It’s a bit disorienting. Fine art, long-standing tradition, and historic preservation collide with a bit of contemporary style, a colorful splash of pulsing neon, and a hint that hipster culture. A town that established itself as a booming lumber town, Saginaw, MI is searching for ways to remain relevant, to entice its residents to stick around, or to at least come back for a visit from time to time, after they have moved on.
Of course there’s still a market for sturdy wood furniture, support structures and decorative pieces in Saginaw, even if the white pine is no longer being massively harvested from the back yard. Search Google for “Lumber in Saginaw, MI” and some 24 locations are displayed, including “Self-Serve Lumber Co.”, “Lumbermen’s Inc.”, “Tri State Forest Products” and “Lumber Liquidators”. However, the lure of jobs felling trees is no longer what draws working class families.
I know what it’s like to make such a move, yet still feel connected to the place where you grew up. I consider myself a “transplant” to Columbus, OH. Having grown up in the Chicagoland area, I still call Brookfield “Home”, but living for any length of time in Columbus, OH you find the city creeps into your blood. You become pretty familiar with what goes on in the state of Michigan, at least as far as college football is concerned. But there is so much more to Michigan, and the city of Saginaw, that being part of “that state up north”.
Consider the “Pure Michigan” state tourism slogan; the state is touted as something of an outdoor playground, an adventurer’s paradise. If you’re looking for wineries that can deliver sticky sweet ice wines, ones that thrive despite the cold winter months, Michigan will not disappoint. In Saginaw, you will discover a nod at the city’s history, in the preservation and celebration of historic structures. You’ll also find the enthusiastic embracing of current trends, including craft beer, long beards & contemporary art.
The city’s lumbering past is chronicled at the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History, housed in what was the post office back in 1897. It’s a striking building, on the National Register of Historic Places, topped with protective gargoyles. The looming gothic feel of the building might have you exploring the exterior of the building for some time, before paying the $1 admission fee to discover what is inside. How could I pass up the chance to wander inside of this beautiful structure? If I was disappointed I’d only have spent $1. In the end, I wished I’d had more time there.
Sitting along the Saginaw River, at the rather elegant Montague Inn, the business manager points out that many of the weddings celebrated on their grounds bring together couples who have moved away, yet return to their home town to gather with their families and say their vows on the historic property. A full-service Bed & Breakfast, complete with an onsite restaurant and wine tasting room, this is a place for a romantic getaway, a vanue where rings are exchanged, vows recited and unions celebrated. Declared by the Detroit Free Press to be the “Most Romantic Getaway Place in Michigan”, couples can expect decedent chocolates, house wine and fresh flowers.
You might also dine there on the Easter Buffet, celebrate Mother’s Day or take in the fireworks at the 4th of July Picnic. In the winter months guests experience “Christmas Past”, with the home transformed by holiday decorations. Blushing brides claim the early summer months, posing for wedding photos on the winding staircase, exterior balconies and 8 acres of manicured grounds. It’s a wedding photographer’s dream, if the weather cooperates. Rain could drive the wedding party indoors, but too much sun has everyone squinting into the sun, with dark shadows under their eyes.
Good light, a knowledgeable photographer, and creative use of B&W or sepia tones go a long way, and bring the home’s history to life. According to the Inn’s website, the home cost $120,000 when it was built during the depression, and included the family home as well as servant’s quarters, housing 2 maids, a cook, the gardener and a chauffeur. Spending their winter months here, the family went North to a cottage in the summer.
The Inn is welcoming, with cozy touches, reading nooks and built in bookshelves. There’s a library, full every category of book, including the poetry and the work of local authors. Guests over the years have shared their personal stories, in guest books that are placed in each distinct room.
Staff at the Inn directed me into town for dinner, where a strip of locally owned restaurants lined both sides of the street. On one side of the street there was an unexpected collection of neon signs, pointing the way into the local establishments. On the other side of the street were side-by-side pubs, sports bars and casual restaurants.
Looking for a spot with a crowd of locals, I found my way into Woody’s Draught House & Pizza. There were plenty of beards at the bar, indulging in an impressive selection of craft beer – I counted 100 beers on tap, though their website claimed to offer 106. I think they would give the “World of Beer” franchise a run for their money. Woody’s had embraced technology – a Square device, plugged into an iPad, was left at my table, in place of the pleather sleeve that might be left at my table at a local diner.
I started with Rochester Mills Rochester Red, from a brewery located about an hour from Saginaw, and just north of Detroit. I couldn’t resist, after reading: “This deep red colored ale is full of caramelly sweet malt flavor, yet nicely balanced with a smooth finish.” I was sold, and I didn’t mind the $5 for 16 oz.
Round two brought me Short’s The Magician, from Short’s Brewing Company, in Bellaire, MI. Short’s is located near Traverse City, about 2 ½ hours northwest of Saginaw. The menu promised: “A lustrous dark red London ale. Rich malt complexities lending notes of toasted caramel, raisins, toffee, and slight roast chocolate.” Their website asked: “Are you 21? If not check out These Guys” . . .Great Lakes Potato Chip Co. Voted #1 Kettle Chip by the Chicago Tribune. Located in Traverse City, these chips are “Pure Michigan”. Skin on, they are made from Michigan potatoes. But I am over 21. . . so. . . I’ll just drink my beer.
The Director of the Saginaw Museum of Art understands the need remain current, if she is going to draw a younger crowd away from craft beer and artisanal potato chips for a bit. She encourages potential visitors to download their new app on their smartphone. Using GPS technology the device then tracks your location in the museum, and offers a customized tour of the art collections. With a bit of a smirk, she greets you on the home page of the museum’s website, telling readers to “Tweet, Snap, Instagram and Face my book.” The museum’s current slogan is “Take Part in the Art”, and she directs her message to everyone.
She writes: “Like so many of my generation (you know…the well beyond 50 set) I am struggling to catch up with all the latest technology and social media trends… ask me about how to manipulate all of the various communication apps and programs, and I’m as lost as a fish out of water. One thing for sure I’ve learned, however, is you cannot survive without jumping on the bandwagon. It is especially true when trying to reach or market to a targeted audience, expand our outreach and drive traffic to the museum and our events. I can only say that I am blessed with a staff of 20 somethings and a 5 year old granddaughter who can show me the ropes…”
If the geometric, contemporary art in front of the museum is too much abstraction for your tastes, wander back to the pub to sample another of the 100+ taps. Nearby you’ll find the art of Mattise reproduced on a brick wall that might need a little touch-up. Whatever your interests, you’ll uncover artistic flourishes all over town.
So, “Take Part in the Art”, and join me on my next adventure!
“Pure Michigan”: http://www.michigan.org/
Montague Inn, Saginaw, MI: http://www.montagueinn.com/index.php
Saginaw, MI: http://www.saginaw-mi.com/
Woody’s Draught House: https://www.beermenus.com/places/17893-woody-s-draught-house
Rochester Mills Rochester Red: http://www.beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/2346/7052/