Trail of the Month: April 2013
"People were apprehensive. But, after they see what happens, you can't build it fast enough."
The rural flavor of western Michigan's Hart-Montague Trail State Park is palpable. Cherries, peaches and apples hang heavy from the trees. The lacy green leaves of the Asparagus Capital of the World's prized vegetable flutter in messy rows along the trail. Dairy cows placidly watch bicycles whir by and, in the summertime, the small town farmers markets offer a friendly bustle of activity.
"It's so purely 'west Michigan,'" says Nancy Krupiarz, director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. "When you think of Michigan, with its orchards and fresh fruit, Lake Michigan, the farms, the small towns, this trail encapsulates it all."
Fittingly, the story of this 22-mile rail-trail begins with an aptly-named farmer: Bill Field. Legislation to rename the trail after him passed the Michigan Senate unanimously this past March and now awaits a House vote.
"Mr. Field was instrumental in the creation of the Hart-Montague Trail State Park," says Michigan State Senator Goeff Hansen (R-Hart.), who sponsored the bill. "After the rail service in Oceana County ended in 1981, Mr. Field had the vision to turn it into a recreational trail for the community and the state."
That task, at one point labeled "Field's Folly," was not easy. Field, a fruit farmer from Shelby, became an Oceana County commissioner in the early 1980s. A close friend described him as being 6'6" with a big booming voice and a presence that was always known in a room. After being inspired by a visit to the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin a few years earlier, he presented an idea for developing a trail through the abandoned railroad corridor that stretched from Hart to Montague, tracks that he grew up around.
"When rail service was discontinued and the salvage work was being done, I thought there should be some recreational use for that old railroad," says Joel Mikkelsen, the former chairman of the Oceana County Parks and Recreation Commission, and a long-time friend of Field. "In January 1983, I read an article in the local paper that the newly elected county commissioner [Bill Field] wanted to make it into a bike trail. I lived two miles down the road from him, so I called him up and he came over 15 minutes later."
When Field received no support from his fellow county officials for the rail-trail project, he took matters into his own hands, buying the property himself and donating the land, valued at $225,000, to the state. Field and Mikkelsen continued to work together for years building support for the rail-trail in the surrounding communities.
"People didn't want it at first," says Paul Yauk, linear trails program manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "People were apprehensive. But, after they see what happens, you can't build it fast enough."
Field's tireless efforts to realize the vision for the trail earned him the title of Michiganian of the Year by The Detroit News in 1988. The trail's inaugural section, built by the City of Hart in 1989, stretched 11 miles south from Hart, becoming the first rail-trail with a paved surface in the state that is now number one in the nation for open rail-trail miles. (Paint Creek Trail in southeastern Michigan beat it as the very first rail-trail in the state by just a few years).
The City of Montague opened the second half of the trail in 1991, completing the project. The refurbished Whitehall-Montague Train Depot at this southern end serves as a visitors center and an adjacent caboose includes exhibits and artifacts from the railroad's heyday. The line was originally part of the Chicago and West Michigan Railroad, built in 1872 to service the lumber mills between Muskegon and Pentwater. A side trail along White Lake leads to another museum, the White River Light Station, a beautiful brick lighthouse built in 1875.
Going north from there, the Hart-Montague Trail runs through the towns of Rothbury, New Era, Shelby and Mears, and ends in Hart. "What's interesting is there are lots of nice towns along the way," says Yauk. "So there are short stops. You can go town-to-town, relax, and take advantage of what they offer. The towns along the way have really embraced the trail. It's a big draw for the region."
"Any kind of business that offers trail-user needs—restaurants, pharmacies, gift shops, camping, hotels—they all benefit because it gives people another reason to stay in the area," says Krupiarz. "There are lots of attractions in the area and the trail takes a whole other day. A lot of people will stay just to get that experience."
About mid-trail, New Era has one not-to-miss stop: Country Dairy, an ice cream shop offering funky homemade flavors like Hoofprints and Udder Nutsense. Visitors can pet calves, watch cows being milked, tour the bottling plant and learn all they ever wanted to know about dairy farming at the company's Moo School. For more culinary pleasures, the town's Trailside Restaurant, known for its roast turkey, mashed potatoes and homemade gravy, is the type of place where you can grab a blue-plate lunch special for less than the cost of a big-city grande latte.
In Montague's Ellenwood Park (across the street from the trail), the world's largest weathervane at 48 feet tall is visible for miles. At its top sits a replica of the Ella Ellenwood, a schooner that ran aground in Lake Michigan in 1901. The trail parallels Great Lake, and is never more than a few miles from its eastern shore. Lined with soft, sandy beaches, the region is known as the country's Third Coast. About five miles west of the trail's northern end, Silver Lake State Park on Lake Michigan is worth a side trip. The massive sand dunes in the 2,000-acre park cover what was once a white pine forest used by the area's burgeoning lumber industry in the 1800s. Beachcombers frequently find "petrified lightning" here, natural glass tubes formed when lightening strikes and melts the sand.
With its many attractions, the trail is well-loved and well-used. "Families are embracing the trail and outdoor recreation," says Amy VanLoon, executive director of the White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. "Families come in droves with bikes."
It is hoped that repaving work will begin next year along the entire route, and the trail's width will also be expanded. Mikkelsen, who recently retired and does maintenance on the trail ("for fishing trip money"), says his favorite thing about the trail is how positively people react to it. "Even though it has bumps and cracks and needs repaving badly, trail users are always complimentary," he says. "When I'm out leaf-blowing or mowing along the trail, I get a lot of thumbs-ups as the bicyclists go by."
Long-range plans call for hooking the trail into a network that will reach all the way to Grand Rapids, the state's second largest city. Through a series of connections from the Hart-Montague Trail's southern end—from White Lake Pathway to the Fred Meijer Berry Junction Trail to the Musketawa Trail—that goal is almost attainable now. Only 10 miles lie between the southern end of the Musketawa Trail and the city.
Although Field passed away in 2005, the growing legacy of the rail-trail—his field of dreams—remains for generations. If Field were alive today, Mikkelsen says, "He would still be out there enjoying it."
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