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The History Buff’s Guide to West Michigan

Explore maritime history, walk through Victorian homes, step back in time with World War II era ships and planes, and examine museum artifacts while learning more about West Michigan History. 

Please note that the below was accurate at the time of publication. You are encouraged to confirm with locations before visiting, and make sure to adhere to local safety guidelines.

Coldwater (South)

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 from the décor to the glassware, in Coldwater Country. From 19th century homes to historic theatres, steam endines to museums, and the the largest concentration of antique dealers in the Midwest, Coldwater Country is a must-visit for any historian. 

Marshall (South)

As the leader in local historic preservation and education, the Marshall Historical Society preserves, protects, and promotes Marshall’s heritage through its museums, including the Honolulu House, the Grand Army of the Republic Hall, and Capitol Hill School. They also sponsor entertaining events for the entire family—including the festive “granddaddy of Midwest home tours,” an intimate holiday Candlelight Walk, and custom-designed tours for groups of any size.

Stay in a designated State Historical Site at the National Inn Bed & Breakfast in downtown Marshall, the oldest operating hotel in the State of Michigan. 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 the site to construct what has endured as the oldest brick building in Calhoun County. It is listed on the National Register of Historical Places and is believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The American Museum of Magic in Marshall offers you a look at the history of magic with live virtual group tours over Zoom or the online platform of your choice. You’ll be able to interact with knowledgeable tour guides and even make special requests with what objects or subjects you’d most like to see. The museum also offers a virtual workshop for students 7-14 years old where participants follow along step by step with professional magician John Dudley as he shows them how to perform magic with things you can find at home. In addition, students will get to examine some magic artifacts at the museum and engage in a Q&A session with the museum director.

St. Joseph (South)

History is exciting, especially at the Heritage Museum & Cultural Center in St. Joseph. Explore special chapters of the community’s stories that bring the past and present together to give you a deeper understanding of why we live, work, and play the way we do today. While the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center is temporarily closed, they are offering an online lecture series featuring public talks celebrating Southwest Michigan history and culture via Zoom. 

South Haven (South)

The Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven is one of the Great Lakes premiere destinations to experience freshwater maritime heritage as you explore exhibits both on and off the water. 

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.  

Augusta & Hickory Corners (South)

Visit the W.K. Kellogg Manor House and W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary this fall to step into the history of conservation, philanthropy, and nature. Walk the trails 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 by-appointment, self-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.

Portage (South)

November 2020 marks the Air Zoo’s 41st birthday and four decades of engaging, educating, and entertaining the West Michigan community and beyond. When you explore the Air Zoo, you’ll find a riveting combination of plane tales and pilot tales; stories not only of the means of getting to space, but also of who went there and who helped to get them there. You’ll get to know more about men and women of national and international aerospace acclaim as well as local and lesser known individuals who likewise made significant contributions.  

Kalamazoo (South)

Explore the history of the Kalamazoo area with a special History Buff’s Weekend. This 2-day itinerary lets you dive into Kalamazoo’s deep-rooted history 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. Black history and culture are a vital part of Kalamazoo’s past, present and future. Residents and visitors to Kalamazoo can take advantage of a number of opportunities to celebrate and discover Black history and culture all year round at area museums, attractions and organizations that offer concerts, exhibitions, workshops, and more.

The Kalamazoo Valley Museum traces its beginnings to the 1880s, when Dr. H.O. Hitchcock proposed the idea of a community museum to his fellow School Board members. Today, the museum’s permanent collection has grown to over 57,000 objects, representing cultural and historical artifacts collected over the last 130 years through gifts from the community. The building is currently closed for face-to-face visits but offering online resources and virtual tours you can enjoy from home. 

Fennville (South)

Cranes Pie Pantry Restaurant and Winery is like a museum with its local memorabilia and antiques. Crane’s was started in 1972 and has become one of Michigan’s favorite spots to stop for Michigan fruit pies made on the premise, fresh squeezed apple cider, and their own line of hard apple ciders and wine.

Saugatuck (South)

Saugatuck offers many historical experiences still enjoyed by generations of visitors. Climb aboard the only remaining hand-cranked chain ferry remaining in the US. Take a boat ride on the Star of Saugatuck, an authentic 51-ton sternwheeler paddleboat. Enjoy the thrill of bygone days on an open-roof dune ride with the Saugatuck Dune Rides. Participants will get to visit what remains of the lost town of Singapore now buried under the dunes. The historic Saugatuck Pump House now serves as the Saugatuck-Douglas History Museum. And the Felt Estate, completed in 1928, features a 25-room mansion that is said to be haunted.

Hastings (South)

Step back in time in the Historic Village at Historic Charlton Park in Hastings. Visit the stagecoach stop, schoolhouse, general store, and many other turn-of-the-century homes and businesses.

Lansing (South)

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. 

Holland (Central)

Explore Holland’s rich history and Dutch heritage at the Holland Museum. The museum features stories from the area’s agricultural beginnings, manufacturing in the community, ships on the Great Lakes, the Holland Fire, and much more. 

Zeeland (Central)

In the late 1800’s, the Steggenga Family started a Dairy Farm south of Zeeland with 15 cows and since then has grown to a herd of 75 cows on 90 acres. As late as 1976, Elmer Overway’s cows would stop traffic on Adams Street as they crossed the road to reach their pasture. Imagine that! In 1990, the Critter Barn transformed the homestead and over the last 30 years, their programs have grown to reach tens of thousands of children. Come out and celebrate with their 30th anniversary at the current farm at 9275 Adams Street, Zeeland and track the progress of their new location on their website

Coopersville (Central)

There are so many things to see and do at Coopersville Farm Museum; tractors, quilts, collections, art, kids area, and more honoring farming and rural life through events and exhibits.

Grand Rapids (Central)

The Amway Grand in downtown Grand Rapids transports you back to 1920s elegance and glamour as soon as you step through the door. A member of Historic Hotels of America®, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for recognizing and celebrating the finest historic hotels across America, Amway Grand Plaza has a rich history, including what was once one of the world’s largest gold-leaf ceilings and two of the world’s most stunning chandeliers, both located in the Pantlind lobby.  

The Gerald R. Ford Museum brings American history to life. Diverse exhibits show the real stuff of history, sparking curiosity and enthusiasm about our nation’s history and government. While the building is currently closed, you can take a virtual look at exhibits with the museum curator as well as participate in online education programs

Take a step back through the history of early area settlers, the growth of the furniture industry, and more important moments of West Michigan’s past at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. 

The Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives promotes, preserves, displays, collects, and honors the lives, culture, history, and accomplishments of African, African American, and connected peoples in the Greater Grand Rapids community.

Grand Haven (Central)

The Tri-Cities Historical Museum is a public museum serving Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg. The museum includes two locations: The Depot Museum of Transportation Museum and the main museum at the Akeley Building.

Muskegon (Central)

SS Milwaukee Clipper was originally built in 1904 (predating the building of the RMS TITANIC by seven years) by the Erie & Western Transportation Company, better known as the Anchor Line, as commissioned by the American Shipbuilding Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The passenger and package freight steamer saw thousands of Great Lakes crossings, and a few renovations, before finding a home in Muskegon and earning a listing on the National Register of Historic Sites and being designated a National Historic Landmark. Plan a visit to explore this piece of history, or check out the virtual tour on their website.

Step aboard a Gato-Class World War II submarine at the USS Silversides Submarine Museum. Silversides received twelve battle stars for World War II service and was awarded one Presidential Unit Citation for cumulative action over four patrols. She is credited with sinking 23 ships, the third-most of any allied World War II submarine, behind only the USS Tang and USS Tautog. The tonnage of the ships sunk by Silversides amounted to 90,080 tons, second only to Tang’s total. Judged by such standards, Silversides has the most prolific combat record of any still-extant American submarine. Visit the museum, book an overnight stay for your group on the submarine, take part in their online lecture series, or watch the live cam from the comfort of home.

Tour one of America’s last two LSTs (Landing Ship Tank) of the 1,051 built during World War II and walk where heroes have walked at the USS LST 393 Veteran’s Museum in downtown Muskegon. While currently closed, visit the website to learn more about the ship’s history and look through a virtual photo gallery. 

Ludington (Central)

November 11th will mark the 80th anniversary of the infamous Armistice Day Storm of 1940, one of the worst storms to hit the Great Lakes, and possibly the worst storms to hit West Michigan. What began as an unseasonably warm autumn day quickly took a turn as multiple storm fronts collided over the Midwest and headed for Lake Michigan. Temperatures dropped almost 40 degrees in a matter of hours. The blizzard sped north along the length of Lake Michigan, sinking two fishing tugs, damaging dozens of ships, and causing its worst destruction between Big and Little Sable Points; grounding the carferry City of Flint 32 right on the beach at Ludington, and sinking three large freighters on the lake. In the end, the Armistice Day Storm killed 154 people, including 64 sailors on Lake Michigan. This significant event in Ludington and West Michigan’s maritime history is the topic of the maritime museum’s newest exhibit, just installed this fall to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Armistice Day Storm. On November 11th the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum will be open to recognize the anniversary of the storm and for guests to tour the new exhibit and learn about this landmark event in Lake Michigan’s maritime history.

Historic White Pine Village is a historic village of over twenty-nine museum buildings and sites of history dedicated to preserving and presenting Mason County’s past. The buildings contain thousands of signs, artifacts, and archives that help interpret their place in Ludington history. A self-guided tour experience, Historic White Pine Village is an exciting, cultural, and educational visit for individuals or the entire family.

Step back in time and with the historic lighthouses of the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association, including Big Sable Point at Ludington State Park, Little Sable Point in Silver Lake State Park, Ludington North Breakwater by Stearns Park in Ludington, and White River Light Station in Whitehall. 

Pentwater (Central)

Explore the history and heritage of the Pentwater area at the museum operated by the Pentwater Historical Society.

 

Manistee (North)

Learn about a unique piece of Great Lakes rail and shipping history aboard the SS City of Milwaukee in Manistee, the last of six sister ships designed in the 1920s and built by the Manitowac Shipbuilding company out of Wisconsin.. 

Traverse City (North)

Get a closer look at the haunting history of the Traverse City area with two special events this fall. Available beginning November 1,  the “Escape to the Asylum” tour from the Village at Grand Traverse Commons offers a two hour private tour of the history of the former State Hospital. Explore the grounds, venture into unrenovated buildings, and even walk through the 1883 Steam Tunnel. Test your courage with the “Historical Ghost Lantern” tour from Haunted Traverse. This tour takes you through downtown on a “ghost walk” to hear the history, ghost stories, and paranormal happenings of the area. 

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. The lighthouse itself is open May through October for self-guided tours. The surrounding park, beach, and trails are open year-round. 

Harbor Springs (North)

The Harbor Springs Historical Society hosts numerous talks and special events throughout the year to bring the history of the area to life. The Harbor Springs History Museum features dynamic and interactive exhibits designed to educate the young and young-at-heart. The current Don’t Miss the Boat exhibit, open through the end of summer 2021, explores the history of passenger ferries on Little Traverse Bay and features original watercolors and giclees by local artist William Talmadge Halland.

Mackinaw City (North)

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.

St. Ignace (Upper Peninsula)

Michilimackinac Historic Society operates the Fort de Buade Museum in historic downtown St. Ignace, specializing in Native American and regional history. It features the area’s largest collection of authentic Indian and military artifacts, from the pre-contact period and the eras of French and British occupation, to the early American settlers. Also on display are the Newberry Tablet and statues, dioramas of daily life in the Michilimackinac area during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and the moving Captured Spirits portrait exhibition. The museum is closed for the 2020 season, however you can find information about online programs on their website and facebook page

Paradise (Upper Peninsula)

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, located at Whitefish Point on the site of the oldest active lighthouse on Lake Superior, is the only museum of its kind, dedicated to the perils of maritime transport on the Great Lakes.

Marquette (Upper Peninsula)

With Fall in full swing on the Upper Peninsula, Marquette is the perfect getaway to explore the season. The Marquette Regional History Center offers visitors and locals alike the perfect opportunity to discover the history of the region and engage with the community’s storied past. Established in 1918, the museum hosts a number of interactive virtual tours and offerings to keep the local history of Marquette accessible during times of social distancing. Highlights for November include a live online presentation of Great Lakes Diving in honor of National Shipwreck Month and a virtual book release party for Kawbawgam by Marquette historian and author Tyler Tichelaar.

Keweenaw (Upper Peninsula)

Take a step back into the Upper Peninsula’s mining history and explore one of the Keweenaw’s most beloved “ghost towns”: Freda. While not a traditional ghost town (people still live in Freda), it’s really accessible and has a great mix of history and outdoor adventure. Plus, there are some beautiful scenic spots along the way like Redridge Dam and Covered Road.

Explore more West Michigan history hotspots in the Carefree Travel Guide.