Tag Archives: City Opera House

Traverse City’s Victorian Opera House: Still Fun at 121!

A Traverse City Film Festival crowd in the City Opera House.

A Traverse City Film Festival crowd in the City Opera House.

 

By MIKE NORTON

It may well be the only opera house where no opera has ever been performed.

But Traverse City’s handsome City Opera House has hosted plenty of other events in its 121-year career: innumerable plays, vaudeville shows, concerts, balls, public meetings, high school graduations and political rallies for candidates from William Jennings Bryan to John McCain.

Today it’s the oldest historically intact Victorian-era opera house in Michigan and the most versatile performance venue in our own performance-crazy town, hosting everything from stand-up comedy and blues to chamber concerts and literary symposia. But the building and its supporters are rallying under the slogan “Arts at the Heart” for some extra fundraising help in closing a $250,000 financial gap.

A rare full-frontal view of the City Opera House from photographer Allen Newton.

A rare full-frontal view of the City Opera House from photographer Alan Newton.

“This has been the community’s gathering place since 1892, and that’s what makes us unique among all Traverse City’s performance spots,” said operations and marketing director Kristi Dockter during a chat in the balcony section last week. “We’re right in the heart of downtown, with all this beautiful Victorian architecture. When people have events here, they don’t even decorate – it’s already perfectly lovely.”

In the 19th century it was a rare frontier town that didn’t aspire to have its own opera house, and Traverse City was no exception. Built above several stores in the downtown shopping district, the City Opera House was the first building in town to have electric lights and was intended to serve a multitude of uses. Its hardwood floors were made to be danced upon, and the seating was designed to be easily cleared out of the way for meetings and balls.

DSCN9882 - CopyBut times and tastes change; in 1920 the building was leased by a motion picture distributor who promptly closed it down so it wouldn’t compete with the movie houses he had opened down the street. Except for a brief respite during the 1930s (when it saw service as part of a Depression-era WPA project) it was largely closed to the public, a situation that probably helped preserve it in its original condition. In 1972 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1980 the opera house was donated to the city of Traverse City, and in 2003 it underwent a $9 million restoration project in which almost all of its major architectural features – floors, walls and 43-foot barrel-vaulted ceilings – were replaced and redecorated. The 41,000-square-foot facility now includes state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, elevators, a caterer’s kitchen and seating for 730 people, but has retained its Victorian charm.

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In 2010, management for the City Opera House was turned over to the Wharton Center for Performing Arts at Michigan State University, an arrangement that has brought improved programming and professional stability. It regularly presents popular acts like comedian Aziz Ansari and folk icon Arlo Guthrie. Headliners this winter include the Second City comedy troupe on Dec. 12, the American Big Band on Dec. 17 and comedian Mike Birbiglia on Jan.15

A number of other Traverse City cultural organizations, including the Traverse City Film Festival and the Traverse City Winter Comedy Festival, the National Writers Series, and the Traverse Symphony Orchestra, use the opera house as a venue – and the building is a popular site for weddings, corporate meetings and retreats and other events.

Even casual visitors are encourage to wander through the building during working hours (Monday-Friday from 10 to 5) There’s a self-guiding tour brochure available at the box office, and docent-led tours are available for larger groups.

Another Alan Newton photo: The View from Onstage

Another Alan Newton photo: The View from Onstage

 

Carols at the Lighthouse, Candles in Your Hair — Celebrating the Holidays in Traverse City

Celebrating St. Lucia’s Day at the Grand Traverse Commons

By MIKE NORTON

It’s not easy wearing lighted candles on your head.

Nevertheless, every year in mid-December a young girl in a long white robe wanders the grounds of Traverse City’s former mental asylum delivering warm sweet rolls to holiday shoppers. And yes, in keeping with an old tradition, she wears a wreath of lighted candles in her hair in honor of St. Lucy, an early Christian martyr whose feast falls on Dec. 13.

It’s all part of the annual Santa Lucia Day in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, the unique residential/retail development  in what was once this Michigan town’s mental institution. Accompanied by flute music and carrying trays of fresh rolls from the local bakery, the young St. Lucy stand-in is one of the highlights of the holiday season in Traverse City.
Not so long ago the picturesque summer resort towns on Michigan’s northwestern coast pretty much emptied out after Labor Day, leaving the exhausted natives with lots of time on their hands to contemplate the prospect of another long, quiet winter. They responded by putting a great deal of energy and creativity in their holiday observances.

These days, thanks to a growing population and a thriving winter recreation industry, the Traverse City region is quite lively even in midwinter. Fortunately, many of the traditional celebrations are still going strong – and a few more have even been added.

Christmas preparations here start as early as October, when local churches, clubs and artist’s cooperatives begin staging the holiday arts and crafts fairs for which the region is justly famous. Several really good ones have already taken place – the annual fair at Trinity Lutheran Church was several weeks ago, and this past weekend was the Dennos Museum Center’s Holiday Art Fair and the craft sale at East Junior High.

But there’s still more to come. This coming Saturday, for instance, is the annual Dickens Christmas Arts & Crafts Bazaar at First Congregational Church and the 25th  Annual Immaculate Conception Craft Show. And on the following weekend, there’s  juried show held by ArtCenter Traverse City, the 5th  Annual Craft Fair  at Traverse City Christian Middle/High School, the Thistle & Thread Holiday Art Show at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center and the craft show at Christ the King parish in Acme.

Another great holiday art fair is the Dec. 1 “Merry Marketplace” at the Old Art Building in the village of Leland, where local artisans and growers offer fresh and dried holiday wreaths, jewelry, specialty foods, pottery, ornaments, cards and hand-knitted items.

Gift-buying plays a big part in most holiday preparations, and in Traverse City’s charming downtown district  they start the shopping season on Nov. 30 with a big outdoor extravaganza that involves carol-singing, the lighting of the community Christmas tree, and the arrival of Santa Claus on a bright red antique fire engine. Downtown merchants have also cleverly devised separate men’s and women’s shopping nights that include refreshments and prize drawings. Similar fun events are held Nov. 23 in Leland and Glen Arbor (where you get special deals if you shop in your pajamas!) and Dec. 1-2 in Suttons Bay.

Each year, residents of the village of Northport, near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, decorate the Grand Traverse Lighthouse for Christmas as it was celebrated by the families who lived there in the early 20th century. The annual Christmas at the Lighthouse celebration is held this year on Dec. 2, and includes refreshments and entertainment by local musicians.

The Wellington Inn, all decked out for Christmas

One of Traverse City’s most charming Yuletide events is the annual “Inn at Christmastime” open house at the Wellington Inn, where local florists and artisans literally ‘deck the halls’ of this beautifully restored 1905 neoclassical mansion with a spectacular display of holiday designs and decorations. This year’s event will be held Dec. 9 and Dec. 16.

An entirely different kind of holiday tradition is on display at the History Center of Traverse City, housed in the former city library. It’s the annual Festival of Trains, a delightful event that attracts thousands of visitors each year to watch dozens of working model train layouts created and operated by local model train aficionados. This year’s festival will be Dec. 15 to Jan. 1.

Traverse City is an intensely musical community, thanks in part to the nearby presence of the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Each year, students and staff at Interlochen put on a holiday special for the community. This year’s Dec. 13-15 presentation is a traditional favorite –Coppelia, a lighthearted ballet about a feisty village girl, her fiancé and a mischievous toymaker’s clockwork doll.

The town’s ornate 19th century Opera House also puts on a full schedule of holiday music in December, from a Dec. 2 concert by the Celtic-influenced Canadian Leahy Family to a Dec. 5 program featuring the Empire Brass and special guest star Elisabeth Von Trapp — including a “Sound of Music” medley in which the guitar solo Edelweiss flows into an extraordinary rendition of Stille Nacht.

On the weekend of Dec. 8-9 the Traverse Symphony Orchestra presents its hugely popular “Home for the Holidays” concert, with conductor Robin Fountain leading performers and audience in a program of treasured Christmas classics, carols, medleys and holiday favorites.

New Year’s Eve isn’t forgotten here, either. For the past four years, hundreds of people have gathered for the annual CherryT Ball Drop, a three-hour “street party for charity” that culminates with the lowering of a large illuminated cherry over downtown Traverse City.

The National Writers Series brings literary superstars to TC

Writers Jodie Picoult and Paula McClain onstage during the 2011 NWS Season

Doug Stanton remembers the first time he stood up in front of an audience in Traverse City’s opulent 19th century Opera House to talk about writing.

It felt surprisingly good.

“We talked, we had food, we had a few drinks,’” says Stanton, a Traverse City resident whose two nonfiction books (Horse Soldiers, In Harm’s Way) were New York Times best-sellers. “I think I said, ‘Let’s do this again sometime” — and a month later we were back again with Elmore Leonard.”

That evening in the spring of 2009 was the beginning of the National Writers Series, which brings a steady stream of celebrity authors to this tiny Michigan resort town for “up close and personal” readings and discussions. At least once each month, a prominent writer is brought to Traverse City to present and discuss his or her work in an intimate and relaxed setting with plenty of audience interaction.

“The aim is to have people lean in around the fire of a great narrative, to connect with them,” says Stanton. “And that means having conversation.”

Over the three years since it began, the series has featured more than 50 writers like Mario Batali, Roy Blount Jr., Tom Brokaw, Philip Caputo, Peter Mathiessen, Vince Gilligan, Jodi Picoult, Anna Quindlen, James Bradley, Geraldine Brooks and Natalie Bakopoulos. And it has boosted Traverse City’s reputation as an unusually bookish town: Livability.com has listed it among its Top 10 Cities for Book Lovers, and Publishers Weekly ran a full-page feature entitled “Traverse City is For Book Lovers.”

Doug Stanton (at left) and Tom Brokaw chat during an early NWS session.

Such salon-style encounters are expected at venues like New York’s 92nd Street Y, but the publishing industry is fascinated by the success of the Traverse City venture. During the past year, the National Writers Series has been featured in stories in several leading industry publications, including a piece in Publishers Weekly entitled “Traverse City is for Book Lovers,” and a Publishing Perspectives article that called it ”one of the nation’s leading literary series.”

“When you put together a community that cares deeply about reading and a staff that cares deeply about writers, magic happens, said Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper. “The National Writers Series was one of the highlights of my last book tour.”

The NWS organization provides scholarships to area high school students, and has just inaugurated a program called Front Street Writers, that provides a full year of advanced creative writing workshops (for credit) to qualified students.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the Series translates directly into bigger book sales, so the supply of available authors doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Neither is the supply of audience members; most events are sold out fairly quickly, and it’s usually a good idea to reserve tickets four weeks ahead of a scheduled appearance.

Susan Casey (left) and Anna Quindlen at a session of the 2012 NWS series.

Tickets for the monthly events are $15 in advance or $20 at the door, but  Stanton and his crew haven’t jacked ticket prices through the roof to take advantage of their success. They offer discounts for book clubs and students (who get in for only $5) – and there’s a great program called “Whatta Book Deal,” where patrons can get a premium seat, a signed book copy and admission to a pre-show author reception for $38.

Announcements of coming writer appearances are made twice a year, in June and in February, and the most recent slate is already causing excitement. The big event of the 2012 summer season will be a July 9 benefit appearance by Janet Evanovich, author of the New York Times best-selling Stephanie Plum and Lizzy and Diesel series, including her most recent book, Wicked Business. The program, offered during Traverse City’s annual National Cherry Festival, is a fundraiser for the NWS’s annual summer scholarship program.

Other writers for the rest of 2012 include thriller writer Lee Child (Sept. 18), young adult fiction author Maggie Stiefvater of Shiver, Linger and Forever (Sept. 27), Somalian human-rights memoirist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Oct. 11), actor-author Benjamin Busch (Nov. 8), and mystery novelist Michael Connelly (Nov. 29).

To learn more about the National Writer Series, and for ticket information, check out the group’s website at http://nationalwritersseries.org/.

“Magical History Tours” Explore Traverse City’s Past

Picnicking at Hannah Park  on “Silk Stocking Row”

By MIKE NORTON

For years, visitors have been drawn to Traverse City’s dramatic natural beauty and its reputation as a four-season staging area for outdoor adventure. These days an entirely different group of tourists has discovered that we’re also a vibrant food and wine (and beer) destination.

But when you get right down to it, that’s a fairly shallow way to encounter a community and its people. There’s much, much more to Traverse City than its scenic and recreational qualities. We have a brief but dramatic past – a story in which Native Americans, missionaries, lumberjacks, fur traders, fishermen and farmers all played important roles. And now, thanks in large part to persistent questions from curious tourists, we’re starting to do a better job of telling that story.

 For several years now, volunteers from the Traverse City History Center — a historical and cultural museum headquartered on Sixth Street in the city’s 1903 Carnegie Library building – have been conducting walking tours that highlight the city’s most interesting historical sights. This summer they’re taking an even more ambitious step by inaugurating what they’re calling a “Magical History Tour” – a 90 minute bus tour that showcases such key places as Front Street, Sixth Street, Old Town, the city waterfront and the Grand Traverse Commons.

I had the opportunity to ride along last week on a sort of “shakedown cruise” for the tour, and I think it’s got a lot of potential. Starting at the History Center, we rode comfortably through many of my favorite TC neighborhoods, as guide (and former city planner) Fred Hoisington chatted about the city’s early days as a wild lumber port, the career of founding father Perry Hannah and the most colorful of our many colorful mayors, “Wild Bill” Germaine. Obviously, a nine-mile bus tour couldn’t cover every detail of the city’s history, but it made for a great introduction.

There’s a lot to tell – which is odd when you consider that the Traverse City area was one of the last places in America to be settled. Indian hunters and French traders were the first people to visit the area, and it was they who gave the region its name – La Grand Traverse, because of the “long crossing” they had to make by canoe across the mouth of the bay. But they weren’t interested in staying; even the area’s historic Ottawa and Chippewa people didn’t arrive there until the early 18th century, and it wasn’t until 1839 that the Rev. Peter Dougherty established the first permanent settlement, an Indian mission at the tip of the Old Mission peninsula.

By 1847 a small but growing community was forming around the mouth of the Boardman River. In 1852 the little sawmill town was christened Traverse City — but until the first road through the forest was built in 1864 it remained a remote outpost, accessible only by water. It must have been a prosperous outpost, to judge by the number and size of the homes and public buildings that were built in the waning years of the century. The neighborhood along Boardman Avenue and Washington Street preserves some of Traverse City’s oldest and most ornate homes, many in the fanciful Queen Anne style, while the turn-of-the-century mansions of Sixth Street (known as “Silk Stocking Row”) include Perry Hannah’s immense 32-room “retirement house,” which dates to 1893.

After decades of neglect, our downtown has been extensively restored and is now a picturesque and pedestrian-friendly reminder of the city’s historical roots. Its tree-shaded sidewalks now border shops, restaurants and galleries that have made creative use of the Victorian buildings they occupy. Two special landmarks are the ornate 1891 City Opera House, reopened after more than $9 million in exquisite restoration work, and the art deco State Theatre, now the home of the Traverse City Film Festival.

Of course, not everyone in 19th-century Traverse City was a millionaire. The city’s west side – known as Slabtown – was home to mill workers and skilled woodcarvers, including a substantial community of Bohemian immigrants who built tidy cottages for themselves out of scraps from the sawmills. Many of their homes are still standing, and so is Sleder’s Family Tavern, a 123-year-old social club that is still a favorite hangout for locals and visitors alike.

When the lumber boom peaked, its place in the local economy was taken by manufacturing and agriculture – potatoes, apples, and eventually cherries. But the city’s biggest economic windfall came in 1885, when it was designated as the site of the Northern Michigan Asylum, a huge state institution whose founders believed mental illness could best be treated by a combination of healthy food, exercise and beautiful natural surroundings. The asylum became one of the city’s major employers and eventually housed a population several times larger than that of the town itself.

Spring at the Grand Traverse Commons

In what may be the country’s largest historic re-use project, the 480-acre site of the former hospital – now known as the Grand Traverse Commons — is being redeveloped into a unique “village” of shops, restaurants, apartments and galleries. Developers are preserving the castle-like Italianate century buildings that once housed staff and patients, while its lovely wooded campus has become a favorite place for hikers and cyclists.

If you’re interested in trying the Magical History Tours, they’ll be holding them on Fridays and Saturdays at 10 am and noon; after Memorial Day weekend they’ll be held on Mondays (when tickets are only $10) and Wednesday through Saturdays. Aside from those discount Mondays,  tickets are $14.95 for adults and $10.95 for students and seniors.

Learning to Love this “In-Between” Season

Yep, I still get the kayak out in November, December, January...
Yep, I still get the kayak out in November, December, January…

By MIKE NORTON

Local wits like to say that if you don’t like the weather in Traverse City, all you have to do is wait five minutes. This past Thanksgiving weekend was certainly a good illustration of that.

Thankful is what we were at the Norton house on Thursday, when it was warm and clear enough to finally get all the oak leaves raked off the yard (which is how we worked off our turkey and dressing!) And on Friday it was so warm that I got the bicycle out of the garage for one more lovely 20-miler along East Bay. But Saturday and Sunday were days best spent by the fireplace, reading new books and enjoying each other’s company. I took a couple of long walks along the shore, watching the swans and a couple of eagles, but there weren’t many other folks out on the beach.

I moved to Traverse City because I love being outdoors, and I still do. In the summer, you’ll find me walking this town’s beautiful beaches, kayaking on Grand Traverse Bay or hiking through the Pere Marquette State Forest. In winter, I’ll be out on my skis at Old Mission Point or snowshoeing around the Boardman Valley.

But there’s one time of year that I’m only beginning to appreciate, and that’s the season we’re going through right now – these six to eight weeks between the end of fall color season and the start of snowsport season. It’s too cold for swimming, too early for sledding. Is it late autumn or early winter? And what in the world can you do?

Plenty, as it turns out. Over time, I’ve learned to appreciate and even welcome this odd “in-between” season – especially here in Traverse City, where it’s actually become one of my favorite times of year. It’s a quieter, friendlier time, I think, when the true flavor of this lovely place begins to re-emerge after months of overstimulation.

Once October ends, there’s a sudden shift in the rhythm of life in Traverse City. The hectic crowds of summer and fall dwindle to a more manageable level, even on weekends. Suddenly you’re not waiting in line to get a table at a restaurant. Suddenly, hotel rates are much lower, store clerks are much more relaxed, and everybody seems much happier to see you.

The Traverse City area has over 4,000 guest rooms and a wide range of choices, from large full-service resorts to cozy family-operated motels, from condominiums to B&Bs. There are unique winery chateaux, rustic Up North cabins, laid-back beach resorts and an elegant casino hotel. And it all seems just a little bit more relaxed this time of year.

Part of the appeal, I admit, is that there are fewer kids around. I love youngsters (really I do!) but there are some things that just aren’t much fun when you have to share them with the younger set. Once the little ones are safely back in school, Traverse City becomes a perfect setting for adults who want to slip away for a little fun of their own, whether that’s a romantic weekend, a holiday shopping trip, or a girlfriends getaway.

The truth is, I’ve learned to enjoy some of the indoor pleasures of this season. That isn’t hard in a place like Traverse City, which keeps picking up national and international praise for the quality of its restaurants and its outstanding wines. Dining out is much more pleasant when you can do it without feeling crowded or rushed  –  and I always try to get a table near the fireplace, just to enjoy the cozy snap and crackle of a real fire.

Karen and friends contemplate microbrews at Mackinaw Brewing Co.
Karen and friends contemplate microbrews at Mackinaw Brewing Co.

On the other hand, “quiet” shouldn’t mean boring — and fortunately, Traverse City isn’t the kind of resort town that shuts down in wintertime. If anything, I think its nightlife actually seems to improve as the weather turns colder — whether that’s a concert at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, some stand-up comedy at the City Opera House, or the bonhomie at one of our local brewpubs.

And shopping? Things are still humming along nicely this time of year in Traverse City’s historic and pedestrian-friendly downtown with its fascinating boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and galleries, and at the Grand Traverse Commons, a fascinating “village” of shops, eateries and homes in the turreted buildings of our 19th-century mental asylum. This is when all those places start running their holiday specials – and when their owners actually have the time to stand around and chat with you.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still an outdoorsy guy, and I still prefer to be outside whenever I can. And I’ve learned to enjoy the austere beauty of this season, with its browns and maroons and dark golds framed by the electric-blue water of Lake Michigan and the increasingly dramatic skies of winter. I still like to get the kayak out and paddle across the bay, and I love to hike the deep forests of pine, spruce and hemlock that cover the hills south of town.

But the most fun of all, I think, is being able to combine indoor and outdoor activities by touring Traverse City’s legendary wine country. Many of the 28 wineries on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas are located on high hilltops with wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, and there’s something about that splendid setting that goes particularly well with their crisp fruit-forward wines.

So mark me down as a former skeptic who has mellowed in his opinions about this once-scorned time of year. Here in Traverse City, at least, I don’t think of it as “in-between season” anymore. Now it’s my new “relax-and-unwind season” instead!

A dreamlike "in-between" scene at Old Mission Point
A dreamlike “in-between” scene at Old Mission Point

Beyond the Beach: Traverse City for History Buffs

The ornate home of Traverse City's founder, Perry Hannah

The ornate home of Traverse City’s founder, Perry Hannah

By MIKE NORTON

For years, visitors have been drawn to Traverse City by its dramatic natural beauty and its reputation as a four-season staging area for outdoor adventure. But there’s more to this place than scenery.

In fact, Traverse City has a brief but dramatic past – a story in which Native Americans and missionaries, lumberjacks and fur traders, fishermen and farmers all played important roles. All of them left their imprints on the landscape: lonely lighthouses and humble mission churches, grand old hotels, quaint summer colonies and the palatial homes of lumber barons.

Fortunately, many of these sites can easily be visited on a brief walking tour (it’s a pretty small town) while others are only a short scenic drive away. Here’s my brief guide to some of the best:

The perfect place to start your journey is on Sixth Street in Traverse City’s historic Central Neighborhood. Here, housed in the city’s former 1903 Carnegie Library building, you’ll find the History Center of Traverse City, where you can get a quick overview of the places you’ll be visiting during the day. The center has several fine museum exhibits highlighting different aspects of Traverse City history. (Check and see if you’ll be around for the walking tours they do of the city’s more famous sites.)

As it happens, the History Center is located at the eastern end of what was once known as Silk Stocking Row,” where the ornate homes of 19th century lumber barons stand above the Boardman River. (You can pick up an excellent self-guided walking tour of the neighborhood at the center; it makes for fascinating reading.) But the biggest of them all is the four-story 32-room house built by Traverse City’s founder, Perry Hannah. It’s a true showcase, with its beveled Tiffany doors, copper-clad turrets and intricate wood paneling. (A different wood was used in almost every room — appropriately enough for a man whose fortune came from the forest.) Today, it’s the Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home.

Hannah was a young businessman in 1851 when he sailed into Grand Traverse Bay and bought  200 acres of woodlands along the shore – the future site of Traverse City — for $4,500. Over the next half-century he and his partner, Tracy Lay, created an empire of sawmills, sailing ships and steamships, a bank, and one of the largest department stores in the north. Much of that building, once known simply as The Big Store” can be seen if you head north along Union Street, crossing the Boardman River (where thousands of logs once floated on their way to Hannah’s sawmills and ships) until you get to Front Street. The big brick building on the northeast corner, built in 1863,  is only half as large as it used to be – it once stretched for two blocks.

Across the street you’ll see the red brick façade of the handsome second-story City Opera House, a source of community pride since its construction in 1891. The first building in Traverse City to install electric lights, the Opera House hosted plays, lectures, meetings, balls, concerts and vaudeville acts before closing in 1920. After years of neglect, it has been restored to its former splendor, at a cost of some $9 million, and is now used for a variety of community meetings, dances and performance events in affiliation with Michigan State University’s Wharton Center.

Continuing east on Front Street, you might get the idea that you’ve moved back in time to the early years of the 20th century, when most of these storefronts and office buildings were constructed. In fact, many were painstakingly restored fairly recently, as local residents began to increasingly appreciate the architecture of the past.

The city was less concerned about the fate of its industrial waterfront, which is entirely gone now. This once-sprawling port of busy wharves, warehouses and factories is now a pastoral landscape of parks, beaches and marinas. Fortunately, you can get a sense of what it once looked like as you stroll along the Traverse Area Recreational Trail, where the local historical society has placed a series of 14 historical markers with photographs and text explaining the significance of each site.

Leaving the trail at Division Street and heading south will take you through one of the most interesting parts of Traverse City. In the city’s early years, this area was occupied by the millwrights and woodworkers who labored in the sawmills along the waterfront. Originally known as “Baghdad” (presumably because the first homes here were tents) it was later called “Little Bohemia” because so many of its residents were from that part of Europe. But the most colorful nickname is the one that eventually stuck; today this neighborhood is known as “Slabtown” – a reference to the fact that many of the homes were built with slabs of scrap wood salvaged from the mills.

The best place to sample Slabtown’s charm is at Sleder’s Family Tavern on Randolph Street. Cutline: Built in 1882 as a social club for the Bohemian woodworkers, it’s still a favorite local watering hole. Patrons can still belly up to the original carved mahogany bar amid a menagerie of stuffed animal heads, including a famous moose named Randolph.

Continue south on the west side of Division will bring you to Traverse City’s most distinctive architectural treasure, the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. In 1885,  Traverse City was selected to be the site of the Northern Michigan Asylum, a hospital dedicated to the idea that fresh air and beautiful surroundings could ease the suffering of the mentally ill. The hospital closed in 1989, but its extensive forested grounds and stately castle-like buildings have been preserved and are being transformed into a complex of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments that has become one of the city’s most appealing attractions.

Old Mission Peninsula

Ready for a lovely drive? Then it’s time to explore the Old Mission Peninsula, where the history of this region really began. Head east on M-37 and follow it when it turns north; you’ll be driving along the spine of this narrow glacial peninsula that separates the east and west arms of Grand Traverse Bay. Once you leave the shoreline with its elegant homes and cottages, you enter a zone of fruit orchards and vineyards – a reminder that this is also the birthplace of Traverse City’s famous fruit-growing industry.

Tucked into a secluded harbor 18 miles from Traverse City, the village of Old Mission seems frozen in time. It was founded in 1839 as a joint venture by leaders of the local Ottawa Indian tribe and a wiry Presbyterian minister named Peter Dougherty, and was a kind of social experiment: a small colony of teachers, artisans and farmers – Indians and non-Indians alike – who lived and worked side by side in this idyllic spot at the water’s edge.  Some of its original structures are still standing (including the broad frame mission house built by Dougherty and his Indian neighbors in 1842) and have the look and feel of museum pieces — except that they’re still being used.

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Hamming it up in the Old Mission General Store

From the eclectic Old Mission General Store, which sells everything from ice cream cones to coonskin caps, visitors can stroll down Mission Road past Dougherty’s mission headquarters and the village schoolhouse (now a private residence) to the trim Old Mission Inn, the oldest continuously-operated hotel in the region. Owners Bruce and Angie Jensen have done extensive research on the history of the 1839 hotel, and love to share their knowledge with visitors. Just north of the inn is the village’s New England-style congregational church with its tall white spire, and the broad white beach where the intrepid Dougherty first stepped ashore.

Three miles to the north you’ll find the Old Mission Lighthouse, built in 1870 to warn ships away from the rocky shoals of Old Mission Point. The simple frame structure sits on a low bluff above a wide public beach, where a sign informs visitors that they’re standing on the 45th Parallel, exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole. The lighthouse is open for tours, and is surrounded by acres of public shoreline with miles of trails for hiking, cycling and cross-country skiing.