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. Don’t consider yourself to be a history buff? West Michigan is also home to a variety of exhibits and experiences highlighting the history of literary figures, inventions, art, and even cereal!


History of Transportation

Gilmore Car Museum, located in Hickory Corners near Kalamazoo and the Battle Creek area, is about more than cars: it’s an amazing way to interact with history. Visitors can learn how the automobile reflects American history, from aviators to the Green Book. Stand inches from a 1930 Rolls-Royce that starred in a Disney movie, or reminisce about a ’57 Chevy that was the star of yesteryear. Plus, walk right up to an amazing collection of more than 300 vintage automobiles and motorcycles. Special events let you go for a ride in a car from the collection or learn to drive a Model A yourself!

Explore the Air Zoo’s new exhibit, Women in Air and Space Interactive Timeline, at the museum in Portage near Kalamazoo. Guests can engage with a panorama of stories, images, graphics, videos, and hands-on activities as they explore more than 100 years of contributions made by more than 50 accomplished women in the fields of aviation and space exploration. The stories include unsung local women such as WASPS Lois Phillips and Harriet Quimby.

As the Holland Museum finishes conservation of the Pere Marquette Caboose, join Clare Heyboer, Caboose Conservation Project Manager, and Fritz Milhaupt, Publications Editor of the Pere Marquette Historical Society, on Thursday, November 4 for a conversation about the history of the Holland Caboose, the Pere Marquette rail line, and its importance to the Holland community.

The Marquette Maritime Museum offers unique exhibits, like the original Evinrude outboard motor tested in Marquette and a birchbark canoe that Charles T. Harvey used while building the first lock at Sault Ste. Marie in the 1850s.

Literary History

In the late 1800s, visitors arrived along the shores of Bear Lake (now known as Walloon Lake) to spend the summer months enjoying the tranquil blue waters and woodland areas nearby – among them, the Hemingway family from Oak Park, Illinois. Three-month-old Ernest Hemingway joined his parents and older sister on the north shore at what would become their beloved Windemere cottage. The historic property is still owned by descendants of the family, and while it is not open to the public, several sites around Walloon Lake and nearby Horton Bay welcome visitors to walk in Hemingway’s footsteps. Be sure to visit the newly dedicated sculpture of Ernest, entitled “The Old Man and the Cat.”

Ernest Hemingway is also a famous former guest of The Terrace Inn in Petoskey. The historic inn even hosts an annual Hemingway Conference each year!

Movie History

Head to Marquette, where you can tour the filming locations of the 1959 film “Anatomy of a Murder.” A local log cabin restaurant is known for appearing in the film, and invites guests to enjoy classic American cuisine while the restaurant transports them back in time with memorabilia of pictures of the stars and scenes in the movie. Other filming locations to visit include the Marquette County Courthouse and Thunder Bay Inn. Built by Henry Ford, the historic inn overlooks Lake Independence and offers a scenic escape just outside the city.

Michigan’s Government History

History comes to life in Lansing, Michigan’s capital city. Head to downtown Lansing and visit the State Capitol Building, the Michigan History Museum, the Library of Michigan, and the State Archives. While in Lansing, be sure to check out the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, which tells the story of Lansing’s automotive history. Find over 50 gorgeous antique and classic cars built right in Lansing, which was an original Motor City, as it was home to both the Oldsmobile and REO manufacturing facilities.

History of the Great Lakes

Learn about the history of the Great Lakes region from the 1900s to the present. On Friday, November 19, join Pierce Cedar Creek Institute and Field Station Manager Matthew Dykstra for Michigan in Transition 1900-Present. You’ll follow the rise of industrialization, changes in agriculture and urbanization, and the development of public lands. Discover how Michigan has changed in this last century and what potential opportunities and challenges are yet to come.

Iron and Mining History

Head to Northern Michigan’s Marquette area, where you’ll find Michigan’s Iron Industry Museum, where visitors can learn the stories of everyday life in the mining community. The museum overlooks the Carp River and the site of the first iron manufactory in the Lake Superior Region. Visitors can also explore the nearby Cliffs Shaft Mining Museum in an old mine building on Euclid Street. Tour the tunnels that miners walked to the base of the C-shaft and learn the history of mining in the region.

Local Area History Tours

Tri-Cities Historical Museum offers a variety of seasonal community tours throughout the year. From downtown walking tours to cemetery tours to historic tavern tours, there are a variety of ways to learn in the Grand Haven/Ferrysburg/Spring Lake area. Many tours are free to the public but do require reservations.

Take advantage of the St. Joseph and Benton Harbor Walking Tour of The Historic Homes of Old Saint Joseph offered by the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center. Architect and preservationist Stephen Byrns will lead you through a historic walking tour of the Old Saint Joseph Neighborhood for 90 minutes – you won’t want to miss it.

History of Breakfast Cereal

Learn how the breakfast cereal industry started with a mistake in the kitchen at The Cereal History Exhibit in Downtown Battle Creek. You’ll learn all about how the Kellogg brothers and C.W. Post revolutionized both food and advertising. After the exhibit, head across to the hall to the Battle Creek Welcome Center for more information on things to do in the area and for a little shopping. The gift store has Battle Creek and cereal items, along with merchandise to show your Mitten State pride.

Civil War Era History

Sojourner Truth chose Battle Creek as her home. The famous 19th century abolitionist and women’s rights activist made her mark here in Michigan – in one case, literally. Go to Quaker Park to see the remaining foundation of a meeting house where Truth left her footprints. In Monument Park, there’s a statue of Truth that’s larger than life, sharing some of the words spoken by the activist. Pay respects to Truth’s grave at Oak Hill Cemetery, near the mausoleum for C.W. Post. Learn more about Truth at the Battle Creek Regional History Museum.

Sports History

Did you know that the Marquette area is the birthplace of organized skiing in America? The U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum is located in the Upper Peninsula and holds annual inductions, celebrating the athletes, pioneers, and visionaries of the sport in the U.S. It’s a must visit for all ski and snowboarding enthusiasts!

International Adoption History

Robyn Afrik was born in Seoul, Korea, and placed in the Korean foster care system before being adopted at 6 months by a Dutch-German family in Holland, Michigan. Rebekah Bakker was born in Icheon, South Korea, naturalized at the age of 4, and was also raised by Dutch adoptive parents in Holland. On Thursday, November 18, join the Holland Museum in a conversation with Robyn and Rebekah, as they share the historical context for international adoptions in West Michigan and their stories of origin, identity, and activism, growing up as transracially adopted Korean females in Holland.

History and the Arts

Huldah Henning was only 19 years old in 1891, when she began successfully managing the Tibbits Opera House, a 500-seat theatre in Coldwater, Michigan. Following in her father’s footsteps after he purchased the exquisite theatre, Huldah had to sign her father’s name when doing business because many acts were resistant to a female manager. Performing acts and theatre companies toured, often with a repertoire of several plays, musicians, and novelty acts. After Miss Henning completed her first season as theater manager, the Coldwater Republican newspaper referred to her as “a dignified, affable and capable woman of business while still a young girl. A young lady successfully managing a big opera house is a rare case but we have it and we are justly proud of the fact.” You can still stop by Tibbits Opera House to catch a show when you’re visiting Coldwater.

The American Society of Marine Artists and Krasl Art Center are pleased to present the 2021 North Juried Regional Exhibition. The Society is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to recognize, encourage, and promote marine art and maritime history. St. Joseph/Benton Harbor’s rich artistic legacy and connection to Lake Michigan make KAC an ideal venue to highlight the 2021 exhibition, on view through November 28.

Gardening History

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, Michigan, it is a National Historic Site, garden, park, museum, and educational outreach center.

Want an Immersive Historical Experience?

South Central Michigan’s Coldwater Country makes it easy to step back into a time with a trip to the Wing House Museum. Step into a less complicated life where 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. 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.

The W.K. Kellogg Conference Center and Manor House is located on beautiful Gull Lake in Southwest Michigan nestled between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek in the town of Hickory Corners. During your visit to the estate, you will feel like you have stepped back in time when life was more simple and the air more pure. Once the summer cottage of W.K. Kellogg, the manor house and grounds offer self-guided tours where a story is told about a generous local philanthropist whose gifts continue to offer guests relaxation in a natural setting.

Step back in time in the Historic Village at Historic Charlton Park in Hastings, a recreation of a typical mid-Michigan village of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Visit a variety of village buildings, including the stagecoach stop, schoolhouse, general store, and many other turn-of-the-century homes and businesses. Also at the park is the Irving D. Charlton Memorial Museum, housing items that represent a rich heritage of Barry County.

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.

A visit to Castle Farms in Charlevoix includes a history video covering the four owners, their visions for the property, and the extensive restoration. Guests can be immersed in history with a guided tour. You’ll see historical photos and documents throughout the property, bringing the past to life. For an extra twist, see if you recognize any of the famous bands who once performed at the castle.

Step back in time and explore the historic sites of the Mackinac State Historic Parks and see how early settlers, millers, fur traders, and soldiers lived and worked in Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island.

Looking for Historical Museum Exhibits?

The Kalamazoo Valley Museum is a free, hands-on museum that features exhibits on science, technology and the history of Southwest Michigan. Also in Kalamazoo, The Vicksburg Historic Village is located in the southern part of Kalamazoo County and depicts rural life in Michigan from the 1890s to 1932 through historic and replica buildings and artifacts.

In honor of Veterans Day, the Holland Museum will offer free admission to veterans on Monday, November 8. All visitors are invited to visit the Holland National Guard exhibit in the Armory from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. on the 8th.

There are over 80 Muskegon companies represented in a new exhibit at the Lakeshore Museum Center, including the Snurfer; the original snowboard. Did you know that was invented in Muskegon? And, Raggedy Ann! Did you know she was first manufactured here in Muskegon? The collection includes interesting exhibits, artifacts and photos that tell the history of Muskegon’s industries and businesses. You will awe at the full size, working Corliss steam engine and working line shaft, the Brunswick working pinsetter, and Spring Winding Machine.

Marquette Regional History Center on West Spring Street in Marquette has a gallery with a beaver pond, an underwater exhibit, artifacts from 11,000 years ago, an authentic Ojibwe wigwam and birchbark canoes, a fur trading post and examples of Yooper innovation and traditions. The center hosts many history programs and events (ask about the Historical Marquette Bus Tours in summer).

Looking for more great West Michigan museums? See our list here!

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