After cutting across the peninsula, M-22 turns south and runs along the shoreline of Grand Traverse Bay. Before heading south, however, visitors are well advised to spend some time in Northport, which sits just a half mile off of M-22’s northernmost point on M-201. Downtown Northport sits along Grand Traverse Bay and features blocks of gift shops, antique shops, restaurants, and bed and breakfasts. A small marina and lakefront park sits near downtown and makes a great place for picnics, boat watching, or watching the sunrise.
Northport’s history is unique among the area’s towns. In the mid-1800s missionaries spread throughout Michigan’s lower peninsula from their bases in Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace. Reverend George Smith settled along the Black River in southwest Michigan in an effort to convert the area’s Ottawa Indian tribes to Christianity. In 1844, however, a smallpox outbreak ravaged the tribes of southwest Michigan. Reverend Smith and Ottawa Chief Peter Waukazoo fled north and settled along the northwest banks of the Grand Traverse Bay. They called the settlement Waukazooville. Northport was formed just a few years later when the Deacon Joseph Dame settled the area just north of Waukazooville.
Deacon Dame built the northernmost port on the peninsula, and appropriately called his town “Northport.” He promoted Northport to easterners by writing to the New York Tribune to extol the area’s virtues. Modest as his writing campaign was, it marked the first national marketing effort involving any town along M-22. In the coming decades, Northport attracted numerous settlers, continued to expand its logging and shipping operations, and became the most important town on the Leelanau Peninsula. Northport annexed Waukazooville in 1852. When Leelanau County was formed, Northport became the county seat. Northport’s economy became far more diversified than surrounding areas. Reverend Smith became an accomplished cherry farmer, selling his crop to areas around Northern Michigan. Multiple general stores were built, selling supplies like thread, needles, cloth, and tools. Factories were built near the port. The town attracted settlers from the eastern United States and immigrant populations from Bohemia and the Czech Republic. By 1859, Northport had 400 residents, two wharfs, five general stores, three hotels, multiple saloons, a sawmill, and the first school in Leelanau County. Northport also became popular among tourists. The Northport Beach Hotel was built in 1903. Although it burned to the ground just six years later, the hotel helped cement Northport as a summer destination.
The tourism industry expanded with the economy through the early 1900s. Following the Great Depression and World War II, tourists returned to Northport’s beaches, which were lined with summer camps, summer cottages, and hotels.
Today, many the turn-of-the century homes have been converted to bed and breakfasts. Even some of the earliest buildings in Northport, like Deacon Dame’s water mill built in the 1850s, have been preserved and restored for modern use. Northport is as popular as it ever has been. Celebrities like actor Tim Allen and chef Mario Batali are regular visitors in the summer. Batali in particular has become an ardent promoter of the area. After marrying a Michigan native, he bought a 1920s fishing camp on Lake Michigan in Northport. Bon Appetit Magazine recently featured an article about the area by Batali, in which he wrote, “The food scene has really exploded in the region. There are farmers’ markets and hip-looking people farming and butchering. Its very cool. Even in Northport, our town of less than 1,000 people, there’s a great weekly farmers’ market in the summer. The chefs involved in the scene celebrate what’s here; they’re not trying to be anything they’re not. Now people are coming in for gastronomic tourism.”