Blue Water Memories

25 Mar

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It’s no secret that Detroit is the Motor City, most of us know Ford and Dearborn go hand in hand, Flint built Buicks, Lansing was home to Oldsmobile and Pontiac started off in…..yeah, Pontiac. Some may even remember Packard and Hudson, but I’d bet very few people realize that nearly 200 different auto manufacturers have called Michigan home. Today we’ll take you up to Marysville and show you one of them at the Wills Sainte Claire Museum. Back in the 1920’s Wills Ste Clair automobiles were built here near the banks of the St. Clair River, I recently made mention of Mr. Wills in the Automotive Hall of Fame post; he was Henry Ford’s chief engineer and was the one who designed Ford’s infamous blue oval logo. In 1919 he left Ford to manufacture his own automobile; he moved up to Marysville and got to work, his first vehicle rolled off the line in 1921. C. H. Wills was a man of great ambition, not only did he set out to build the highest quality of automobile possible, he also purchased 4,500 acres of property in Marysville to create the “City of Contented Living” for his employees. The company operated here from 1921 to 1926, poor economic conditions eventually took their toll, the “city” never came to fruition  and the company folded; the factory had produced more than 12,000 vehicles in that time. Mr. Wills remained in the automotive field, in 1933 he joined Chrysler, he was a true visionary.

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Today is the second Sunday of the month, the museum is open from 1-5, inside there are about a half-dozen other visitors roaming the space; new vehicles have been added since our last visit. This place is loaded with great Wills Ste Claire memorabilia;  photos of the factory, literature, owners manuals, and items from Wills days at Ford, be sure and take a look at some of his paychecks. There is a small seating area where you can watch a film giving a brief history of the company, very interesting. To the right is “Harold’s Garage”, built by volunteers it takes us back to the days when these luxurious vehicles rolled off the line, complete with a vintage gas pump. The museum has the largest collection of Wills autos anywhere, they are real beauties; body styles range from touring and roadsters to five and seven passenger sedans. The first model produced was the A-68, it came with a V-8 engine, had 67 horsepower and cost $3,000, expensive for sure! Available colors had names like Lady Mary Maroon, Newport Blue and Liberty Green, so elegant sounding. Towards the back they have re-created a showroom from back in the day, rumored to have been owned by the Dodge family, this stunning example of the luxury automobile in red rotates on a platform; running boards are wide, the front of the vehicle is open, the back enclosed, fenders are glossy black, all models are adorned with the Grey Goose hood ornament. As well as restored cars, the museum houses quite a few in “as found” condition, how cool !

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We drive further north following the shoreline of the St. Clair River into Port Huron, time to stop for lunch. The Atrium Cafe and Ice Cream Parlor is truly a unique environment to have a meal or a hot fudge sundae. The building itself is from the 1890’s, built from brick street pavers it has had many incarnations through the years including time as a grocery store, drug store and fruit market. The current owners have been lovingly tending the building since 2008; after completely renovating the interior it was refinished and furnished using architectural artifacts from Port Huron’s demolished Victorian homes. As soon as we cross the threshold we are taken back to the days when everything was carefully and beautifully made. The dining room resembles a Victorian parlor, old photos and paintings tucked into antique frames hang on the walls, stained glass windows, a tin ceiling, oak panels and miscellaneous do-dads complete the atmosphere. We are seated in the atrium, with its rescued seats and gorgeous light fixtures it looks as though we are in an old-time movie house, well sort of…The room has many references to old films like playbills and film reels, so cool! The breakfast items grab our attention, so we go with it and order the stuffed french toast: multi-grain bread french toast with a layer of honey cream cheese and fresh blueberries in the middle, delicious! The special was a breakfast sandwich; scrambled eggs, ham and cheese on a large, flaky, buttery croissant, yum! Did you ever notice how good food tastes even better when eaten in an attractive setting?

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Tucked in a nearby neighborhood is the Port Huron Museum; constructed in 1904 by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie the building originally served as the city’s public library. I love visiting regional museums, they provide a unique glimpse of daily life in each individual area. Galleries are spaced out over several floors; we paid our admission and began to browse. The original entry way is quite lovely, a beautiful circular lobby with a mosaic floor welcomes us, stairways leading both up and down flank each side, smooth columns are intermittently spaced around the circumference. From here you can see the glass floor of the mezzanine and a colorful skylight. The first floor is used for special exhibits, today Byte by Byte, The Story of Computer Innovation occupies both galleries. The exhibit begins with the earliest of computers: manual adding machines. We move forward in time, Nova Systems computers are huge, we take a look at examples of Eclipse, Wang and then into modern time with familiar names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, it has been an amazing transformation through the years. The glass floored mezzanine level shares the history of the Blue Water Area from the days of the Native Americans to the days of Fort St. Joseph and Fort Gratiot. Did you know the first international railroad tunnel ever built was right here in Port Huron under the St. Clair River? This level is full of great photographs of people and events of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s; we see storefronts and churches, the National Guard Camp, trains, ferry’s and of course the Blue Water Bridge.

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The second floor is a great place for kids because there is a lot of stuff they can touch, a plus for grown-ups too. The Marine Gallery has great models of wooden schooners, photos and mementos of the amazing Great Lakes passenger boats, and an awesome pilot house and cabin from a ship. A glass case displays examples of nautical knots, a large piece of rope hangs to the side so you can give it a whirl yourself…good luck with that. Check out the antique diving helmet oh, don’t forget to ring the bell before moving to the next space. The St. Clair River has always been  home to stunning, expansive residences, the next room is finished with wood paneling from one such home, the Whiting home located in St. Clair. Originally purchased in England the paneling graced the walls of that home until it was torn down in 1964, fortunately for us it was installed in this room in 1973. The rest of the items such as delicate glassware, ornate china and furnishings came from Henry G Mc Morran’s home Deerlawn. This is one of my favorite areas in the museum! We wound our way through the rest of the displays, passing through the music room and its impressive collection of 1900’s era instruments. The museum’s collection includes over 15,000 objects and archival items relating to the history and culture of the Blue Water Area and is definitely worth a visit!

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One Response to “Blue Water Memories”

  1. The Detroit Foodie March 26, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    What a cozy little diner/restaurant! Another great review & another place for me to bookmark! : )

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