A steady stream of visitors is sent through Bellaire courtesy of M-88. This state highway bisects our downtown, showing off the village to every person in every vehicle heading north through central Antrim County.
What do these visitors see? A downtown that has spanned over 150 years of small-town architecture. From stores built in the mid-1800s to the 2006 offices of the local newspaper, Bellaire’s history is rich with existing buildings and the phantoms of structures long gone.
Photographs are our only reminder of a millinery shop, a three-story hotel, a “gents furnishings” store, and the sawmills that sliced up logs hauled in from the neighboring forests. What remains? A 1890s storefront. The community hall, dedicated in 1937 and built with WPA funds. A 1901 general store that now houses an internationally-known brewery, and much more.
Bellaire’s downtown area is in a state of transformation. A few short years ago it was the classic sleepy Up North village; relaxed in summer, close to a ghost town in winter.
Bellaire is fortunate to be the home of Short’s Brewing Company and Lulu’s Bistro, two businesses that have been instrumental in revitalizing Bellaire’s downtown. And Parkside Arts Council, though a newcomer to the downtown landscape, is providing fresh opportunities for the entire area. Streets that were once nearly empty of life are now starting to buzz with an exciting energy.
Yes, people are coming to enjoy what Bellaire has to offer, and we want to offer even more. Food, drink, and shopping are the heart of a downtown experience, there’s no question about that. But what if visitors could see into the past?
How many people know that Richardi Park was once the site of a woodenware company that sold their wooden spoons and clothespins all over the world? And how many people know that a devastating 1905 fire resulted in the closure of the business and put dozens of men and women out of work? How many people know that there used to be a tug-of-war contest across the Intermediate River? Does anyone other than a few old timers remember that troupes of traveling entertainers once performed at the Kearney Township Hall? And who would have guessed that the 1910 menu at a Bellaire hotel included green tea? This is the history we want to share. These are the stories we want to tell.
A historical walk is a chance to connect with the people who once walked these same streets and saw the same blue waters of our lakes and rivers. A chance to see Bellaire through the eyes of Catherine and Thomas Kiser. In 1879 they traveled north from their Ohio farm. 425 miles. In a covered wagon. With 7 children.
Back in 2003, a partnership of local communities commissioned a downtown study. This valuable document tells us that “visitors are fascinated with history.” Well, visitors are what we have. Vehicle, foot, and bicycle traffic all increase tremendously during the standard summer tourist season. However, that classic mid-June through Labor Day stretch isn’t the end of tourist season. Not any longer. The shoulder seasons of spring and fall are also becoming busy times in Bellaire. If we can provide a historical walk, we can provide all our visitors with the perfect accompaniment for their shopping and dining experiences.
The village is already working closely with the Bellaire Area Historical Society on this project. Their vast depth of knowledge has provided a multitude of historical walk examples from other communities, examples that will help us assemble a walk design best suited to our particular circumstances. The village will be working hand in hand with the Historical Society to locate the most accurate and interesting historical locations in the village.
Parkside Arts Council has expressed a desire to assist with the printing of the maps and will have ideas for the design of the markers. Their assistance with design will likely enhance the entire project by making the materials eye-catching and visually attractive.