Tag Archives: Port Austin

Huron’s Drive-In Theaters

It’s widely recognized that the first drive in was Hollingshead’s drive-in opened in New Jersey June 6, 1933. It offered viewing for up to 400 vehicles and a 40 by 50 foot screen. The owner advertised his drive-in theater with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” The facility only operated three years, but during that time the concept caught on in other states.

Blue Sky Drive In Caseville Michigan

The drive-in’s peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 drive-ins spread across the United States. Huron County is recorded in having two drive-in’s, the Blue Sky between Caseville and Pinnebog and the M-53 near Bad Axe.


The Blue Sky operated from 1950 – 1977. Surrounded by farmland it offered summer nighttime movies for 300. Faced with decline in attendance the drive in showed “blue films” in the 1970’s. Remains of this theater were evident until about 2010 when land owners removed the last of the speaker stands and cement footings.


M-53 opened in 1953 and ran until 1988. Located just west of town, its 400 spaces drew folks from all over the county.

Today there are no drive-ins in the Upper Thumb. The nearest one is the Hi-Way Drive In in Sandusky. The Hi-Way is considered the oldest continuous running drive-in in Michigan.


Focus on Port Austin

img_0199Most states in our country have small towns tucked away from the hustle and bustle of state capitals and big cities.  In Michigan’s greater Detroit area, Port Austin fits the bill.  This harbor town is two hours away from Detroit in a straight drive up M-53 all the way to the tip of the Thumb of Michigan. This budding artist colony nestled between farms and pasture land to its south and the expanse of Lake Huron to its north. As a result of this unique position the town offers breathtaking sunrise and sunset views over the big lake.  With a small year around population just over 600, it’s a summer destination with cottage owners and weekend tourists seek the cool breezes of Lake Huron while the parents take the kids out to enjoy the numerous sandy beaches throughout the area.  Boaters and cruising sailors carefully motor past the rocks and the iconic Port Austin Lighthouse to utilize the strategic port to stock up with groceries or make repairs before heading over to Canada’s Georgian Bay or the pristine waters of the North Channel.

This historic and unique town embraces visitors and its community with activities thatimg_0305 allow everyone to get out and fellowship with one another forming lasting bonds.  There is an “Art in The Park” event every Labor Day weekend and White Church gallery is minutes away in Grindstone City.  During the summer months, the Port Austin Farmers Market Welcome Signtown holds a weekly farmers market full of fresh veggies and produce accompanied by arts and crafts.  No need to ask for directions as it’s located downtown one block from the harbor.  This laid-back event is much anticipated by the locals and serves as both a marketplace and social gathering.  The newest event to hit the town has been the Porchfest. Here famous and not-so-famous music groups preform folk, country, jazz and even a little rock. Participants stroll from house to house and take in each entertainer. The event is held each June and we will update our readers with dates as the event gets closer.

Turnip Rock Near Pointe Aux Barques MichiganThe outdoor enthusiast will find no shortage of things do or places to explore in Huron County.  Turnip Rock is at the foremost of many beautiful sites.  Only accessible by water (as any route taken by land would trespass on private property), the 5-hour kayak round trip is the best way to experience this natural treasure.  The 2 hours heading out seem shortened by the anticipation of seeing something so marvelous and the 2-hour paddle back allows ample time to explore the rocky shore let the experience sink in. If you’re a fisherman, the Port Austin harbor is home to several charter boats that specialize in finding the numerous Lake Trout, tasty Walleye and Steelhead Salmon that are out in the big lake.

For those who like to enjoy their site seeing underwater, Port Austin has an entire underwater park full of shipwrecks from the 19th century.  Scuba divers and snorkelers can be seen here daily in summer months.  On the other hand, if you feel the need to stay dry and hit the links, head just south of town to Bird Creek Golf Club and test your skills at the “best greens in the Thumb”. If putting is more your style, Port Austin has several classic mini-golf attractions for the kids and the popular Sandy Dunes Adventure Golf which claims the only waterfall in the Thumb. Horseback riding is available for kids age 8 and up at the Knoblock Riding Stables and the stable offers Pony rides for the little ones.

The Tip-of-the-Thumb offers some of the finest home cooked and Great Lakes fare in the The Bank 1884 Food and Spirits, Port Austin Michiganregion. With over twenty restaurants, grills and pubs there is a choice for just about every taste. Some of the more outstanding establishments include the epicureanism of The Farm Restaurant, the classic dishes of The Bank 1884 Food and Spirts and breakfast at the Lighthouse Café. For those who like a sense of history venture to the recently reopened Garfield Inn. The 20th President of the United States, James Garfield, did not build or own the landmark 1850’s Inn, but he was a rather frequent visitor. A few minutes from Port Austin in Grindstone City are the dueling ice cream shops of the Grindstone General Store and Rybak’s Ice Cream.

img_1428If you like to enjoy the great outdoors Port Crescent State Park is the perfect place.  Located on 640 acres with 3 miles of sugar sand beach, the park offers excellent scenery making it the perfect place for a beach walk or to relax among the sand dunes and enjoy a good book.  The park is located on the site of an 1860’s lumber town that has long since faded away. Some remnants of the original town of Port Crescent are still seen inPort Cresent State Park River Bank the park such as the chimney base from the salt works and lumber mill. Much of the park literally resides on a ghost town. The park also supports canoeing on the gentle Pinnebog River with rentals nearby. For those who want to venture on foot there are 7 miles of dunes and woods hiking terrain will satisfy the adventurous souls.  Other amenities include, hunting, fishing, cross country skiing, and birding. Port Crescent State Park has been designated as one of the few areas qualified to be listed as Dark Sky Preserve. With little light pollution from nearby metro areas, this park is a haven for astronomers each summer.

Port Austin is affordable resort town with a budding artist colony in a family friendlyPort Austin's Farmers Market atmosphere.  Visitors can find numerous places to stay. Lodging is available on the waterfront overlooking the famous Broken Rocks, a favorite of kayakers, to cozy knotty pine cabins in town and near the shops. Couples can also experience the romantic and classic touches of several Bed & Breakfasts in town. Camping is also available at several commercial, county and at Port Crescent State Park campgrounds. Port Austin is a place to call home, or to spend a long weekend in an atmosphere reminiscent of the early to mid-1900’s America at the tip of Michigan’s Thumb.

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A Ghost Town in the Thumb

Port Cresent State Park Beach SouthPort Crescent State Park is one of the largest state parks in southern Michigan.  Located at the tip of Michigan’s “thumb” along three miles of sandy shoreline of Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, the park offers excellent fishing, canoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing, birding, and hunting opportunities.  However a little known aspect of this park is that it sits on the location of a ghost town.

Pinnebog Confusion

Walter Hume established a trading post and hotel near the mouth of the Pinnebog River in 1844. From these humble beginnings the area took the name of Pinnebog, taking its name from the river of which it was located. However, a post office established some five miles upstream also took its name from the river. To avoid confusion the  town changed its name to Port Crescent for the crescent-shaped harbor along which it was built.

Port Crescent had two steam-powered sawmills, two salt plants, a cooperage whichPort Cresent manufactured barrels for shipping fish and salt, a gristmill, a wagon factory, a boot and shoe factory, a pump factory, a brewery, several stores, two hotels, two blacksmith shops, a post office, a depot and telegraph office, and a roller rink. Pinnebog employed hundreds of area residents. Others worked at blockhouses where they extracted brine from evaporated water to produce salt. At one time a this 17 block village boasted of a population of more than 500

Port Crescent prospered as a lumber town from about 1864 to 1881. One sawmill became so busy salvaging thousands of trees felled in one of the infamous fires experienced by the Midwest in 1871 that it added a 120-foot brick chimney to help power the plant. In 1881, another fire swept through the Thumb region, destroying the area’s timber resources.

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The Town of Port Crescent Declines

When the timber in the Pinnebog River basin was gone, the town began to decline.  The lumber mills closed, as did the firewood-fueled salt plants. Workers dismantled some of the buildings and an 800-foot dock, moving them north to Oscoda, Michigan. Some Port Crescent residents moved their houses to nearby towns. By 1894, all of the buildings in Port Crescent were gone, leaving few traces of the town behind. Nathaniel Bennett Haskell, who owned the sawmill and salt plant on the west side of the river, began to export white sand which was used in the manufacture of glass. This continued until 1936.l

Port Crescent State Park

After  World War II, the  demand for public use areas along shoreline property stimulated Port Cresent State Park River Bankinterest for an additional state park in the Thumb. Twenty years later, the Michigan Department of Conservation acquired possession of 124 acres of fine woodland at this place for a new state park. Port Crescent State Park was officially established on September 6, 1959.

Today little remains of the former town. Foundations can be seen, in the Organization Area, where a structure stood. The lower 10 feet the old sawmill chimney is a prominent part of the park entrance.

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Charles Learned – Pioneer Builder of the Garfield Inn

Tower HotelThe name of the “Garfield Inn” is really a misnomer. The 20th President of the United States, James Garfield, did not build or own the landmark 1850’s Inn in Port Austin Michigan. But he was a rather frequent visitor. The fascinating history of the Inn really resides with the family that built the house Charles and Maria Learned.  Information was found from an article published in 1884 which serves to give a fascinating story of the man who built the mansion.

Charles Learned started his career as a business man in 1835, at the age of 18. He took a contract in his  father’s name to build one mile of aqueduct on the water-works of the city of New York, at Dobbs’ Ferry. When he became of age he had made his first $10,000. He was one of the builders of the Erie Canal, and constructed two tunnels on the Boston water-works; also five miles of the aqueduct. He invested in the building of the Harlem Railroad near Croton Falls, N.Y., and in other similar enterprises until 1859. In addition to his operations as a contractor, he was also invested for a period of five years in farming and lumbering at West Troy, where he owned lumber yards; he also controlled a sawmill in Rensselaer Co., N.Y.

Charles first knowledge of the pine tracts of the Huron peninsula was obtained in 1857, during a trip to Port Austin to buy lumber. Smith & Dwight, of Detroit, who were conducting milling operations in Michigan. The outlook impressed him as promising, and in company with his brother-in-law, Fredrick S. Ayres, of West Troy New York, he purchased several thousand acres of pine land. Later, he sold a    fourth interest to Ebenezer Wiswall.  A sawmill had already been erected on the tract purchased, and they entered largely into the manufacture of lumber, with yards for wholesale and retail traffic at Sandusky, Ohio. As the county developed, the firm extended their business relations, sunk the first salt well in this county and engaged in mercantile enterprises.

In 1871 Charles sold his business to E. R. Ayres  but retained 2,000 acres, on which he raised various  crops. He employed three general managers on his farms and employed about 20 men. His dairy herd included 30 cows including Jerseys, Short-horns, Holsteins and Ayrshires. He had a thoroughbred Jersey bull, registered “Exquisite,” which he purchased in Pittsfield, Mass. A fine grade of butter from his dairy was shipped to Detroit and Philadelphia.

The Inn’s beginnings started as an outcome from the profits of the lumber industry. The description from an 1884 bio of Learned noted, “The village property of Charles Learned at Port Austin includes an elegant residence with grounds attached, containing three acres and worth $12,000. (~$300,000 today), Adjacent barns are situated on an additional three acres and six tenant houses and a number of lots. He also owns 2,000 acres of land in Tuscola County, located in the neighborhood of the Halfway House, between Sebewaing and Bay City, where they keep a quantity of cattle.”

With profits from his lumbering and farming enterprises Learned enlarged and updated this house in the French Second Empire style. In the 1860s Ohio congressman, later president, James A. Garfield, a family friend, was a frequent guest here.

Garfield was a friend with Maria Learned, Charles’ wife. Garfield’s close association to the Learned family, and his devotion to Maria were documented in his personal diary. Garfield and Maria died within months of each other, she in January 1881 of tuberculosis and, he from an assassin’s bullet in September 1881 after only six months as president. As Garfield lay mortally ill, he asked to be allowed to travel to Port Austin and recover in the Learned home. That same month the devastation of the Great Fire of 1881 occurred in Huron County.

From 1931 to 1979 the house served as the Mayes Inn and Tower Hotel. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. It was bought by the Pasant family in 1989 who renamed the Bed & Breakfast the Garfield Inn in honor of the connection between the Learned’s and President James Garfield.