Books & Magazines

The Polar Express Comes to Michigan

While growing up in Grand Rapids, Chris Van Allsburg remembers hearing train whistles and taking train rides with his father. These childhood sights and sounds became part of the inspiration for Van Allsburg’s well-known children’s book, The Polar Express. The story is about a young boy who takes a magical journey aboard a train to the North Pole and receives a special gift-a bell-from Santa. Only those who truly believe in Santa can hear the bell.

The book’s popularity led to a movie released in November 2004. Michigan railroad buffs recognize the sound of the movie’s train whistle, which comes from one of the nation’s few working steam locomotives.

Built in 1941, the Pere Marquette 1225 is an enormous steam locomotive, measuring one hundred feet long and sixteen feet high. Replaced in 1951 by a more efficient diesel engine, the 1225 was saved from the scrap heap and decades later, ended up in Owosso as the star of the Steam Railroading Institute (SRI). Shortly thereafter, the 1225 was restored to its former glory.

As researchers prepared the movie version of Van Allsburg popular book, they were drawn to Owosso and the 1225. Technicians recorded the sound of the whistle, the clatter of the wheels and the rumble of the four-hundred-ton locomotive rolling down the tracks. The sounds were merged with the animated Polar Express.

Photos of the Pere Marquette 1225 from Glancy Train’s Photo Gallery

Visit Owosso’s Steam Railroading Institute for rides on their North Pole Express.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pere Marquette 1225, Bannister, Michigan, May 31, 2003
Photo © Adrienne Scholl, Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation, Inc.

For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit

Seeking Michigan: The Dickens of Detroit

This article originally appeared on Absolute Michigan October 11, 2011.

Seeking MichiganBy Randy Riley, Library of Michigan and courtesy Seeking Michigan and the Archives of Michigan. The goal of Seeking Michigan is simple: to connect you to the stories of this great state. Visit them regularly for a dynamic & evolving look at Michigan’s cultural heritage and read more from Seeking Michigan on Absolute Michigan!
Elmore Leonard, The Dickens of Detroit

Elmore Leonard, The Dickens of Detroit

Detroit author Elmore Leonard is celebrating his eighty-sixth birthday today (October 11, 2011). Leonard was born in New Orleans in 1925. He has made the Detroit area his home since 1934, when his family moved there. The city of Detroit often serves as the main character in his novels. As a result, fans often refer to Elmore Leonard as the ‘Dickens of Detroit.”

Leonard graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School in 1943. He then immediately joined the Navy, where he served with the Seabees. After his service, he enrolled at the University of Detroit and graduated in 1950 with a degree in English and Philosophy. Leonard started his writing career as a copywriter at the Campbell-Ewald Advertising Agency. Writing on the side, he was able to publish his first novel, The Bounty Hunters in 1953. In his early career, he focused on writing pulp Westerns, because that was what was selling at the time. Leonard eventually moved on to specialize in crime fiction and suspense thrillers. A large number of his books have been turned into movies or television programs.

Critics praise Leonard for his effective use of dialogue and the gritty realism in his books. His unique ear for dialogue and the ability to capture it on the page is rarely matched. Concise and plot driven, his stories are stuffed with colorful characters and tricky, often humorous plot twists. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” serves as Leonard’s writing mantra. He explains his success when advising aspiring writers by stating, “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” Stephen King has called him “the great American writer.”

Among Leonard’s best known works are Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Mr. Majestyk, LaBrava, Rum Punch, Freaky Deaky and Killshot. In 2010, his short story “Fire In the Hole’ was the basis for the television series Justified. The Library of Michigan owns all of Leonard’s works in their Michigan Collection. Search ANSWER, the Library’s online catalog to locate works by Elmore Leonard.

Sources for this article include the WMRA Public Radio Blog and you can learn more about Elmore Leonard at his web site.

You can check out a video where Elmore Leonard’s shares his tips for writers, but we’ll start you off with part 1 of a 4 part feature on Elmore Leonard from Emery King’s World Class Detroiters. Here’s part 2, part 3 and part 4!

L. Frank Baum, The Goose Man of Macatawa

L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was born on May 15, 1856. The Holland Sentinel has an excellent feature on Baum’s Michigan connection, explaining that this multi-talented man was Louis F. Baum as an actor and playwright, L.F. Baum as a newspaper editor, and (of course) L. Frank Baum as one of the most popular children’s book authors ever. In the resort community of Macatawa, however, Baum was known by another name:  “The Goose Man.”

The Wizard of Oz rolled off the presses on May 17, 1900, but Baum actually had the top selling children’s book of the year one year earlier:

In 1899, Baum published “Father Goose: His Book.” The collection of children’s poems exploded in popularity and provided Baum with wealth and prestige for the first time in his life, his great-grandson, Bob Baum, recalled.

The author used the profits from his book to rent a large, multi-story Victorian summer home nestled on the southern end of the Macatawa peninsula on Lake Michigan.

The home, which he eventually purchased, came to be known as the Sign of the Goose, an ever-present reminder of the fame that came along with “Father Goose.”

Definitely read on for more, including a little about Baum’s 1907 novel Tamawaca Folks: A Summer Comedy, lampooning the resort community. You can also read the complete text of Father Goose right here.

This summer, Oz comes to Macatawa and Holland. The area will host the International Wizard of Oz Club Convention August 17-19, 2012 (click for program). This year the convention will focus on the homes of L. Frank Baum and the lakeside retreat he loved. They will even stage Tamawaca Folks: A Summer Comedy and explore Holland’s Castle Park.

Also see the Oz Club Facebook page for all kinds of photos & history.

Michigan Cranberries & Cranberry Farming

Thanksgiving is just a week away, so we’re rolling out a classic feature on cranberries! 

Cranberries by argusmaniac
Cranberries by argusmaniac

Although Michigan only has a small number of cranberry farms in the northeast, Upper Peninsula, and the southwestern corner of the state along Lake Michigan totaling about 250 acres – compared to more than 18,000 acres in nation-leading Wisconsin – the state does have all the requirements to grow a cranberry industry. 

TEDx Michigan: Author Jerry Dennis on Creativity

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, and TEDx was created to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate relevant dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. These events are fully planned and coordinated independently, on a community-by-community basis, and every Tuesday we’re featuring a talk from a Michigan TEDx – many more at TEDxMichigan and you can also click for a list of TEDx events in Michigan!

We’re still waiting for video from recent TEDx events in Lansing, Grand Rapids & Traverse City, but here’s a video from last year’s TEDx Traverse City featuring Michigan author Jerry Dennis discussing the blind leap that creativity requires.

Jerry Dennis is a nationally renowned writer whose essays on nature, culture, and the outdoors have appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon, Orion, National Geographic Traveler, and many other publications. His ten books, including 2009′s The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, and 2011′s The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes, have appeared on national bestseller lists. (read an excerpt of The Windward Shore on Absolute Michigan) Among his many awards are the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, the Michigan Author of the Year Award, and the Great Lakes Culture Award.

2012 Michigan Notable Books

The Library of Michigan released the list of 2012 Michigan Notable Books - 20 books published in 2011 that highlight Michigan people, places and events.

“This year’s selections prove that persevering through economic and personal hardship is nothing new for Michiganians, and that this enduring and independent spirit has a long, rich history in the Great Lakes State,” said State Superintendent of Public Education Mike Flanagan.

A collection of Michigan ghost stories; a biography of one of the most recognized women in the Republican Party; a history of the role Jacobson’s department stores played in Michigan communities; fiction by nationally-recognized authors; and three children’s books that range from topics covering race relations, “what is art?” and teachers from Mars are among this year’s most notable Michigan books.

“This year’s Michigan Notable Books bring to life the Michigan experience through vivid storytelling that creates portraits of the people and places that make Michigan great,” State Librarian Nancy Robertson said. “Addressing Michigan’s natural beauty, its innovative leaders or the faith of its people, these books celebrate Michigan as a place and a people that even in the most trying of times find transformation.”

Each year, the Michigan Notable Books list features 20 books published during the previous calendar year that are about, or set in, Michigan or the Great Lakes region or are written by a native or resident of Michigan. You can see the list of 2012 winners (which includes works by Michigan poet & author Jim Harrison and Michael Moore) and also read the bios of authors. Below is a video from the recent “Night of Notables” celebration at the Library of Michigan.

The Daily Michigan: As If We Were Prey by Michael Delp

“In understated prose that remarkably says more in one sentence that many writers do in a paragraph, Delp takes us inside the head and hearts of his male characters, all of whom share a certain melancholy, both eerie and familiar, all in a style reminiscent of another up-north renowned author, Jim Harrison.”
—Detroit News
Today on The Daily Michigan we’re giving away two books from Michigan author Michael Delp. Michael is a writer of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction whose works have appeared in numerous national publications. He also teaches creative writing at the Interlochen Arts Academy.

As If We Were Prey is a series of short stories set mostly in small-town northern Michigan. Delp follows boys and full-grown men who know how to fight, fish, and hunt, but struggle to use those skills to overcome the emptiness and dysfunction of their day-to-day lives. The book is one of Wayne State University’s Made in Michigan Writers Series and was a 2010 ForeWord Book of the Year Award medal-winner in the category of Fiction-Short Stories.

Michael is also including his book The Coast of Nowhere: Meditations on Rivers, Lakes, and Streams. It’s a collection of short prose meditations and poetry that embrace the motion and rhythm of moving water.

Click here to sign up

The Lake in Winter: an excerpt from The Windward Shore

Works by Michigan author Jerry Dennis include The Living Great Lakes, Winter Walks (with wood engravings by Glenn Wolff and design and letterpress by Chad Pastotnik of Deep Woods Press), A Place on the Water, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, Canoeing Michigan Rivers and more. Jerry has kindly allowed us to run this excerpt from his latest work, The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes. It’s published by the University of Michigan Press and includes wood engravings by Glenn Wolff. Speaking of Glenn, you can read a feature about The Windward Shore by F. Josephine Arrowood in the Glen Arbor Sun that includes great interview with him. Enjoy…

The Lake in Winter
by Jerry Dennis

(January, Cathead Point, near the tip of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula)

It changes every day, every hour. It is a thousand lakes, changing faces with every shift in wind and light – flurried by offshore wind, whitecapped in squalls, colored flannel gray or pearl-white or stormy black beneath the winter clouds, a dozen blues when the sky is blue.

There’s a contemporary Japanese poet who writes a diary on a slab of stone instead of paper, with water instead of ink. He writes a word, and a moment later it evaporates. This, he suggests, is the true record of a life.

We go to the shore in search of elemental things. Probably it is just coincidence that the elemental things we find there – sand, sun, wind, and waves – correspond exactly to the four elements of the ancient Greeks and Hindus: earth, fire, air, and water. More to the point is that we need elemental things to help us restore our primitive senses to working condition. We need periodically to look, listen, scent, taste, and feel our way through the world, if only for the relief of not having to think our way through. Everyone understands that eliminating superfluities can help us discover what is important in our lives.

That’s not an easy task. Time coats us in natural increase, accruing layers as if we were snowballs rolling down a hill. Jobs, families, friends, houses, cars, dogs, our health – just maintaining it all is full-time work. Add the bulging files of information, the gunnysacks of mistakes and the duffels of misjudgments and the barrow-loads of memories, habits, regrets, opinions, prejudices, principles, laws, and codes collected in a lifetime and you can see the problem. We carry as much as we can, and the rest we stack around us until all our routes to the outside are blocked. Even when we find our way out we’re wearing too many layers of tuxedoes and zoot suits and cardigans, Icelandic woolens, parkas, longjohns, thermal socks, etc. We’re strong but we grow weary of lugging that Collyer-brothers’ accumulation everywhere we go. We bend beneath the load, our backs about to break, groaning as we push our heaped-up grocery carts through the streets.

It’s too much. Now and then we need to strip down to the naked flame at our core. Most of what we carry is baggage anyway – just adornment and vanity, ballast and deadweight. It’s the crap the pioneers threw out along the Oregon Trail.

After lunch I walked to the crest of the dune and looked out at the lake. Even from that small elevation, maybe fifty feet, the water’s clarity was startling. From a boat, on a day like this, with the sun overhead, you can lean over the side and see boulders on the bottom thirty feet down. The pale shallows stepped into blue depths. The offshore sandbars were there, a hundred yards apart, each deeper than the one before, with bands of increasingly darker blue between them. Beyond the last bar a steep drop-off into very deep water turned the lake midnight blue.

Lake Michigan. My lake, I often think, because I grew up near it and because many in my family settled along its shores. So much water, in a body so large they say that the Netherlands could fit inside, with enough room left over for several New England states. It is the second largest of the Great Lakes in volume, and third, after Superior and Huron, in surface area. It is the only one of the five to be contained entirely within the United States.

Most of the 1,640 miles of shore is sandy. Some of that shore, especially around the southern end, through Indiana and Illinois, is lined with industry. Around the top of the lake in Wisconsin and Michigan are scattered limestone bluffs and rocky strands. But most of the rest is blond sand beaches that are among the loveliest in North America. Wind, waves, and ice have shoved that sand into the most extensive network of freshwater dunes on the planet. They reach their apogee about thirty miles south of Cathead Point at Sleeping Bear Dunes, the crowning feature of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but they extend nearly unbroken for 300 miles along the eastern and southern shores of the lake, from northern Michigan nearly to Chicago. A few scattered dunes are found also along the Wisconsin shore and at the top of the lake, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but they lack the dimensions of those that face the prevailing winds.

A friend who lives part of every year in the West once told me that Lake Michigan plays the same role in the Midwest that the mountains do in Montana. That’s true for all five lakes. Like the Rockies, you can see them from miles away, forming a backdrop that is also a felt presence, always there, looming in our lives. They are depositories of geological and historical power that shape the land and the culture to themselves. We orient to them and are drawn to them and take for granted that their presence and the weather they create will affect our travels and alter our daily plans.

The lakes have always been the most prominent shaper of the character or “spirit” of the Great Lakes region. The stronger the spirit of a place, the farther it resonates beyond its borders. Alaska, Texas, Vermont, and Maine all have it in abundance. So do large geographical regions such as Appalachia, the Canadian Maritimes, and the Cajun country of Louisiana. A mythological portrait of a place needs to be only approximately accurate to give outsiders an idea of what it is like, or enough of an idea, at least, to inspire them to take some interest in it. That might explain in part why people who have never visited the Everglades or the Arctic Wildlife Refuge are willing to write letters to congressmen and donate money to protect them.

The Great Lakes have not had that advantage. Their mythology is not clearly defined. It was once very clear, a living mythology, inhabited by people, wolf, moose, and bear, but the stories that passed around campfires for thousands of years were drowned out by European invaders wielding their own stories of Jesuit martyrs, French voyageurs, Paul Bunyans of the logging camps, mariners of the inland seas, and up-by-the-bootstraps giants of industry. Most of those stories have now, in turn, lost their power and have not been replaced. Enduring mythologies tend to accrue to dominate features of a landscape. Louisiana has swamps; New England, hardscrabble hills; Montana, big sky. But the Great Lakes are too varied. No representative image fits. The water and dunes and rocks and cities on the shore are lost in a haze of homogeneity. Surely that is why those who have never stood beside the big lakes find it so difficult to imagine them.

Excerpted from The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes, by Jerry Dennis. Used with permission of the author and The University of Michigan Press. Visit Jerry’s website at Here’s a cool trailer for the book that Jerry’s son videographer Aaron Dennis made that you will enjoy as well!

Weird Wednesday: The Nain Rouge, a Detroit Ghost Story

The following tale is from Myths and Legends of Our Own Land by Charles M. Skinner, available free at Project Gutenberg. You can get more recent accounts of the Nain Rouge from David A. Spitzley’s spooky & excellent Mythic Detroit and a slightly humorous account called Seeing Red from Model D.

Detroit Gargoyles by The Whistling Monkey

part of a set of detroit Gargoyles

Among all the impish offspring of the Stone God, wizards and witches, that made Detroit feared by the early settlers, none were more dreaded than the Nain Rouge (Red Dwarf), or Demon of the Strait, for it appeared only when there was to be trouble. In that it delighted. It was a shambling, red-faced creature, with a cold, glittering eye and teeth protruding from a grinning mouth. Cadillac, founder of Detroit, having struck at it, presently lost his seigniory and his fortunes. It was seen scampering along the shore on the night before the attack on Bloody Run, when the brook that afterward bore this name turned red with the blood of soldiers. People saw it in the smoky streets when the city was burned in 1805, and on the morning of Hull’s surrender it was found grinning in the fog. It rubbed its bony knuckles expectantly when David Fisher paddled across the strait to see his love, Soulange Gaudet, in the only boat he could find–a wheel-barrow, namely–but was sobered when David made a safe landing.

Weird Wednesday: The Rowdy Ghosts of the Fenton Hotel

Linda S. Godfrey, author of the excellent Weird Michigan and Strange Michigan books is hard at work on her next book. While she is away, we are running a few of our favorites. The following is the first of our Absolute Michigan Weird Wednesday features, published originally in 2007!

The Bearded GhostThe Fenton Hotel, a former inn-turned-gourmet restaurant in the small, mid-state town of Fenton in Genesee County, is an establishment that prides itself on hanging onto things from its historic past. All the original tin ceilings still adorn the dining room, and the foyer looks much as it did back in stagecoach days. The second story’s glory days still exists in its tile-floor ballroom, the communal men’s and women’s bathrooms and the dingy corner room once reserved for Emery, the place’s late, longtime custodian. But the old brick building retains something far beyond old chairs and ancient porcelain fixtures in its aging halls.

Many people say the Fenton Hotel still hosts Emery, himself, along with an entire cast of ghostly hangers-on. People can hear Emery walking around in his former upstairs digs, his footsteps reverberating in the tin ceiling. Sometimes he thumps on the walls after customers leave, as if to tell the staff to get a move on. But Emery was a gentleman, say staff members at the Fenton. That’s how they know it’s some other ghost that sometimes gropes the arms or buttocks of unsuspecting waitresses.

And there are other spooks, each specter with his or her unique “signature” activity. The restaurant hostess told Weird Michigan in hushed tones that the incidents are not a thing of the past, either. “Things are still going on,” she said ominously as she seated us at one of the green linen-covered tables. We ordered baked brie from the extensive menu and waited for the unseen hotel guests to arrive and float around us. Surrounded by intricate stained glass windows and well-preserved architecture, it was easy to envision patrons of yesteryear enjoying the evening alongside the contemporary crowd.

Built in 1856, the Fenton boasts its own official state historical marker, which explains that the interior is still much the same, although the exterior’s old front porch fell victim to a team of runaway horses in 1904. The side of the building that faces the parking lot is embellished with paintings of ghostly inhabitants from another time, which only adds to the feeling of having stepped back into another century.

The bar area on the other side of the foyer is probably the building’s hottest ghost spot. A bartender named Brittany told Weird Michigan that she was standing at her work station one evening when one of the wine glasses hanging by its stem from a slotted nook suddenly flew off its perch and sailed across the bar, crashing and breaking. She has also heard someone call her name when no one else was in the room, felt something brush her leg, and on several occasions, customers have told her they saw someone hugging her at a time when she could see or feel no one.

Besides the phantom cuddler, there is the recurring case of the mysterious man at table 32. Every now and then, a man seated there will order a shot of Jack Daniels on the rocks and the bartender will duly pour one, but upon attempting to serve it to the “customer,” finds nothing but thin air. Speculation is that one of the house ghosts wants a drink badly enough to show himself and order one, but ultimately lacks the cash to pay for it and the throat to gulp it down.

The dining room is active, too. Two waitresses have spotted a disappearing black cat running across the floor. One staff person told us that last December, one of the ghosts decided to make merry by grabbing the posteriors of several waitresses, who invariably whirled around only to find no visible face to slap. December seems to be one of the restaurant’s most active months for hauntings, said one waitress. “It’s like they get excited with all the decorations and the parties,” she noted. She also said that staff have heard ghostly voices admonishing them that “no personal calls” are allowed, and that sometimes a man’s voice comes out of the bar speakers, either singing along with entertainers or making comments to customers.

Weird Michigan was able to take a guided tour of the closed upper level, which generally is not allowed since it is used for storage and many of the old rooms are no longer in good repair. We didn’t see anything unusual; even Emery’s small, cold room was quiet, although we couldn’t help but wonder if the old custodian was upset at our intrusion. But while standing in the darkened hallway, one of us heard a female voice whispering close by that we could not explain. Strangest of all was the fact that after we descended the stairs, we found a small glob of melted candle wax near the viewfinder on our digital camera. There was no candle on our dining room table, and we saw none on the second floor. Hallway GhostThe wax globule was not there earlier while we were shooting other pictures. Perhaps one of the old hotel guests was examining us at closer range than we realized, using the lighting methods available in 1856! Or maybe someone was trying to tell us not to look at the upper story inhabitants through that viewfinder.

The book Haunted Michigan by Gerald S. Hunter devotes an entire chapter to the multi-spirited Fenton Hotel, and includes tales of various apparitions seen by staff and customers, including the face of a bearded man outside a second story window, a tall man in a black top hat, and a strange figure who actually took payment from several customers.

One other strange incident happened as Weird Michigan enjoyed the bizarre ambience of the Fenton Hotel. A dining room guest said she was in the ladies’ room, sitting in the third stall, when she felt someone touch her hair and lift up a few strands. She thought that was odd, so we asked the waitress about it and her eyes grew wide.

“Back when the hotel was open,” she said, “the cheaper rooms on the third floor were rented by working girls in the town. Rumor is that one of them got pregnant by a hotel patron, and she hung herself in the hotel. Other people have seen her in that third stall.”

According to a hotel brochure, several séances have been performed on the premises, but the ghosts seem determined to stay. Perhaps for them, the Fenton Hotel is like the Eagles song hit song Hotel California… “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

You can order Weird Michigan online from Barnes & Noble and at fine bookstores everywhere. Check out a whole lot more Michigan oddities from ghosts and goblins to people and places that are just a little bit – or a lot – strange!

Linda Godfrey grew up in Milton, Wisconsin, spending the majority of her time doing the same things she does now; reading, writing, making art and reading comics. She continues to create commercial art (represented by Tom Stocki at and fine art, and often illustrates her own books, specializing in cut paper collage and forensic drawings of strange creatures from witness descriptions. She lives in rural Elkhorn with her husband, Steven, with whom she has two grown sons who are remarkably tolerant of their mother’s weird career.

Artwork for this article by Andy McFarlane, who enjoys Photoshop probably a bit too much.