Northern Michigan in Focus: Awakon Park in Onaway

It was a bustling business almost 100 years ago before burning down, leaving a heap of debris behind.

In this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus, we meet a man working to bring new life to the land now called Awakon Park.

Awakon Park is really a revival of the old steering wheel factory,” he said. “All of my life I have thought of it as being a very neat historical site, but it was basically a garbage dump.”

The 40 acre site was once the site of a huge factory that employed around 3,500 people.

The timber of the area was made into a product the world wanted: steering wheels. They were shipped all over the world.

They got so popular that it was once said "Onaway steers the world." But all that ended one day in 1926, when a fire burned the place to the ground.

“The fire burnt and people pilfered the place, then they dump their garbage, and 100 years later I come along,” Tom said.

Tom had a lot of work to do to bring the place up from the overgrown mass of trees it had become.

 “The first thing was breaking into what was a 12-foot high wall of either dead trees, cast-off tires, or junked-out automobiles, and cleaning it up one year at a time,” he said.

Today as you walk around the park, you’re greeted by the chirps of frogs and some of Tom’s sculptures that dot the park, like Honest Abe, a replica of an old steam engine, and even Lady Liberty.

Right now the only sculptures in the park were made by Tom, who is maybe his own worst critic. He says he would like to add new artists to the mix.

“I use the analogy with my artwork, it’s like listening to a Bob Seger album over and over and over,” he said. “We need more artists to participate in having a sculpture or loaning us a sculpture so that we have a diverse group of different artwork, and they all impact people differently and inspire people differently.”

Tom says the futures of some of the old buildings on the property are still being decided.

“From here, we’re deciding which buildings we can preserve,” he said. “The one in the back, while, it’s a neat backdrop, we have to make sure that it’s safe, number one. And number two is determine the use. In our vision for that, especially my wife’s vision, is that we take out a certain amount of the front and build the stage or cast a stage out of concrete and have this as a backdrop for live performances or maybe just a sculpture.”

To Tom, working on expanding the beauty within the park is a life-long process.

 “For me, personally, it will never be done,” he said. “I’d like to have its own unique personality, its own unique culture, and something that rose to the level on par with the other great parks that we have here (in Northern Michigan). We’re not there yet, but we will be someday.”

So whether you’re an inspiring artist that needs a place to display your work, or you simply want to take a walk through one of the more unique parks in Northern Michigan, stop by Awakon Park in Onaway and take in the sights.

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