Some Christmas Gleams from the Past in Traverse City

The Wellington Inn, all decked out for Christmas
The Wellington Inn, all decked out for Christmas


In the hectic world of pre-Christmas shopping, this is what they call the home stretch.

Who cares if the big-box stores start trotting out their holiday decorations as soon as Halloween is out of the way? In Traverse City things don’t get rolling until the first weekend in December. They certainly did this past weekend, starting with Friday night’s downtown tree-lighting, carol-singing and the official arrival of Santa. Over in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, they were busy with holiday illuminations of their own, while the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum up at Northport was busy with their annual “Christmas at the Lighthouse” event.

But several of my favorite local Christmas events are still to come. On the next two Sundays (Dec. 11 and 18) the Wellington Inn will be holding its ninth annual “Inn at Christmastime” open house. And if you’ve never had a chance to wander through this beautifully restored 1905 mansion in Traverse City’s historic Boardman Neighborhood, this is the perfect opportunity. Local designers have ‘decked the halls’ with a spectacular display of holiday designs and decorations, and you can tour the entire place – finishing up with complimentary desserts and hot mulled cider in the third floor ballroom.

The Wellington (located at the corner of Washington and Wellington streets, just east of downtown) was the home of lumber baron William Cary Hull, whose Oval Wood Dish Company created the first disposable plates using thin slices of pressed and molded wood. The company later relocated to Tupper Lake, NY where it eventually morphed into a much better-known consumer item (bet you can guess what it was called) but not before Hull built this exquisite home for his family.

In 1999, the Hull House was rescued from several decades of neglect by Barb and Hank Rishel, who sank their savings into a massive restoration and repair effort and opened the place as a bed & breakfast in 2003. Today, fully restored to its original grandeur, the Inn features period antiques throughout its nine guest rooms, dining room, library and living room.

Ever since they opened, the Rishels have held this annual Christmas reception, originally as a fundraiser for the local historical society, on two Sundays before Christmas. Hours at 2-6 p.m. and tickets are $10 at the door. For more information, call the Inn at 231-922-9900 or visit

Speaking of things historical, next week marks the opening of the Annual Festival of Trains at the History Center. Every December, thousands of visitors flock to our former Carnegie Library building on Sixth Street to celebrate model trains of every type, size and description.

A Little Christmas Wonder at the Festival of Trains
A Little Christmas Wonder at the Festival of Trains

Even children who’ve never seen or heard a real train in their lives watch in wide-eyed fascination as these miniature marvels go through their paces, chugging and clattering through elaborate displays that evoke the sights and sounds of a vanished American landscape. But there’s an added nostalgia about model trains that spans the generations — many visitors to the Festival of Trains are adults who want their children and grandchildren to experience a cherished piece of their own childhood memories.

Although northern Michigan hasn’t had regular train service for more than a generation, the railroads are deeply interwoven into the region’s history. Trains hauled lumber from the forests and produce from the farms, and they helped launch the local tourist industry. (In fact, the computer-generated steam locomotive featured in the film “The Polar Express” was modeled on the PM 1225, a real-life engine that ran between Grand Rapids and Traverse City during the 1940s on the long-vanished Pere Marquette Railroad.)

The Michigan Railroad Club expends hundreds of volunteer hours planning and setting-up the exhibit for the 10,000 expected visitors.

“We know how special this event is for the children, and it’s our gift to them”, said Railroad Club president Rick Vandenberg.

This year’s theme is circus trains but, of course, the popular “Thomas the Tank Engine” interactive cab will return to this year’s festival. Also new will be the Choo Choo Café, featuring homemade soups, cappuccinos and hot chocolate. A swap meet for model engines, cars and accessories will be open to the public on Dec. 17-18. Three trains will be raffled and the “Conductor’s gift shop” features holiday and railroad themed gifts for the entire family.

The Festival of Trains is a major fundraiser for the History Center of Traverse City, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving, promoting, and presenting the history of the Grand Traverse region. Admission is $5 per adult and $4 for youth & seniors; children 3 and under are free. A family season pass is available at $30 for unlimited visits to the festival.

The Festival of Trains is held Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 7 pm and Sundays from noon to 4 pm.(On Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day, the trains run from 10 am to 4 pm. The festival is closed Christmas Day.) Want more info? Call them at 231-995-0313 or go to


About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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