Posted by: Kath Usitalo | July 30, 2010

Roadside Parks Are Pure Michigan

Site of the first ever roadside park, on US-2 near Iron River

With five kids it was a rare treat for our family to eat at a restaurant, even while traveling. We became very familiar with picnics at roadside parks along our route between the Detroit area and the Upper Peninsula.

I don’t know how Mom managed to pack clothing for seven people and food in boxes and a big old cooler into our family sedan—we never had a station wagon. Four siblings lined up in the back seatn and one lucky kid got to sit on the front bench between two cigarette-smoking parents (actually, for a while Dad smoked those little Eric cigars before he gave up the habit). We were like sardines; there was no room for any sort of diversionary device, except a book, comic books, or a notepad. I think we had an Etch-A-Sketch, too.

Magically, we usually happened on a roadside park about a minute before we faced a major meltdown.  We knew we had time to stretch and get some fresh air while Mom got our lunch together.

It never occurred to me, as we pumped water at the well, held our noses to use the outhouse, and piled onto the picnic table to chow down on our bologna sandwiches, celery sticks and hardboiled eggs, that we were enjoying the creation of a Michigan man.

It was Herbert Larson, a University of Michigan graduate and engineer who became manager of the highway department. In 1918 he came up with the idea of preserving forest land along the highways and providing a rest area with picnic tables for motorists who were beginning to discover the joys of road travel. The following year the first roadside park opened on US-2, about 4 miles east of Iron River. It is credited as being the first such site in the nation.

Today Michigan has more than 80 roadside parks and many scenic turnouts. Pretty and peaceful little stops. Instead of a fast food stop, next time pack a picnic and enjoy.

Another Pure Michigan invention.

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Responses

  1. That sounds just like the way we used to travel! There were 5 of us kids and usually a dog as we tooled cross-country/cross-Michigan many times and ate our sammiches at lovely little parks along the way….what fun memories you’ve brought back! 🙂

  2. How in the world did we travel back then without the modern conveniences kids enjoy today. It’s a miracle we kids didn’t rip eachother’s hair out. Oh, wait a minute, I think maybe we did once or twice. Just a little 😉

  3. Remembering Etch-a-sketch with fondness. We spent many a break sitting on those picnic tables at roadside parks. Now you are making me think of the games we used to make up as we traveled across the country in our station wagons… Thanks for the memories!

    • Paige remembers that I occasionally packed picnics for roadside park lunches for our family trips when they were young. Although in her mind we NEVER ate a restaurant on our road trips.


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