Saturday: Antrim County’s Petoskey Stone Festival

Searching for Petoskey stones on the rocky beach at Peterson Park

By MIKE NORTON

What a HOT weekend it was here in TC! I was swimming in the Bay twice — in May! Hopefully, the weather will be a little more comfortable this weekend for the runners who’ll be competing in the Bayshore Marathon.

If you’re feeling a bit less athletic, you might think about venturing up the east shore of Grand Traverse Bay to the village of Eastport. That’s where they’ll be holding the seventh annual Antrim County Petoskey Stone Festival, a day of fun constructed around Michigan’s state stone.

Admission to the festival is free, and events will include an official Petoskey stone hunt with prizes awarded for both children and adults, a stone-skipping contest among local dignitaries, hunting tips and demonstrations of Petoskey stone cutting, polishing and jewelry-making, as well as suggestions for turning them into “sculptures, household ornaments, and other works of art.” And, of course, all the food, drink, music and other entertainments that are de rigeur for a summer festival in these parts.

I love Eastport, anyway. It’s a cute little town wedged between East Grand Traverse Bay and Torch Lake, and it’s home to Barnes Park, a large county-run facility whose beaches attract scores of Petoskey stone hunters each season.

If you’re not from around here, you may not understand the fascination these ugly-duckling rocks have over us. Long before the water is warm enough for swimming, intrepid souls will be walking the beaches, their eyes glued on the smooth wet sand left by the retreating surf. Every so often, one of them will dart forward with a cry of glee to scoop a glistening gray stone out of the water. Truth to tell, these bits of sand-buffed limestone don’t look like much – and they’re even less impressive when they’re dry. But when properly cut and polished, they take on an entirely different character.

Petoskey stones are ubiquitous, unusual, and instantly recognizable from their trademark pattern of sunburst hexagons. Whether gray, brown or honey-colored, they can be found in gift stores and jewelry shops throughout the state, cut and shaped into earrings, pendants, paperweights and other items. You can even buy them in the small gift shop in the Traverse City Visitor Center where I work.

But most people prefer to find their own Petoskey stones. For more than a century, hunting for these odd-looking fossils has been a favorite summer pastime hereabouts. My wife digs them up in the yard when she’s gardening, and has created a small mound of them under the kitchen window.

Although they’re named after the city of Petoskey, about 70 miles north of here, they can be found on most local beaches  – and spring is really the best time to find them. That’s because the winter storms and the ice roll new ones up onto the beach from deeper water each year.

But what is a Petoskey stone, anyway? And why are these oddly compelling rocks found nowhere else on earth? To answer those questions, you have to imagine a very different Michigan from the pine-scented hills and cool lakes of today – a Michigan that existed 350 million years ago, in the Devonian Period, when much of what is now North America was submerged beneath the warm waters of a shallow tropical sea.

Petoskey stones, polished and carved as jewelry

One of the most successful components of this rich, soupy environment were corals. Vast reefs of them, stretching for hundreds of miles. Petoskey stones are the fossilized remains of one particular species of prehistoric coral, Hexagonia percarinata. Devonian rocks are exposed in only a few places on the continent, and Northern Michigan happens to be one of them. And thanks to the hard-working glaciers that passed by in the relatively recent Pleistocene Period (a mere 2 million years ago) there are plenty of Petoskey stones scattered around on Traverse City area beaches.

So, if rock-hunting is your thing, head over to Barnes Park on Saturday. You may find it’s an addictive pastime.

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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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3 Responses to Saturday: Antrim County’s Petoskey Stone Festival

  1. Darlene says:

    I wrote several months ago about a space to rent and never heard back. I love the area and the search of the Petoskey stones. I was surprised no one contacted me.

    Darlene

    • mikelovestc says:

      Hi, Darlene!
      I don’t have anything to do with the Petoskey Stone Festival, except as somebody who has gone to it, but I can tell you how to contact them. Follow this link to their website at http://www.petoskeystonefestival.com/vendor.html You’ll find a vendor’s application. Good luck!
      Mike

      • Darlene says:

        Mike, How kind of you to reply. Petoskey stones are so interesting, and fun to venture out trying to find them. I’m teaching our grandkids about them. I have them sand the stones and are taking them for our special trip to find these stones.
        I went to the the link you posted for me. Asked questions and that is why I wrote you.
        Since you love the area i thought I’d contact you.

        Thank you and have a wonderful summer.

        Peace,
        Darlene

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