Tag Archives: Saginaw Bay

Michigan: Thumbin’

4 Jan

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 Since we’re stuck in a deep freeze right now, let us take you back to a warm, sunny September day in Michigan’s thumb…It’s the end of summer, sunshine and warm temperatures suggest otherwise; it’s a perfect day for a road trip in the country. Heading north we drive past picturesque farms; cornstalks have been picked clean, cows and horses graze under a powder blue sky. Located in the northwest region of the thumb, the city of Gagetown has an architectural gem known as the Thumb Octagon Barn. This historic structure was built in 1924 by a Mr James Purdy, when he was traveling out west he had seen similar barns in Iowa, when he arrived home he hired local builders George and John Munro to construct the barn. George and John consulted with the local mathematics teacher to help them with the calculations needed to build an octagon-shaped building. The barn is just beautiful; painted white with deep green roofs, it’s quite a sight! Each of the 8 sides measures 42′ 6″ and is 24′ high, it has a 3-stage roof, the first level is the longest and sports a dormer on each of the 8 sections, each dormer has a 9-lite window, the second level has more windows and a much shorter roof leading to the third level, the cupola, where we have more 9-lite windows; there are 288 individual window panes in the barn roof. Evidence of a lightning rod system still exists.

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Walking toward the barn we notice a tour has just begun, we join the others and are brought up to speed. The interior is quite spectacular in its own octagon way; you can see all the way to the top, sunlight filtering in from all those windows, narrow ladders are built into the structure, boxed-in ducts make up the ventilation system, the circular track over the loft area is for the hay car system. The ground floor of the barn is a poured cement foundation 4′ high that supports a 20′ high timber-framed wall. All of the timbers came from on-site, the land was dense with Tamarack trees, the Munro brothers cut the trees into timbers and used them to build the barn. Mr Purdy owned a lumberyard in Gagetown which provided the rest of the wood. The perimeter of the barn on the lower level is original, the silo is gone, the old tack room is now the welcome center. They have some great photographs of the barn when it was new and what it looked like when the Friends Of The Thumb Octagon Barn took it over. You know the story, the property had gone into foreclosure in 1990, the Michigan DNR bought the property from the bank to be incorporated into the Gagetown State Game Area. The buildings were in such bad shape they likely would have to be demolished. Local citizens stepped in, formed the “Friends” and saved the Purdy family homestead. The DNR allowed the friends to have all of the buildings and 10 acres of land.

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Our guide points out notable parts of the structure, he tells us stories about Mr Purdy and what Gagetown was like in the late 19-teens and 20’s. I won’t bore you with a lot information but I do want to share this: James Purdy joined his father at the Bank of P.C. Purdy and Son at the age of 21, James went on to become the bank president; his bank was 1 of only 2 banks in the state of Michigan to remain solvent during the Great Depression. Afterwards Purdy met with other bankers and formulated a plan where the government would insure the investors money, supported by President Franklin Roosevelt, the FDIC was born. Moving on. The Octagon Barn is now an agricultural museum; artifacts, farm equipment, butter churns, and milk separators are on display, oh look, there’s a crate from Stroh’s Ice Cream. There’s a nice saddle in the stables, the wooden model of the barn is amazing.

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We move on to the house, it was actually built before the barn; the Purdy’s moved into their 15-room, Craftsman-style bungalow in 1922. Our guide takes us through the rooms, the master bedroom is on the first floor and has its own attached bathroom. I really like the natural stone fireplace in the family room, the Craftsman style really shines in this area; thick wooden beams on the ceiling, book cases that flank the fireplace, wide wood frames around the windows, the french doors that lead to the dining room. A showcase holds dozens of Mrs Purdy’s diaries, she documented her life from 1895-1954. Her grandson preserved, then donated them to the “Friends”; they were helpful during the restoration. The kitchen has a built-in ice box and a big blue stove, the pantry holds spices and staples every household needs. Upstairs there are 7 bedrooms, each has a transom window, there is a full unfinished attic. There’s a porch on every side of the house except the south side. The large, covered front porch hosted many dances back in the day. 

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We follow the brick-pillard porte-cochere out to the garage, a blue car bears a Dodge Brothers emblem. Mr Purdy built his own powerhouse on the property, nobody is sure of the exact date. The 12×20 ft ornate brick building has been restored, the 32-volt DC Delco light system allowed the Mr Purdy to be self-reliant by providing electricity for his personal needs, he joined the Detroit Edison grid in 1938. The Purdy’s sold the farm in 1942 and moved back to the city of Gagetown. We are told this is the largest wood-structure octagon barn in the United States, it really is impressive, come up and see it sometime.

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We drive northwest past fields of windmills, acres of crops and yellow patches of ragweed, reaching Caseville in time for a late lunch. Thumb Brewery on Pine Street is the perfect place for dining Al fresco. The patio is full so we grab a table on the porch, having eaten here several times we know what we’re going to order, all I have to do is check out the beer menu. We’re ready when the waitress arrives, she returns quickly with an oatmeal stout for me and a hard cider for Kris… that really hits the spot. The BBQ Chicken flatbread has shredded chicken, bacon, yellow peppers, onions, cheddar-jack and a spicy BBQ sauce on a crisp flatbread–a great combination of flavors. We take our time eating, we have no schedule, it feels good to relax.

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In Michigan you are never far from a big, beautiful body of blue water, in this case it’s the Caseville Harbor on the east shore of Saginaw Bay. The Caseville Pier extends 1800 ft. out into the bay, it’s gorgeous! Boats enter the bay through the mouth of the Pigeon River, there’s a steady stream of boating traffic this afternoon. We walk to the end of the pier. The surface of the water is sparkling like diamonds, wispy clouds paint the sky, fishermen head out to try their luck, sailboats glide by, to the right we see a sandy beach. Are you feeling warmer yet? I will leave you now with that picture in your mind, you’re welcome. 

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29 Jun

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After a peaceful nights sleep at the Webster House the car is loaded and we are on our way, a quick stop at Populace for coffee and we are headed to Saginaw. At one time Saginaw was a thriving lumber town, the nearby forests were thick with White Pine, the proximity to the river made it easy to float  logs down to the sawmills, they were then loaded onto ships and later railroad cars and sent all over the country. As lumber production began to disappear a new industry had taken hold of the area, manufacturing. Most of us are unaware at what a manufacturing hub Saginaw was, at one point the city and township were home to 12 General Motors plants and an Eaton manufacturing plant; not to mention the production of chemicals, plate glass and metal fabrication. Saginaw’s contribution to the Allies eventual victory was significant; facilities here produced over half a million M1 Carbine rifles for the US military along with gun parts, tank treads and ball screws for the Boeing B-29’s, thanks to our manufacturing base we could build it all! Through the years plants were bought and sold, many closed down, only a few continue to operate today. Saginaw struggles with the same issues so many of our once great manufacturing cities do. A trip down Jefferson Ave gives one a glimpse of Saginaw’s magnificent architecture.

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We begin our visit with a trip to the Marshall M Fredericks Sculpture Museum on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University, I bet you even know some of his work. Spirit of Detroit statue? Yep, that’s his, Christ On The Cross out in Indian River MI, that too, how about the Leaping Gazelle, aka the Levi L Barbour Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle? Uh huh, as a matter of fact, that was his very first commission. Fredericks grew up in Cleveland, graduated from the Cleveland School of Art in 1930, he traveled to Sweden to study under another great sculptor, Carl Milles (who had previously studied under Rodin in Paris). After Fredericks spent some time in Europe, he was invited by Milles to join him on staff at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, which he did, Fredericks resided in Birmingham MI until his death in 1998.

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We arrive at the museum, Fredericks  sculptures are scattered about the landscape, Kris recognizes the Lion and the Mouse from his childhood days at Eastland Mall. Inside, a large space is tightly filled with plaster castings for Fredericks pieces, we are familiar with many of them. Starting at one side we take our time traversing the aisles; there are a couple of castings  for The Spirit Of Detroit in different sizes, it was not unusual for Fredericks to make smaller versions of sculptures as sort of practice pieces. A down-sized version of Christ on the Cross hangs on the marble wall, the Leaping Gazelle was one of his most reproduced pieces, it is lovely even in plaster. A row of elongated figures balance on round bases, they must belong to a fountain. The left wall is windows top to bottom overlooking a pretty green space, water splashes from one of Fredericks fountains. Figures are often reaching upwards towards a higher power, animals always look friendly, we recognize the Cleveland War Memorial Fountain. The next room over is a reproduction of Fredericks sculpture studio, everything in there; tools, equipment, armatures, came from his studios in Royal Oak and Birmingham. All the steps are laid out from sketch to casting, we watch a video showing the process, it really is amazing. The gallery displays 200 works of bronze and plaster molds that span Marshall Fredericks career, we both love his work! As we depart the museum we see the Night and Day Fountain, the same one sits outside the McMorran auditorium in Port Huron, we check out the remaining outdoor sculpture and then we are off to downtown Saginaw.

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As I mentioned earlier, Saginaw has some incredible architecture, one such building is the Castle Museum. Designed by William Martin Aiken it was built in 1898 as a United States Post Office, which means, no expense was spared. Completed in the French Renaissance Revival style, this place is stunning. Saginaw’s population continued to grow, in 1937 the building was enlarged, thirty years later the building was threatened with demolition, fortunately it was transferred to the County of Saginaw and became the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History. Covering all aspects of local history they have over 100,000 objects and artifacts related to the heritage of the area, they did a fantastic job making the museum interesting to everyone, not just locals. The interior space is perfect for a museum; wide hallways, large rooms, lots of windows, the structure itself is just as interesting as the exhibits. Automobiles from different eras are displayed in the main hallway, we see architectural pieces from old buildings, photos showing the interior when it was a post office hang on the walls. We climb the circular stairway to the top floor a gold medallion decorates the center of the ceiling. Exhibits take us from the early days when Indians roamed the land to the time of lumbering, noting that in 1880 Saginaw Valley was home to 80 sawmills. My favorite section is the re-creation of Saginaw in its prime; a vegetable truck sits near the City Market, you can pretend you are taking a ride on a street car downtown. When Myer Bros. Jewelers closed in 1974 the museum obtained all of the interior counters, cabinets and mirrors, I actually feel like I am in the store, it’s beautiful! Other local shops are represented as well including Morely Bros. Hardware.

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 Back in the days when the building was a post office people actually paid their bills by sending cash in the mail….In one area we see the old safe, signs direct us up a narrow stairway, leading to an even narrower hall, from here we see tiny elongated windows that were used to ‘spy’ on employees as they were processing the mail, the government wanted to make sure all that cash got to its intended destination. The lower level is home to a large “HO” Scale operating railroad with more than 1000 feet of track, two freight-yards and realistic vintage scenery. Maintained and operated by the Saginaw Area Module Modelers it’s really cool. We walk the perimeter of the large display, there is so much to take in, trains are running in several different directions, volunteers are happy to explain all that we are seeing. Throughout the museum we see much of Saginaw’s history from furniture, photos and clothing to vehicles, toys and household goods, it has been an enjoyable visit.

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As we exit the museum our gaze falls upon another gorgeous building right behind it, this would be the Hoyt Public Library. Although Jesse Hoyt was never a permanent resident of Saginaw he and his family owned a substantial portion of the city and were involved financially in lumber, railroads, salt and buildings. Always concerned for the welfare of the community, he willed the city $100,000 for the establishment of a public library to be built on a parcel of land owned by him. The library was to be for consultation and reference only and to always bear the name Hoyt Public Library, completed in Romanesque design the library opened in 1890. We were so happy when we pulled on the door and it opened, we step inside and pause to look around, it is quite lovely. Kris begins to take photos as I wander about. A couple of employees engage us in conversation, we tell them we are fond of old buildings, they smile and tell us to have a look around. One man acts as our guide and takes us from room to room, I’m always excited when the big key ring comes out and we get to see spaces not generally open to the public. There is lots of wood and ornate plaster, a fireplace takes center stage in one of the small rooms. Completely renovated in 1997, new lighting was hung, old wooden shelves were replaced and computers were installed all the while maintaining the original Victorian motif. If you’re ever in town be sure to stop in and have a look around.

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It is late afternoon and we have yet to have lunch, we are starving! We take a drive through downtown but have no luck finding anything open on a Saturday. We cross the river  and scan the area for somewhere to eat; in no time we find ourselves at the Old Town Drive-In. This charming old-fashioned car-hop restaurant has been serving up their homemade draft rootbeer, rootbeer floats and coney dogs since 1940. The outdoor spaces are filled, so we decide to eat inside, a row of swivel bar stools line the counter, we have a seat and quickly decide what to order. Before we know it our food arrives; a coney dog, a cheeseburger and fries. We always like to try out the coney dogs at these cute family owned drive-ins, each has its own distinct coney sauce. Everything is good, we polish off the meal quickly.

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We make one last stop in town at the Saginaw Art Museum on Michigan Ave. The museum is housed in the former Ring family residence, built in the early 1900’s in the Georgian Revival style, the family donated the home to the city. There is a buzz of activity when we arrive, a wedding is about to take place in the formal gardens. Inside we are slightly disappointed to find artwork removed and areas closed off, but the place is wonderful all the same. My favorite space is the former dining room, rich Butternut paneling adorns the walls giving the room a cozy feel. We proceed through the galleries, the collection contains about 1700 pieces, American and European art being the majority of the collection. There is a nice variety on display today; paintings, sculptures, textiles and African art. One area of the modern and contemporary is filled with folding chairs this afternoon, ah, the wedding. The museum is currently closed for renovations and will re-open in the Fall, we look forward to a return visit when we will be able to see it in its entirety. We have thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Bay City and Saginaw, there was so much more than we expected to find.

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