“Magical History Tours” Explore Traverse City’s Past

Picnicking at Hannah Park  on “Silk Stocking Row”


For years, visitors have been drawn to Traverse City’s dramatic natural beauty and its reputation as a four-season staging area for outdoor adventure. These days an entirely different group of tourists has discovered that we’re also a vibrant food and wine (and beer) destination.

But when you get right down to it, that’s a fairly shallow way to encounter a community and its people. There’s much, much more to Traverse City than its scenic and recreational qualities. We have a brief but dramatic past – a story in which Native Americans, missionaries, lumberjacks, fur traders, fishermen and farmers all played important roles. And now, thanks in large part to persistent questions from curious tourists, we’re starting to do a better job of telling that story.

 For several years now, volunteers from the Traverse City History Center — a historical and cultural museum headquartered on Sixth Street in the city’s 1903 Carnegie Library building – have been conducting walking tours that highlight the city’s most interesting historical sights. This summer they’re taking an even more ambitious step by inaugurating what they’re calling a “Magical History Tour” – a 90 minute bus tour that showcases such key places as Front Street, Sixth Street, Old Town, the city waterfront and the Grand Traverse Commons.

I had the opportunity to ride along last week on a sort of “shakedown cruise” for the tour, and I think it’s got a lot of potential. Starting at the History Center, we rode comfortably through many of my favorite TC neighborhoods, as guide (and former city planner) Fred Hoisington chatted about the city’s early days as a wild lumber port, the career of founding father Perry Hannah and the most colorful of our many colorful mayors, “Wild Bill” Germaine. Obviously, a nine-mile bus tour couldn’t cover every detail of the city’s history, but it made for a great introduction.

There’s a lot to tell – which is odd when you consider that the Traverse City area was one of the last places in America to be settled. Indian hunters and French traders were the first people to visit the area, and it was they who gave the region its name – La Grand Traverse, because of the “long crossing” they had to make by canoe across the mouth of the bay. But they weren’t interested in staying; even the area’s historic Ottawa and Chippewa people didn’t arrive there until the early 18th century, and it wasn’t until 1839 that the Rev. Peter Dougherty established the first permanent settlement, an Indian mission at the tip of the Old Mission peninsula.

By 1847 a small but growing community was forming around the mouth of the Boardman River. In 1852 the little sawmill town was christened Traverse City — but until the first road through the forest was built in 1864 it remained a remote outpost, accessible only by water. It must have been a prosperous outpost, to judge by the number and size of the homes and public buildings that were built in the waning years of the century. The neighborhood along Boardman Avenue and Washington Street preserves some of Traverse City’s oldest and most ornate homes, many in the fanciful Queen Anne style, while the turn-of-the-century mansions of Sixth Street (known as “Silk Stocking Row”) include Perry Hannah’s immense 32-room “retirement house,” which dates to 1893.

After decades of neglect, our downtown has been extensively restored and is now a picturesque and pedestrian-friendly reminder of the city’s historical roots. Its tree-shaded sidewalks now border shops, restaurants and galleries that have made creative use of the Victorian buildings they occupy. Two special landmarks are the ornate 1891 City Opera House, reopened after more than $9 million in exquisite restoration work, and the art deco State Theatre, now the home of the Traverse City Film Festival.

Of course, not everyone in 19th-century Traverse City was a millionaire. The city’s west side – known as Slabtown – was home to mill workers and skilled woodcarvers, including a substantial community of Bohemian immigrants who built tidy cottages for themselves out of scraps from the sawmills. Many of their homes are still standing, and so is Sleder’s Family Tavern, a 123-year-old social club that is still a favorite hangout for locals and visitors alike.

When the lumber boom peaked, its place in the local economy was taken by manufacturing and agriculture – potatoes, apples, and eventually cherries. But the city’s biggest economic windfall came in 1885, when it was designated as the site of the Northern Michigan Asylum, a huge state institution whose founders believed mental illness could best be treated by a combination of healthy food, exercise and beautiful natural surroundings. The asylum became one of the city’s major employers and eventually housed a population several times larger than that of the town itself.

Spring at the Grand Traverse Commons

In what may be the country’s largest historic re-use project, the 480-acre site of the former hospital – now known as the Grand Traverse Commons — is being redeveloped into a unique “village” of shops, restaurants, apartments and galleries. Developers are preserving the castle-like Italianate century buildings that once housed staff and patients, while its lovely wooded campus has become a favorite place for hikers and cyclists.

If you’re interested in trying the Magical History Tours, they’ll be holding them on Fridays and Saturdays at 10 am and noon; after Memorial Day weekend they’ll be held on Mondays (when tickets are only $10) and Wednesday through Saturdays. Aside from those discount Mondays,  tickets are $14.95 for adults and $10.95 for students and seniors.


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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