Wheeling Around Lansing

31 Aug

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Curiosity has lured us back to REO (pronounced Rio not R-E-O) Town, Lansing’s oldest settlement, on this hot summer day. Like many districts in Midwest cities this part of Lansing had fallen on hard times. Independent businesses have breathed new life into the area where Ransom E Olds began producing automobiles in 1905. Beginning with the fancy curved-dash models, production continued with utility vehicles and finally semi-hauling big rig trucks into 1975. Today the landscape is one of small shops, sidewalk cafes, flower pots, murals and parallel parking.

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REO Town Marketplace has been open nearly 2 years, filled with all female-owned businesses, it’s a great place to wander into and have a look around; let’s do that. Original terrazzo floors lead the way to several vintage shops; Vintage Junkies has a little bit of furniture, home decor items, candles, glassware. Thrift Witch carries oddities, handbags, clothing, jewelry and art from mostly local artists. If you like spiders, you can pick up plenty of spider-inspired items. She has an outstanding collection of Care Bears too! Community Finery has the largest footprint offering retro and vintage clothing and accessories from the 1920’s to modern day. She carries sizes from 0-4x, very unusual and greatly appreciated. The owner is also a seamstress so she’s able to rescue and repair clothing that might otherwise be thrown away. She has a wide selection, you could purchase a party dress and a Halloween costume all in one trip.

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HomeMade Capital City shares the adjacent space selling industrial cabinets, unique rolling coffee tables made of pallets and creative shelving. Places like this give me great ideas for things to do in my own home. The Record Lounge is Mid-Michigan’s only all-vinyl store; they buy, sell and trade. It’s a really great space with a listening lounge, vintage stereo equipment and a ton of new and used vinyl; I love looking at the cool art work on the album covers. They even have an album from the 1958 dealer announcement show called “This Is Olds mobility” starring Bill Hayes, Florence Henderson and the original Broadway cast; I don’t think it won any Grammy’s…

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We dash across Washington Ave to Blue Owl Coffee Co. They were closed last time we were in town so we’re anxious to drop in today. The community-based coffee shop uses essential oils for flavoring instead of syrups. The interior feels light and airy with big front windows, open ceiling and exposed brick. Sitting at the counter we talk with Heather who transplanted herself here from West Africa about a year ago. We ask her advice on the many selections of Nitro and Cold Brew coffees. Goodies come from Sweetie-licious in nearby DeWitt, it’s hard to choose so we give the white-chocolate-chip orange scone a whirl. Both the coffees and the scone are excellent, as is the conversation. I love when we can connect with people in such a casual and comfortable environment. One of the baristas suggested we check out the gardens up Washington Ave so we’re off.

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We pause outside to take in the super-cool REO Town mural, I like the phrase “this is not your father’s Oldsmobile” worked into the scene. Walking further up the street we cross the river coming to the Water and Light Central Substation. A narrow sidewalk follows the river alongside the building, we come to an open space, plants are clustered into a living garden wall; up ahead on the left is Scott Park and the sunken garden.  In 1907, on the corner of what is now S. Washington Ave and Malcom X streets stood the former residence of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Edward Cahill. Richard H Scott, former president of REO Motor Car Company purchased the residence and adjacent property. He razed the home then in 1934 used its foundation to construct the sunken garden to be enjoyed by the residents of Lansing. In 2018 as part of the construction of the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s Central Substation the garden had to be moved to the west. It was disassembled and reassembled brick by brick, 99% of the plants were kept and have been replanted in the new garden. Original plants include Blanket Flower, English Lavender, Bachelor Button, Sedum and Fern-Leaf Peony. The plants are struggling a little in the heat, I expect they will thrive as soon as it cools down.

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Cooley Gardens were planted in 1938 when Eugene F Cooley gave the land to the City of Lansing for a park. The family home was demolished, a pavilion now stands on that part of the site. The design of the garden was based on the English concept of a series of outdoor rooms, it was completed in 1942. The gardens were rescued decades later from serious neglect, this is now a popular space for outdoor weddings, gatherings and formal photographs. We walk through the lower garden, past the old carriage house now used for storage. Peonies have finished blooming and are gearing up for next year. Mature plantings of Shasta Daisies, daylilies and roses are keeping the butterflies and bees busy, a sweet fragrance lingers in the air, barberry bushes are really colorful. The pavilion is lovely, I can imagine a wedding ceremony taking place. Stone pathways lead us through sun and shade. Off in the distance is an automotive plant with a big picture of a Cadillac CTS and the caption “Built Right Here”. If you want to buy local this might be the car for you.

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Our next stop is the R E Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing. I have a special connection to the museum in that they have my dad’s triple red 1979 Delta 88 Royale in their collection. Visiting the museum is like taking a tour through history. Displays begin with a young Ransom Olds and the P.F. Olds and Son company in Lansing in 1880. Things have been moved around and re-arranged since our last visit, I like when museums do that. The first section is the personal side of Ransom, black and white photos of the family and home, personal items and furniture. Throughout the museum you’ll find a wonderful collection of photos, signs, advertisements, name plates, hood ornaments, and of course automobiles.

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Most antique automobile enthusiasts are familiar with the curved-dash Oldsmobile, it was his signature and what made him different from the hundreds of other auto makers at the time. Did you know the original Lansing-made mower was designed and built by R E Olds? The man did everything (well, almost…) He patented his design for his Ideal Engine Co in 1916, he made stationary engines. Later, REO Motors got into the lawnmower business, his lawnmower engine was easily recognized by the unique slant head cylinder; his mower was driven from the cam shaft not the crank shaft. They look very stylish too! At the peak REO was the largest builder of power lawnmowers in the world. The unique REO engine was also used to power snowblowers and the one-of-a-kind Trollabout, a complete kit to convert your rowboat to an inboard-powered craft. In 1954 the mower operation was sold to Lansing’s Motor Wheel Corp. Be sure and check out all of the cool wheels on display too. See what you learn when you stop and read all of the signs.

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There are engines all over the place from stationary to experimental, about 70 in all; an engine is covered in the signatures of the people who built it. We look at old dealer signs and promotional items, old time bicycles share space with classic automobiles from 1886-2003. They can’t display all of their vehicles at the same time so they rotate the collection. The 1926 Olds 2-door Roadster is stunning in Turquoise, an old Lansing police car is guarded by a German Shepard police dog. They say the 1937 Olds Model L37 Club Coupe was really the first 98. You could get an L Model (luxury) or an F Model (standard), this was the first time in the modern era that Olds offered two models. How about the Olds Mini Toronado, a one-of-a-kind built for use as a push car.The REO Speed-Wagon takes up a lot of real estate, I like these old trucks.

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There are too many beautiful, amazing cars for me to list, you can look at the photos Kris has taken and get an idea of their superb collection. I like the names of things back then: The Olds Rocket, The Hurst Hairy Olds, trim pieces and hood ornaments are mini-sculptures, available colors span the rainbow. Look at the awesome vintage “Sun” Motor Tester, traffic lights are huge when you see them up close. I like the exhibit filled with awards for Years of Service or Retirement, they’re all automotive-themed; a mini crankshaft, engine block, rods, neat. Near the exit is a poster featuring all of the vehicles made in Lansing: Camaro, Cadillac CTS, Cadillac ATS, Buick Enclave and the Chevy Traverse; something to keep in mind next time you’re shopping for a new car.

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At last we arrive at Zoobies Old Town Tavern at the east end of Old Town, we have admired the mid-century sign outside for years. Though the current owners bought the building in 2012 it has been called Zoobies since 1973. They came in and renovated, respecting the history of the place and leaving the original 80-year-old bar. It’s a mix of styles that work well together, I’m especially fond of the Sputnik light fixtures. We focus on the Pizza Pie side of the menu settling on “The #9 in the world”, which turned out to be an excellent choice. Boursin cheese, red sauce, tasso ham, andouille sausage, roasted red peppers, mozzarella cheese and cajun dust, delicious! They have 14 beers on tap and are known for their unique wine selection, truffle-oil popcorn… and their pizza. Next time you’re in town for a Spartan Game or to visit your kids at school be sure and get out and explore all that Lansing has to offer.

4 Responses to “Wheeling Around Lansing”

  1. Passport Overused September 1, 2019 at 3:42 am #

    Great post 🙂

  2. Julie Angst September 2, 2019 at 10:56 am #

    Very nice. Did you see your Dad’s car? That is so cool.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • detroitdvotion September 2, 2019 at 9:06 pm #

      No, unfortunately it was off the rotation this time. I have visited it there before, it’s pretty cool to see it in a museum!

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