There are many ways to explore the history of West Michigan, from a day at the museum to a tour through a fort, a walk through Victorian houses to a climb to the top of a lighthouse. Learn more about the region’s past as well as finding new ways to honor Michigan’s roots.
History in South West Michigan
Journeyman Distillery’s artisan grain-to-glass spirits are distilled, bottled, sold and served in Three Oak’s historic Featherbone Factory. Exposed brick walls, timber beams, wooden floors, and one-of-a-kind industrial details reflect the building’s past. Visitors appreciate the opportunity to feel part of the Featherbone Factory’s epic story, spanning generations.
Dive in to Kalamazoo’s deep-rooted history with a two-day adventure through the storied streets of the West Main Hill and River’s Edge neighborhoods, come face-to-face with pieces of automotive, aviation, and musical history, dine at long-time local favorites, and more.
Visit the W.K. Kellogg Manor House in Hickory Corners and the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary in Augusta this fall to step into their history of conservation, philanthropy, and nature. Schedule a group tour of the Bird Sanctuary, where you can learn about the history of the Sanctuary and the natural history of birds. Take the Sanctuary’s self-guided historical walking tour and experience how the Sanctuary has changed over time. November is an excellent time to visit the Sanctuary, which is located on a major migration route, since fall migration is in full swing. At the Manor House, enjoy a self-guided, or docent-guided, tour of W.K. Kellogg’s magnificent summer home and estate. Go back in time as you walk through the threshold of the beautifully restored Manor House, constructed in 1926.
Celebrate the Air Zoo’s 40th anniversary! The Air Zoo in Portage has been a proud part of the West Michigan community for the past four decades, providing aerospace, science, and history education to all. Their big Birthday Bash Weekend, celebrating the original opening, will be November 15th-18th, featuring free admission on Monday, November 18th. Check out the Memories & Milestones anniversary exhibit, which details their exciting history. The new Apollo 11 exhibit features a living room where guests can watch astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first steps, surrounded by furnishings of local families from when they saw the moon landing for the first time in 1969!
Step back in time to a less complicated life when water came from the well, there was a fireplace in nearly every room for heat, and all forms of elegance could be found adorning everything from the décor to the glassware as you step into Coldwater Country’s Wing House Museum. Built in 1875 for newlyweds Jay and Frances Chandler, the Wing House Museum tells the story of how families worked and thrived in the late 1800s. Home to the Branch County Historical Society, the Wing House Museum is open April through November, the third Saturday of each month. The society hosts an annual Holiday Home Tour and Old-Fashioned Wassail the first Saturday in December, Friday Night Desserts following Tibbits’ Professional Players performances, and more.
Just listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Tibbits Opera House in Coldwater, built in 1882, is the second-oldest operating theatre in Michigan. Designed by Detroit architect, Mortimer Smith, the stand-alone opera house with its exquisite French Second Empire façade was far more impressive than other theatres of the era. The fact it survives and continues to operate as a theatre servicing southern Michigan and northern Indiana makes it even more rare and worthy of preserving. Schedule your group for a tour at Tibbits, or individuals can take a self-guided tour of their museum-quality historical exhibit, “A Treasure Reborn: The History of Tibbits Opera House” instead. Learn about the changes and functions of the building throughout the years, the management during different periods of the theatre, and see a variety of photos in this beautiful display. The exhibit is free and can be seen by appointment or before and during all events at the theatre.
Marshall, with its National Historic Landmark District status, is home to over 800 historically significant homes and buildings. The National Park Service calls Marshall “the best virtual textbook of 19th Century American architecture in the country.” Settled in 1831 by Sidney Ketchum, a land speculator from New York, Marshall was chosen for its location on the Kalamazoo River and its proximity between Detroit and Chicago. The city grew over the next decade with migrants from the northeastern United States who brought popular architectural styles and town planning from that region. Famous Marshall buildings include the Honolulu House, built in 1860 by Abner Pratt (a former Michigan Supreme Court chief justice) after serving as U.S. Consul to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. With its Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Polynesian influences, the house, which is now a museum and headquarters for the Marshall Historical Society, is a stunning feature in the city. Built in 1835, The National House Inn is Michigan’s oldest operating inn and the oldest brick building in Calhoun County. Included among Marshall’s eight museums are The Governor’s Mansion, a Greek Revival home built in 1839 with the hopes of Marshall becoming Michigan’s first capital city, and The U.S. Postal Service Museum, the second-largest collection in the country, next only to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. Forty-five historic markers are found in Marshall, commemorating the Adam Crosswhite Slave Recovery Case, the Railroad Union Birthplace, John D. Pierce, Michigan’s first state school superintendent, Isaac E. Crary, Michigan’s first congressman, John Bellairs, children’s book author, and many others. History buffs will find so much to see and do in Marshall! Be sure to stop by the Welcome Center for a map of Self-Guided Walks and much more information.
Visit the Historical Association of South Haven on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Their latest exhibit is titled: Coming Home, South Haven 1956. Stop in and view photos of downtown from 1956 compared to a photo of the same location today. The Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven is one of the Great Lakes’ premiere destinations to experience freshwater maritime history. With five different buildings, the museum offers several permanent exhibits, featuring the United States Coast Guard and commercial fishing. Learn about World War II in the current exhibit “Lake Michigan’s Call to Duty,” which highlights Lake Michigan’s response to the war effort. And, during the warmer months, enjoy a variety of different boat rides on the fleet, which includes Friends Good Will, Lindy Lou, Merry Time, and the Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat!
The Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum & Gardens is located in the birthplace and childhood home of Liberty Hyde Bailey, Jr., America’s “Father of Modern Horticulture”, and a founder of the “New Agrarian” philosophy. Located in South Haven, it is a National Historic Site, garden, park, museum, and educational outreach center.
Golf history can be experienced in Benton Harbor at the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship. The longest running Major Championship in senior golf, the Senior PGA Championship, was born in 1937 when one of the sport’s greatest players, Bobby Jones Jr. suggested a competition featuring the world’s best golfers over the age of 50. The inaugural Senior PGA Championship was played at Augusta National Golf Club three years after the first Masters Tournament was held at the world-renowned course. After a successful, but brief run at Augusta National, the Championship moved to Florida in 1940. During the Senior PGA Championship in December 1979, informal discussions were held to explore the concept of a senior circuit, whereby golf’s legends would compete against each other in tournaments throughout the year. The following month, January 1980, the Senior PGA Tour, now known as the PGA Tour Champions, was founded. Thanks to the introduction of the Senior PGA Tour, fans were able to continue rooting for greats like Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, and Hale Irwin. In 2012, the first KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship was held at Harbor Shores, a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course in Southwest Michigan, a not-for-profit development created to benefit the local community. The course has hosted the Championship each even year since 2012.
Crane’s Orchards has been a family tradition since 1916. That was the year Henry Blakeslee Crane bought the H.H. Hutchins farm, which is now Crane Orchards in Fennville, a beautiful 180-acre farm of rolling hills bordering Hutchins Lake to the south. In 1939, the 100 acres north of M-89, which is now Gary Crane Farms, was purchased and farmed by Albert Crane. After taking over a portion of the family farm from his father and purchasing the farm to the north from his brother, Bob Crane and his wife Lue needed to evolve in the farming business or flounder. Lue Crane began promoting Crane Orchards in 1967 with custom fruit baskets made up in her kitchen. Pressing cider and selling fruit soon turned into providing food to the people who visited the farm. By 1972, Fennville’s agritourism industry was born. Now Crane’s Farms is host to a full menu restaurant and bakery, small-batch farm to bottle wine and hard cider, u-pick orchards, and so much more. The restaurant and winery family includes two of Lue and Bob’s daughters, Becky and Laura, and one of their grandsons, Rob, who represents the third generation of the Crane’s family in the business, while the farm, Crane Orchards, has been run by five generations of Cranes. Guests enjoy food, drink, and homemade Michigan fruit pies in the family’s 150-year-old barn, which has been home to the restaurant, bakery, and cidery since 1972. The business expanded with the addition of the winery in 2014. Farming techniques and family recipes have been passed from generation to generation, preserving family traditions and enriching the community at the same time. As the latest addition to the Crane experience, Crane’s Winery continues to help support the family farm and Michigan agriculture. Crane’s Winery uses the absolute highest quality fruit and small-batch care, and now features some of Michigan’s best hard cider and fruit wine.
More Historic Spots to Visit in South West Michigan
Historic Charlton Park, Hastings
Kalamazoo Valley Museum, Kalamazoo
Kingman Museum, Battle Creek
Heritage Museum & Cultural Center, St. Joseph
History in Central West Michigan
Michigan history begins in downtown Lansing. Visit the State Capitol Building for free tours six days a week and then walk a few blocks to the Michigan Historical Center which houses the Library of Michigan, the State Archives, and the Michigan History Museum. The History Museum is three floors of Michigan history from prehistoric times through the 1960s and Motown. Then motor on over to the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum. At one time, Lansing was the car capital with two major auto assembly plants.
The best way to get acquainted with Holland is to take a crash course in its fascinating history. At the Holland Museum, you’ll learn about the arrival of the Dutch in 1847, their struggle for access to Lake Michigan, the devastating fire of 1871, and the amazing story of Holland’s rise from the ashes. Also on display is an extensive collection of Dutch fine and decorative arts, such as Delftware, silver, Dutch costumes, and fine furniture. These artifacts tell the story of over 400 years of Dutch History. Spark!Lab, which was first opened by the Smithsonian Institute, is a great exhibit for children and families to explore as well. The Holland Museum is open every second Monday from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM with free admission, and Wednesday – Saturday from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM (Closed Thanksgiving Day).
Join the Lakeshore Museum Center and the American Foundry Society for a night dedicated to foundries in Muskegon November 22nd, 5:30pm – 7:30pm. Learn about historical foundries in Muskegon, experiment with making your own foundry sand, and cast a real metal object to take home.
Walk through World War II history at USS Silversides Submarine Museum in Muskegon. Enjoy a special Fall Lecture & Film Series on November 4th at 6:00 pm. “Eugenics and the Final Solution” will wrap up this lecture series. In addition to the lecture, for one week prior, they will be showing the film “Birth of a Nation” at 1:00 pm each day. The cost to attend the movie is included with your $6 admission ticket to the museum.
The best history in Mecosta County is contained within a few different areas. You’ll find the Barryton Historical Museum, with many different rooms within the museum that show the different ages and stages of Barryton. Most of their inventory has been given to them and is donations from those who live/lived within the area. Another old building that is unique to the area is the Old Jail in Big Rapids. Along with the Old Jail Big Rapids is the Jim Crow Museum, located within Ferris State University. This museum houses over nine thousand artifacts, the majority of which were created between the 1870s and the 1960s.
Mecosta County is home to Victorian era homes and hotels, as well as the Midwest’s premier American Indian museum and cultural center, the Ziibiwing Center. The center gives guests an educational look at the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe and other Great Lakes Anishinabek tribes.
More Historic Spots to Visit in Central West Michigan
Coopersville Historical Museum, Coopersville
Gerald R Ford Presidential Museum, Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives, Grand Rapids
Historic White Pine Village, Ludington
Pentwater Historical Society, Pentwater
Port of Ludington Maritime Museum, Ludginton
Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association, Ludington
Tri-Cities Historical Museum, Grand Haven
SS Milwaukee Clipper, Muskegon
History in North West Michigan & Upper Peninsula
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 4:00 pm.
Throughout Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island, all 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.
Travel Marquette offers a historic walking tour (1.2 miles on paved sidewalks) that includes 10 of the most scenic and historic districts of downtown Marquette. On this self-guided walking tour, you’ll stop by the Marquette Regional History Center to learn all of the history in Marquette County, The Saint Peter Cathedral that is made with Marquette brownstone and ornate stone carvings, the Father Marquette Statue made by a renowned sculptor in Florence, Italy, the Peter White Public Library which is an example of neoclassical architecture, and many more.
More Historic Spots to Visit in North West Michigan & Upper Peninsula
Michilimackinac Historic Society, St. Ignace
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Sault Ste Marie
Harbor Springs Historical Society, Harbor Springs
SS City of Milwaukee, Manistee