Saginaw & Central Michigan Wanderings, Part 1

Butternut, Ithaca, Pompeii & Saginaw, Michigan (Map)

Winter 2014-15


My friend Nailhed has this goal of exploring something in every one of Michigan's 83 counties. This has led him to tackling short trips to clean up missed counties, something I always hear about and lament being far away and unable to tag along.

This wintertime trip started out with simple plans to explore Saginaw and check out an Ontario Hockey League Saginaw Spirit game at their Dow Event Center. The addition of exploring some nearby counties, with their new-to-me cities and villages, was something I was never going to complain about.

The weather had been fine last night in Plymouth, but even in heading home & back to Michigan today, the weather was supposed to deteriorate throughout the day. It was the type of weather forecast that leads to parents asking if you really need to go and whether the trip could wait for another time.

I was sure it would all be fine. We were on the road and on our way around 10 a.m.

Things weren't too bad in Detroit, but it was a two hour drive up to Alma in Gratiot County. The snow started to fall a bit more, but the volume of snow on the road was more concerning than anything. The weather wasn't awful in Alma as we drove through the 10,000-person downtown & checked on an old, sealed house.

Nail knew about an old waterpark out by the highway; leaving us to park the car and walk through a field of icy, crunchy snow.

My favourite part of the waterpark was how it was built around a hill. Climbing to the top, this was flat country, but this hill was allowing me to look out over the type of country I love. I stared off at the unfamiliar Michigan choices on the highway sign, while thinking there wasn't much worry of anyone on the highway spotting us over here on such a miserable day.

Other than this elevation change, my heart might've found space for the number of poolside safety bars & handrails, but it was hard to size them up because of the snow and tangly brush.

Now that we had Gratiot County checked off the list, we cut over to the southeast portion of Montcalm County and the village of Butternut. We drove the one main street of a couple of old businesses and maybe 20 homes, then backtracked for an abandoned elevator.

For some reason I stayed near the truck while Nailhed went and checked it out. I thought he was only poking his head inside, but he ended up with a few interior shots.

So...I guess I don't get Montcalm County? Ah well, I'm not one to count silly geographic things anyway.

Circa 1916 photo compliments of Don The UpNorth Memories Guy Harrison (account link, picture link)

Next up was a 20 minute drive back into Gratiot County to the "ghost town" of Pompeii. This was along M-57, your typical southern Ontario or central Michigan 2-lane farming road, with a 2 foot depression for ditches on both sides. As snow fell and we rattled along, I daydreamed off while looking at the red barns, until I was awakened by the feeling of the back end swinging out and cutting left and right trying to get back into the ruts, before slowly veering towards the roadside ditch.

In the midst of this slow, shallow veer, I kept an eye on where I thought the road ended & where I pictured that we would dip into the ditch at speed. It's with this that I leaned back & braced, just as the vehicle was corrected back into the slippery ruts.

I was happy to hang a slow left into the village of Pompeii shortly after.

In Nailhed's coverage of Pompeii, he references Michigan Shadow Towns, A Study of Vanishing and Vibrant Villages, where Gene Scott says Pompeii was founded in 1854, when a hotel was built by Joseph B. Smith along the state road to the county seat of Ithaca. Lost Towns of Eastern Michigan by Alan Naldrett goes on to say that a tavern and store followed soon after, along with the expectation that the Toledo, Saginaw & Muskegon rail line would be put through town.

When the TS&M (now Grand Trunk) railway wasn't put through Pompeii but instead 1.5 miles south, the main buildings of town were put on rollers and the town was moved by horsepower down to the railway. Naldrett says that the new town added a train depot along the line, along with a stone & steel grain elevator that stood until 1992 (the elevator would have been on the right side of the road in the first Pompeii picture).

Following the train line was a smart move as up to 30 trains/day went through Pompeii, with 5 or 6 stopping. This led to growth in the town & construction of a schoolhouse, 16-bed hospital and a state bank.

These trains would lessen in frequency over time, starting Pompeii's decline in the 1920s. Both the hotel & hospital closed in the 30s, the train depot closed in 1957 and the school in 1960.

Of course in these photos you see the illuminated OPEN sign at the Pompeii market & modern trucks parked along the roadside. The reason I put quotation marks on ghost town was because this was one of those towns where its glory days have passed, but there are still plenty of residents. The US census doesn't list small villages like Pompeii, but the zip code of 48874 (which is roughly Pompeii) had a population of 180 in 2010.

Liking the feel of this day and the streets of Pompeii, I asked Nail to drive a few of the side streets just to get a little bit more. I would have liked to get out and walk around, but I knew we had a hockey game to get to & I had no idea what else he had in mind for the afternoon (plus, maybe we should leave some extra time to deal with these weather conditions).

As we were driving all over the state, we would surely go through county seats, but I'm not going to look them all up & go out of my way to see them on a trip focused on ruins and old buildings.

So this is where we pulled into Ithaca and I didn't even know it was the seat of Gratiot County. Nailhed pulled up to a J&J Party Store, where I wondered if it was beer o'clock. Instead, in confusion and looking around, I startled myself when I realized there was this massive Neoclassical beauty was to our left.

The Gratiot County Courthouse was started in 1900 and finished in 1902. Claire Allen, architect of a half dozen central and southern Michigan courthouses, was the architect here in Ithaca.

An hour's drive east ahead of us, it was time to head to Saginaw.

The conditions were getting worse by now & driving was becoming a bit hairy. Still though, it felt safe enough & the speed seemed appropriate. Coming into some town along the way, the vehicle was slowed for the lower limit in town, but not to the crazy limit they had set. It seemed like one of those cases where the town sets an excessively restrictive, low speed limit.

Lo and behold, the reduced speed limit was because there was a turn without a stop sign in this village. In addition, this turn was here because its where the road snaked over rough railroad tracks. Taking too much speed here, the tracks jolted the vehicle and suddenly we were over the curb, up on a lawn & sliding sideways towards a house, just totally off the pavement. In this person's snowy front yard, we were coming right to their front door at a steady slide, but as suddenly as we left the road, we regained traction and our momentum pushed us back on to the street.

I've put my car slightly into a ditch before, but never onto someone's front lawn. It was a whole different experience of losing control.

Looking through the rear view, Nailhed stated he was 78% sure we were going to hit the house. As the collision would have been my side of the vehicle, I saw how very little space was between our vehicle and the house at the closest point.

The snow seemed to change to icy rain as we neared Saginaw. I'm not sure if that helped with getting there, or it was skill or if it was dumb luck, but we were at the Dow Event Center for hockey soon enough.

Parking by the vacant Bearinger Building, we found ourselves a spot behind others headed to the arena then exited the car into a warm winter's night with a touch of precipitation. Inclement weather; a gritty, blue collar Michigan town & headed to hockey in a late mid-century rink? I had a bit of a smile on my face as we headed up Franklin Street.

The Saginaw Civic Center was built in 1972 on land at Johnson & North Washington where their stunning Masonic Temple used to stand. A fantastic picture of that masonic temple is available on flickr and if you really love me, you should buy me the amazing 12-ft stained glass window that was salvaged and is for sale for $15,500.

The Civic Center would face its own problems in the 1990s, growing rundown and facing closure because of a lack of money invested by the city. Voters would transfer ownership to the county in 2001 and repairs/improvements were made around that time. The most notable of these improvements being the glass rotunda entrance that you see above.

Hockey would come back to Saginaw in 2002-03, when local auto sales magnate Dick Garber bought the North Bay Centennials and moved the team stateside.

The Dow Chemical Company is headquartered nearby and purchased the naming rights to the arena in September of 2004.

I liked the Dow Event Center as soon as I entered the concourse. The worn tile, the quaint food & beer stands, the supports and steps of the arena bowl as our ceiling. And then whenever we wanted to leave the concourse, it was up another set of stairs into the arena bowl that you couldn't see otherwise.

Both of us were hungry by now, so there was Jet's Pizza. For it being a big Michigan pizza chain, I'd never had it before & found it pretty good. It was similar to other Michigan pizzas with lots of cheese, grease & heft (omfg, I want a slice right now).

As for beer, Nailhed was really excited about the '$2 Buck Stop' you see above. I probably would have bought something besides a $2 8oz. Bud Light, but I couldn't argue with the price.

I had followed the Saginaw Spirit up from Plymouth, but the Whalers were replaced by the Sarnia Sting. I was more than happy with this substitution because it allowed me to scout Jakob Chychrun, who at the time was thought to be just behind Auston Matthews to get drafted #1 overall into the NHL.

Chychrun would end up falling all the way to 16th overall with later developments; and he was only saved there because the Arizona Coyotes traded up to pick him. I wasn't blown away with him this night in Saginaw - full disclosure: I know nothing - so it was funny to wonder if I should be happy that Boston decided against picking him at #14. Time will tell.

My intermission walk around the concourse was interrupted by the players needing to cut across to get back to the ice from the dressing room.

While I liked the Dow Event Center anyway, one of my favourite things had to be the people behind us. I had to turn around at one point to see who was saying such things, finding two couples in their 20s, the type of folk who looked like they enjoy mud pits, cold beer and Kid Rock.

Throughout the game they were having quite the conversation. The highlights including reminiscing about mixing drinks while driving down I-75 going from bar to bar in different cities, DNA tests and how a couple of them worked at a Little Caesars where one of their coworkers "only ever talked about giving head".

These people were characters enough - imagine this central Michigan, pizza-slinging girl who dwells and reflects on giving out blowies all day!

The people behind us weren't the only entertainment though. Saginaw ended up sending everyone home happy with a 5-4 overtime win on a goal from Dylan Sadowy.

Prior to the trip, I wanted to stay downtown & wander about on a cool January night, but the lack of hotel options down there killed that idea. (I somehow missed this 1868 hotel.)

So we didn't book anything in advance & looking at the GPS, the Ramada was the only thing around & it was a snowy Saginaw Saturday in January. The area around the Ramada also didn't seem great and I was thinking these things should work in our favour in terms of rates.

Tasked with going inside, my brain stopped working for a second when I was told I was getting a friendly discount, but that it was still $140.

We peeled out of the lot quickly.

Now, I had marked one motel in my GPS as a sort of last resort/spot to gauge if we drove by, but I was put off by the low cost & lack of reviews. Throwing Miller's Motel out there, the two of us decided to drive across town to check it out. This brought us into the rougher part of Saginaw & I asked Nail to stop for some 40s just in case we didn't see another store along these empty, dark streets. Back outside, he pointed out how it looked like the top floor was sliding away from the bottom one, which I hadn't really noticed prior to him saying (ie. that's not my camera lens making that bend).

The Miller Motel didn't seem too bad from the outside & with spinning out in a nearby intersection, the storm was clearly worsening. My hopes and thoughts were that nefarious characters might not be out in this weather & any bugs would be challenged by this cold.

Again I was tasked with going inside & checking on the rate. In the small lobby, a man was behind bulletproof glass & a couple was ahead of me getting a room. I sized up the girl to try and figure out if this was a hooker motel, but she didn't seem like a lady of the night.

The guy renter would crack me up with his nodding, yeah-yeah-yeah's and eye-rolling at the motel proprietor's 10-step instructions to dealing with the heat in the room. Dude did not care at all about listening to such elaborate instructions.

I wondered again about the hooking - did this guy just want to hurry up and go get freaky? I figured that he could want to go do that regardless if he was paying for it or not. Also, maybe he simply didn't care about adjusting the heat in the room.

Eventually the couple got their room and left. I stepped up to the glass and asked about the rate, finding the $42 price totally reasonable and awesome. In the course of filling out paperwork, I couldn't help but ask about the metal doors and bulletproof glass, where the man then told me, "29 years I be here, no crime. Very safe."

I had my doubts about this claim, but everything else seemed in order. Going into the room, things had been well-used, but they were clean enough & fine for a place to crash for the night. I nabbed the bed with the headboard and also took some pictures of myself in the strange vanity.

Back at the motel window I had to give the guy a $5 deposit to get a ziploc-bagged remote control for the room; the remote I'd now use to turn on the TV and relax with an ice cold Wild Cat tall boy. (I hadn't seen Wild Cat in forever, so I opted for tall boys instead of a 40.)

I wasn't sure if I would have had the cojones to seek out this place or stay here by myself, but in the morning I thought about how I should check out the scene more thoroughly. Miller's Motel ended up saving us $100 and it was totally fine. I would think about staying at Miller's again next time I'm in Saginaw.

I returned my remote to get my $5 deposit back, then we were off this morning to explore something in Saginaw.

Continue to Part 2...


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Plymouth Whalers @ Compuware Arena


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Saginaw & Central Michigan Part 2 >

1 - Starving Gratiot -
2 - The Dow Event Center Facility History -
3 - Michigan County Courthouses, John Fedynsky, 2010
4 - Lost Towns of Eastern Michigan, Alan Naldrett, 2015
5 - Saginaw Spirit, OHL Arena Guide
6 - Ebb and Flow -

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