The Cherry Capital of the World
M-22 leaves Suttons Bay and continues sixteen miles south to its terminus in Traverse City. For the first mile along this final stretch, M-22 runs through farmland and forest at the base of the peninsula formed by Suttons Bay. This brief inland stretch features numerous cherry orchards, the signature agricultural product for northwest lower Michigan. The peninsula is surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, which moderate temperatures and extend growing seasons just enough to make the area perfect for growing cherries. According to Stanton Orchards, one of the largest orchards in the area, “A natural, unique micro-climate exists on Leelanau Peninsula . . . where high on softly wind-swept crest air currents provide a perfect shelter and growing period for producing the best, juiciest Montmorency cherries. Bathed by surrounding glacial basins and lakes, this unusually mild micro-climate has cool springs, dry summers, and long warm autumns well into October. These growing conditions are perfect for the sturdy cherry trees with their delicate fruit to thrive.”
Michigan produces between 200 and 250 million pounds of cherries annually, 75% of the entire U.S. cherry crop. Most of those cherries come from the Traverse City area. As a result, Traverse City bills itself as the Cherry Capital of the World. The cherry is celebrated, with the region’s airport named “Cherry Capital Airport” and the annual Cherry Festival in Traverse City marking the height of summer tourist season.
In mid-May, the cherry trees are in full blossom, with light pink and lavender flowers covering the landscape. Each May the annual Cherry Blossom Tour provides guided trips along M-22 and throughout the Leelanau Peninsula. By summer, fruit stands and farmer’s markets line M-22, selling fresh cherries, cherry pies, cherry jams, and countless other cherry products.
After running inland through cherry orchards and farms, M-22 rejoins the bay, running directly along the waterfront for its last fourteen miles. Although it is tempting to enjoy the great views across to Old Mission Peninsula, travelers are well advised to take a brief detour inland on Hilltop Drive.
Four of Leelanau County’s most popular wineries sit within one mile of M-22 along Hilltop Drive. First, Chateau de Leelanau sits at the intersection of M-22 and Hilltop Road. The winery boasts that it “sits at the entrance to Leelanau County’s wine country.” It produces wines and ciders from fruit grown on its adjacent family farm. Its Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Hawkins wines have won numerous bronze and silver awards. Its cherry wine has been awarded best in class.
The Chateau de Leelanau tasting room is open year round. Just past Chateau de Leelanau on Hilltop Road is Willow Vineyards. Although it is one of the smallest vineyards on the Leelanau Peninsula, it was one of the first, opening in 1992. The vineyard produces award winning burgundy style wines. Its vineyard and tasting room provide panoramic views of Grand Traverse Bay, making it a popular stop along M-22.
Just past Willow Vineyards sits Ciccone Vineyards. Planted in 1996, the vineyard is 14 acres and features wines made from Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminier, Dolcetto, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat, Malbec, Foch, and DeChaunac grapes. Although Ciccone Vineyards’ wines are well known in their own right, the vineyard is better known for its ties to famed singer Madonna. The vineyard is owned and operated by her father, Silvio “Tony” Ciccone. Madonna Louise Ciccone was born and raised a few hours south in Rochester, Michigan. Tony opened the winery in 1996 after retiring from his job as an engineer for General Motors. Mr. Ciccone named a number of wines after his daughter in 2007, although the “Madonna” wines are no longer sold.
Just past Ciccone Vineyards at the corner of Hilltop Road and Elm Valley Road is the L. Mawby Vineyard. The vineyard produces only sparkling wines, and has been doing so since 1978. It produces methode champenoise wines under the label “L. Mawby” and cuve close method wines under the label “M. Lawrence.” The vineyard’s tasting room is open year round.
Into Traverse City
Continuing south, M-22 runs along the shoreline of Grand Traverse Bay. The shoreline consists mostly of private lakefront cottages and homes, with a few roadside parks that provide picnic areas and access to the bay. There are also a number of side streets that head up inland hills and provide views over the bay.
The shoreline along this stretch of highway is unique. While the Lake Michigan side of the Leelanau Peninsula is generally sandy, the Grand Traverse Bay shoreline varies between sand, rocks, and marshes. In recent years, the level of the lake has fallen, leaving wide areas of beach exposed.
The feel of M-22 changes dramatically as it approaches Traverse City. As the road enters Elmwood Township just north of Traverse City, the area becomes more populated and commercialized. There are numerous restaurants, shops, and conveniences unavailable elsewhere along M-22. This stretch of road also features a number of popular attractions. The Great Lakes Children’s Museum is located near the intersection with M-72. It is a fun place for children to learn about the area’s history, culture, and natural attractions. The Elmwood Township Marina is located near the same intersection. It houses the Traverse City Yacht Club and is the epicenter of recreational boating and sailing on the bay. Adjacent to the yacht club is the Apache Trout Grill. Started in 1994 by restaurateur and fly fisherman Mike Connors, Apache Trout Grill is one of the most popular restaurants in Northern Michigan. On top of serving fine steaks, ribs, and regional seafood, the restaurant has a large outdoor seating area directly on Grand Traverse Bay.
Accolades, Awards, and National Recognition
Just past M-72, M-22 enters Traverse City. Although M-22 only runs for about a mile through Traverse City, it is the perfect ending for the journey. Long a popular summer destination for tourists in the Midwest, Traverse City has received unprecedented national recognition in recent years. It has emerged as a food lovers paradise. Midwest Living Magazine rated it the number two food town in the Midwest. Livability.com rated it the number one “Foodie City” in America. The Huffington Post called it a “new foodie haven” and a “home to an increasingly varied and sophisticated culinary culture with a strong emphasis on local ingredients.” The Post noted, “Local farms by the hundreds reflect a statewide agricultural diversity second only to California’s. Michigan leads the nation in production of tart cherries, blueberries, three types of dry beans and pickling cucumbers while ranking in the top 10 for dozens of other commodities, including apples, asparagus, carrots and potatoes.” Famed chef Mario Batali said of the area, “What you’re seeing up there is a renaissance, the rise of a gastronomic subculture that makes it a fascinating place to be.” The accolades do not end with food, however. Draft Magazine rated the town one of the top three emerging beer towns in America, writing, “When it comes to the mitten, all the action’s in the pinky: Northern Michigan’s largest city puts out plenty of beer and some sweet spots to sip it in.” Traverse City has nine microbreweries, brewpubs, and taprooms. Livability.com also named Traverse City the fourth best winter destination in the United States, boasting that it has “all the ingredients for a great winter vacation -- a quaint downtown with beautiful views of Lake Michigan, microbreweries, restaurants, shops, performance venues and lots of snow.”
AOL Travel named Traverse City the eighth best beach town in the United States. It was the only freshwater beach town to appear on its top ten list. The website raved, “Traverse City’s tawny beaches and towering dunes merit the moniker Malibu of Michigan.” The first of Traverse City’s public beaches runs nearly the entire length of the Traverse City portion of M-22. It features multiple points of access, wide sandy beaches, and a shallow sandy bottom perfect for lake sports. At the height of summer, it is a popular place for boaters to anchor and wade ashore.
National Geographic rated Traverse City as a “Top Ten Summer Trip,” along with destinations like Barcelona, Argyll, Isla del Sol, Spencer Glacier, Channel Islands, and St. Petersburg. The magazine wrote, “The region’s 180 miles of shoreline basically trace the upper left edge of Michigan’s ‘mitten.’ Add another 149 inland lakes that are ten acres or larger and you get a rambling Cape Cod-on-freshwater summer playground.”
M-22 ends at its intersection with US-31, completing its 117 mile journey through dunes, forests, wetlands, farms, vineyards, orchards, and quaint towns. M-22 originally went on for another mile, ending at the corner of Front Street and Union Street in the heart of downtown Traverse City. Today, downtown Traverse City sits just past the road’s terminus, and serves as a great ending to the M-22 journey. From the end of M-22, downtown Traverse City can be accessed by continuing on US-31 along the bay and turning right on to Union Street or Cass Street, or turning right on to US-31 and turning left on Front Street.
Captain Boardman and Hannah Lay
Downtown Traverse City began as an isolated outpost. In 1847, Captain Harry Boardman of Naperville, Illinois purchased land at the mouth of the present-day Boardman River and built a sawmill. Mr. Boardman’s sawmill failed quickly, however. In 1851, Hannah Lay & Company purchased the sawmill. Hannah Lay was a Chicago, Illinois partnership engaged in mercantile production. The company was looking to cut out the middleman, having purchased lumber from ships in the Chicago Harbor for years. Hannah Lay had the advantage of capital from its existing mercantile operations, an advantage that smaller operations like those of George Hopkins, Charles Perry, and Henry Stark lacked.
Although the newly christened Traverse City remained accessible only by boat until 1864, Hannah Lay’s investment laid the foundation for future development. Alongside Hannah Lay’s lumbering operations, numerous farms and orchards developed in the area. This led locals to press for rail service, which they received in 1872. By the 1880s, Hannah Lay had acquired 45,000 acres of forest. Lumbering operations were booming.
The area got an additional boost in 1885 when the State of Michigan built a mental asylum at the east end of downtown. The prevailing wisdom of the founders of the asylum was that mental illness could be treated with a combination of healthy food, exercise, and beautiful natural surroundings. The Northern Michigan Asylum became one of the city’s major employers and would eventually house more patients than the entire population of the city. As the lumber industry, agricultural industry, and mental institution brought jobs to the area, neighborhoods developed around Grand Traverse Bay.
At the mouth of the Boardman River, wealthy lumber executives built grand Queen Anne style Victorian homes. The remaining owner of the Hannah Lay company, Perry Lay, built a 32-room mansion on Sixth Street. The mansion anchored what became known as “Silk Stocking Row,” a group of mansions owned by the town’s wealthiest individuals. Many of the mansions are still standing today.
To the west, mill workers, wood carvers, and immigrants settled into neighborhoods of houses built from sawmills scraps. The community that developed would be known by many names through the years, including Slabtown, Little Bohemia, and Baghdad. Many of the original west side homes are still standing as well. Between Little Bohemia and Silk Stocking Row, downtown Traverse City developed.
Hannah Lay purchased a small hotel in 1878 and upgraded it to become a world class hotel known as the Park Place. Numerous theaters, like the Palace Theatre, the Grand Opera House and the Lyric Theatre, opened downtown. Banks, creameries, canneries, general stores, restaurants, and saloons were built on Front Street.
While stores, theaters, and mansions sprang up a few blocks off the waterfront, the waterfront itself became industrialized. Hannah Lay expanded its operations. Railroads, warehouses, and smoke stacks lined the waterfront.
Planting the Seeds for Tourism
Traverse City’s development was dealt back to back blows in the early 1900s. The Hannah Lay Company declined through the early 1900s as the area’s forests were depleted. By 1930, Hannah Lay was out of business altogether, just in time for the Great Depression. Traverse City weathered the Great Depression better than other areas in Michigan, however. The town’s banks remained strong. The asylum continued to provide jobs. The area’s agricultural economy fared better than industrialized cities in southern Michigan.
Nonetheless, the Great Depression left the industrialized waterfront in decay. Those who had been employed in an industrial capacity at the sawmills were hard hit by Michigan’s estimated 45% non-agricultural unemployment rate. The west shore of Boardman Lake became known as “Hobo Point” as unemployed locals and migrants staked out areas to camp. The Traverse City Record-Eagle estimated that more than 500 locals were unemployed, out of a population of only a few thousand.
With little prospect of a return to the prosperity of the lumber boom, new plans developed to transform the waterfront into a tourist attraction. The idea was the brainchild of former city commissioner Con Foster and Hannah Lay heir Floyd Clinch. Mr. Clinch and Mr. Foster spearheaded an effort to acquire nearly 1,000 feet along the waterfront, demolish the decaying mills, and build a park. The property, now known as Clinch Park, opened in the 1930s featuring an aquarium, walkways, and public access to the bay.
The 1930s also saw expansion of the local cherry festival. Beginning in 1925, local cherry growers gathered every May for a “Blessing of the Blossoms Festival.” In 1931, the Michigan Legislature passed a resolution making it a national festival. That year, seven naval ships and three companies of Navy sailors paraded through the area, and the National Cherry Festival was born. Thus, despite the decaying sawmills, industrial decline, “Hobo Point,” and massive unemployment, the seeds of Traverse City’s present-day tourist economy were planted during the Great Depression. From Industry to Tourism Following World War II, Traverse City’s population expanded to over 18,000 people as affluent southeast Michigan residents relocated to the area.
With the population expanding, waterfront hotels being built, the Cherry Festival growing in prominence, and Clinch Park having been expanded to include a zoo in addition to its aquarium and beach, Traverse City’s popularity as a tourist destination steadily grew from the 1950s to 1970s. During the economic expansion of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, Traverse City saw numerous time share resorts built along the bay, more summer homes built around town, resorts like the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa built, and a renewed effort to revitalize the downtown. Traverse City’s downtown had long been centered around serving the needs of local residents, rather than tourists. It had never fully recovered from the decline of the lumber industry and the Great Depression that followed. In the 1990s, however, numerous outdated stores were replaced with gift shops, restaurants, bars, breweries, and antique shops.
Downtown Traverse City transformed into as much of a destination as the surrounding beaches. In recent years, Traverse City has continued to improve. Numerous microbreweries, distilleries, wine tasting rooms, bakeries, galleries, bars, and restaurants have opened in the last five years. A previously underutilized block of warehouses on the west end of downtown was converted into shops, bars, and restaurants known as the Warehouse District. With the continued improvement have come the numerous accolades discussed above. Today, more than two million visitors come to Traverse City annually. More than a half million come for the National Cherry Festival alone. The number of visitors has grown by around 10% per year in the last five years, with the number out of state visitors rising from 12% in 2006 to 26% in recent years.