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Historic Sites in West Michigan

Do you ever find yourself wondering what the world was like decades before your time? Mansions dripping with luxury and extravagance in the roaring 20s, dim interiors of WWII submarines, and festivals in the Netherlands over 150 years ago are just a few examples of the diverse historical locations around West Michigan that you can sprinkle into your vacations this year. Historical sites are great opportunities for the entire family to learn and enjoy a unique attraction simultaneously. Check out some of West Michigan’s most exciting historic places sorted by region below.

History in West Michigan’s South Region

When you’re in the area, you should make time to visit the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven. The museum boasts five separate buildings where you can view exhibits on the history of maritime activity in Michigan, and you can even participate in excursions on real boats from various points in Michigan’s history.

If you’re feeling a little seasick and are looking for something the kids will especially love, the Silver Beach Carousel in St. Joseph has a view of the water, forty-eight unique carousel figures, and one thousand glittering lights to whirl around beneath. The carousel originally opened in 1910, and the contemporary one that stands today is outfitted with six white and jeweled horses identical to those on the original machine.

When it comes to accommodations in the southern region of West Michigan, book a night at The Henderson Castle—originally built in 1895. The historic inn in Kalamazoo is registered on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can choose from a number of tour packages to explore the house.

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Those wishing to enjoy a nice evening out may want to book tickets to a show at the Tibbits Opera House—the second oldest theater in Michigan. Originally built in 1882, the theatre has been restored to showcase its rich history and allow theatregoers to enjoy year round arts and entertainment in the 499-seating opera house.

Need a drink? Stop by Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan. The distillery is located in the 1883 E.K. Warren Historic Featherbone Factory, and much of the original character is in place today.  

If you’re looking for a more rural setting, spend the day at Historic Charlton Park in Hastings. It includes a turn-of-the-century historic village, a museum, and a recreational area. The park, established in 1936, is seated on 310 acres along the gorgeous Thornapple Lake, and it has beach access, hiking trails, picnic areas, and more.

As a way to escape West Michigan for a while (though why would you want to?), you can plan a visit to the Honolulu House Museum in Marshall, Michigan. The 1860 museum is situated in the heart of Marshall’s National Historic Landmark District, and you’ll definitely want to take a tour of this architectural treasure.

Michigan is known for the many lighthouses that dot the shorelines of our vast Great Lakes, and if you head a bit further South to near Michigan City, stopping by the Old Lighthouse Museum (in the original 1858 building) is a great way to learn about the history of Michigan City and its three lighthouses—tours are available April through October.

History in West Michigan’s Central Region

West Michigan has a rich history of Dutch settlements and there are several opportunities to educate and enjoy the history behind that culture. Make it a point to visit Holland, Michigan where you can step back to a simpler time at Nelis’ Dutch Village and enjoy a day at a Dutch festival from 150 years ago. Just a ten minute drive into downtown Holland will take you to the Holland Museum, which contains over 400 years of Dutch History in Holland, and strives to make a difference in the community through the education of the past.

A bit farther south in Holland you can get a glimpse of the Felt Estate and take a self-guided or private tour of the extravagant 1920s mansion and grounds. Stop by at the end of October to take part in a spooky haunted tour, or enjoy music as part of their summer concert series June through July.

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If you’re looking for an affordable museum excursion, stop in Grand Haven to visit the Tri-Cities Historical Museum which features three floors of the history of the Tri-City area, as well as a separate Museum of Transportation, both of which offer free entry.

Interested in a holiday excursion? The city of Muskegon offers several events throughout the fall and winter season including the Festival of Trees at the Muskegon Museum of Art and holiday tours of Muskegon’s most well-known lumber barons.

For after the holiday season when you’re looking for a way to think about summer, stop by the Silversides Submarine Museum or the Lakeshore Museum Center, both in Muskegon, and take a self-led tour of a WWII submarine and learn about the natural and cultural history of Muskegon County.

For a few more fun museums to stop by, schedule a day in Mecosta County and visit the Barryton Historical Museum and explore the many rooms showing the steps of Barryton. You can also visit the Old Jail in Big Rapids or the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, which houses over 9,000 artifacts.

Boatwerks Waterfront Restaurant has a rich history on the lake. Past businesses occupying the property include an aggregate dock and storage area, a coal dock and a marine construction and dredging company. The building was designed to harken back to historic boat building factories that lined the shores of Lake Macatawa with exposed beams and brick. The bar top was created to mimic the decks of hand-crafted wooden boats made by the likes of Chris Craft with light wood inlays between darker mahogany boards. History is everywhere at Boatwerks as seen in the building itself and the historic photos lining the walls.

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Another museum you can’t miss for a glimpse into what life was once like in West Michigan, is the Coopersville Historical Society Museum. The museum may look small from the street, but its packed with a variety of fascinating exhibits on early railroads, interurban railway, military, household, early drugstores, and businesses. The museum is an eclectic collective of different areas of life as they used to be.

During your stay in the central region of West Michigan, consider booking your nights at the National House Inn in Marshall. The Inn has been welcoming guests for 170 years, and it offers a nice blend of original nineteenth-century style with the conveniences of today. Featured as a National Historic Landmark, the Inn is the perfect quaint getaway.    

History in West Michigan’s North Region

As you make your way to the northern region of Michigan, book a room at Stafford’s Bay View Inn where you can enjoy views of Little Traverse Bay. The Inn was built in 1886 and is continuing to enchant guests today.

Don’t forget to stop by Castle Farms in Charlevoix, Michigan for a self-led or guided historical tour—the tours include a tram ride around the property, access to the WWI museum, and a collection of histories and stories from the farm. The Castle was built in 1918 and it has a rich history as a model dairy farm, artist’s’ mecca, rock concert venue, and historical tour and event venue.

For those of you with a fascination with classic literature, you can visit Hotel Walloon on Walloon Lake and celebrate the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway spent his boyhood summers at his parents’ home on the lake in the early twentieth century, and in April of 2017, the hotel will be hosting a second Hemingway Weekend with tours of the area, fly fishing, and more!

Nearby, you can stop by Harbor Springs and learn about the local history in the Harbor Springs Area Historical Museum. The museum is housed in the beautifully restored 1886 courthouse museum on Main Street and it contains exhibits documenting the history of the area.

Don’t miss out on learning more about West Michigan History this year! There are so many opportunities to both educate and enjoy both for children and adults.

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