History in West Michigan

West Michigan and the places you visit while you’re here have a storied history. While you’re in the area, visit some of the local museums or historical centers to learn about where you’re spending time. Also make sure to visit historic sites, from the oldest brewery in Michigan to ghost towns in the Upper Peninsula. You and your family will love learning together during your time here in West Michigan.

The West Michigan Tourist Association has a long history promoting the state of Michigan, as we celebrated our 100th anniversary in 2017. If you want to learn more about the history of WMTA, one of the oldest tourism organizations in the country, click here.

History in Southern West Michigan

Tibbits Opera House, located in Coldwater, was built in 1882 and is the second-oldest theatre in the state. Tibbits has a long history of arts and entertainment, and offers something for every age, from professional summer theatre to an entertainment series in the fall and winter, kids shows, school programming, concerts, and community events. Many well-known entertainers have graced the Tibbits stage over the years, including Jeff Daniels, Mickey Rooney, Ed Asner, Ethel Barrymore, and Cloris Leachman. 

As the oldest brewery in Michigan, Bell’s Brewery takes pride in being a part of the rich history of the Kalamazoo area and helping sustain it. On the walls of the Eccentric Cafe in downtown Kalamazoo, visitors have a chance to view Larry Bell’s personal map, mask, and artwork collections, in addition to vintage beer advertisements and pieces specifically commissioned for the pub. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the brewery, attend a free tour at either their Kalamazoo or Comstock locations. November is also a special month for Bell’s to celebrate an important part of their beer history: stouts. When Larry began more than 30 years ago, stouts were not the most sought after style, but that didn’t stop him from brewing them. On Sunday, November 5th, Bell’s celebrates the 9th annual All Stouts Day, with more than 20 different stouts available. As part of the celebration, a special stout-focused tour will also be offered at Bell’s original brewery adjacent to the Cafe. Tours are available on November 4th and 5th, and they will also feature a three-year vertical tasting of the award-winning Expedition Stout.

Founded in 1977, the Air Zoo in Portage has a rich history of honoring and celebrating air and space flight. It opened to the public on November 18th, 1979, but planning for the Air Zoo began much earlier. In the late 1940s, Pete and Suzanne Parish, co-founders of the Air Zoo, purchased several aircrafts, and after years of collecting and expanding, the Air Zoo opened a new facility unlike any other in the world. Today, the Air Zoo features new rides, exhibits, and artifacts, while still continuing the Parish’s mission to bring these aircrafts to visitors from around the world.

The Capri Drive-In Theatre in Coldwater opened in 1964, and was owned and operated by John and Mary Magocs. The duo held a contest to name the drive-in, with the winner receiving a brand new sewing machine. Admission in 1964 was $1 and a cheeseburger was 45¢. The entire Magocs family spent their nights and days working at the drive-in to ensure that each showing went off without any problems. As time went on, the drive-in changed hands, but continued to be one of the best cinema experiences around. Today, the Capri Drive-In continues to thrive, with an ever-growing and widening audience.

Historic Charlton Park is located in the heart of beautiful Barry County, six miles southeast of Hastings, and features a recreated, turn-of-the-century historic village and the Irving D. Charlton Memorial Museum. Current museum exhibits include Uncle Irving’s Attic, a display of artifacts from the founder’s personal collections, and the Barry County Artists Exhibition, featuring paintings, sculptures, pottery and photography from local artists. The museum is open through December 10th, giving you plenty of time to stop by.

Set on 742 acres in rural Barry County, Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, is a mix between an environmental education center, nature center, and biological field station. Pierce Cedar Creek Institute has a storied history in Hastings, with founders Bill and Jessie Pierce loving the rural setting. When Bill was semi-retired, he and Jessie began to think more seriously about how they could give back to the people and community that meant so much to them. Bill pondered the idea of conserving natural resources and environmental education. From that spark and through discussion with his sons, Joe and Gary, Bill set out to purchase land for what would become the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute for Environmental Education.

Find and create your own history in Southwest Michigan. The area is home to many antique markets. Visit towns like Baroda, where you’ll find buildings filled with an assortment of antiques, including a parts department for do-it-yourselfers. You’ll even find vintage and antique garments, hats, purses, and shoes from the late 1800s through 1970. If you’re looking to preserve your own bit of history, check out the Making a Photography Book class at the Box Factory for the Arts in St. Joseph on Monday, November 6th! Learn the tips, tricks, and innovative methods used to create a beautiful book to showcase your favorite photos. Participants will select size, style, and theme of their photography book, as well as learn about cropping, composition, color, adding text, and working on the overall look of their individual albums. Whether it be for creating your own history book or a thoughtful gift, students will be proud of the end result!

In 1962, a handful of local artists started down a path that would eventually lead to the creation of the Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph. Those artists formed the St. Joseph Art Association which, through beneficence of George and Olga Krasl, built Krasl Art Center in 1979. The Krasl Art Center continues to provide southwest Michigan residents and visitors with the opportunity to experience high quality art exhibitions, installations, and events, as well as art classes, camps, guest artist workshops, and outreach opportunities.

The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center in St. Joseph prides itself in sharing stories about the community. This museum houses the area’s history, its artifacts, and an archival collection, alongside a research library. It presents stories in spacious exhibit halls, and creates new memories in elegant banquet facilities. Come journey into the area’s past, see the present, and receive a deeper understanding and thrill at the possibilities for the future.

The National House Inn Bed & Breakfast on Marshall’s picturesque Fountain Circle is the oldest operating hotel in the state of Michigan. It has been designated as a State Historical site and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The inn was built in 1835 by Colonel Andrew Mann, who used lumber from the Ketchum sawmill and bricks that were molded and fired on-site to construct what has endured as the oldest brick building in Calhoun County. It is believed to be a stop on the Underground Railroad as well. Today, the current owners continuously upgrade and renovate this nationally recognized bed and breakfast inn.

Schuler’s Restaurant in Marshall was founded in 1909, and is currently in its fourth generation. Schuler’s attributes its longevity to the foresight of its founder and the succeeding family members who have used their entrepreneurial skills to build a 100-year tradition of hospitality and fine dining. Very few families in the nation have been in the restaurant business as long as the Schuler family, marking 100 years in 2009. In a challenging economy and changing marketplace, the iconic restaurant continues to thrive while evolving with the times.

The Barn Theatre in Augusta is the oldest resident summer stock theater in Michigan. Founded as the Village Players in Richland in 1946 by Jack and Betty Ebert Ragotzy, The Barn Theatre, Inc. was incorporated in 1949 when the Ragotzys began renting the converted barn in Augusta, which they later purchased in 1954. Jack, a World War II Army Air Force veteran and graduate of Kalamazoo College, worked on and off-Broadway, as well as in television and films. For 50 years, Jack worked alongside Betty, an actress herself, as they ran the Barn Theatre. Today, it stands as the only equity summer stock theatre in the state, drawing nearly 50,000 patrons annually during its 16-week season. Betty passed away in 1995, but at age 81, Jack remains active at the Barn Theatre, acting as an advisor and appearing onstage before every performance to give a brief introduction.

Built on the highest point overlooking Gull Lake in 1925 and 1926, the W.K. Kellogg Manor House in Hickory Corners, with its awe-inspiring views and historic grandeur, is a must-visit location in southwest Michigan. The Manor House is the former estate of cereal magnate W.K. Kellogg and his wife, Dr. Carrie Staines Kellogg. Restored to its original grandeur in 2000, the home is rich with history and elegance, with natural gardens around a lovely lakeside setting, making the Manor House truly a destination for all.

Visit Lansing to learn all about Michigan in the state’s capital. The best place to find overall Michigan history is at the Michigan History Center, located in downtown Lansing. Your visit will foster curiosity and inspire your family with these Michigan’s stories. Three floors of exhibits introduce native people, fur traders, soldiers, miners, lumbermen, and more to a new and eager audience.

Battle Creek is home to a bakery and wood-fired pizzeria located in an old fire station. This fire station, which opened in July 1904, was designed by Hubert C. Scofield and was one of the last to still use horse-drawn equipment. After nearly eighty years of service, the fire station closed in January of 1983. The city later sold the fire station to a private resident who made it his home for over 25 years and assisted in its restoration over that time period. In the fall of 2015, the building went up for sale and was turned into a restaurant.

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History in Central West Michigan

If Ludington was your favorite vacation spot in the late 1970s, it’s time to come back. On the same property as Ludington’s first Holiday Inn is the new Holiday Inn Express & Suites, featuring much of the original infrastructure and offered amenities. Like advertised in the Ludington Daily News in 1975, stay in one of “116 beautiful, tastefully decorated, carpeted rooms” featuring a “color TV”, “phones in every room”, and “individually controlled heat or air conditioning.” Today, you’ll welcome conveniences of a microwave, mini fridge, and coffee maker in every room, and of course, free WiFi. Additionally, you’ll find a hot tub, fitness center, and business center. Come make new memories and reminisce about the old ones. Still have the phone number saved? It’s still the same, so call today!

The Tri-Cities Historical Museum seeks to encompass Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg history for all of their visitors. The museum is made up of comprehensive exhibits that cover many different eras of the area’s past, from prehistoric rocks and fossils, to fur trade posts, and all the way through a common dry goods shop from 1940s Grand Haven. Each exhibit is housed within a structure accurate to the time it represents. Inside many of the exhibits, learners of all ages are often invited to touch and explore recreations of artifacts in order to make history more relatable. Teachers, parents, and guardians are encouraged to read with younger learners, giving the artifacts on display context. Emerging readers will enjoy tackling reader rails and signage while looking for artifacts mentioned. Plan your visit to the Tri-Cities Historical Museum as soon as possible, and feel free to come back frequently!

Atwater Brewery and Spirits in Grand Rapids is housed in the historic Rowe building at the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue. While the building has undergone many titles from the initial Hotel Rowe in 1923 to Olds Manor from 1963 to 2001, its integrity withstands the test of time. It’s even still home to the original ballroom floor and chandeliers. Whether you’re here with friends or indulging solo, you’re in historic company as you enjoy Atwater’s fine offerings.

Formerly known as the Pantlind Hotel, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids has a storied history. In 1913, the cornerstone of the Pantlind Hotel was laid, and initial construction of the hotel began. In 1917, the first meeting of the Michigan Tourist and Resort Association, what would eventually become the West Michigan Tourist Association, took place at the Pantlind. By 1925, the Pantlind Hotel was not only the hottest hotel going in West Michigan, it was ranked “One of the 10 Finest Hotels in America.” The hotel was acquired by the Amway Corporation in 1979, and reopened as the Amway Grand Plaza two years later. Today, the hotel continues the resurgence of downtown Grand Rapids as a member of the Historic Hotels of America.

219 North 7th Street in Holland has always been an address associated with fun. The location was once a sporting goods shop, as well as a roller rink and concert hall that regularly attracted famous rock and roll stars, including Iggy Pop, MC5, and Alice Cooper in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. It’s no wonder that Chocolates by Grimaldi, a superstar in the world of handmade chocolates, has also chosen to call it home. In addition to the hand-rolled, hand-dipped, and handmade goodies that they offer, from peanut butter balls and gourmet turtles to chocolate covered potato chips, they also offer Creative Chocolate Classes and tours. Visit this historic spot for a delicious treat!

The Klackle family fruit growing heritage started in the early 1900s in the St. Joseph area, and would eventually become Klackle Orchards in Greenville. At that time, the area was known as the fruit and produce hub of the midwest. Horticultural skills were mastered by growing apples, peaches, pears, berries, and grapes. It was in the 1940s when Ray Klackle, the oldest son of Frank Klackle, decided to purchase his own farm in the then emerging new fruit growing area of Belding. It was at the Belding farm that the second generation of family fruit growers began to put down their roots in the central Michigan area. Steve Klackle entered the family orchard business officially in the late 1970s after he left a job as a civil engineer. Ray Klackle had passed away several years before, and if the orchard tradition was to continue, it was up to Steve to do it. Now located in Greenville, Steve and his wife Rosemary are still very active owners of Klackle Orchards.

Celebrating its 89th year in 2018, Tulip Time has grown over the years to be so much more than a flower festival. Back in 1929, the City of Holland planted its first crop of 100,000 tulips. The overwhelming number of visitors over the years as the festival took shape resulted in the addition of programs,  pageantry, costumes, parades, and the popular Dutch Dancers. Each year, Tulip Time strives to showcase all that Holland, Michigan has to offer.

LowellArts began with the enthusiasm of community volunteers and funds raised through a visit to Lowell by Artrain USA in November 1976. Originally called the Lowell Area Arts Council, the organization was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1977, with initial projects that included community beautification and showcasing local artists. The first community theater production was in 1978, and has grown to include three or four productions a year. In September 1977, LowellArts became the sponsor of the Fallasburg Arts Festival, a two-day outdoor art and music celebration. Today, LowellArts is creating their own space in downtown Lowell, with the help of individual community donations and the Lowell Area Community Fund.

Teusink’s Pony Farm in Holland celebrated its 120th birthday in 2017! The farm has been owned and operated by the Teusink family, providing fun on the farm. Many of their guests are parents bringing their children to the farm after many fond memories from their own childhood. Teusink’s Pony Farm offers activities for every season, whether it’s spring field trips, summer picnics, fall hayrides, or winter sleigh rides. Whatever season you choose for your visit, you will be guaranteed to experience the charm that comes with a visit to this authentic family farm.

Based out of Muskegon, the Port City Princess has been family-owned and operated for over 30 years. Founder Ralph Precious was known for coming up with some crazy ideas, so when he came home and announced that he wanted to buy a cruise ship, his wife Sylvia rolled her eyes. Each generation worked on the ship, and despite her initial eye roll, Sylvia continues to run the ship with a lively step to this day.

Visit Amways world headquarters Ada to learn about a global company that started in the area over 50 years ago. The welcome center has more than 24 interactive exhibits and 160 videos to tell the story of Amway in an informative and exciting way. From the early beginnings of co-founders Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel to the celebration of their 50th anniversary, live the history of Amway with a visit to the welcome center.

Since 1905, Russo’s International Market has been happily serving Grand Rapids with a marvelous selection of gourmet food, wine, craft beers, liquors and liqueurs, delizioso delicatessen, kitchenware, and more from both around the world and around the corner. They are proud to support the local community, as well as be your passport to a world of good taste. They now have two stores, their 18,000-square-foot store on 29th Street and their new downtown store, to give you exceptional quality foods and wines in two convenient locations.

Celebrating over 20 years, the Christmas Lite Show in Comstock Park continues to wow families looking for holiday fun. This is West Michigan’s largest animated light show, and continues to entertain people of all ages. Bill Schrader started the event in 1997, and with the help of his family, it has grown, year after year, to become a tradition for many.

The Coopersville Area Historical Society was founded in 1980 to preserve area history for the enrichment of both visitors and local residents. During the Historical Society’s early days, its members met in the town’s former interurban railway depot when it was used by the Coopersville Public School System as an alternative education site. In 1987, the Historical Society acquired use of the building from the City of Coopersville. The facility was then open seasonally as a museum with some regular and special exhibits. The historical society and museum continues to support the community with education and preservation.

The Holland Museum promotes learning, with a focus on history, culture, civil responsibility, and one another. They tell the stories of Holland and the region, not to dictate how children and citizens engage the past, but to encourage them to change and build a better future. Programming and exhibits seek to connect people with why the history of Holland matters to them. Patrons and guests leave feeling compelled to own and share those stories for themselves.

Visit the Lakeshore Museum Center in Muskegon and tour the beautifully restored Hackley & Hume Historic Site homes. You’ll be able to walk through the unique living spaces showcasing how local Muskegon lumber barons lived in their late 19th century Victorian homes. If you want to go back further, there’s Michigan’s Heritage Park, where you can go back 10,000 years in Michigan’s history. Both of these sites and more are available at the Lakeshore Museum Center.

The USS LST 393 Veterans Museum in Muskegon is a must-visit location. The USS LST 393 was launched in Newport News, Virginia on November 11th, 1942. Immediately after sea trials, she went to work in the defense of her country in Europe. Over nine thousand soldiers made their way to the front aboard LST 393. In 2005, a group headed by Dan Weikel and Bob Wygant asked for permission from owner to help restore the vessel. Years of cleaning and painting resulted in a ship that could be toured. Development of the veterans museum has continued with the addition of thousands of artifacts, as well as restoration of more areas of the ship, and the effort continues to this day.

The S.S. Milwaukee Clipper has been transporting people between Muskegon and Milwaukee since 1941, but the history goes back over 30 years prior. In 1904, the Erie & Western Transportation Company, better known now as the Anchor Line, commissioned the American Shipbuilding Company of Cleveland, Ohio to build a 361-foot passenger and package freight steamer for service on the Great Lakes. After years of traveling the waterways of the United States, the vessel found a home in Lake Michigan. On June 2nd, 1941, her name was changed to S.S. Milwaukee Clipper, and on June 3rd, she made her first voyage to Muskegon. After a long hiatus that included name changes, new locations, and different owners, the ship returned to the Muskegon to continue bringing travelers between Michigan and Wisconsin.

The Coopersville & Marne Railway Company was incorporated on July 13th, 1989. The initial purpose was to purchase the old Grand Trunk right-of-way between the towns of Coopersville and Marne, just northwest of Grand Rapids. The idea was to preserve the track for future use and to provide vintage passenger service. The purchase was made on December 14th, 1989. When you visit today, you’ll see that their train is usually pulled by a 1950s era 125 ton General Motors SW9 switcher locomotive. If you look around, you’ll see more historic equipment and buildings, reminding you of the railway company’s history as it approach a 30-year milestone.

The best history in Mecosta County is contained within a few different areas. Here, you’ll find museums spanning a variety of topics and interests. These spaces include a history of Barryton, a museum documenting racism in America through memorabilia, and a jailhouse used from 1893 to 1965. The Mecosta County area is working hard to preserve and promote history to an eager audience, making a visit worth every second.

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History in Northern West Michigan

Located in a historic part of northern Michigan, AmericInn of Calumet is a dream for both history buffs and paranormal enthusiasts. The Copper Country was once a booming copper mining area that was the destination for many immigrants from around the world. Once the copper mining slowed and then eventually stopped, people left the area to look for work elsewhere, leaving at least 18 different ghost towns scattered throughout the peninsula. As you travel through, you’ll see what’s left of these old towns. While at the AmericInn, ask the staff about their collection of ghost pictures, with appearances of children and other figures. They have over 100 pictures of the area lining the walls and look forward to sharing their history with you.

Castle Farms in Charlevoix is full of nearly 100 years of history! Built in 1918 as a model farm for the Sears & Roebuck Company, it has housed cows, artists, rock concerts, and now hosts historical tours and events. The historical tours offer guests a glimpse into the past through a video narrated by the owner, as well as a map of the grounds.

Unique history and architecture can be found in Charlevoix. The Mushroom Houses, designed by Earl Young, have received high praise and recognition for their natural beauty and amazing characteristics. Self-taught builder Earl Young began building houses in 1919 and continued his work until the 1970s. Young created over two dozen homes, buildings, and structures using natural materials. His works are made mostly of stone, using limestone, fieldstone, and boulders that he found throughout Northern Michigan. Each of these houses is individually different and was designed to blend in with its surrounding landscape. Earl Young’s houses feature wide, wavy eaves, exposed rafter tails, and a horizontal emphasis in design. These buildings are creatively known as Gnome Homes, Mushroom Houses, or Hobbit Houses.

The Harbor Springs History Museum, home of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society, is located in the former city hall building on Main Street in downtown Harbor Springs. As the first of two permanent exhibits, the Local History Gallery guides visitors through a multi-layered chronology of the Harbor Springs region. Using text, photographs, and artifacts, this gallery celebrates the various chapters in the area’s history beginning with the Odawa Indians and concluding with a look at the post-World War II community and the emergence of the ski industry. The Discovery Gallery is the second of these permanent exhibit spaces and is filled with hands-on activities for children and their families or teachers. Serving as the museum’s temporary exhibit spaces, the Main and North galleries host both traveling exhibits and temporary exhibits from the HSAHS collection

From its beginning over 150 years ago as a waterfront beach house to the family-restored Historic Hotel of America it is today, the Island House Hotel on Mackinac Island has opened its doors to over a million tourists from around the world. With its handsome Victorian structure and family owned intimacy, Mackinac Island’s oldest hotel is a tradition not to be missed. Originally constructed for Charles O’Malley in 1852 as a beachfront resort, the Island House was one of the first summer hotels on Mackinac Island. Hoping to restore the property, a group of investors formed the Island House Incorporated in 1949.  Throughout its incredible restoration, every step was taken to preserve the striking architectural features of the hotel’s exterior, including its many columns, porch spindles, gables, windows, and door styles. Since the time of the original restoration, Island House has undergone continuous renovations to provide the best accommodations possible for guests. From the addition of an elevator to the introduction of air conditioning, Island House prides itself on having some of the best amenities on Mackinac Island. After extensive renovations during the 1980s, the next major change for Island House came in 1995. In this same year, the 1852 Grill Room was reconfigured, remodeled, and made handicap accessible with the addition of a lift. Beginning with the close of the 2013 season, the 1852 Grill Room took the first steps in a six-month, $500,000 complete renovation consisting of extensive structural, footing, and beam work. Take in the same stunning harbor views and serene environment that guests have been enjoying for over 165 years. Your stay here instantly adds you to the rich and unique history that has made the iconic Island House Hotel the treasure that it is today.

Mission Point Lighthouse has been a Traverse City and Old Mission Peninsula icon for decades. Located at the end of a picturesque drive along M-37 through cherry orchards and vineyards, Mission Point Lighthouse stands as a classic piece of Michigan history. While it no longer guides mariners through West Grand Traverse Bay as it did from 1870 until it was decommissioned in 1933, Mission Point Lighthouse now offers visitors a peek into what life was like around the turn of the century for lighthouse keepers. Mission Point Lighthouse is open for self-guided tours Friday through Sunday in November from noon to 4pm.

The Adventure Mining Company in Greenland was formed in 1850, and operated as a mine on and off through 1920. Beginning in the 1970s, tours were offered as the mine changed owners over the next 30 years. Its most recent purchased was in 2004, and the mines reopened in 2005, offering a variety of tours seasonally. Their annual bike race, Miner’s Revenge, began in 2009, and takes riders within the mines and above ground.

Legs Inn in Cross Village is a third-generation owned inn founded by Stanley Smolak, a Polish immigrant. After working in automobile factories in both Detroit and Chicago, Smolak sought out to settle in an area that reminded him of his native land. In the late 1920s, Stanley Smolak began building this extraordinary complex. Two generations later, Legs Inn continues to be a widely recognized historical destination. The Michigan Historical Commission described Legs Inn as one of Michigan’s “most unusual architectural marvels.”

Located throughout Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island, all four of the Mackinac State Historic Parks’ sites have their own history. A visit to any of these four locations, Colonial Michilimackinac, Fort Mackinac, Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, are sure to be a hit for any family looking to learn about the history of northern Michigan on their next trip.

More History in Northern West Michigan

More History Nearby West Michigan

2017 History in West Michigan

In recognition of Veterans Day, the National Writers Series is having Sebastian Junger and Phil Caputo as their featured guests at an event on November 15th at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Traverse City. In 1997, Sebastian Junger penned The Perfect Storm, a nonfiction tale about the crew of the Andrea Gail fishing boat. Junger is an internationally acclaimed journalist, best-selling author, and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker for his 2010 film Restrepo. He returns to the National Writers Series to discuss his most recent book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging and his National Geographic documentary Hell on Earth. Phil Caputo is an award-winning journalist, having worked nine years for the Chicago Tribune and sharing a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his reporting on election fraud in Chicago. These two legendary war writers will be talking about their books, lives, and more over the course of the evening.