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Horton’s Michigan Notebook

Barbra Thumudo

Local woman helps convey history of state capitol By Steve Horton Each year thousands of visitors show up at the state capitol in Downtown Lansing. And most of those sightseers are young students, accompanied by teachers and parent chaperones, for whom this school trip is a visual accompaniment to their studies of Michigan government and history. There to greet the school groups as well as all of the others who stop in for a first-hand look at this iconic building is the staff of the Capitol Tour & Information Services. A member of that staff for the past seven years is Barbra (Haller) Thumudo of Fowlerville. “We do 15 tours a day, with one starting every half hour,” Thumudo noted. “They last for about an hour. The students are primarily third and fourth graders. This is the grade level that Michigan history is taught. April and May are our busiest months since teachers like to schedule their trips at the end of school year. However, we can’t accommodate all of them within this limited window of time, so tours are conducted throughout the school year.” When it comes to school groups, demand exceeds supply. “Part of our job is to schedule these visits,” she explained.”Not every school district wants to come, but with all of the public, charter, private, and Christian schools in the state, right now we have a waiting list of about 30 schools.” Each guide takes up to 30 persons on a tour. “For those who just happen to show up at the capitol, we add them to a school group if we can or, if they can wait, we try to fit them into the schedule,” she said. While the young students are the mainstay of the tours, visitors cover a wide variety of categories. “You never know

who’s going to walk through the doors,” she noted. “We have people who have made it a hobby to see every state capitol. We have a lot of foreign tourists, including students who are attending classes as Michigan State University. There have been a number of sports and entertainment celebrities.” She added that “Michigan is among the top five most visited state capitols.” Numerous facts and anecdotes are included during the walk about the building. First of all, explains Thumudo, this is Michigan’s third capitol building. The first was in the federal court building in Detroit that had served as the seat of government when the state was still a territory. From statehood in May of 1837 until 1847, it accommodated the governor’s office, both chambers of the legislature, and other state officials. A wooden building just south of the current site housed the seat of government after Lansing was named as the new, centrally-located state capital. . “In its early years, Lansing was called the ‘Wilderness Capital’ due to so little settlement existing in the area at that time,” Thumudo pointed out. “It was a compromise choice and not everyone was happy with the location.” Long since lost to fire, that facility was in operation until the current capitol was opened in 1879. “During a tour, we talk about the historical significance of this building,” noted Thumudo. “We cover how the legislature works. How bills are introduced and then passed into law. We show them the replicas of the Civil War battle flags that are on display. There are also portraits of past governors, and I often mention the two or three most recent ones. We also stop at the visitor’s gallery in both the House of Representatives and State Senate. With the school groups, if the legislature is in session, it’s been prearranged for the students to be introduced. “We also notify the Representative and Senator when a group from their district is going on tour and usually either one of the legislators or a member of their staff member will arrange for a photo to be taken. Thumudo noted that the tour given to the elementary students is geared for this younger age group, while information offered to adults or to a specific audience, like Civil War buffs, is tailored to fit their interests. A few basic highlights about Michigan’s capitol are that the architect was Elijah E. Myers and that the construction went from 1872 to 78.The only addition since then was the annex on the north side. The building covers around 100,000 square feet and measures 267 feet in height, from the ground to the tip of the Lantern. The rotunda in the center of the interior spans most of that distance, starting at the ground level and rising up four more stories. The dome on the outside is capped with cast-iron sheeting, while the bottom portion of the exterior features sandstone brick. An extensive remodeling of the interior took place from 1989 thru 1992 that modernized the place for current

needs, like computer wiring, and also enhanced its architectural features. This history of the building with its many unique features, coupled with the multitude of people that have served in government over the years and all of the events that have occurred, are what fascinates Thumudo and has prompted her to become better informed about the capitol. “In the summer when the tours are less frequent, the staff spends part of our time doing research. “Among our duties is to gather and preserve information on the building and to oversee the existing files,” she said. “It’s pretty common for someone to come in and indicate that they had an ancestor who served in the legislature or worked in the building and to ask if we have any information about them. We also have a lot of interest in the Civil War flags. The originals used to be housed here, but they became so fragile that they were moved to the State Historical Museum that’s located west of the capitol, and replicas were put in their place. We try to answer whatever questions or inquiries that are brought to us.” The response to those requests can often be satisfied in the existing files, but sometimes additional research is required, including visits to the state library and its collection of old government documents. Thumudo said that she finds this aspect of her job, one she volunteers for, as both challenging and exciting. “I never dreamed when I first took this job that I’d get this opportunity to do historical research,” she added. The knowledge she’s gained from her on-the-job efforts has included giving speeches to outside groups and occasionally publishing an historical paper. “To me this building, with its unique architecture and décor, is a work of art,” she said. “For that reason it needs to be preserved and protected. Yet, the place serves an everyday purpose. The business of government is conducted here. There are 14 offices used by the leadership of the House and Senate, along with the two legislative chambers and committee hearing rooms. When the legislature is in session, this can be a busy place. It gets a lot of wear and tear. We want to showcase the history, but also keep the building functional as a state capitol.” BARBARA’S INTEREST IN HISTORY DID NOT BEGIN NOR IS IT LIMITED TO HER JOB AS A CAPITOL GUIDE. “My grandmother, Martha (Evans) Haller was into genealogy, and she passed that interest on to me when I was young,” Thumudo pointed out. “She kept scrapbooks on everything. For example, she still had the yearbook, graduation program, keepsakes, and newspaper clippings from her class that graduated in 1934 from Fowlerville High. “Also, she and my grandfather, Ralph, lived in an historical home that they had restored,” she added. “I credit her as the person who gave me an interest in my ancestors and local history, especially old homes. I became involved in researching the family tree with my grandmother. I remember when the internet came along and how much easier it was to discover information by going online. One of

the fun things I’d do would be to learn something about an ancestor and then go over to my grandparents to tell them about it.” Her parents are Joe and Bonnie Haller, and she grew up in Fowlerville. She pointed out that art, rather than history, was her main interest during those younger years. “I took all of the art classes I could while in high school and went on to earn an Associates Degree in art at Lansing Community College,” she added. After graduating from high school in 1991, she worked as a receptionist at a local chiropractic clinic for several years and also helped at her parents’ assisted living home. She married a fellow student, Chico Thumudo, and the couple had two children who are now grown up. “Corey is 22 and takes classes at a community college along with working, and Breanna is 17 and a senior at Fowlerville High,” she said. Taking a page from her grandparents, she and her husband restored an old house they’d purchased on North Grand Avenue in Fowlerville. Then, after selling it 12 years ago, they bought a larger home on the corner of Frank and South Second Streets and have been restoring that residence. So how did she end up as a tour guide? “When my son was a fourth grader his class visited the capitol, and I went along as a chaperon,” Barbara recalled. “I thought ‘This is something I’d like to do’, so I applied for a position. With all of the applications the Capitol Tours & Information Services gets, it was filed and nothing happened. I let it go and then a few years later came back up here and spoke with the chair of the department. I then volunteered for a year as an unpaid tour guide. During the peak times, volunteer docents are used to help the staff. I was then offered a part time position that had become available and finally became one of the five fulltime staff members. “All of those years spent working on genealogy prepared me to do the research on the building’s history,” she said. “I love doing this kind of work so I’ve become the ‘go to’ person when something needs to be looked up. I never would have dreamed that I’d end up working here. I’m not into the political stuff. It’s the building and its history that I find interesting.” Still, while the details of this history, all the minutia of facts and figures, constitutes a key aspect of her job, something more looms like an overarching backdrop to what Thumudo and the other guides seek to convey with their tours; an aspect that permeates the place. “There’s a sense of awe that this building evokes,” she said. “The beautiful architecture and the historical grandeur are telling us that what’s being done here is significant. This is our seat of state government.” It’s among the lessons she and the others offer to all of those young students who come here day after day, year after year, and a message given to all of the many others who pay a visit. “We tell them that this place belongs to them.”


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