Walker Tavern upgrades help revitalize area visitation
July 28, 2016
The Walker Tavern was once a bustling stagecoach stop, a hub where travelers rested along the road from Detroit to Chicago in the mid-1800s.
Now, more than 150 years later, the Walker Tavern Historic Site is experiencing a revitalization that has the junction hopping once again, thanks in part to recent renovations and enhanced programming.
“We used to sing ‘Hallelujah’ for 300 visitors for our one annual event,” said Walker Tavern site historian Laurie Perkins. “Now we get more than 500 people in the park for four hours on a Sunday morning for our farmers market. We’ve been averaging about 12,000 visitors each year. We’ve come a long way.”
The historic tavern site is located inside Cambridge Junction Historic State Park, at the intersection of U.S. 12 and M-50, about 35 miles west of Ann Arbor, 5 miles south of the village of Brooklyn in Jackson County, Michigan.
Cambridge Junction became a state park in 1966 and will celebrate its golden anniversary this fall with the dedication of a new historic marker.
The history of Walker Tavern, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, dates back a lot further.
Built in 1832, the tavern was sold to Sylvester Walker of Cooperstown, New York, in 1843. Walker worked to establish his tavern and stagecoach stop as a center of community life, ideally situated at the junction of the La Plaisance Bay Pike (M-50) and the Old Chicago Road (U.S. 12).
“The Walkers charged 25 cents for an overnight stay and 25 cents for a meal. By 1853 business was so successful that the Walkers built a larger brick tavern across the road,” states an excerpt from the text that will appear on the historic marker.
When government land sold for $1.25 an acre, Walker’s rates were far from cheap.
“If you ate a few meals there, you were essentially eating an acre,” Perkins said. “Walker made the money to build the brick tavern because he had the perfect location. Even then it (real estate) was about location, location, location.”
In the 1920s, with the surrounding Irish Hills region attracting auto tourists, the Rev. Frederick Hewitt – a personal friend of Henry Ford – bought the tavern, restored it, and opened it as a tourist attraction.
Hewitt’s daughter sold the land and the tavern building to the state in an effort to preserve its history, and it became a state park. The Michigan History Center began operating a field site as part of the state’s museum system there in 1974.
Today, Walker Tavern visitors can explore three historic buildings. Historic Walker Tavern includes an 1840s parlor, barroom, dining room and kitchen and features exhibits focusing on life in Michigan during the first half of the 19th century – the frontier and stagecoach era.
Exhibits in the Hewitt House Visitor Center, which was the Hewitt family’s home until after World War II, explore the life of the Hewitt family and their half-century operation of Walker Tavern as a tourist attraction, as well as the history of Irish Hills tourism in the 20th century.
A reconstructed barn – rebuilt according to archaeological research conducted in the park in the late 1960s, using construction techniques from the 1840s – features exhibits related to barn construction, stagecoach travel and farming in the 1840s.
The barn at Walker Tavern is also home to Michigan’s Bicentennial Wagon, which was part of the wagon train that camped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1976. Then U.S. President and Michigan native Gerald R. Ford addressed the crowd at Valley Forge from the seat of this wagon.
Visitors to Cambridge Junction Historic State Park also can enjoy walking trails and a picnic area.
With the Michigan History Museum system and the state parks system now housed within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the collaboration in operating the Walker Tavern and Cambridge Junction site has been a fruitful one.
“We have really enjoyed the opportunity to partner with the Michigan History Center at Cambridge Junction Historic State Park,” said Jim O’Brien, park supervisor at Hayes State Park in Onsted, about 6 miles from Cambridge Junction. “The collaborative efforts between both agencies have allowed us to make stronger connections with stakeholder groups.”
These groups include the Friends of Walker Tavern, Friends of Irish Hills, the area chamber of commerce and a new visitor base that has come to enjoy the site due to the farmers market, outdoor concerts and Walker Wheels vintage base ball games, as well as those interested in regional and statewide history.
O’Brien said that the partnership also has allowed DNR Parks and Recreation Division staff members to gain a stronger understanding of Cambridge Junction’s historical significance, allowing them to relay that story through Explorer Guide programming down the road at Hayes State Park.
Hayes staffers have been able to provide nature-related programs at Cambridge Junction and, in return, Perkins has provided history-related programs at Hayes.
“We are enjoying a great relationship with the folks at Hayes State Park. I can’t say enough about Jim O’Brien and his crew,” Perkins said. “They mow the lawn, pick up trash, (they) have really made Cambridge Junction their own.”
Another significant benefit of the partnership between the Michigan History Center and the DNR Parks and Recreation Division stems from the inclusion of Cambridge Junction in the Recreation Passport program.
Funds from the sale of the Recreation Passport, which for $11 grants annual access to 103 Michigan state parks and recreation areas, as well as a host of other sites, have enabled facility improvements at Walker Tavern.
The most recent improvements at Walker Tavern’s Hewitt House Visitor Center include a new roof, new foundations, new electrical system, new bathrooms for the public, restored flooring, old ceiling and wall removal, fresh paint and new exhibits.
Work on the historic tavern will begin this fall. Windows will be installed and doors replaced. The building then will get a new coat of paint.
The Hewitt House restoration earned Walker Tavern Historic Site a Spruce Award, given by the Brooklyn-Irish Hills Chamber of Commerce to local establishments for improvements to their properties.
In addition to the facility improvements, Walker Tavern has been able to significantly upgrade its program offerings over the past several years, thanks in large part to the support of the Friends of Walker Tavern.
Founded in 2007, the Friends of Walker Tavern is a nonprofit organization made up of local volunteers that helps fund the care of the historic buildings and exhibits and lends support to the site’s educational programs and events like the “Picnic on the Lawn” concert series, Walker Wheels vintage base ball games – played by 1860s rules – and the popular weekly farmers market, which is the largest of its kind in southeast Michigan.
“The locals love it – the farmers market has been the thing to do in the area lately,” Perkins said. “We also get a lot of Ohio visitors.”
Perkins said the combination of improvements at Walker Tavern and other local businesses – like the bed and breakfast across the street in the renovated brick building that once housed Sylvester Walker’s tavern – is helping bring new life to the area.
“Our corner is active again,” she said. “We’re helping to bring a different kind of green back to the Irish Hills.”
Admission to the Walker Tavern Historic Site, which is open from May through October, is free. A Recreation Passport is required for vehicle entry into Cambridge Junction Historic State Park.
For information about hours, location, special events and more, visit www.michigan.gov/walkertavern.
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