GTPulse Weekend Planner: Elk Rapids Then and Now

Katie Anderson tells the best stories. She’s careful with the details but enthusiastic in her delivery. She reminds me of my husband, which makes perfect sense because she’s his Mom. Driving to Elk Rapids on a Sunday morning, I’m reminded of one story in particular; the day she moved to town.

“It was 1969,” Katie explains, “and I was an outsider, the new ‘schoolmarm’ come to town but I didn’t feel that way for long. I arrived in a January blizzard so severe you couldn’t see across the main drag, River Street. Having nowhere to stay, I found the postmaster, Vern Elliott. He was acquainted with everyone, and I asked if he knew of anything for rent. Yes, Dell Pettes, the owner of the local beauty shop House of Coiffures had an apartment empty above her shop. I moved in an hour later.”

I’m thinking of that story as my husband Jordan and I make the left turn onto River Street, toward the downtown district. He starts telling his own story, admittedly not as picturesque as the one his mother told, “Some people used to play hacky sack and smoke weed in that parking lot, “ he points to my left as we pass, “That wasn’t me, though, I just went home and got on AOL instant messenger.”

As we get out of the car, I try to imagine the Elk Rapids of 1969, my future mother-in-law checking in downstairs at the beauty shop, or, as she calls it, the “de facto communication center for anything of any importance in town.” The shop no longer exists and her apartment is now a group of luxury condos, but her views in 1969 have remained mostly unchanged,

“I would look out my window to the west at the picturesque bridge to the library. To the south was the Elk River, and east, a straight shot down the Main Street. It was a steal”, she says, “for just $75 a month.”

My husband continues our present day tour, pointing out the mouth of the Elk River where a group of kids are splashing and shrieking, “that’s where we used to swim, too. I tried to find the exact spot where the river met the bay, even though people would always tell me that I was going to get swimmer’s itch,” he laughs, “I never did get swimmer’s itch, by the way.”

I love these day trips down memory lane—even when the memories aren’t my own. The personal details of knowing companions allow for my brain to imagine what it might have been like when my mother-in-law came to town in 1969, or when my husband was growing up in the 1990s.

It’s even possible to picture this town as it was in 1892 as we walk along the Isle of Pines to the Elk Rapids Public Library. The building is actually the former Island House, the home of Edwin Noble, brother of Henry Noble, one of the founders of Elk Rapids. Edwin Noble’s own story contains twists and turns comparable to any page-turner that might be found in the library— a mysterious boating incident, a terrible injury, suspicions of foul play, allegations of improper accounting, threats of investigation—just to name a few. After the house sat vacant for many years, it was gifted to the library and is now considered a Michigan historic site. My husband balances on the concrete just along the steps leading down from the library, and for a moment I picture a young Jordan doing the same.

We walk back along River Street, looking at the array of shops and eateries, and decide to pick up a couple of coffees at Harbor Cafe before making our way down South Bay Shore drive to the Elk Rapids Day Park—a collection of hiking trails that hug the shore of Grand Traverse Bay.  I remark about the sculptures that adorn the trails as Jordan explains this is The Walk of Art, a relatively new addition to the park thanks to the non-profit Art Rapids!. The forest quickly turns to beach as we walk one of the trails to the bay and see the Singing Pail of Dreams, a 400 pound stainless steel pail and shovel emerging from the sand. It’s a sight to behold from John Goss, a full-time artist from Williamsburg.

Heading back downtown, we walk to the marina, and Jordan tells me this is the place he envisions when he’s meditating. This is his happy place.

We sit on a nearby park bench, watching the water as a sailboat makes its way into the harbor. I think about something Katie said about her first night in Elk Rapids, “I could not resist the urge to go walking about this lovely little village, where everyone else was tucked inside. I fell in love with the place. And, hung around for fifty years.”

Your Weekend Planner:

  • Elk Rapids Sandbar– clear, turquoise water perfect for swimming. The Kids will love the nearby playground!
  • Elk Rapids Day Park & Walk of Art– Have lunch at the pavilion before navigating the many trails and enjoying the sculptures, and be sure to bring your beach chairs if you want to enjoy a hidden sandy beach or two  along the trail.
  • Rotary Park & Talula the Swan – Be sure to get your photo with Talula, the enormous swan that has been welcoming visitors to Elk Rapids for over forty years. Fun fact- the Talula is maintained by the Elk Rapids High School Shop class and even received a makeover to paint her beak black to emulate a Trumpet Swan—a threatened species native to Michigan.
  • Ethanology– Just off Ames street in Elk Rapids, Ethanology offers spirits with regional roots in a casual atmosphere.
  • Cellar 152 is a gourmet market and a gathering place. It is the perfect spot for grabbing a specialty food for a picnic to go, or enjoying a glass of wine with friends.
  • Elk Rapids Public Library is open for curbside service for residents and visitors alike! Don’t miss your photo opportunity on the iconic Library Bridge.
  • The Elk Rapids Cinema is a beautifully restored Art Deco theater in downtown Elk Rapids with showings twice a day.

There are MANY restaurants and shops in Elk Rapids to check out. Find more at


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Categories: GTPulse