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Letter from Michigan, 2023

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

Greetings again, Sunscribers et al, from our little corner of southwestern Michigan! During our years of coming here, we have gotten to know some of the communities around us. One nearby is the charming little village of Three Oaks. I came to realize that it has a lot of similarities to Carbondale, despite having only about one-fourth the population. Such as…

Public outdoor sculptures; an award-winning distillery; an art-house movie theater (often showing the same films as the Crystal); a community radio station (broadcasting from a nearby town); and an active bicycling community that has sponsored an annual century tour ride for 50 years. A financial crisis there 15 years ago was precipitated by an expensive public-works project, reminiscent of Carbondale’s troubles in the early 1980s. A movie was even shot there: the 1989 holiday film “Prancer.

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But what I most noticed was the growth of a vibrant arts scene.

The village (within the larger township of Three Oaks) lies just north of the Indiana state line and a little inland from New Buffalo along Lake Michigan. It was settled in the 1850s and incorporated a decade later. The surrounding region has long been agricultural, but industry was also established there.

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For decades the mainstay was a company that manufactured, among other items, stays for corsets and other garments made out of turkey quills (called “featherbones”). Other plants were set up nearby. And, as Chuck Sittig, board president of the local history museum, noted, Three Oaks became a “bedroom community” for nearby localities like South Bend, Indiana and Benton Harbor, Michigan.

All of that began to change, however, when the featherbone factory closed in the 1950s and other plants in the region later relocated south. Three Oaks experienced a boom-and-bust cycle so familiar to our Valley. As Carolyn Drier, third-generation owner of the local meat market put it, “We were thriving in the ’50s and ’60s, dead in the ’70s and ’80s.”

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By 1993, when Colleen Froehlich opened her specialty food shop and bakery on the main street, there were some two dozen empty storefronts downtown. But her decision to take a chance there was actually a harbinger of things to come.

A tourism revival began in nearby communities along the lakeshore after a yacht harbor opened in New Buffalo in the 1970s. This attracted a growing number of vacationers, especially from the Chicago area, and interest began filtering eastward into communities like Three Oaks, with its affordable and available real estate. Drier watched as the town “came back in the ’90s.”

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Carolyn Drier, third-generation owner of Drier’s Meat Market in Three Oaks, Michigan. Known for its quality smoked meat products, the store has been in her family for 110 years, but actually dates back to 1875. Photo by Ken Pletcher

Art galleries and studios opened, new shops sprang up. The long-vacant movie house was renovated and reopened in 2000. Second-home ownership flourished, as did vacation rentals. As Sittig, a fourth-generation resident put it, “Three Oaks started building on itself.”

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A milestone was the establishment in 2003 of The Acorn performance space in part of the old featherbone factory (the distillery took over another part of the building in 2011 and added a restaurant there in 2015). Originally largely a venue for local musicians, it quickly grew into a popular destination for regional and national acts; Tab Benoit and Los Lobos played there recently.

However, as Bob Murphy — a second-home owner who later moved there from the Chicago suburbs — told The Sopris Sun, The Acorn has also become a venue for all kinds of performance, including dance, spoken word and live theater, as well as art exhibitions. To that end, in 2015 the organization transformed itself into the nonprofit Acorn Center for the Performing Arts (ACPA). Murphy, chair of the center’s board of directors, explained that ACPA wants to “look at programming that’s diverse,” asking, “What does the community need?” Recently, a four-week children’s summer drama camp was held there.

Joining the cultural scene in 2012 was the nonprofit School of American Music — later renamed the Three Oaks Arts and Education Center. It started in available space in the local public library but now also occupies the former village hall. Founder Garth Taylor told The Sun, “We teach music to anyone who wants to learn.” This is important, he noted, as there is no music program in the local elementary schools. It also hosts many live performances, including free concerts in the park behind the school that, as Taylor put it, “add to the vibe that there’s a lot going on here.”

There is a spirit of giving in Three Oaks, undoubtedly inspired by featherbone factory founder G.K. Warren (two nearby state parks bear his name). ACPA makes its space available for nonprofit fundraisers. The music school provides scholarships of varying levels to about half of its students, and many are given donated instruments. Froehlich’s has an ongoing charitable donation program.

A strong, quiet LGBTQ+ presence has developed in the town. The Acorn’s original owners are both gay, and many gallery and shop owners are gay or lesbian. ACPA is the main sponsor of the local Pride organization and, as Murphy put it, The Acorn is “a safe space” for the LGBTQ+ community. Tom Pauly, who moved his art studio and gallery from Chicago to Three Oaks in 2019, noted that he and his partner quickly felt at home there and found “a wonderful circle of friends.”

Pauly, on the village’s Downtown Development Commission said, “[Three Oaks] is going to be even better.” He noted that it needed “more restaurants” and had “no real night life” yet — although the distillery’s restaurant has late-evening hours, as does a fine-dining establishment opened in 2019 by Froehlich on weekends.

But then, other than the Nugget, Carbondale gets pretty quiet by 9pm too, doesn’t it?

Free concert in the park behind the School of American Music, Three Oaks, Michigan. The school puts on several such events in the village each summer. Courtesy photo


Tags: #Art #Carbondale Colorado #Drier's Meat Market #Ken Pletcher #Letter from Michigan #small town America #Three Oaks Michigan
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