A trail marker tree, touring the former Northern Michigan Asylum, and enjoying tasty beers at Earthen Ales made for a super summer day in Traverse City.
Another side of Traverse City
While up in Benzie county for a short summer vacation, we decided to step away from the usual tourist highlights of Traverse City. While delicious food, wine, and beaches are certainly a great reason to visit Traverse. We thought it would be fun to peek at the trail marker tree at the civic center park and then take a history tour at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons which was the former Northern Michigan Asylum. We love to try new breweries, so a stop at Earthen Ales sounded perfect.
Trail Marker Tree at Civic Center Park
The Civic Center park was filled with girls softball teams on a misty and chilly summer morning when we arrived in Traverse City. Located on the north end of this 45 acre park where Front Street forms its boundary, you’ll find a very special tree inside a black iron fence.
The large stone in front of this massive white oak tells it story. Over 200 years ago, Native Americans had formed a bend in the tree when it was just a baby. The tree then became a marker for the Detroit to Straits of Mackinaw trail. With a variety of trails spurring from the main routes, these trail marker trees helped guide people as they made their way cross country. Upon seeing this majestic old tree, my mind wondered about all the people who have passed this way before me. Hopefully this tree can be a source of inspiration and wonder for generations to come.
History tour at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City
The array of grand buildings that make up the Village at Grand Traverse Commons was once an asylum for the mentally ill. This historical site has been transformed into a vibrant living space offering shopping, restaurants, and even a brewery. To get the full backstory on this impressive venture, we took the history tour. While I did want to learn about the Village’s past, I have to admit that I wanted to experience the old steam tunnels underneath this massive complex.
The History of the Northern Michigan Asylum
We met up with our guide Joe outside the B50 Village Store for the start of our two hour tour. Joe is a great storyteller and started off with a history on how the Northern Michigan Asylum (later known as Traverse City State Hospital) came to be.
Thanks to the lobbying of lumber baron Perry Hannah and an abundance of natural fresh water wells, Traverse City was selected as the home of the new psychiatric hospital. The design follows the Kirkbride Plan which features abundant natural light and ventilation. It was believed that sunlight and fresh air are critical to the healing of the mentally ill. I’m not a medical professional, but I know that I feel so much better when there is plenty of buttery sunlight and fresh air.
Therapy Through Beauty and Purpose
The hospital opened in 1885 under the direction of Dr. James Munson. Joe pointed out that Dr. Munson firmly believed in the concepts of “beauty is therapy” and “work is therapy”. The idea is to treat patients with kindness and offer them comfort through beautiful flower gardens and artwork inside and outside. To give patients a sense of purpose and belonging, they all contributed to the self-sustainment of the hospital. This included farming, cooking, and furniture construction.
Joe emphasized how this approach to patient care was quite different from the past. Prior to Dr. Munson’s time, mentally ill patients were shunned. They were locked up and thrown away. They were hidden from sight to spend their days in isolation. The North Michigan Asylum offered patients dignity. Rooms with high ceilings and many windows with freedom to move, removed the sense of confinement.
Repurposing This Historic Site in Traverse City
Joe took us to part of the old Traverse City State Hospital that is still in need of restoration to talk about the conservation efforts. With the advent of drug therapy in the 1950’s and an unwillingness to pay for mental health care, the Traverse City State Hospital fell into decline. By the 1970’s many buildings had been torn down. Eventually in 1989, the doors were shut.
This mini-castle then sat vacant while people tried to figure out what to do with this site. Eventually in 2000, Ray Minervini and the Minervini Group started to work on their plan to restore and repurpose these historic buildings. They have taken great care to keep the original grand character of the site while making it a destination for a new generation to live, work and play. The result is the thriving Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City.
Inside the Tunnels of the Traverse City State Hospital
While learning about the history and restoration of this historic site is great, the main event for me is to get to walk in one of the old tunnels underneath the buildings. The tunnels offered a way to transport people, ventilation, steam, and electrical between the buildings. Many of the tunnels have been closed off, but the tour provides access to one of the remaining tunnels.
It is definitely an eerie place. Our guides shut off the lights for some fun flash photos. I’m not sure, but we may have seen a ghost. There is definitely no shortage of imaginations running wild down there.
The Asylum Cow
One bit of obscure trivia that we learned while on our history tour of Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City was about the legendary Traverse Colantha Walker. Who was this fabled character you ask? She was a cow.
Mind you, this wasn’t any old cow. While working on the farm that supported the Traverse City State Hospital, she produced a record 200,114 pounds of milk and 7,525 pounds of butterfat. When she passed away in 1932 at the age of 16, the patients and staff buried her near the barn where she lived.
We made our way down Red Drive Loop toward Historic Barns Park which is a short drive or a decent walk from the Commons. Located across from the botanical gardens in between two pine tree, you’ll find Colantha’s grave. It is a beautiful spot and definitely worth a visit.
Enjoying some Earthen Ales
After a whirlwind day of exploring local history, it was time for some food and a beer. Thankfully the Village at Grand Traverse Commons had us covered with great food from Archie’s and fabulous beers at Earthen Ales.
Archie’s is a food truck located just outside of Earthen Ales. Archie’s will deliver to you inside of Earthen Ales. This way you can enjoy some tasty sliders or mac and cheese with one (or two) of Earthen Ales fine brews. We highly recommend the avocado-black bean sliders.
Beauty and Beer
The inside of Earthen Ales captures the spirit of “beauty is therapy”. Tons of natural light pours into a wide-open space. The room seems to call out “come on in friend!”. We all opted for flights of beer to allow our taste buds to roam. The “Juniper Rye” was a favorite all the way around. This IPA with spruce reminded me of hiking on Hogback mountain in Marquette. The “By The Speyside” is a big barley wine with a subtle sweetness. This heady beverage brought up memories of playing euchre in Petoskey.
During our visit, we chatted with the owners Jamie and Andrew Kidwell-Brix. They made us feel welcome and very much appreciated our interest in their brewery. When you head over to the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, be sure to enjoy a beer and tell them we sent you.
Adventures and Photos
Looking for more fun adventure in Michigan, then check out our Benzie county tour. Or enjoy some music at the Michigan Legacy Art Park in Interlochen. Drop by our gallery for more pictures of our visit to Earthen Ales as well as our summer jaunt in Traverse City. Please take a look and share on social media. We only ask for photo credit.
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