This is the true story of the sleepy, once forgotten region known as Harbor Country. This corner of Southwest Michigan's beauty survived the previous century of logging and colonization, and in later decades resisted the onslaught of urban sprawl and development.
It remains today a premier vacation destination and a great place to live, work, and play.
The Early Days
The area's first known residents; the Miami Indians were challenged for territory by the Iroquois of New York.By 1700, the Potawatomi Indians migrated from Wisconsin, assuming lands from what is now Chicago and as far north as Grand Rapids. Over time British and French fur traders infiltrated the area and Native American territories were diminished through treaties in the 1830's. Prompted by government treaties, the Potawatomi moved their families and possessions to a new home in the Kansas plains.
Travel increased with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Soon stagecoach routes were carved out of the wilderness, linking the great cities of Detroit and Chicago, thus opening the area now known as Harbor Country to growth and recognition along the trade route. Business moguls from as far away as New York, saw the potential for the vast dense forests. Saw mills sprang up and great ships 100 feet or more long were being constructed on the beaches. Numerous piers were built to service the booming logging industry that quickly dominated the region – fed by nearby Chicago's growth and insatiable appetite for lumber in its early infancy and then in rebuilding after the great Chicago fire.
The Birth and Rebirth of Tourism
The turn of the century witnessed another phase in Harbor Country's growth. With improved roads and a railroad, the means by which goods could be delivered also brought in visitors who transformed the small colonies along the lake into bustling towns. In the 1920's the area soon became recognized as a great tourist Mecca with a number of hotels and resorts springing up.
The Golfmore Hotel, with an impressive 175 rooms accommodating up to 500 guests, made its debut in 1921. Dominating the sandy horizon at Grand Beach, its fame and glory were short-lived when lost in a spectacular blaze on November 19, 1939.
But just as the railroad brought boom followed by a bust, new interstate highways and economic prosperity began to take tourists beyond the eight quaint towns of Harbor Country. Long distance vacations by car were practical and reasons for vacationing in southwest Michigan began to dwindle in the 1960s.
In the late 1970's, local community leaders formed the "Harbor Country Council" as a research panel to establish recognition for eight communities closely huddled near the shores of Lake Michigan. Council member Dick Downing (originally a realtor from Chicago) is credited for coming up with the name “Harbor Country” to represent the area’s scenic ‘harbor’, and the bountifully lush ‘country’ landscapes. Local business owners Nadra Kissman and Larry Bubb are credited as the area co-founders in establishing Harbor Country as a recognized geographic region. The Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce successfully fought for and secured the name Harbor Country® as a federally registered trademark
By the mid 80's, the media began to pick up on this area becoming known as the 'Hamptons of the Midwest'. Since that time, Harbor Country has remained a popular destination for escaping urban life.
Harbor Country Today
While Harbor Country remains a popular summer vacation destination, more and more people are discovering the beauty and slower pace of life in autumn and winter. Former "vacationers" are transplanting to become year-round residents, helping local businesses to be less dependent on a seasonal economy.
Entrepreneurs are embracing the abundant agricultural resources and creating new businesses such as wineries, craft breweries, distilleries, and locally sourced food specialty shops and restaurants.
And yet, through careful and passionate guardianship to protect the natural beauty of the area, Harbor Country remains in many ways unchanged. It is still that place that is "close by, but far away" and provides a much needed escape from city life.