Tallahassee, Florida.

Mr. Barnhill still enjoys buying and selling collector’s items, as well as his paintings, on his Web site.

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