Grounded in the Irish Hills of Michigan, this essay offers performative curation as a method to address the complexities of virtual tourist experiences, in terms of postindustrial, rural, roadside tourism and nostalgic memory. Performative curation juxtaposes tourist accounts, “official” histories, autoethnography, tall tales, dramatic scripts, descriptions of physical artifacts, images, and other texts. As a hybrid of performative writing, collage, and digital content curation, the method is reflexive about the mediation involved in visiting, representing, and remembering tourist locations, and asks the reader to take an explicitly active and ethical role in the virtual tour and meaning-making process.
I hear only wind. The first thing I see is a tree stump with large, unblinking eyes, its mouth frozen in a grimace. The branches are arms, permanently shrugging as if to say, “I'm not sure what happened… ” Scanning the perimeter, I notice an enormous, rusty, brown and blue apatosaurus, its head resting on a lamppost. The beast dwarfs the chain-link fence in front of it, and a small sign: No Trespassing. Next to the apatosaurus, a mastodon with tired, red eyes, and a flowering bush under its belly; Another bush sprouts between its tusks. Past several soil-covered cavemen, colorful yet cadaverous dinosaurs pose with intricate spider webs trailing off their human-like hands. The white and red face of a pterodactyl peels, revealing grey undertones. A T-Rex is frozen in a ferocious growl, sans one bottom tooth. A triceratops rests its head on the ground, eyes downcast, mourning the loss of its right horn. Ancient birds thrust forth their crumbling beaks. Among the wreckage, a woman with fire-engine-red hair pets an unidentifiable long-necked species of dinosaur. It bows to her hand. The words “For Amy” are superimposed over this YouTube video, which has shown me what is left of Prehistoric Forest in the Irish Hills of Michigan.1 I do not know Amy, yet I am flooded with nostalgic memories, wishing I could be at her side petting a broken dinosaur on the roadside. A passing gesture of fellowship in an obscure passing place, archived in time, online.
This essay is about a lot of things; this is precisely the point. Virtual tourism, digital archiving, nostalgic memory, the US rust belt, roadside attractions, the allure of kitsch, notions of heritage, and the rise and decline of the automobile manufacturing industry in Michigan. These issues collide in the Irish Hills of Michigan, a tourist location that formed gradually over the course of the twentieth century, and has been in a constant cycle of crisis, decline, and transformation since the late-1990s.
I use a combination of text and image collaging, content curation (adapted from the digital realm), hyperlinking, and performative writing in the format of this work. I term this methodology performative curation, defined as creatively curating touristic content (including “official” histories, anecdotes, autoethnography, tall tales, scripts, images, and other voices and texts) within a single, polyvocal document. Performative curation is a method of gathering, collaging, and selectively contextualizing such touristic artifacts. As a hybrid of creative, scholarly, and digital writing techniques—one that is reflexive about its mediation and place within mediated networks—performative curation offers opportunities to create multiple meanings of a physical place. Creative juxtaposition and layering of these artifacts gives the media involved in this virtual travel experience space to “talk to each other,” as Craig Gingrich-Philbrook would say.2 Like Dwight Conquergood's “dialogical performance,” performative curation “bring[s] together different voices, worldviews, value systems, and beliefs so that they can have a conversation with one another.”3 Additionally, like Pavithra Prasad's polyvocal documentation of ethnographic and touristic experiences, and as an extension of performative writing, performative curation acknowledges memories of both physical and virtual tourists as subjective, unstable, fragmented, and fallible.4 When interwoven, these intertexts further offer wide-open spaces for interpretation, multiple meanings, and not-necessarily-negative confusion. As Mindy Fenske suggests (following Christopher J. Keep), “pleasures other than those of meaning and comprehension” can be found, and even “reveled in,” within a text.5
Resisting a single, authorial, travel-writing voice, performative curation lends itself to collage formatting. Indeed, collage was crucial to the process and product of this work. As Amy Kilgard contends, with collage
it is not the original stories themselves that are most important. … It is their collision—or more appropriately their constant acts of colliding but never quite crushing each other or erasing each other or perhaps even meeting each other—that is at issue.6
However, unlike Kilgard, who states her collaged essay is not a “high tech production,”7 performative curation is necessarily high tech, in terms of both the new and older technologies required to complete the work.
The method is a unique and fitting way to explore tourist spaces, which are inherently palimpsestic, intertextual, collage-like spaces, “conceived by a mosaic of discourses involved in an ongoing dialogue with one another,” as Stephen Wearing, Deborah Stevenson, and Tamara Young point out.8 Chris Rojek uses the metaphor of “collage tourism” to explain complex feelings we experience while traveling through such intertextual spaces. Tourists interpret sites by mentally collaging “file(s) of representation,” including both factual and fictional writing, theatre, cinema, television, stories, and metaphors, all of which are equally relevant.9 They assemble these “fragments of cultural information” to form individual meaning(s) of a site.10 Integrating newer media (e.g., internet video) into a world of more traditional tourist media (e.g., travel writing) for the purposes of performative curation involves similar mental collaging, including adapting and arranging a multitude of voices and images into a single space.
In this work I offer many fragmented performances of/from/about the Irish Hills of Michigan, which I have accessed through multiple media over the course of six years (which will become clear through some of the hyperlinks). My performative curation of the Irish Hills extends the touristic performance event to include the mediated networks necessary for my own virtual touring and research, along with what happens in the mind of the reader as they (meaning)-make their way through this work. Performance, place, time, event, and memory collide if/as the reader allows the fragments to inform each other. Following Fenske, the work of performative curation takes “movement seriously as an impetus for ethical critical engagement resulting in a critical aesthetic form”—both movement through a tourist space and movement of the reader through this work. Movement in this work also “occurs within and along a rhizome… [P]oints of departure and arrival, though always arrived at and departed from, are secondary to the movement itself.”11 Each included touristic encounter is a potential entry or exit point for the reader. Additionally, the method aims to reveal the “stakes of its construction” while remaining “open-ended.”12 Hyperlinks to websites, images, and videos that I created and performed in when I began this project in 2011 are also embedded into the work, to create a layered experience for readers who are interested in how content might read differently in a differently mediated format, and/or how quickly online digital video quality has degraded with advancements in camera, editing, and online content-sharing technologies. Other hyperlinks add additional layers of meaning in places where the online text has changed (or even disappeared) since my first access date.
In the spirit of collage, I ask that you, the reader, actively interpret this work, and resist the notion of a singular thesis statement. I hope you will consider the juxtapositions I have made (or you make through a non-linear reading), and allow this work to move you. Or remain unmoved. Or revel in confusion. As Thomas P. Brockelman states, engaging collage asks us to adopt an ethics that resists “guarantees of meaning ([or] the reality of ‘knowing our place’)” and “fights precisely the paralyzing tendencies of modern culture” and ideas of “metaphysical security.”13,Paralyzing tendencies not unlike those one might get caught in online. Yeah, I see you scrolling. Fact-checking, obsessive click-click-clicking from link to link, the seemingly endless movement through algorithm-curated “news” on social networking and other websites. This content and technology is transient, though. Next year, you will see a different “feed” or “news,” likely still algorithmically generated just for you. A new filter will make digital photos look old, activating nostalgic memory. Physical locations will be abandoned or altered and people will long for these “lost” places—and find them archived online. In a year, much will have changed online and in real life. In the words of Ferris Bueller on his much-celebrated day off, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”14
This work, meanwhile, attempts to move as slow or as fast as you would like. I pieced it together thinking I see you in it. It is curated for you, by me and my algorithmically-skeptical tendencies. My virtual acknowledgment of you does not carry the same communitas as physical presence or a phonecall; yet, I invite you to share in the lives, pains, joys, and struggles presented here. I hope you will see me here, too, and the others who have influenced or are included in this work.
What follows, then, is my performative curation of the Irish Hills of Michigan, including tourist accounts, news, histories, interviews, anecdotes, autoethnography, tall tales, images, memories, dramatic scripts, and other texts and images, along with a tour guide whose language includes some intentional snark (they are not not me, after all.) I traveled to the Irish Hills of Michigan through the internet, books, articles, phonecalls, emails, images, personal memory, stories, binge shopping, and with the help of the US Postal Service. The limitations and opportunities of the media I used determined my route, discoveries, and experiences of the location. By adapting these experiences into this performative curation, I also transform from tourist and researcher into curator and virtual tour guide. The content and arrangement of this tour is subjective, serious, playful, highly intentional, and at times intentionally opaque. Further, time, space, and place are purposefully nostalgic and hazy, as I hope you will find your own route, discoveries, and meanings through this tour, and that the method of performative curation will be more effectively and affectively generative for you than any amount of me telling you what this all means might be.
And so we begin.
MEET YOUR TOUR GUIDE!
Tour Guide:15 Welcome to your virtual tour of the Irish Hills of Michigan! A tour of times and places past and present, with no clear beginning, middle, or end. A tour I have been re-living for over three decades, and researching, re-writing, and restructuring for… ahem.
I have arranged this tour with care and intention, but feel free to read the fragments in any order. Skip and choose your way through, as if this were a museum, loosely-structured physical tour, or Choose Your Own Adventure™ book! Ideally, your take-away will be equally thought-provoking, regardless of the path you choose. Linear and forward-lurching, backwards, haphazardly, or by chance, you have options while reading. Meanwhile, possibilities are hidden between the lines, in the juxtapositions. Indeed, these spaces hold great potential for meaning. And discovery. And confusion.
Please do not sit back and relax. Turn on all cell phones and electronic devices, and if you are inspired to use them, do so! As your tour guide, I may state obvious things. I might also tell lies, accidentally or on purpose. This section of the tour includes the first obvious thing and possibly the first lie.
Do you trust me?
On to the Irish Hills!
Not confined to any formal geographic boundaries, the Irish Hills is an area of land in Michigan, about 70 miles southwest of Detroit, that covers four counties and numerous municipalities. According to the website Oh These Irish Hills, “geographically, the Irish Hills is an area in the minds of the people who live and work there. … Our adage is: If you think you are in the Irish Hills, then you are.”16 Several stories explain how the region was named:
Irish Minister Reverend Lyster named the area in the nineteenth century.
Homesick Irish settlers named the area because it resembled their homeland.
The name was the result of a business ploy in the early twentieth century, as entrepreneurs sought to attract the attention of an emerging automobile tourist market.17
VIRTUALLY TOURING THE (HAUNTED, RURAL) RUST BELT
Many automobile travelers and urban tourists in the United States are familiar with the rust belt's abandoned roadside: physical remnants of our industrial past, the shells of deserted buildings that litter our landscape. Michael S. Bowman and Phaedra C. Pezzullo point out, for example, that places can “die” when they offer no experiences for today's tourists.18 Yet, many tourists in the United States intentionally travel to and document these “dead” sites, finding excitement in the danger of exploration and beauty in the decaying landscape. According to Steven High and David W. Lewis, American “nostalgia for vanishing landmarks” has helped to transform these “derelict landscapes into popular tourist sites.”19 These tourists might easily be categorized into “dark” or “anti-tourism” categories. Following Bowman and Pezzullo, I find these terms problematic as they assume a similar intent for all tourists who visit sites of ruin. Detroit, no stranger to such tourism, is subject to another problematic touristic term: ruin porn.20 Ruin porn photographers, as High and Lewis state, are often “more interested in aesthetics than history.”21 Their photos feature “idled factories” and “dissolute neighborhoods as monuments of melancholy,” showcasing a romantic dystopia of failed industrial society returning to the state of nature.22 The postindustrial economic and social changes that fuel urban tourism and ruin porn photography factors into the “museumification” of industrial landscapes, and the transformation of abandoned industrial sites into ruins.
The aforementioned economic changes also extend to rural roadside tourist towns that sprouted near Detroit, in response to automobile tourism in the mid-twentieth century. The stretch of US–12 that weaves through the Irish Hills, a once-popular but now largely abandoned tourist location, is one such place. Many blogs about touring the Irish Hills describe a ghost town of dilapidated buildings and freakish roadside attractions. One blogger describes the location as a “Cenozoic creepshow… [that is] eerie as shit,” and is “definitely one of those places that's more unsettling in the daytime.”23 Yet few of these narratives indicate that the blogger or anyone they know ever lived in, worked at, or visited the abandoned tour destination of choice while it was still functional. These tourist accounts rarely address why a location closed, or reflect on the social impacts of its abandonment.24 This performative curation of the Irish Hills of Michigan is thus an alternative to rural ruin porn and the tourism trends that drive it, as I present the Irish Hills as always already changing, and ever-haunted.
As travelers, we make sense of tourist spaces and experiences through myriad virtual and physical interactions with a place. As Mike Crang states, tourism
works at the interplay of movement and fixity, absence and presence. … [We] travel to be present at a place, but as we examine those places we realize they are shot through by absences where distant others, removed in space and time, haunt the site.25
Tourism entrepreneurs, tourists, industry workers, locals, artists, scholars, and others who visited these spaces leave evidence of their past presence, from the knowledge that someone built this building or sat on this bench, to traces we sense but cannot always articulate. This sense, this haunting, is amplified when the tourist site, like the Irish Hills, is in a constant state of change, decay, and attempted revitalization. The social and economic factors that made the Irish Hills what it is today have scattered, as tourists moved on to favor other locations. Meanwhile, online tourist accounts rarely offer historically (or otherwise) contextualized interpretations, and the ruins of roadside attractions cannot tell their own stories. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett posits, “the inability of sites to tell their own story authorizes the interpretation project itself.”26 This performative curation of the Irish Hills thus moves though the Irish Hills via many virtual travel experiences, which you may interpret as you will.
While the phrase “virtual travel” may bring to mind computer environments, Fenske reminds us that the “virtual is not new to computers.”27 Virtual tourism can take place on digital devices, online, through older media, and through imagination or fiction. Virtual travel refers to any mediated travel to/through places and times. As Wearing, Stevenson, and Young point out, advancements in digital technologies allow for “socially present but physically absent” travelers, and travel today is more about “movement and immersion” than “geography and copresence.”28 Additionally, according to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “immersion in a world other than one's own is a form of transport,”29 no matter how far or how one travels. Yet, to show care toward the people who built, loved, lived in, or visited the Irish Hills over the years, this performative curation moves beyond non-contextualized images and blog narratives that only depict the location as it stands, and offers an intellectually and emotionally complex experience.
THE IRISH HILLS: THINGS TO SEE
This document serves as a placeholder for embodied memory. … [T]his act of remembering, twice removed, asks its reader to enter a field of affinity with its subjects and its author, with mutual reflexivity and interpretive openness.~PAVITHRA PRASAD30
Tour Guide: The Irish Hills, in its heyday, bustled with family-friendly, kitschy, and quaint roadside attractions, all along US–12. In 2013, few of these attractions remained open, and many were in some state of disrepair. Prehistoric Forest, a dinosaur themed amusement park, crumbled on the side of the melancholy highway. A few minutes down the road, ghosts of tourism times past haunted the Old West themed Stagecoach Stop.
Shirley, 55 and Proud!! Loves Quilting and Pinterest
In the summer of 1992 we headed out to the Irish Hills for a fun-filled day in the Wild West. As soon as my brother's kids saw the sign, Stagecoach Stop, they knew they wanted to go there. Maybe because we were in the middle of nowhere along a stretch of US–12, and they were anxious to stop.
When my parents would load up the station wagon to go to the same middle of nowhere, it was called Frontier City, and was filled with gift shops for cheap trinkets in a little town that resembled the Wild West. The best part of the day back then was the gunfight in the middle of town. Or maybe it was the end of the day, when we'd gather on the benches to watch the country singing show, and I would inevitably fall asleep next to my mother. Or maybe it was the train ride, the characters dressed up in Old West costumes, or the saloon—though my mother always packed our family of seven a picnic lunch. I don't remember what the best part was, but we always had a lot of fun.
The nostalgia from my childhood made me want to share that kind of experience with my nieces and nephew, since I don't have children. When we got there, I was glad to see that not much had changed in 30 years, at least not in my mind. We watched a gunfight, took a train ride, saw a country show, and ate lunch in the saloon—that was an extra treat since I am not my mother and didn't even consider packing a picnic lunch.
One thing we did that wasn't available in my day: the kids dressed up in period clothes and had their pictures taken in black and white. I recently came across one of the pictures from our special day, my nieces and nephew dressed up as saloon girls and a gun fighter. I found myself hoping that they would always look back on that day like I do.32
From the mid-1940s through the 1970s, vacation benefits, high rates of automobile ownership, and the construction of new highways drove many families to follow in the footsteps of American pioneers and earlier tourists. According to Susan Sessions Rugh, family road trips became a tradition and a consumer choice during this time, “a way to buy experiences to promote family togetherness.”33 This “family consumerism” was also political, as it upheld the idea that consuming goods and services helped sustain national security.34 American family vacationing was a cultural ritual that strengthened family bonds and normalized the (white, middle-class, nuclear) family. Additionally, family vacationing was a way to pass down values of togetherness, citizenship within a “mighty nation,” and ideas, beliefs, and stories about heritage to the kids: future generations of travelers.35
Tonya, Retired, Loves Visiting Hawaii
The worst accident or injury I can remember from when I was a kid, camping in the Irish Hills, was when I got a splinter and someone with a pocketknife dug it out. I don't remember crying. I think kids were tougher back then. A much simpler and safer time. Carefree days with few rules.
My family met new friends there each year. One family had a school bus that was converted to a trailer. The youngest boy was my age. We were buddies from sun up to sun down. One summer I received my first little kiss on the cheek from him. Something, for some reason, I never forgot.
Later in life, with my kids, we'd go camping with other families. After many trips and little rest or fun for the moms, we decided on a mom-only weekend. As soon as we set up, it began to rain—for 48 hours. Determined not to go home one minute early, we headed to the nearest town. There was a movie theatre with one movie showing: Ghostbusters. (It had been out for probably six years. We weren't too disappointed, though, 'cause none of us had seen it.)
Rain put a damper on many camping trips, but I wouldn't give up a weekend camping in the rain for one night in big fancy hotel.36
We crave evidence that the past endures in recoverable form. Some agency, some mechanism, some faith will enable us not just to know it, but to see and feel it.~DAVID LOWENTHAL37
To see or think about a place you once loved in a state of dilapidation is painful. Selectively remembering that same place as it once was, thriving and fun, often brings both pleasure and melancholy, or nostalgia. Much has been said about the meanings, values, and political implications of nostalgic memory. Henri Bergson warns that it works against effective and deliberate present-day action.38 Fred Davis suggests nostalgia is a “search for continuity amid threats of discontinuity,”39 and a means by which people “adapt to rapid social change and to changes in individual life histories.”40 David Lowenthal states nostalgia, a “starry-eyed view of wretched times, falsified history, kitschy commerce, and regressive elitism,” still has its virtues, including how nostalgic attachment to familiar places might safeguard these places from social upheaval.41 Further, Stuart Tannock suggests we look critically at nostalgic narratives as cultural resources and strategies to open space for “effective historical interpretation and action.”42
Kimberly K. Smith, meanwhile, posits that nostalgic memory is routinely delegitimized in contemporary culture as “irrational sentimentality.”43 According to Smith, the concept of nostalgia has been politicized to raise suspicion about arguments against industrialization and “the emotional experiences—alienation, homelessness, meaninglessness—to which such arguments make reference.”44 Nostalgic memory is also ideologically charged, in terms of “whether (and whose) memory is a reliable basis for political action, and whether the pain occasioned by rapid change is politically relevant (or even pain at all).”45 Remembering the past as pleasant is not the same thing as wanting to return to it. Nostalgic memory might be better interpreted, then, as a present-day social critique, or as a way “to express valid desires and concerns about the present—in particular, about its relationship (or lack of relationship) to the past.”46
Smith argues that delegitimizing nostalgic memory (including the obvious fallibilities of memory) worked to normalize industrialized society. I extend this argument to postindustrial society and the economic suffering seen in much of the rural US rust belt, including roadside tourist locations like the Irish Hills of Michigan (which often elicit nostalgic memories from those who have traveled there). The idea of physical travel itself might elicit nostalgia in certain cases, as vacationing is less feasible for some families today. Strapped for both time and money, these families may not travel at all. Others who are financially stable, have the option of plane tickets to more relaxing vacation destinations than roadside “tourist traps,” and/or faster highway systems that bypass these towns altogether. Others still, for myriad reasons, have even fewer physical travel options, and are limited to or simply enjoy opportunities to travel virtually—through memories, images, print, video, and other media.
Stella, 66, Married to the Love of Her Life
I am handicapped and spend most of my time in my home, on the computer. You may say it's my window to the world. I enjoy Facebook but my favorite thing to do is go to YouTube and find all sorts of interesting videos to watch. I have a pet parakeet who is my Baby Boy. His name is Blue and he's smart as a whip. Never would have guessed a little bird could be so much company. I am also married to the love of my life and the greatest man and human being on this earth. I got lucky!!!
I can't begin to tell you even half of the memories Ron and I have from the Irish Hills. When we were dating, back in ’71, we used to drive out there on the weekends just for something to do. It became our favorite spot. Ron had a ’57 Chevy and we belonged to a Chevy Club. One weekend, the whole club caravanned out there and we camped at the State Park. I remember the little pup tent Ron and I slept in. We peeked out the flap in the middle of the night and saw that a family of skunks had invaded our campgrounds. Ron might have had one or two “too many” beers, and he needed to get out of the tent quickly. Needless to say, due to the “stinky family” roaming around he was unable to get out of the tent fast enough. Use your imagination. It was not a pleasant sight, and we never forgot it.
We would always go to Stagecoach Stop, the biggest and best attraction. There was also a unique General Store, some Old West restaurants, and an old car museum. We never got tired of it. Every time was a new experience. Maybe the Hills are where we fell in love. They sure do evoke a lot of pleasant memories for both of us.48
US–12: A THOUSAND-YEAR HISTORY IN TWO PARAGRAPHS
Tour Guide: In Metro-Detroit, Michiganders call the road Michigan Avenue. Road signs along the route today boldly declare “US–12.”49 Earlier generations of travelers called it US–112 and “Old Chicago Road.” Prior to this, it was the Old Sauk Trail, and for more than a thousand years before European settlers showed up, Native Americans walked this path, which extended from the Detroit River to Lake Michigan.50
After the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the wilderness along the path was slowly transformed into a number of small American settlements. Trading posts and military establishments were set up in Detroit and Chicago, IL, and travel along the route increased. By the 1830s, the path was a major stage route.51 The 300-mile trip from Detroit to Chicago took five days by stagecoach.52 About 70 miles from Detroit, the traveler reached the Irish Hills, which was known to be “rife with highwaymen and renegade Indians, [and] was feared by stagecoach travelers.”53 Settlements here were a popular stopping point in the nineteenth century, as night crept in and the road “began twisting and turning between dark, shadowy, wooded hills.”54
Lydia, 34, Loves Boy Bands and Halloween
When I was in high school, a group of us decided to visit the haunted drive-thru at Stagecoach Stop for our friend Kay's birthday. We took two cars. Our car had gotten quite a bit further ahead than the other car, and we had a great idea. It was around Halloween, and being young and stupid, we decided to pretend like we got into a car accident. We pulled my brother's Ford Contour up next to a tree, turned off the headlights, and hung our bodies out of the window. It was obvious we were not in a crash, but we were determined to make our other car of friends think so. Three minutes later, they pulled up next to us. They all just stared and said, “Come on guys, we know you're fine.” There was no blood, no broken glass, no dents in the car. We were obviously faking it. Determined, we all just lay there, still as we could be. After a minute, the other car had enough of our prank and drove off.
We met up with them at Stagecoach Stop. The haunted drive-thru cost $15 per car, so we all loaded into one car and sat on each other's laps. It was not scary. There was a chained up gorilla that tried to stick its head in our car, a clown, and maybe a loose dog? But every year, when Kay's birthday rolls around, we always bring up the story about the fake car accident, and the haunted drive-thru.56
WISH YOU WERE HERE
Tour Guide:57 A popular location on US–12 for many years was Stagecoach Stop, an Old West themed park built in 1965, run by the Bahlau family. It's rumored (in online images of the backs of Stagecoach Stop postcards) that the owner, Fred Bahlau and his sons would perform “live” gunfights daily at the park. Stagecoach Stop closed its doors to the public in 2007 because of a drop in visitor numbers. “The taste for the Old West had lessened,” according to Bahlau. The family auctioned off the 2,000 onsite antiques, hoping to repurpose the buildings for Michigan's budding film industry. Bahlau stated, “We're working really hard to let them people know that they don't have to build a [W]estern town. The buildings are right here.” Concerning the closing of the park, Bahlau said, “It just gets sad, but you know, it's a change of time.”58
A Change of Time/Space: A Letter from My Mother
Tourism itself recodes space as time.~BARBARA KIRSHENBLATT-GIMBLETT60
As a kid in the 1950s, the Irish Hills was always a stop on our way to or from another destination. We could only afford to go to one attraction per visit. Mystery Hill is the one I remember most. I had to walk on an angle and I struggled to make it through the house. I'm sure that if anyone was needed to try things out, my brother was the first to volunteer. I would let him handle those kinds of things. The rest of the attractions are just faint memories.
Your Dad and I went back to the Irish Hills a few weeks ago. The five-mile stretch of roadside attractions was like a ghost town. Mystery Hill seemed much smaller than what I remembered. Prehistoric Forest is selling for $269,000. Sounds pretty affordable, but I'm sure the repairs to get the place up and running are overwhelming. At the Irish Hills Towers, the windows and doors are boarded up. The building has been taken over by animals; we could hear the owls hooting inside as we walked by!
We also ran into a gentleman named Randy, who told us that his family owned Stagecoach Stop and the restaurant across the street. I could hear the frustration and sadness in his voice over the closing of the attraction. Even though it was fun to take the hour-long ride there, it was sad to leave, knowing that they will probably never open again.61
GOOD OLD HENRY FORD: A TRANSITION INTO MANY THINGS FORD
Tour Guide: A popular place for travelers to stop, relax, and enjoy a meal in the mid-1800s was Walker's Farmhouse and Tavern, “a Federal-style white clapboard home and New England-style farm.”62 At Walker's Tavern in 2012, you can see “an interpretation of Michigan's frontier settlement and stagecoach eras during the first half of the nineteenth century through exhibits, audio visuals, and walking tours of the grounds.”63
Eventually, of course, the stagecoach era gave way, and the twentieth century rolled in with its fancy, affordable, horseless carriages. Enter: Henry Ford! Good old Henry Ford!
he M ichigan P lay: A Musical Seriocomedy 64
Lights up. Performer stands onstage alone in front of a cardboard, life-size replica of 178 fourth-grade students on risers. The students are, if possible, wearing culturally insensitive costumes. Performer speaks into an inconveniently placed microphone.
Enter: Henry Ford!
Performer looks at the door.
Ahem. ENTER: Henry Ford!
Performer looks at the audience.
This is The Michigan Play. Where the hell is Henry Ford?
Performer stares at the audience, awkwardly. The lights remain up for an uncomfortable length of time, then dim, slowly.
Good Old Henry Ford: An Aside
Performer: aside I found it odd as a kid that Henry Ford was not a character in The Michigan Play. I also assumed that kids in the other 49 states had to learn the history of the automobile industry and assembly line, or rather, The History of Henry Ford. Apparently, this is not the case. Yet, many Michiganders, at least during the second half of the twentieth century, hit the ground rolling in terms of our knowledge of Ford Facts. These histories were inscribed into our lives from the start. We were born at Henry Ford Hospital, lived on Ford Road, toured the Henry Ford Museum, and watched football games at Ford Field. Many of our parents and grandparents drove Fords and/or worked at a Ford factory. We learned songs in school reminding us how, in 1895, Good Old Henry Ford, he made a moving assembly line!
Good Old Henry Ford: Epilogue, a Childhood Memory Preserved on VHS
Tour Guide, Performer and Curator are played by the same person.
Tour Guide: Children clap their hands in semi-unison and stomp their feet, performing a strange, stagnant dance, unsure of who is regulating the beat. “Michigan! That's the place we want to be! Yes, Michigan, it's home sweet home to me!” Of 178 fourth-graders, 18 are singing in tune. Two-thirds of the children have memorized the words (if not the tune) for this public performance of state pride. The other third clap and stomp occasionally, mouth words, sing other songs, or stare—horrified—into the crowd of teachers and parents, who peer back at them expectantly. This was a ritual of fourth grade at Lincoln Consolidated Elementary School: The Michigan Play. If you learned these songs and dances, you were a real, live, Michigan fourth-grader.
Curator: Several boys in plaid shirts carry large, two-dimensional cardboard cars across the stage, their arms and heads sticking out of absent car windows. A Model T glides past. A Cadillac. A Crown Vic. The kids on the risers continue the show. It's the grand finale! Everyone's favorite song! A song that requires passionate stomping and very little musical talent! Tiny feet move quickly up and down, in mechanized alliance. Tiny hands clap in rote unity. The audience can tell that the kids, they really feel this song.
Performer: They understand this song as well as any nine-year-old can understand their grandfather's rambling stories of respectable factory work, drilling iron screws into sheet metal for hours. They understand this song like they understand the black, sticky grease on their mother or father's hands after 14 hours at work. They get this song like they get the phrase, “Daddy works hard building cars all day so we can put dinner on the table and a roof over your head.” They know this song not by head, but by heart. They know it the same way they'll know the phrase, “Mom is going to be home from work for a little while,” or “Dad got laid off this week,” just a few years later. The children chant enthusiastically: Mo-town assembly line! Making cars, and doing just fine!
Tour Guide, Performer, and Curator: And I am among them, stomping confidently, with a certain faith that the words I'm chanting are true. Because why would we have to learn them, otherwise? Because why would they make us stand on stage telling lies in 4/4 meter?
And I Am Among Them: From My 5th Grade Teacher
WOW! You don't know how nice it is for me to hear from you, one of the students from my first class here! To get right to what you're inquiring about, we stopped doing The Michigan Play a few years after you left our building, so there isn't any script left from those days.65
Roadside monuments mark off the frontiers and boundaries of “here.” Bincrements of “heres,” we feel our way ever onward. “Which way to the American Dream?” Why, it's up the road, there. You'll come to a big green concrete fish off to your right and then…~KARAL ANN MARLING66
Tour Guide: Public complaints about deplorable road conditions led much of US–12 to be paved by the 1920s. In 1924, a group of entrepreneurs, the Michigan Observation Company (MOC), planned to cash in on the Irish Hills’ renowned beauty by building a 50-foot tower at the highest point in the area: Brighton Hill. For a small fee, travelers could climb to the top of the tower and see miles of landscape.
However, Brighton Hill was split down the middle: half purchased by the MOC, and half owned by neighbor Edward Kelly. After many futile attempts to stop the MOC's tower from being built on his property line, Kelly retaliated. Adjacent to the tower, Kelly built his own tower—ten feet taller.67 The towers were nicknamed the “Spite Towers” when the MOC countered by “adding 14 feet to their tower.” After adding another four feet to his, Kelly was warned that “further additions would result in the MOC building a giant steel tower that he could never afford to compete with.”68 The height contest ended. The towers operated as separate, competitive ventures through the 1950s.
In 1976, the Boglarsky family bought both towers and built a bridge connecting the top platforms. In 2011, eleven years after the towers were closed to visitors, Donna Boglarsky opened the Irish Hills Historical Society, hoping to restore and reopen the towers, adding a museum and souvenir shop.69 Indeed, restoration has been slowly ongoing, through 2016.70
Tour Guide:71 We've made an accidental yet fortuitous stop: Facebook! Truthfully, I was browsing other websites when I hopped onto Facebook and noticed a friend's photo album, “Irish Hills Adventures!” In the pictures, my friends (20-and-30-somethings) smile and pose near decomposing buildings and chain-link fences. I sent a message to the travelers, inquiring about their trip. As you can see in the next image (Postcard), I have taken the liberty of fashioning their responses into a postcard for you, as they claimed there were no “good” souvenirs in the only gift shop. If you ask me, they didn't look hard enough. I, for example, still have a really cool rock I picked up in the Irish Hills when I was nine.
SOUVENIRS: SECOND ATTEMPT, FREE DELIVERY (YOU UNPACK)
Souvenirs are not just tokens… of “having been,” but also mnemonic devices through whose materiality we reconnect with precisely those senses of presence that are discursively difficult to articulate.~MIKE CRANG73
Tour Guide: In 2011, the US–12 Heritage Foundation hosted “Michigan's Longest Garage Sale”74 on US–12. Homes, farms, businesses, parking lots, and fields along the route sold “antiques, collectables, furniture, dishware, fresh garden produce, homemade jams and jellies,” and offered live entertainment. According to the Foundation's website, “even more interesting than the junk [on sale] are the people you'll meet along the drive!”75 At the sale, one buyer scored a coffin for only $35! A 36-inch, bronze tower bell cast in 1888 was also being sold for $8,000. The sign on the bell, like poetry, read:
While we missed this garage sale, you may still want to buy some touristy junk. … Ahem, souvenirs. Mystery Hill, the only attraction still open (in 2012), has no online gift shop. So, we'll visit the next best place to buy kitschy keepsakes of yesteryear: eBay! After one search and some thrifty bidding, you—like me—could be the proud owner of 1970s advertising pamphlets and used personal postcards!76
My Mystery Hill and Bauer Manor pamphlets boast:
My first postcard purchase also came with free recipes for deviled eggs, neatly cut out of unidentifiable magazines. My second postcard purchase was used, postmarked 1938. It reads:
Finally, if you happened to visit the Michigan International Speedway's website77 in late 2011, for just $12.95 you could have been the next proud owner of a piece of track history!
Tricia, 61, Loves Reading, Gardening, and Fishing; Faxed Handwritten Letter
Living near the Irish Hills as a child in the ’70s was like a fantasy world! We'd go to the Towers, climb to the top, and look out the telescope for five cents. Prehistoric Forest was scary, but seeing the dinosaurs made us want to go in. Wamplers Lake was the hot spot to swim and picnic. And the Speedway went in a few years back, and sure is a crowd-pleaser!78
PIECES OF HISTORY: SOUVENIRS, SPEEDWAY STYLE
Tour Guide: When the superhighway I–94 opened in the early 1960s, considerable traffic was diverted from the two-lane US–12. According to one website about US–12, around this time tourism was changing, and “reaching one's destination became more important than the journey.”80 The Michigan International Speedway (MIS), just six miles from Stagecoach Stop, is in easy access to both US–12 and I–94. Yet, most visitors likely opt for the faster route.
MIS, built in 1968 and repaved in 1977, 1986, and 1995, announced another repaving in 2011. MIS offered patrons the opportunity to preserve their memories by buying “authentic pieces of track history,” medallions containing ground-up track surface, “encased in plastic with the MIS logo and state of Michigan proudly displayed on the front.” MIS President Roger Curtis urged fans to
[t]hink of all the memories that have been created at and by the racetrack [and] think of the last time the speedway was repaved. These medallions are a piece of MIS history to show your family and friends. And each one contains authentic pieces of the track surface.81
THE PORTALS OF TIME: THOUGHTS FROM A “HERITAGE” WEBSITE
If we could view a reverse time-lapsed film of this celebrated heritage trail that meanders through downtowns and countrysides we would start with the organized chaos of today's Michigan Avenue in Detroit and go back in time past generations of styles and architecture, past Model As and Ts, past parades of soldiers through war after war, past stagecoaches, Indians, and early pioneers, past buffalo and herds of deer all the way back to the time of unsettled forests and prairies where the natural landscape rests undisturbed. If we could go back to that time, would we too imagine the possibilities of this great land?~CAMERON S. BROWN, MICHIGAN SENATOR82
THE WAY OF THE DINOSAUR: AN
The more I narrate, the less accountable I prove to be. The “I” ruins its own story, contrary to its best intentions.~JUDITH BUTLER84
My most vivid (I use that term generously) memories from when I visited the Irish Hills as a kid are from Prehistoric Forest. I remember my anticipation as we drove up US–12 and the heads of the strange, giant dinosaurs came into view above the treetops. My brothers and I shoved each other out of the way in the back seat of my parent's Ford Explorer to get a better look. These dinosaurs were wacky, fun, and totally unreal. We saw real dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. These were different, friendly. Absolutely unintimidating.
Jon Milan describes his photographs of Prehistoric Forest thusly:
A ferocious, yet completely unidentifiable species of dinosaur stares out at US–12 from the ruins of Prehistoric Forest. … The amusement park featured… mountains, forests, tar pits, dinosaurs, mastodons, and cavemen constructed of plaster, wire, concrete and whatever other materials were available—all with little or no regard for historical accuracy.85
This is what I remember, too. Yet memory is tricky; it is difficult to distinguish “real” memories from things I have imagined to fill in the gaps. I meander through blogs, videos, and articles. There is no agreement about when the park closed. 1999? 2002? Depends on who's telling.
I call my dad, an attempt at memory verification, but his memories are just as foggy. We discuss whether we drove or got onto a train that carried us through the animatronic-dinosaur-inhabited forest. We are not sure. In my mind, we get out of our car and board a red train. In my mind, we drive our car through the forest. These events happen simultaneously. Memories of other roadside attractions bleed into both versions.
I ask my dad what else he remembers about the Irish Hills. He says that in his 20s he would drive out to Wamplers Lake to “party and carry on” with his friends. Once, he was riding a mini-bike out in “the Hills,” when he hit a bump in the road that sent him skidding sideways down a hill, out of sight. His friends told him, “Man, you just disappeared! It was hilarious! It was just like Laugh In!” He said he went out to the Irish Hills many times, and each visit was pretty much an all-day trip.
PERFORMATIVE CURATION ONLINE: POSSIBILITIES/PROBLEMS OF PRESERVING THE VANISHING
For things to be brought back, they first have to be preserved.~DAVID LOWENTHAL86
The Irish Hills is one of many disappearing tourist towns where we might generatively “preserve the vanishing,”87 as Della Pollock states, through performative curation. Performative curation moves beyond archiving, beyond specific place and time, into a polyvocal space where multiple interpretations, meanings, and confusions might coexist dialogically, and where visitors fashion their own journeys. While this performative curation includes adaptations of multiple media, as curator and tour guide I am still limited here by the possibilities of print. This work is in line with the current outlook in publishing: text-based scholarly publication will not be going the way of the dinosaur any time soon. Meanwhile, online media opens up additional—not unproblematic—possibilities for performative curation.
As Jonathan M. Gray states, internet users look at multiple, varied sites when searching for information, “expecting networks of information exchange, rather than purely linear information dissemination.”88 Yet, algorithmically-personalized website suggestions, based on personal search histories, work against this exploratory instinct. Meanwhile, websites dedicated to content curation, (e.g., organizing, corralling, and/or (re)using texts relevant to a similar topic) are increasingly popular. This suggests that when internet users want information on a topic, a centralized curated space offering multiple perspectives would be welcome. Similar to Fenske's “aesthetic of the unfinished,” an interactive, online, performative curation could create space where incompatible ideas about a place, presented together, would allow for increased ethical engagement.89 Fenske suggests that such an aesthetic “product,” which would necessarily include clashing ideas/ideals, should also allow for responses that do not “predetermine appropriate interpretation.”90 Thus, performative curation should employ a careful combination of empathy and critical thought, a variety of sources, an acknowledgment of whose (hi)stories are being told, an acknowledgment of possible (hi)stories that are missing, and an awareness of the mediation and adaptation involved in the construction of the work/space.
INTERRUPTION: MISSING VOICES IN THIS WORK (UN-INCLUSIVE)
Native Americans, anyone living prior to the twentieth century, road construction crews, displaced wildlife, previously-employed Prehistoric Forest workers, peoples of known Irish descent, thousands of tourists, Metro-Detroit automobile factory workers, etc.
To avoid perpetuating a privileged, colorblind discourse in this work, I must acknowledge here that the stories, experiences, and other data gathered in this document may read as white nostalgia to some. While the Irish Hills are near enough to Detroit to be an afternoon trip for middle-class travelers, the area is far enough away that it is less accessible to the lower classes and/or urban populations who rely on public transportation rather than cars. Meanwhile, the locals in that region of Michigan are mostly middle- and lower-class white families. Additionally, while some of the attractions in the area were more fantastical (e.g. Mystery Hill and Prehistoric Forest), other attractions unselfconsciously hearken back to imaginary and romanticized “Cowboys and Indians” and “Old West Saloon” experiences that invite a nostalgic, white, colonial gaze—“family” experiences that were borne from the commodification of oppression—and a gaze toward pasts that existed (in terms of time, space, and personal memory), but perhaps never in the historical sense quite as they are (re)created and remembered.
Yet, as tour guide, collagist, and performative curator, my intention is to create an experience where anyone might find unique meaning or affect in the juxtapositions offered here, despite the racialized way that some of the stories may resonate to some readers. As Dustin Bradley Goltz states,
the issue cannot be to speak or not to speak, who can or who should speak (or who needs to just sit quietly and listen) but a continual dialogue and interrogation of how we speak, for whom we speak, to whom who speak, and, always, who is not speaking.91
While it is “easy and obvious”92 for me to list (some) voices I have not been able to include, it is not within the scope of this work to address thoroughly the complex issues of intersectional identity for those whose voices are included (or left out, or flattened) in this document.93 Yet, through humor and playful sarcasm in my Tour Guide voice, along with the collage-like structure of performative curation, I attempt to complicate a “coherent narration”94 of the Irish Hills, as a past-and-present-day tourist space that was constructed, reconstructed, allowed to decay, and (in part) revitalized, over hundreds of years of colonialization, the urban boom of Detroit, the economic decline of Detroit, and the rise of the ruin porn tourist, all while inviting a white, nostalgic, colonial gaze through many of its attractions.
PERFORMATIVE CURATION ONLINE (CONT.)
Collaborative performative curation could also be possible on websites that host multiple media and allow users to edit at will. These spaces would face problems similar to many collaborative websites: disorganization, spam, trolling, or material that is “irrelevant” to the “purpose” of the space. However, like unwanted graffiti on buildings, even negative or aggressive engagement with the space can offer new meanings and opportunities for dialogue. And, as Gingrich-Philbrook states, if you visit an interactive space online and you don't like what you see, “one of the things you can do… [is add] something you do like.”95 Additionally, online collaborative performative curation could allow for new iterations of a place with each change, and each iteration could remind the visitor, as Fenske states, of “the inability of [a single] representation to fully capture that which is represented.”96 At the very least, a website devoted to a performative curation of a tourist location like the Irish Hills would offer an alternative to what one finds on most touristy websites, including (sometimes naive) heritage tales, selective histories, and ruin porn photography. Ideally, rather than asserting that history or aesthetics take precedence, performative curation allows each representation of a place to exist in dialogue with other representations. Meaning-making is left up to the visitor, and confusion as a form of engagement is embraced as a worthwhile experience.
CODA: STAGECOACH STOP WESTERN RESORT
Tour Guide: In 2014, a portion of Stagecoach Stop was reopened as Stagecoach Stop Western Resort. In 2016, the owners also began “reviving other parts of the old roadside attraction,” including a shooting gallery, petting zoo, Wild West gunfight, place to pan for gold, and Cowboy Church Service. The new Stagecoach Saloon (across the street) is open for games and drinks. The owners note “lots of positivity… [toward] plans to recapture the memories started by the Bahlau family more than 50 years ago.”97 Meanwhile, Irish Hills Chamber of Commerce Director Cindy Hubbel welcomes any “economic enhancements” to the area. In a May 2016 interview, Hubbel states, “Bringing back events from yesteryear is great, especially when they can revive childhood memories for today's parents and grandparents, while introducing those same memories to the younger generations.”98
At this point, you might want to revisit the sections titled “On Vacation” and/or “On Nostalgia.” Or continue on.
Finally, it was my pleasure to be your virtual tour guide today! I hope your experience was [Reader: insert your unique feelings/experiences here99], as you've explored the Irish Hills of Michigan! Do come back and visit again!
ON LINEARITY: JUST GOING
There are no “conclusions” that are not also “openings.”~EDWARD W. SOJA100
My dad, talking about his many trips to the Irish Hills over the years, explained over the phone:
On a Saturday or Sunday, you know, when you have some time off to relax, you just get in the car and take a drive. You just start driving out that way. But it's not like you're going to any place. You're just going.