History Worth Repeating
For more than a century, people have sought out this enchanting area as a leisure destination offering respite and rejuvenation. While stunning landscapes and coastlines were the obvious initial draw, visitors have returned time and time again because of the inviting and inclusive culture of the area. Saugatuck/Douglas has a long-standing history of opening our arms to people and ideas considered different from the mainstream. It’s what has shaped the character of our towns—making this a place where everyone is welcome and anything can happen.
In 1905, art students from The Art Institute of Chicago rebelled against the traditional practice of in-studio painting and started teaching summer painting classes here on the east bank of the Kalamazoo River. Having been exposed to the plein air movement in France, these students were drawn to the natural beauty and golden summer light found in the Saugatuck area. By 1914, their enthusiasm for outdoor painting had caught on across the region, necessitating their classes move to the Riverside Hotel, which soon became known as the Ox-Bow Inn. This summer haven launched The Art Institute of Chicago’s Ox-Bow School, which has continued to nurture professional artists, degree-seeking students, and amateurs from around the country ever since. Today, the Ox-Bow School of the Arts offers year-round programs, including a wide variety of classes for beginners.
Following the early artists came more outsiders, including Florence “Dannie” Hunn. A designer, interior decorator, and aspiring architect, Hunn and other women like her were not welcome in the architecture schools of the 1920s. Never having earned a license, it was the open-minded Pier Cove-Saugatuck area that gave her the opportunity to practice architecture—demonstrating that her talent was more important than her gender or a piece of paper.
Hunn designed several lakefront cottages, including the dramatic bluff-top “Tonawanda” cottage overlooking the Kalamazoo River and harbor. From 1915 to her death at age 98, she also built and frequently remodeled the lakeshore cottage and garden, known locally as the “Doll House,” that she shared with Mabel “Jims” Warren. More than 60 years after she blazed the trail, women-owned businesses make up a significant portion of the Saugatuck/Douglas community.
While same-sex couples became an accepted part of the Pier Cove lakeshore neighborhood during the time of Hunn, it wasn't until the 1950s that Saugatuck/Douglas became known as a getaway for the gay community, who found a welcoming bohemian vibe. While some visitors felt it necessary to be discreet, others, like Kukla, Fran, & Ollie puppeteer and television pioneer Burr Tillstrom, lived openly with their partners. Tillstrom maintained a house in Saugatuck from the 1950s until his death in 1985, frequently supporting community projects.
The Elms Hotel was among the first to rent rooms to male couples, followed by a number of gay hotels that soon opened up on Butler Street. Michigan state liquor laws made it illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but some local bars defied these statutes, including what would become West Michigan’s first gay bar, the Blue Tempo. Today, Saugatuck/Douglas is proud to be home to one of the largest LGBTQIA+ resorts in the country, The Dunes Resort, where world-renowned DJs, cabaret performers, and outrageous themed weekends entertain visitors from all walks of life.
By the late ‘60s, giant rock festivals featuring bands like Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop were drawing hordes of hippies and music lovers, earning Saugatuck a reputation as a "hot town" and a mecca for the counterculture. This included bikers and motorcycle gangs that became popularized by movies like Marlon Brando’s The Wild One.
A reputation for loud engines, reckless driving, and hard partying meant motorcycle gangs were not welcomed in every community along the lake. But Saugatuck made space for them. At night, motorcycle gangs would race down Lakeshore Drive. Some bikers took over a wooded area near Oval Beach, creating a loosely organized summer camp. Like many who came before them, they’d found a place they could call their own.
For over a hundred years, people who have challenged the status quo have come to the area, bringing an energy and spirit that lives on within our community. If you’re looking for a destination where unconventional thinking and creativity are embraced, you’ve come to the right place. We fully recognize that the Art Coast of Michigan may not be for just anyone, but we welcome everyone just the same.
Photos courtesy of Saugatuck-Douglas History Center