Ben Irving visits Marquette Michigan, August 1941

From what I can tell, Ben Irving took two road trips through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: once in May of 1939, and once in August of 1941. In both cases, he drove through from Wisconsin and continued down to the Lower Peninsula, taking one of nine auto ferries across the Mackinac Strait (the Mighty Mac suspension bridge would not open until 1957).

He did not make it to Marquette, the largest town and cultural anchor of the U.P. (Joe Pera decided to set his TV show there, if there may be any doubts) until his second trip. Avoiding a stop in Marquette may seem odd today, but most towns up there that feel like hollowed-out blips on the map in 2021 were robust mining towns preceding World War II. After I visited the Keweenaw Peninsula, for example, it seemed blatantly obvious that mining is why Michigan Technological University is located way up there in Houghton. Also, the location isn’t really too far afield to other North-Country cities like Duluth and Green Bay; it just seems like a massive haul to any of the “trolls” (an endearing term for those folks who live in “under the Bridge” in Michigan’s lower peninsula, about 97% of the state’s population).

As various friends and colleagues had predicted, my partner and I thought Marquette was awesome. Northern cities, especially those as remote as Marquette, have a special charm to them. Locals tend to be good at making their own fun. Much of the city is contained within hills that bottle it on a descent into Lake Superior, where one finds the massive, lumbering ore dock situated down the street from a nice brewery that bears its name.

Downtown Marquette, MI (with the ore dock seen at left) taken from the penthouse of the Landmark Inn (SonicGeography.com).

The Landmark Inn (formerly The Hotel Northland)

Unlike other small Michigan cities, Marquette retained a majority of its beautiful early-20th century stone architecture, particularly along Front Street, leading up to the Landmark Inn, where Irving stayed in August 1941. At the time, it was barely over a decade old and called itself the Hotel Northland.

There are plenty of sources that claim the building is haunted, particularly the Lilac Room on the top floor, where a young librarian allegedly hanged herself in grief over her lover dying sailing on Lake Superior. There are also urban legends that tell of a jealous man who murdered his unfaithful girlfriend and buried her body in the hotel’s foundation sometime in the 1920s. In both cases, paranormal enthusiasts report hearing noises that suggest neither young woman ever truly left the hotel. Of course, the hotel’s spartan official history doesn’t mention any of this.

Though the Hotel Northland’s original era ended with its closure in 1982, the Landmark group refurbished the building in 1995. The results, as one might expect, are grandiose and expensive. Like most hotels who haven’t had a date with the wrecking ball, this one was fairly easy to re-photograph. I stood in front of the Peter White Public Library to get my photo, as the original photographer/painter did ninety years ago. Here is the result:


Harlow’s Wooden Man

My partner and I spent a good few minutes wandering around the corner of Spring Street and 5th Street, where I read in a few different, confusingly phrased accounts that Harlowe’s Wooden Man stands today. The landscape over which he towered 80+ years ago is almost completely overgrown today and encased in private property. At first, I felt the standard type of garden-variety indignity an Urban Geographer like myself would feel seeing any piece of bizarro history is fenced off from public enjoyment. Then, I realized that HWM probably owes his “life” to being neglected in some wealthy person’s back yard. Like countless others who walked down the fencing behind an Advance Auto Parts, I felt the temptation to jump the chain-link fence and get a cheeky selfie with the wooden giant. If he were on public property, the city of Marquette or some niche historical society would have to encase him in some type of panopticon to prevent a bunch of hooligans from climbing onto his withered old shoulders and toppling him into a pile of lumber.

The story behind this highly unusual (though I doubt unique) hidden attraction is unusual in itself. According to local lore, Amos Harlow (the postcard misspelled his name – probably an honest error by the publisher) was out for a walk in 1875 when he saw a cedar tree that resembled a person, so he decided to cut it down and bring it to a hill behind his home, where he added various embellishments, including a cane and fine hat. I don’t know if the cane and hat you see in the postcard image were Amos’ originals, but today the cane is long gone (a reflection of how uncool canes are now, for whatever reason), and his current hat resembles a cage of something that Uncle Sam might wear. Here are a couple of more detailed shots I could get from the other side of the fence nearby:

Today, the Marquette County History Museum names their quarterly journal after him, and it’s entirely possible that Amos Harlow’s descendants live in the house facing 4th Street on that property. It’s fun finding whichever photos of the wooden man taken over the years – the ones which have been digitized, anyway. One photographer who snapped an ironic image of HWM in the 70’s did so from behind the figure with permission from Harlow’s granddaughter, who he claimed lived in the house on the property. Notice, if you click on that link, that the wooden man didn’t have a cane in that picture, either. I would have to do a lot more investigative work to figure out when the old man lost it. Someone had better help him! He’s out in the middle of the woods (and on a hill!) without a cane!

It’s not perfect, but it’s the closest I could get to the original angle. ~1930’s (mailed in 1941) vs. 2021.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great weekend.

AAG PRESENTS: Michigan Redistricting Webinar (Wednesday 4pm ET)

This Wednesday, I will be hosting an informative discussion about Redistricting in Michigan on behalf of the AAG’s Redistricting Panel Series.

My guests will be Atty. Mark Brewer (former Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party), Nancy Wang (Voters Not Politicians), and Rick Sadler (MSU-Flint), with a couple of potential special guests, too.

MORE INFO AND REGISTRATION IS HERE. This event, like all the AAG Redistricting Webinars, is free.

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Battle Creek, MI

Between 1932 and 1944, Ben Irving mailed more than a thousand postcards and souvenir packets home to Brooklyn from all cities and towns all over North America. This is the story of his postcards from one of those towns. 

BATTLE CREEK, MI

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How’s that for a gripping introduction? I have an unimaginable amount of housekeeping to do on this site, but for starters, I figured I would keep the Ben Irving Postcard Project entries separated by city, rather than clustered together by trip. Living in Michigan now will enable me to do more day trips and work Irving Postcard recon into my excursions, which is exciting. Whether this will result in any type of publication while I’m here remains to be seen. The demands of the new semester at a new job have prevented me from doing much writing at all, but hopefully September will be a productive month of catching up on the multiple proposals and abstracts I have floating around out there.

Anyway, I suppose I should put my money where my mouth is and talk about Battle Creek. Prior to stopping there en route to Kalamazoo (separate entry coming soon), the only space it occupied in my brain was a reference point for small-town Michigan’s post-industrial downturn. My dad mentioned driving through there in 1981, and being overwhelmed even then at how empty it felt. 38 years later, I found myself looking for landmarks based off images sent out into the world at the town’s peak period in 1938.

The first of which was the Kellogg Auditorium. If I ever knew that the eponymous cereal company was headquartered in Battle Creek and essentially keeping that whole city afloat, I had forgotten. The Kellogg food company, who originally produced health food for the Battle Creek Sanitarium (one second; ordering some t-shirts for my new prog metal band), essentially traced the city’s twentieth century history with their own successes. One landmark prominently displayed in a postcard that Irving mailed on October 18, 1938 was the Kellogg Auditorium. The Battle Creek Enquirer posted a wonderful history here on their garbage fire of a website (USA Today‘s fault, not theirs).

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In order to recreate the image, I had to stand in the middle of McCamly St, next to the Battle Creek Central High School. For a handful of reasons, which become plainly obvious here, I had to move around to get any clear shots of the exterior. In addition to removing the parking lot and restructuring the McCamly side, the city (as far as I could tell) planted some trees, two of which had grown massive enough to obscure the building.

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Also, in what I might assume was part of the 1981 renovation, they added a vestibule onto the main entrance, with dummy doors designed to replicate the original 1933 doors. I tried my best to take a photo where both were visible:

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The building was locked and dormant, though it appeared to be still in prime condition to host special events in the main concert hall. Too bad I’m never anywhere near these place when they’re open to the public, or even available by special request. It would be great to see their immense house organ whenever I next pass through there, at any rate. Moving on…

The downtown strip across Battle Creek from Kellogg’s Auditorium felt dead on that Saturday afternoon. I saw a few food trucks setting up on McCamly Street off of Festival Market Square for some burger festival that evening. Maybe my timing was just off. Around 4pm, the only places that showed any signs of life at first on the Michigan Ave strip were a cricket bar and a Subway (which may have been due to the sandwich artist out front on his smoke break). A pair of young women with a nice camera were taking modeling photos next to a dormant construction site on the LEFT tower on this image below:

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The two towers at the center of this postcard, which Irving mailed from Battle Creek on October 8, 1938, made it incredibly easy to recreate the shot. Here’s my best attempt.

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In this shot, you can see the scaffolding hanging off of the tower at 25 W. Michigan, a landmark in the midst of a serious renovation. The one further back and to the right has already been renovated and transformed into Battle Creek Tower, a high rise of luxury condominiums (read their brochure here). Their website has a brief history:

Construction on the Battle Creek Tower began on August 20, 1930, and was open to the public on June 20, 1931. Originally home to the Central National Bank, it was complete with modern features and was the first high-rise to be built in downtown Battle Creek. To preserve the history and significance of the Tower, a copper box time capsule was sealed inside a building cornerstone during the dedication ceremony in 1931.

It goes on to talk about Roger Hinman’s purchase of the building in 2000 as well as how the building’s location in a so-called “renaissance zone” could provide tax benefits to residents. Well, isn’t that nice. I’m sure the 60-year-old homeless gentleman I met walking through Friendship park who has been sleeping under awnings and carrying paint cans at a facility a distant bus ride away to afford food would appreciate that.

I hate to sound pessimistic or contrarian here; I’m genuinely supportive of the local spirit that Battle Creek has, and support any sustainable efforts to regain some of the glory they seemed to encapsulate at (ironically) the Depression era. The key word, though, is sustainable. Heritage Tower, on the left and closer to my vantage point, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer, has been undergoing renovations for well over two years. They were initially eyeing a completion date in early 2019, but from what I saw it looked like they still had plenty of work to do.

One other noticeable landmark shift was the extinct Hotel Milner. In the 30’s, they charged the whopping rate of $1 per day (which is a little more than $15 per day adjusting for inflation – still an incredibly cheap rate). I was somewhat surprised to find a historical placard commemorating the hotel on the Parking Lot sign, considering how blatantly the building had been ripped out of the lot. The signage, placard, and the old building’s bone cage are more visible on this shot here. It just looks…off.

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Additionally, had I not had the Heritage and Battle Creek Towers for reference points, I would have had fun tracing that gorgeous, highly recognizable trim in the postcard image back to the building at 26 W. Michigan:

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So what did I learn about Battle Creek? A lot. As easy as it may be to be skeptical of language developers use to sell luxury high-rises to one of Michigan’s struggling small cities, Battle Creek does appear to be a canvas for young entrepreneurs to experiment, most of whom I imagine have been there for generations. Also, I found out that Sojourner Truth spent her twilight years living in Battle Creek, and the city finally gave her her due with a memorial at a major intersection.

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Did YOU know that Sojourner Truth spent the remainder of her life in Michigan after the decades she spent campaigning for the rights of women and minorities around the country? Did you know who Sojourner Truth was? Tend to that second question first. Did you know that New York didn’t abolish slavery until 1828? I didn’t! But now I do, mostly because my great-grandfather decided to send a couple of postcards from “the breakfast capital of the world” 81 years ago.

Tune back in soon for The Ben Irving Postcard Project Visits Kalamazoo!

 

A New Life in a New Town (Central Michigan University)

or, I could just call this entry ‘Fire Up, Chips!’

0826191108a_hdr I would say I’m surprised I haven’t written anything here about my new position and base of operations in Mt. Pleasant, MI, but that would involve me ignoring how little I’ve posted in general over the past month. I’m still hoping to post some pictures from the IAG meeting in Hobart, I swear.

Right before I left for Australia, I accepted a position as a Lecturer in the department of Geography and Environmental Science at Central Michigan University.  I’m teaching four classes this semester: two sections of the world regional course GEO 121 WI (that means writing-intensive), one section of ENV 101 WI (Introduction to Environmental Science…writing-intensive), and one section of GEO 350 (The United States and Canada). So far, I have no complaints. I’m working with a great new faculty who have been overwhelmingly supportive, and from what I can tell now that classes have begun, really cool students as well. I had trouble preparing to teach my class today because so many people were stopping by to ask how I was doing, offer help wherever needed, or invite me to play pickleball (which I’m sure will be a blast, once I look up what that is).

Also, I can’t say enough good things about living in the middle of the Mitten. Mt. Pleasant in particular is a wonderful place, with extreme walk-ability, wonderful cycling culture, a disproportionately high number of good radio stations, a cat-fé, and if you move here on a Thursday toward the end of the summer, Max & Emily’s may enable you to watch Brian Vander Ark and his band play a free show minutes from your house. For the life of me, I cannot remember a more fortuitous “Welcome, Tyler!” moment anywhere else I’ve moved.

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Brian also welcomed me to Michigan via Instagram (a proposition that would make less than zero sense to my thirteen-year-old self, enjoying a Verve Pipe video on MTV), telling me to say hello to Mustard Plug when I go see them at the Bell’s Brewery in October. I guess those rumors about the great Grand Rapids ska/alt-rock beef were unfounded after all.

As always, thanks for reading. Back to lesson-planning and life-organizing.


COMING SOON

  • Part Three of “Tyler Down Under” (It’s going to happen!)
  • Part One of “The Ben Irving Postcards Go to Michigan”
  • Updates on CMU Course Work and hopefully some news about Capitals of Punk