Outside In: How Different Became Part of Our DNA

Some towns grow from the inside out. But Saugatuck and Douglas have always grown from the outside in, opening their arms to people and ideas that were different and allowing them to shape the character of the towns. This is a place where everyone is welcome and anything can happen—and as these tales from local historian Jim Schmiechen show, it frequently did.

The Artists Escape Around 1905, a few students from The Art Institute of Chicago began getting away to Saugatuck.  Many of them had been exposed to the plein air movement in France and were rebelling against the traditional practice of in-studio painting. After a visit to Saugatuck, they fell in love with its natural beauty and golden summer light and started teaching summer painting classes on the bank of the Kalamazoo River.

By 1914, their enthusiasm for outdoor painting had caught on across the region, and they moved their classes to the Riverside Hotel. This summer haven was the start of The Art Institute of Chicago’s Ox-Bow School, which continues to nurture professional artists, degree-seeking students, and amateurs from around the country in a beautiful natural setting.

A Woman Does “Man’s Work” Following the artists were more outsiders, including Florence “Dannie” Hunn, a designer, interior decorator, and aspiring architect from Chicago. Because women were not welcome in the architecture schools of the 1920s, she never earned a license to practice. But in the open-minded community of Saugatuck and Douglas, her talent was more important than her gender or a piece of paper.

In the same neighborhood where her family had summered since 1940, Hunn was hired to remodel the Tara Restaurant, designing everything from iron railings to new murals and menus. She later 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, which was known locally as the “Doll House,” that she shared with Mabel “Jims” Warren. More than 60 years after she blazed the trail, there are dozens of women-owned businesses serving the community.

LGBTQ Becomes A-OK

With several women living together since the days of Florence Hunn, same-sex couples became an accepted—if still considered eccentric—part of the Pier Cove lakeshore neighborhood. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Saugatuck and Douglas became known as a getaway for the gay community.

After World War II, Saugatuck’s music scene gradually shifted from big bands at the Pavilion to outdoor jazz concerts headlined by the likes of Dave Brubeck. By the late ‘60s, giant rock festivals featuring bands like Alice Cooper, Procol Harum, and Iggy Pop were drawing hoards of hippies and music lovers, earning Saugatuck a reputation as a “hot town” and a mecca for counter-culture.

Around the same time, the gay community began to claim Saugatuck and Douglas as their own, finding a bohemian vibe that spoke to them.

The Elms Hotel was among the first to rent rooms to male couples, and a number of gay hotels and lodging houses soon opened up on Butler Street. State liquor laws made it against the law to serve alcohol to homosexuals in the ’50s and ’60s, but some bar owners—and even the local police—were happy to overlook the law in exchange for paying customers. Many bars served a mixed clientele or started out straight, including what would become West Michigan’s first gay bar, the Blue Tempo. Today, Saugatuck and Douglas are proud to be home to one of the largest LGBTQ resorts in the country.

Motorcycles Gang Up

Around the same time LGBTQ people were flocking to Saugatuck, another group of outsiders also discovered the area. As men returned from World War II and Vietnam, where many had ridden motorcycles, biking became big, and movies like Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” did even more to popularize them.

A reputation for loud engines, reckless driving, and hard partying meant motorcycle gangs weren’t welcomed in every community along the lake, but Saugatuck made space for them. It was a little rough around the edges, just like they were, and they found it to their liking.

Motorcycle gangs raced down Lakeshore Drive at nighttime. There were even tales of bikers riding off the roof of the boathouse onto nearby buildings and cars. Some bikers also took over a wooded area near Oval Beach, creating a loosely organized summer camp. While others described them as “hairy, unwashed, and marauding,” like many who came before them, they’d found a place they could call their own.

For decades, wave after wave of untraditional people have washed into town, bringing their energy, creativity, and unconventional thinking. After years of learning to embrace people who were outside the norm, it’s no wonder that Saugatuck and Douglas have become the kind of place where outsiders are insiders and everyone belongs.

Photo courtesy of Saugatuck Douglas History Center