Saturday, October 24, 2009

West MI Pike Auto Tourist Camps Commemorated

auto tourist camp sign
Historical Marker outside the Park Gate (photo by City of Hart)
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a news release of the Michigan DNR

Michigan Historical Commissioner Tom Truscott dedicated a Michigan Historical Marker honoring both auto tourist camps - popular with early-20th-century travelers - and Hart's John Gurney Park on Saturday, Oct. 17. Part of an ongoing effort to promote tourism in communities along the old West Michigan Pike (US-31), the marker is located near the entrance arch of the park, at 300 Griswold St. in Hart.

"John Gurney Park was one of several auto tourist camps developed along the West Michigan Pike during the 1920s, meeting the need for accommodations among a growing crowd of automobile travelers," said Michigan Historical Center Director Sandra Clark. "It's one of the many fascinating stories of Michigan's West coast heritage that the West Michigan Roadmap project is bringing to life."

The Michigan Historical Center - the former home of the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), now housed in the Michigan State Housing Development Authority - began collaborating with the Michigan Beachtown Association in 2006 in an effort to boost tourism along Michigan's western shoreline. SHPO's West Michigan Roadmap project, funded in part with a federal Preserve America grant, identified tourism-related sites along the West Michigan shoreline from New Buffalo to Ludington. The historic West Michigan Pike served as the focal point for the project, which lays the foundation for a heritage route that will be developed by the Michigan Beachtown Association and the Michigan Department of Transportation.

As the automobile became the preferred way to travel in the early 20th century, there was not enough lodging to accommodate the number of travelers on the road. Camping, often on private land, became popular among those who took long trips to scenic areas and needed places to stay. To meet demand, the Michigan Tourist and Resort Association proposed that five camps be built in 1920 along the West Michigan Pike, one of the state's first improved highways. By 1923 Michigan had some 300 free auto tourist camps.

John Gurney Park was donated to the village of Hart in 1912 by a former state senator and his wife to honor their son, Lieutenant John Gurney, who had died at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba during the Spanish American War. In 1914 the Progressive Park Association erected the entrance arch as a memorial.

The Michigan Historical Marker Fund and the Michigan Beachtown Association paid for the marker. It is the second of five Michigan Historical Markers to be erected as part of the West Michigan Roadmap project. The first, honoring animator Winsor McCay, was dedicated earlier this year in Spring Lake. Additional markers to be erected include a Grand Haven marker recognizing Jewish resorts and West Michigan summer resorts, a Muskegon marker honoring Scenic Drive and Muskegon State Park, and a New Buffalo marker giving an overview of the West Michigan Pike's history.

Since the Michigan Historical Marker program began in 1955, more than 1,500 official historical markers have been erected. Traveling Through Time: A Guide to Michigan's Historical Markers contains the text and location of state markers. It is available anywhere books are sold or by calling (517) 373-1663.

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