Once upon a time, in the sleepy little village of Grand Ledge MI, a man by the name of John Burtch had an idea; he built a one-story plank hotel, launched the steamer Dolly Varden and invited the public to discover the beauty and wonder of seven little islands residing in the Grand River; the Seven Island Resort was born. In 1877 Mr Hewings purchased the resort and launched the steamer Gertie, gone was the little hotel, replaced by the more elegant Island House Hotel, complete with a ballroom on the second floor. In addition, amenities such as rowboats, bath houses, hammocks, swings and croquet grounds were added; there was even a mineral spring on one of the islands. In 1886 Julian Mudge took possession of the resort, money was spent freely on a new dam, an addition to the Island House hotel, a causeway was built to join Second and Third island. Mr Mudge built a 3-story pagoda-like tower called the Roundhouse, the first roller coaster in Michigan was constructed over the water, starting at Second island and finishing at Third. Second island was the centerpiece of activity with the hotel, picnic area and fountain, while Third was home to the casino which hosted first run musicals and Vaudeville shows.
Yes folks, thousands of tourists came by train to this tiny resort town; side-wheel riverboats steamed up and down the river, it was the most popular resort in all of lower Michigan. In 1888 Grand Ledge became the second city, after Lansing, in MI to get electric lights. Eventually the resort became less popular, people now owned cars and could drive to other destinations. In the 1930’s the property was sold to the city, the hotel continued to be used as a community building for another 20 years, sadly none of the original buildings exist today…. In 1976, with the addition of a new gazebo, the island began to be used for festivals and activities such as the annual Color Cruise and Island Festival. Which brings us to today.
It is the second full weekend in October, the sky a powder blue umbrella overhead, the sun warms our faces as we walk from Main Street to the Island. We purchase tickets, walk across the wooden bridge and find ourselves surrounded by activity. On the right a group of llamas seem to be people-watching from their fenced in area, I stop and say hello, music plays as a group of ladies tap dance in front of the gazebo, a table of cupcakes and baked goods is tempting. An asphalt path straddles the island from one end to the other, we pause at the tip and drink in the panoramic view; nature has begun painting leaves of hardwood trees in red, yellow, orange and gold, the Grand Princess riverboat floats past on the calm Grand River. We take our time walking from the far end, a group re-enacts pioneer days; dressed in period clothing they are cooking over an open fire. A pile of animal skins and a turtle shell rest on a table, examples of items such as clothing and pouches made from the skins lay nearby. Dried fruits, nuts, peas and grains are some of the foods pioneers depended on for survival. The petting zoo is popular this morning, kids of all ages are holding bunnies, petting goats and sheep. A blacksmith invites visitors to watch as he demonstrates how to make a nail, a woman at a loom weaves fleece into yarn, an antique fire truck is on display. Further up locals have set up booths selling arts and crafts, I watch as a woman hand weaves a basket, one artist carves animal faces into walking sticks, a different blacksmith has utensils, hammers and hooks for sale, a man and woman are performing a folk song now at the gazebo.
The Grand Princess is getting ready for her next excursion, we purchase tickets and climb aboard, there are two rail-side seats available on the second level, which we gladly claim. A guide will narrate as we navigate the narrow river, she begins with some History; Grand Ledge was named after the river itself, sandstone ledges line the riverbanks are composed of Eaton sandstone and quartzite that was deposited 250 million years ago; these ledges are geologically significant in lower MI. Above the trees we see the bright blue water tower, pedestrians enjoy a river side stroll, up ahead an ancient-looking railroad bridge crosses the river, it is still used today, trees reflect on the river, the view is picturesque. Private homes are built to fit the landscape, wooden stairways are like switchbacks leading down to the water, Coho salmon pass through twice a year. The boat stops at Fitzgerald Park, some of the passengers will get off here and walk back to the festivities, the rest of us stay aboard and enjoy the peacefulness and gorgeous scenery the boat affords us.
Back on land, it is lunchtime, we passed a rustic looking place in town earlier, so that’s where we’re headed. The Log Jam Inn has one of those old-fashioned signs hanging out front that screams Americana, the building resembles a log cabin both inside and out. The restaurant is doing a brisk business today, thanks to the festival. We are seated in a booth near the door, Kris looks at the menu, I look around. I notice a charming stone fireplace, a Spartans banner hangs nearby (we are only 10 miles west of Lansing), walls are wood panels, each table is adorned with a cute little lamp, shades look like they are made of birch, ours is a canoe that holds the S & P. Our meal arrives, the turkey sandwich is served hamburger-style on a bun, piled high and topped with lettuce, tomato and a side of honey mustard it is satisfying, the portion of fries is generous, good thing because they are excellent.
Time to get a closer look at the ledges; we drive over to Front Street and park in the lot for Oak Park, here climbers are allowed to scale the 60 ft high ledges. We follow the path down to the river’s edge, the water is on our right, towering ledges on our left, fallen leaves are scattered about. The sandstone quartz ledges are golden in color some of the edges are dark, tree roots resemble hands, their fingers tightly gripping the rock, here and there a trail of crystal clear water springs from the rock, making its way to the river. In some places you can see the layers of sandstone, to me it looks like the inside of a Butterfinger, in one spot the rock has worn away forming an overhang above the path, the sun dances off the river creating a reflections upon the rock face. We come across a group of climbers securing their ropes getting ready for their ascent, two canoes are carried by the current down river. The scenery is stunning here; the autumn leaves of the trees, the golden sandstone are mirrored on the surface of the water. Large rock pieces lay broken in piles, we climb over and follow the path to its end. Once again we are in the park, we pause at the look-out one last time before heading home.