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Marvelous Michigan

By ROBERT N. JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times


Michigan is not just about cars; it is also about corn. The corn is not just for the cereal factories in Battle Creek; it is also for cattle. The cattle do not live just on rural dairy farms; a herd grazes about three miles from Ford Motor Co. world headquarters.

There are lots of discoveries like these to be found in the Lower Mitten, which supports the Upper Peninsula as it bridges the Great Lakes. Among the surprises that tumbled out at us during a family vacation there last summer: +

A state museum that does a better job of humanizing Michigan history than does the all-encompassing Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum. +

A crossroads community that annually erupts into a national convention site for magicians. +

Guided tours of a nuclear reactor and an atom-smasher. +

Kids' attractions ranging from a zany, crammed-to-the-rafters video/pinball arcade to chemistry and physics experiments at hands-on museums. +

A self-guided tour of a two-room factory that fills 1,900 bottles and cans of soda each minute. +

A chunk of the moon and a $15 check written by baseball immortal Ty Cobb. +

Enough glistening antique-auto and powerful warplane displays to tax even Bill Gates' wallet. +

Festivals galore, especially those focused on eating, vehicles and farm culture. Come along with me, Lucille . . .

The way to see Michigan, which is about 3,000 square miles larger than Florida, is to drive it. But 12 days scurrying about in a minivan allowed us only a sample.

Of course, in midsummer we had plenty of company on the highway. Heading north from Detroit early one Friday afternoon, in 20 minutes we passed 23 vehicles that were towing boats, campers or water-scooters.

Although Minnesota boasts that it is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Michigan has 1,000 more. Traversing M-55 along the south shore of midstate Houghton Lake, past the resort motels and vacation cottages, is a drive-by boat show. Yet the lake is large enough that its surface seems uncluttered. The same picture is repeated in marinas along the enormous Great Lakes coastlines.

As U.S. 23 follows Lake Huron on Michigan's eastern edge, motorists are enticed to stop for roadside sales -- used golf clubs, old school desks, flags, the cab of an ancient pickup truck, hubcaps, corn, melons, shrimp. Both sides of the road are lined with vacation homes. They identify themselves to passers-by and expected visitors through driveway signs and mailboxes shaped like lighthouses, life-size pigs, fish silhouettes, life preservers, ships, even an oversize pair of boxer shorts, painted in polka dots.

It was in this region that I collided with the festival frenzy.

We were headed for East Tawas -- separated from Tawas by a couple of miles and municipal pride, or pretention. I wanted to stop for the night before driving to East Tawas but in the interest of spontaneity on our trip, I had no motel reservations. Big mistake.

Between 4:30 and 5 p.m. this day, I phoned motels in four towns. As I got more desperate, I called Mount Pleasant, a small city 42 miles in the wrong direction. Central Michigan University, located there, was having its summer-semester graduation, one clerk explained, "and we have the Indian casino here, too."

I phoned ahead, 71 miles to the Tawases, and got shut out -- the Waterfront Art Show was taking place.

Finally we settled on the last room available in a two-star motel in Bay City, a maritime town that was reveling in the annual Pig Gig and Boar Roar -- a rib cook-off and powerboat races.

That same weekend, we could have taken in the Garlic Festival in Benton Harbor, Dinghy Parade in Caseville, Barefoot Water-skiing Championships in Kalamazoo, Fish Sandwich Festival in Bay Port, Lumberjack Day in Trout Lake, a Civil War artillery encampment at Copper Harbor, Oldtime Fiddlers Jamboree in Alpena, Ship and Shore Festival in New Buffalo, Little Elks Indian Powwow or Selfridge Air Show in Mount Clemens, Polish Festival in Boyne Falls, Glad-Peach Festival and Arts and Crafts Show in Coloma, statewide Michigan Festival in East Lansing, eight county or 4-H fairs, and six antique car shows.

Made me appreciate landing any room, even one designated for smokers. It's all about people We found slices of the state's history personalized in dramatic, even poignant, fashion in the excellent Michigan Historical Museum, four blocks from the state Capitol in Lansing.

Here is a sobering collection of shredded Civil War battle flags. Trying to carry the banner of the 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, for instance cost nine men their lives on July 1, 1863. They were among the 15,000 Michiganders killed in the Civil War.

Among other fascinating tidbits in the museum: +

The production of Buicks grew so rapidly that the population of the company town of Flint soared from 13,103 in 1900 to 91,599 in 1920. +

The Willow Run bomber factory, just west of Detroit, employed 41,000 workers by June 1943, and they turned out a B-24 Liberator bomber every 63 minutes. +

Bootlegging was so popular that villages along the Great Lakes coasts closest to Canada made it a cottage industry; in the wintertime, folks would slide the cases across frozen areas on sleds.

The museum offers wrenching memories of students, migrant fieldworkers, single parents changed forever by the Depression. One woman tells of her sorrow when, as an elementary-school student, she learned that only girls with white shoes would be allowed to march in her school's big parade. Next to her written story are the tattered, black shoes that her impoverished father had colored white with house paint. Near the shoes is scrip paid in lieu of cash, and a well-thumbed manual on canning.

In the Arsenal of Democracy display, metal lockers stand near an enormous photo mural of the assembly line at Willow Run, and in each locker is a photo and some item -- coverall, lunchbox, street clothes -- from workers at that plant. The most engaging story is that of a dwarf, plucked from a circus, to crawl inside the bombers' wings and help with rivet placement.

In the same gallery I saw an older woman jitterbugging in front of a display case as Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy played over a speaker, but she slowed and stopped when she read the War Department telegram notifying a family that their son had been killed in battle.

Lumberjacks, miners, American Indians, children, merchant seamen, trappers, farmers, dentists, beauticians, even a chorus line of "Dancing Motorettes" from the 1957 Detroit Auto Show -- they are all here, forever reliving their lives in Michigan. Down the road, in the BIG museum

A few minutes before closing time, my wife, our sons Michael and Ryan and I left the pocket Smithsonian that is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. We had spent 7" hours here and knew that we hadn't seen it all.

The two attractions are an outgrowth of Ford's reverence for mechanical things and his appreciation of the changes they wrought in America. The village is an 81-acre swath of green on which have been placed dozens of historic structures, to form a model view of life when our nation was much younger.

Several of the buildings are of incalculable value -- the Wright Brothers' Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop; Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory; a tiny Illinois courthouse where lawyer Abraham Lincoln argued cases; Noah Webster's Connecticut home; Ford's birthplace, moved from its original location several miles to the north.

Many other buildings, dating to the 1600s, serve to round out a village scene -- a machine shop, textile mill, carriage shop, electric-power plant, stores and a schoolhouse. There's even a working, seven-acre farm -- birthplace of tire magnate Harvey Firestone -- whose cattle, sheep and pigs are indeed just about three miles from Ford Motor's headquarters.

Ford brought all this together in 1929, to highlight the ingenuity of noted people while displaying the circumstances of more-common Americans.

Costumed docents gush with anecdotes about the buildings' history and occupants. In a reproduction of Ford's first auto-manufacturing plant, visitors learn that his men could produce 15 cars a day in 1903 -- buyers paid $850 in advance and ordered the body painted red, yellow or green -- and they could make 1,500 cars a day when he used the moving assembly line in 1915.

At the Wright Brothers' shop, a replica of their famous 1903 plane fills the back room. They settled on the North Carolina Outer Banks for their flights because government statistics promised them steady winds and a flat surface.

Edison was granted 1,093 patents, the first for an electrically operated vote-recorder to be used in Congress. The men in his lab often worked around the clock, stopping at midnight for food and camaraderie, with Edison pounding out tunes on an organ.

If your children get restless from too much history, they can ride on an 83-year-old carousel or the Suwannee, a small steamboat. They can try their hand at turn-of-the-century toys -- wait till they learn how to walk on stilts -- or hammer pendants for a necklace at the tinsmith shop.

Adjacent to the village is the vast Henry Ford Museum, where his love of ingenuity and improving on it is displayed with thousands of items. From massive, 19th-century steam engines to vacuum cleaners, from a 600-ton locomotive to a Wienermobile, it's all here.

A Made in America exhibit lays out the choices for a computerized, robotic manufacturing system vs. that of human workers. One section considers the balance between workers and bosses.

Detailing a range of success stories in this century are the displays of roadside businesses -- the diner, drive-in movie and old "auto court" cottage are sure to make you nostalgic -- and the enchanting Motown Sound gallery, which traces the history of that Detroit record label. Visitors learn how to dance like the Temptations or mix the parts of a record as a sound engineer would. Where are all the factories? When your road winds past a factory here, you'll know it: The auto plants, scattered about the Mitten, and the cereal factories in Battle Creek become the horizon. Passing by them can be clocked on the trip odometer.

But don't bother measuring the farms. Throughout lower Michigan, what isn't city or forest is agriculture. While much of the land is planted with soybeans, alfalfa, beets and celery, corn is king. About 2.7-million acres are filled with battalions of ramrod straight corn stalks.

How much is 2.7-million acres? More than twice all the Florida land planted with citrus and sugar cane combined.

But little of this corn is destined for the Redenbacher plant or for the Green Giant niblets cannery. This corn will be fed to cattle, here and in other states, and then the cattle will be fed to us.

As it turned out, we couldn't tour an auto-assembly plant. Insurance concerns have eliminated most of them. The giant Ford plant in the town of Wixom, which has tours only on Fridays, was booked for more than three months after our Michigan visit would end.

We also struck out at the Waco Biplane Factory in Lansing; they had discontinued tours, though they will show nearly finished planes.

But we did get to see wooden shoes being carved and cases of soda being filled, both in the tourist town of Holland.

The little city on the shores of Lake Michigan trades heavily on the Dutch ancestry of its early settlers and current populace. The Tulip Time Festival in May is spectacular, with eight miles of streets adorned with blooms.

Less entrancing are the machines that carve 6-inch-thick blocks of poplar into shoes of various sizes. A router smoothes the shoes inside and out, and they are set out to dry for a few weeks. Finished shoes, klompen, are sold in more than a dozen sizes, plain and painted with tulips and windmills.

More intriguing was the tour of impressively named Brooks Beverage Management Inc. Visitors walk up a flight of stairs, select a sample of the 11 kinds of soda bottled here for sale throughout lower Michigan and Ohio, and while sipping, watch the operation through large windows:

Six sizes of containers schuss along conveyor belts, colored liquids are injected and caps or lids are sealed on. The swiftly moving, repetitious patterns are pleasing, almost mesmerizing. If you can remember the old black-and-white TV program Industry on Parade, you'll love this stop.

And you can buy a nifty ballcap embossed with your favorite brand for just $7. Magic in the air, and in the gym

The thin man with the gray goatee walked his unicycle along the sidewalk, turned down the driveway and disappeared behind Colon High School -- Home of the Magi. When he reappeared, he was not alone: A teenage boy was with him, and both were riding unicycles.

Up the sidewalk they came, pedaling past the men selling props and equipment from their campers and enclosed pickups. They pedaled past the high school lawn, where three teens who had just met were juggling Indian clubs with each other.

The Abbott's Magic Get-Together was under way again.

About three-quarters of a century ago, famed magician Harry Blackstone Sr. used to pass summers in this village near the Indiana border, working on his illusions for the coming vaudeville season. A colleague, Percy Abbott, came to visit and to help construct the props, and the two formed a company to manufacture lesser tricks for retail sales.

Though the partnership dissolved, Abbott Magic Co. endures, proclaiming itself the world's largest manufacturer of tricks. For 58 years, the one-mile-square village has been holding summertime conventions for magicians, an outgrowth of Blackstone's dress rehearsals.

Typically, more than 1,000 people will register for the four-day event, which includes seminars, equipment sales, a ventriloquism workshop, a 5K run, amateur magicians' contests, a church service and, each night, a different professional magic show in the high school gym.

The town itself embraces the medium and its practitioners. There is a Magi Cafe, a Magic Carpet II restaurant, Magic City Hardware, Illusions Hair Salon. When the late-July event arrives, motels are booked solid for at least 25 miles in each direction, and restaurants and pizzerias schedule after-show hours.

Visitors ambling about the village may spot someone doing sleight-of-hand to amuse passersby. Along the sidewalks, practitioners sell their "used magic" such as silk scarves or decorated boxes. They gossip about who is just "table-hopping" now -- doing sleight-of-hand at restaurants or nursing homes, rather than doing stage acts.

The night that Michael, 14, and I took in the show, 615 folding chairs on the basketball floor were filled, as were the retractable bleachers along the sides and at one end of the floor.

The five acts varied in quality -- and in props. A couple from Europe worked with squawking cockatiels and macaws; an elderly man seated the traditional "lovely assistant" and then a member of the audience in an electrically charged chair. Once seated -- the young woman briefly sat in the lap of the audience participant -- they could illuminate neon tubes that were passed close to their bodies.

When we left, we passed by the American Legion Hall, where those in the know head for a burger and a free show by visiting magicians, and drove to our motel in Battle Creek. Some special discoveries

Among our other Michigan memories: +

Viewing a 3.3-billion-year-old moon rock in Jackson's Michigan Space & Science Center. The facility pays tribute to a number of astronauts with Michigan and Jackson ties, and kids can try on a space suit, sit in a replica capsule and use interactive computers. They also can see what astronauts do when they have to go to the bathroom (solid waste is stowed on board in sealable bags). +

Watching as a midnight-blue Duesenberg convertible imperiously glided across the grounds at the Gilmore Classic Car Club of America Museum. The elegant car -- the basis of the phrase, "It's a doozy" -- was being exhibited at the former farm.

Here, barns display glistening Packards and Cadillacs dating to 1903, a 1978 Russian-built Chaika limousine used by Leonid Brezhnev, one of only 51 Tuckers ever built, and the humble workhorse Checker Cab -- a product of nearby Kalamazoo. My boys' favorite: a DeLorean, with its stainless-steel exterior. +

Touring the 39-year-old nuclear reactor on the campus of the University of Michigan. Assistant superintendent Phillip Simpson threw in a 10-minute chalkboard lesson on fission and fusion before we saw the reactor, largely used for industrial research.

Simpson assured us as we stared, hypnotized, into the blue-white glow of the 27-foot-deep cooling-water pool that it was almost safe enough to drink. Rival Michigan State University offers tours of its National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, home of the world's first such atom smasher. +

Popping coins into some of the hundreds of games in Marvin's Marvelous Mechanized Museum. Wedged into a service alley of a shopping mall in Farmington Hills, Marvin's is a happy, floor-to-ceiling entertainment hodge-podge.

You can try your hand -- and feet -- on a virtual-reality skiing machine, play new and old pinball and video games, rate yourself on the passion-tester handgrip, have your fortune told, crank a 1905 machine that flips cards to create a short movie. Owner Marvin Yagoda coyly admits that "We have more than a thousand electrical outlets, and they're all being used."

Nearly every inch of wall space is covered with old circus posters, the occasional stuffed deer head, oversized marionettes or vintage advertising signs.

One event summarized our Michigan adventure, the enormous Ann Arbor Art Fairs. A fusion of three separate fairs, the weekend festival takes over several downtown streets with about 1,000 artisans' displays.

The overlapping shows are enlivened by street performers and stage bands, big discounts by regular merchants and a gleeful atmosphere that seems to paint smiles on adults just as clowns paint on the faces of children.

Of course, we couldn't take it all in during our stop. Just as we couldn't see all of Michigan despite careful planning -- we kept making discoveries. If you go

The places cited here are just a sampling of family-oriented attractions throughout Michigan. There are many other museums, hands-on science places for kids, zoos, parks and campgrounds, canoe rentals and fishing excursions, pretty college campuses and historic sites ranging from recently refurbished Tiger Stadium in Detroit to the prettily preserved Victorian homes in Petoskey.

And that's just in the Lower Mitten.

For information on the attractions mentioned here, contact the following:

-- Michigan Historical Museum, 717 W Allegan St. Lansing, MI 48918; call (517) 373-3559. Open daily, closed holidays.

-- Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48121-1970; (313) 271-1620, TDD: (313) 271-2455. Open daily, closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

-- Plant Tours, Ford Motor Co., Wixom Assembly Plant, 28801 Wixom Road, Wixom, MI 48393-0001; (810) 344-5358. Two-hour walking tours, held on Fridays only. Written requests mandatory, all dates through September already booked.

-- Brooks Beverage Management Inc., 777 Brooks Ave., Holland, MI 49423; (616) 393-5800. Call ahead for tour dates, generally on weekdays.

-- Abbott's Magic Get-Together, 124 St. Joseph, Colon, MI 49040; (800) 926-2442 or (616) 432-3235. This year's dates: Aug. 6-9.

-- Michigan Space & Science Center, 2111 Emmons Road, Jackson, MI 49201; (517) 787-4425. Open Tuesday-Saturday through April, then Tuesday-Sunday. Closed holidays.

-- Gilmore Classic Car Club of America Museum, 6865 Hickory Road, Hickory Corners, MI 49060; (616) 671-5089. Open this year, daily, May 3-Oct. 26.

-- Nuclear reactor tour at the Phoenix Memorial Lab, University of Michigan, 2301 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor, MI 48109; (313) 764-6220. Tours are free but by appointment only; best days to get a tour are Tuesday-Thursday. Closed holidays.

-- National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824; (517) 333-6363. Call ahead for the free tours, generally available on weekdays; closed holidays.

-- Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum, 31005 Orchard Lake Road, Farmington Hills, MI 48334; (810) 626-5020. Open every day of the year, but hours vary.

-- Ann Arbor Art Fairs, c/o Convention and Visitors Bureau, 120 W Huron, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. This year the fairs expect about 1,000 artists, and tens of thousands of browsers.

Other sources of information include:

-- Two good paperbacks from Globe Pequot Press,

Michigan Off the Beaten Path, by Jim DuFresne ($10.95) and Michigan Family Adventure Guide, by William Semion, $9.95.

-- The lively newsletter Great Lakes Gazette, published every other month by Michiganders Kath Usitalo and T.J. Kozak (wife and husband, writer and illustrator, respectively). It's witty, knowledgeable and designed to prove that the Great Lakes State is surrounded not just by water but by fun. $3.50 an issue; contact Great Lakes Gazette, P.O. Box 631, St. Clair Shores, MI 48080; call (313) 881-8859.

-- American Automobile Association's detailed Tour Book for Michigan and Wisconsin.

-- Travel Michigan, the state's tourism agency, which has numerous state and regional brochures that include maps and event calendars. Contact Travel Michigan, P.O. Box 30226, Lansing, MI 48909; (517) 373-0670; fax (517) 373-0059; WWW address http://www.travel-michigan.state.mi.us.

-- The Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council represents several counties in the lower corner of the Mitten. Contact the agency for maps and events calendars at SWMTC, 2300 Pipestone Road, Benton Harbor, MI 49022; call (616) 925-6301; FAX (616) 925-7540; e-mail swmichigan@parrett.net; on the Internet at http://www.swmichigan.org. -- ROBERT N. JENKINS The well-preserved steering wheel of an ancient convertible on the grounds of Greenfield Village bears the label declaring this is, appropriately, a Ford. The Wright Bros. Cycle Shop -- where they created their motorized Kitty Hawk glider -- was moved by Henry Ford from Dayton, Ohio, to Greenfield Village. Ryan Jenkins checks out a 1965 Amphicar, one of about 600 produced, at the Gilmore Classic Car Club Museum. The vehicle could drive on land or water; this one has a 1996 Michigan boat-license decal. Having more or less conquered the wooden-slat channels that are East Tawas' Maze of the Planets, Michael Jenkins and brother, Ryan, unwind with a round of golf. A huge carving symbolizing the area's Native American heritage draws Ryan and Michael Jenkins near the entrance to Lansing's imaginative Potter Park Zoo. Manistee Break Wall Light House symbolizes the Great Lakes shipping industry. Road warrior Babe, mascot of the Michigan vacation, displays souvenirs from the 12-day trip. Cherries are a symbol of Traverse City.

Originally published April 6, 1997



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