IPR has been exploring northern Michigan landmarks. And for this next story we travel to Elk Rapids. Landmark buildings are sometimes beautiful…but sometimes they simply tell a story.
On the river in Elk Rapids is a non-descript structure that is connected to the town’s earliest settlement days. A proposal by a popular brewing company to reuse it has spiked interest in the site. But opinion over its historic significance is sharply divided.
Connection to Early Days
It’s hard to see anything historic about the sprawling two story white structure. It was the location of the old Dexter Noble Company store built all the way back in the 1860’s.
Samuel Dexter and Henry Noble were Elk Rapids town founders. Their general merchandise store shipped in goods from Chicago and supplied settlers with everything from axe handles to bed springs to groceries. The businessmen also diverted the Elk River to form a dam, built a sawmill, and later an iron foundry nearby.
Glenn Neumann is the town historian. “That was the heart of the town right there because that’s where all the supplies came from,” he says.
Significance Not Obvious
As with many old wooden buildings, the company store burned down in the early 1900’s. Another building went up on the site, Neumann notes, maybe around the end of World War 2.
Since then, it’s housed a number of businesses most recently a plant for making Bech’s Mustard. And there have been a number of facades and add-ons over the decades making its appearance a mish-mash of styles.
“The historical value is already gone. All you got left is the foundation, nobody sees that,” Neumann says.
The Village bought the property out of bankruptcy last year. It also includes a smaller, brick building that Bech built but never finished inside.
Ideas for the Property
Elk Rapids officials then began scouting for possible uses of the property. A lot of people in town told them just tear down the buildings and make it a park. Others say the village has plenty of parkland already and it makes more sense to get the property back on the tax rolls.
And then the owners of Short’s Brewery came along and said they had some ideas. Short’s already has retrofitted an old abandoned machine shop in Elk Rapids into a modern bottling plant.
Matthew Drake does marketing for Short’s. “We like to restore and keep old buildings,” he says. “Like our pub in Bellaire is a hundred year old hardware store. People at this point in time probably don’t even think what an historical building it is except that it’s beautiful and has really unique architecture.”
Drake says the sprawling white building in Elk Rapids may not be architecturally significant. But the general contractor Short’s uses scoped it out and said it had great bones…meaning it’s structurally sound.
Short’s had two ideas for the property. One was to use the old white the building to create a wide-open banquet hall. “We had this vision for this room as having garage doors that can be thrown open underneath an awning on a patio which this looks out onto the harbor,” Drake says.
The other part of Short’s plan was to finish the newer brick building into a brew pub. And their ideas sparked an unusual amount of interest in town.
Difference of Opinion
“This location has taken on almost a cult-like interest in the community. I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Joe Fisher.
Fisher is a long-time Elk Rapids resident. He’s also head of the Harbor Commission for the village. The Commission pushed for the revitalized harbor on Lake Michigan. And the money collected from boat slip rentals bought the Bech’s Mustard property.
Fisher has a strong opinion of what should be done with the old white building. “Torn down,” he says. “No question. Get rid of it. It’s an eyesore.”
He calls it a white elephant, a hodge-podge with no historic value. Fisher concedes the site itself, the location of the old Dexter Noble Company store, might have some significance. But he points out all that’s left of the original 1860’s building is a waist high foundation wall somewhere in the center of the rambling structure.
“I can understand that it might have some importance,” Fisher says. “Strange how it’s been covered up all these years and apparently not been so historically significant and now all of a sudden it is.”
Change of Plans
The Elk Rapids Village Council has said now it’s not interested in selling the property. But it would consider leasing the buildings.
That’s a deal-breaker for Short’s as far as the larger white building goes. The company says it doesn’t make sense to invest millions of dollars renovating a building that it wouldn’t own. But Short’s is still negotiating with the village for use of the smaller brick building as a brew pub.
On a walk around the property, Short’s marketing director, Matthew Drake, stops on the little bridge where the Elk River flows underneath Dexter Street and on to the nearby hydro dam. He says he still really likes this site.
“This is on the route of my nightly walks with my girlfriend where we pass over this bridge and see how everything’s going,” Drake says. “We love it here. And I can’t imagine living anywhere else than Elk Rapids now.”
Drake says several other cities have been after Short’s to locate a new brew pub including Grand Rapids, Charlevoix and Kalkaska. But he says they like the small town feel of Elk Rapids and the connection to the water. And they’re looking at other possible buildings in the downtown.