- Flowering plum trees on the high trail at Old Mission Point Park
By MIKE NORTON
It was a splendid Easter weekend in Traverse City. A bit brisk (which is what we normally get in April, in case anyone has forgotten) but filled with sunlight, flowers and innumerable folks dressed up in their most colorful outfits – including Karen and Liz, who looked quite lovely in their Easter finery. (I even sported a lavender shirt and tie in the interest of marital harmony.)
On Sunday afternoon the three of us headed up to Old Mission Point Park to work off some of our dinner, and to admire the flowering apricot, cherry and plum trees that are still scattered around this former fruit orchard. Walking about on this lovely post-agricultural landscape made me think suddenly about Traverse Colantha Walker, one of this region’s few genuine celebrities.
This was not a random thought, by the way – it was prompted by the fact that the folks over at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons have just announced a new festival in TCW’s honor, the Colantha Unplugged Music Festival on April 29. Which is in addition to the Traverse Colantha Walker Dairy Festival that’s held at the Commons on June 10.
Well, we do what we can; Traverse City, being fairly small, is short on famous people. But we once had a famous cow, and Traverse Colantha Walker was her name.
In fact her gravestone can be found on the grounds of the Commons – which (as you probably know) was once the Northern Michigan Asylum. In fact, so far as anyone knows, TCW is the only asylum resident who’s actually buried there – for she was no run-of-the-mill bovine. She was a “supercow,” a hard-working, world-champion milker who belonged to the facility’s extensive herd of 96 Holstein-Friesian cows.
Today, the old asylum with its creamy brick buildings and barns is being transformed into an entire town of shops, restaurants, galleries, apartments and condominiums. And its 500-acre campus serves as a vast urban park where the spires of the old hospital buildings soar like the turrets of romantic castles above its miles of walking paths and trails.
Few historic sites are so well-suited to such a second life. The buildings of the former mental asylum were purposely designed to be brighter and more spacious than other 19th century structures – thanks to a Victorian visionary named James Kirkbride, who believed that the sufferings of the mentally ill could be eased by fresh air, hard work, abundant natural lighting and beautifully landscaped surroundings. The Traverse City facility, established in 1885, became a huge park, filled with Victorian-Italianate buildings of golden brick and planted with exotic trees collected from around the world.
It was also a small, self-sufficient city in its own right, with its own farms, gardens, fire department and power plant. At one point it boasted 3,500 residents – which was more than Traverse City’s population at the time. And of all its extensive herds of farm animals, Traverse Colantha Walker was the queen. In the course of her long and impressive career – from 1916 to 1932 – she produced 200,114 lbs. of milk and 7,525 lbs. of butterfat.
In her best year (1926) her annual production was 22,918 lbs. – a world record. (Compare that with an official state average of 3,918 lbs. per cow per year and you can see why she was such an impressive milker!) And she was loved; when she died in 1932, the staff and patients of the asylum held a banquet in her honor and erected a large granite tombstone over her grave.
- TCW’s impressive grave marker at the Commons
They still haven’t forgotten her. Four years ago, the fun-loving folks at the Village started the annual Traverse Colantha Walker Dairy Festival — a free, family-friendly festival that includes a pancake breakfast, live music, farmers market, arts & craft market, kids’ activities, food & drinks, a memorial parade to Colantha’s headstone, the Great Grilled Cheese Grill-off, and more.
Now they’ve gone and done it again. The new Colantha Unplugged Music Festival (on April 29 from noon to 5 p.m.) was created this year to coincide with what would have been TCW’s 96th birthday. This time it’s a music festival featuring (as the name implies) a variety of acoustic music styles – from a cappela singing to “beatboxing & bongos and everything in between.” Since it’s still early in the year, this festival will be indoors — at the Mercato, the underground shopping center at the Commons, and at the Left Foot Charley winery on the other side of the piazza.
I do wonder, though, what kind of music Colantha enjoyed during her working years at the asylum. Something with lots of cowbell, I imagine.