Drive from any point south of Michigan’s Thumb north to its tip and you will encounter small towns and villages hanging on by a thread. Vacant storefronts, abandoned shops, and remnants of roadside stands abound in the formerly robust four corner rural villages that were common in Michigan at the turn of last century. (Make that from 1800-1900) These small towns were social and economic hubs in the days before the car and paved roads. Stories of travel in the historical fiction murder mystery The Thumb Pointed Fingers noted took a solid day or two to get from Bad Axe to Detroit via the railroad. The area’s remoteness made it sensible for each village or town to have several stores, hotels, and diners.
Today these small towns are struggling to survive. Caseville Cheeseburger Festival offers merchants a chance to make their year profitable in a single week. Thousands of tourists descend for a burger and a beer while wearing a grass skirt and having a good time. Indeed, summer festivals in the Thumb celebrate beans, polka, sugar, potatoes, fish sandwiches, and chicken wings. Each of these small rural towns is looking for ways to draw folks in and keep their local businesses going.
Port Austin – Not an Event but a Destination
The town at the tip of the Thumb has taken a different approach; offer the town has a destination for the entire summer season. It was the 4th of July weekend in 2005 that the Port Austin Farmers Market debuted with just over 50 vendors. Now with over a dozen years in operation, Port Austin claims to host one of the largest outdoor markets in Michigan. Today permanent vendor booths have been built and the market operates each Saturday for six months of the year with over 150 vendors participating. The Farmers Market offers one of the best examples of farm-to-table opportunities anywhere with fresh produce, fruits, meats, and fish along with baked and gourmet canned goods. It was the vision and early leadership of John and Lisa Pridnia who, along with many others had the energy and forethought to get the Port Austin farmers market to the success that it has become today.
A Lawyer Makes a Float Plan for Port Austin
Operating outside the fringe of the Port Austin Farmers Market was the paddler crowd. In 2007 Chris Boyle, a local attorney, founded Port Austin Kayak. (Affectionately called “PAK”) He invited paddlers to join him in 2008 to a summer of weekend paddles circumventing the entire Thumb shoreline on the Tip of the Thumb Heritage Water Trail along its 25 access points. In 2012 Boyle worked with Michigan State University faculty and students to create a concept of a “third place”; an informal gathering spot outside home and work to share and express ideas. As a further outcome, Boyle and his wife came up with the concept of C.R.E.A.T.E., which stands for Community, Recreation, Environment, Arts, Tourism and Entertainment. A moniker which has seemed to take on a life of its own in this coastal community.
Two Simple Kayak Trails Have Sparked a New Interest in Port Austin
Today the PAK offers novice and experienced kayakers the opportunity to explore some of the most scenic sea kayaking trails in lower Michigan. From the harbor, a few miles along the beach is all that separates one from a site deemed by CNN as the “Most Unique Rock Formation in America”, Turnip Rock, which lays a few miles east. While a gentle paddle to the west reveals the accessible and climbable Broken Rocks formations along the shore. This enterprise has offered 1000’s an opportunity to see a beautiful bit of Michigan and offer Port Austin as an entry point for the experience.
An Old Barn Offers a Blank Canvas
It was a simple idea. Paint a large mural on the side of a very weathered barn. Husband and wife visual artists Steve and Dorota Coy came to such a barn in the Upper Thumb in 2013 and changed the direction of Port Austin’s art scene. Their company, Hygienic Dress League works in the community combining business and art with its uses the platform of street art and public art to create their own marketing campaign and bring art to the masses. Their public interventions have surfaced in over nineteen different cities in nine countries spanning across three continents. With the painting of a pigeon on one side of the barn and a version of American Gothic in gas masks on the other, the barn has taken on new life. (However, the work has faded over the past 5 years) Its one of the 10 destination barns for viewing.
Barn to Ark in Port Austin
In June 2015 artist Scott Hocking came to Port Austin at the encouragement of former Port Austin native Jim Boyle to start a series of 10 projects around Port Austin. Finding an 1800’s barn south of Oak Beach, he transformed the structure into a larger than life form entitled “Emergency Ark”. The looming work denotes sanctuary and safety and took five months to construct. This represented another destination piece from a local project called 10 barns in 10 years. An effort to create works of art on barns that art and sculpture enthusiasts can travel about Huron country to view.
The Community Expands Beyond Port Austin
Efforts to make Port Austin a unique and welcoming destination seem to be paying off. The Detroit News ran an article over the 2018 Labor Day weekend that noted that Port Austin has become an “Artistic Beacon” of the region This series of investments by the Upper Thumb community, such as the nearby White Church Gallery, looks to have paid off with more visitors trekking up M-53 for a day trip or for a beachfront cottage for the entire summer.