When I ask myself what destination comes to mind when I think of ‘whimsical’ or ‘eccentric’, I probably wouldn’t answer “Michigan”. Yet on a recent 4-day trip to the Great Lakes Bay Region of the state, I was able to pack in more quirky and unusual attractions than I would have thought possible from a place known more for its cars than its curiosities.
My first clue should have been that residents of this state call themselves “Michiganders” (which brings a smile to my face on its own). My second clue was that Michiganders like to use the shape of the state (which looks like a mitten) to point out locations or even give approximate directions by using their own hand as a geographic model. Handy, that. (sorry, I couldn’t resist!)
Here are a 5 more of the charming, quirky attractions this area of the state had to offer:
1. Santa School
All those mall Santas have to learn the ropes somewhere, and for the past 70 years or so, the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Michigan, is the place they go to study all things Saint Nick. But there’s nothing too stuffy about the school itself; in fact, it’s cute enough to be at home in a snow globe. But despite its charming appearance, this is no tourist attraction and the school is only open to its ‘students’ for a few months leading up to the Big Day. So because we happened to be visiting when it was closed, just like a snow globe, we had to content ourselves with looking at it from the outside only.
2. Warmbrier Farms
The Tricounty area of the state includes Bay, Saginaw and Midland, some of which is serious farm country, so it only makes sense that farms are part of its charm. But for those of us who are looking more for hobby gardening versus commercial production, Warmbier Farms near Auburn offers a huge selection of outdoor garden decor. And although it may look like a high-density graveyard with quirky headstones, it’s actually a one-stop shop for all things concrete. Between the rows of gargoyles and satyrs, you’re sure to find that special something to personalize any size or theme of yard.
If you’re thinking of doing a little shopping of the non-concrete variety, a huge warehouse-sized store on the property offers much more than just seasonal decor: Blinged-out tiaras? Check. Life-sized fairies? Check. Throw cushions and little girls’ tutus? Check. Not what you would expect from your average country nursery.
Staying with the farm theme, we paid a visit to Johnson’s Giant Pumpkin farm closer to Bay City, where the namesake giant squash are on display in an equally giant barn, and where antique hunters will drool at the owner’s personal collection of tools and toys lining the shelves along every wall.
And if dusting all of those isn’t enough to keep him busy, every year Mr. J. designs and grows his own corn maze complete with messages and designs you can only see from the air (and it’s all done old-school, using pencil and graph paper, no GPS or digital help here).
3. Fire Truck Museum
Michiganders are collectors, it seems, and I challenge you to find one more eccentric than Jimmie “Dobbie” Dobson, the 86 year-old owner of the largest collection of fire trucks (12,000 toy and 60 full-sized!) you’ll probably ever see in your life. One-time professional clown, Shriner Potentate, firefighter and multiple business owner (everything from exterminators to cab companies), Jimmie led us on a tour through one dusty, musty exhibit room after another, rhyming one-liners while riding his scooter from room to room. Oh, and if you’re not into firetrucks, there’s always his Betty Boop collection. (What Betty Boop has to do with fire trucks I’m not sure.) Jimmie’s best line of the tour? “I’m 86 and my main squeeze is 85 – but she’s all squeezed out.” This is the kind of stuff reality shows are made of.
4. Christmas Year-round at Frankenmuth
If you are the kind of person who gets excited hearing the first few bars of ‘White Christmas’, you’re going to love Frankenmuth, Michigan. First of all, because it is home to Bronners, which bills itself as the World’s Largest Christmas Store, where you’ll find acres (literally!) of ornaments, tree toppers, lights and all things Christmas – it’s easy to get carried away by the Christmas Spirit so it may be a good idea to limit your time unless your budget is unlimited.
But Frankenmuth is more than just one giant Christmas store – the whole of Main Street looks like a Bavarian village out of a Christmas storybook, with its alpine architecture, a functional glockenspiel that narrates the animated story of the Pied Piper 4 times daily, cute-as-a-button shops whose eaves are decorated with colourful garland all year long, and of course the prerequisite horse carriages.
A visit to Frankenmuth’s small but fully accredited museum is worth the time, if for one reason only: it houses historical displays using life-sized mannequins representing the early German settlers who came here in the 1800s.
What is interesting, though, is that the faces are made from plaster casts taken from current residents who are the direct descendants of the original families. Not many places could trace back their history this directly. But with less than 5,000 residents, Frankenmuth’s apples didn’t fall far from the family tree. Despite its small population, though, this pretty town draws 3.5 million visitors every year, making it Michigan’s number 3 tourist attraction.
5. Car Shows (it’s Michigan, after all!)
Of course, you can’t visit Michigan without taking in a little car history. Fortunately, we didn’t need to go to Lansing or Detroit to visit the birthplace of the Olds or the Ford Mustang – we could just walk down Main Street, Midland, where our stay coincided with an auto show – of which there are many in Michigan! This is after all, the land of the automobile.
And some prime examples were on display, from American Graffiti’s era of iconic cruisers, to the Al Capone getaway-mobiles from the 30’s, and even the odd muscle car or two from this decade. And while collectors may not think of their prized roadsters as ‘whimsical’, I couldn’t help having fun with a selfie or two that showed off our own silly side.
Whether it’s whimsy or just a whim that brings you to this area of Michigan, you’d be surprised (as I was) at the number of attractions that will keep you entertained on a weekend – all only a half-day’s drive from Toronto. But if whimsical isn’t your thing, this area has much more to offer too, so stay tuned for my next post: Michigan Part 2: A Grownup Getaway in the Great Lakes Bay Area.
Special thanks to the Great Lakes Bay Regional CVB who hosted me for 4 days to tour the area – and even sprung for the pottery painting session at Painterly Pottery in Saginaw –where I made my own whimsical sugar bowl at the top of this post.