I’ve spent a blueberry-infused week in South Haven, Michigan, nearly every summer for the past 30 years.
Only about 4,500 people live year round in the town, which is situated on the Black River where it pours into Lake Michigan. But during the summers, tourists come to swim at its sandy beaches, pick fruit from local farms, and revel in the small-town charm. A walk down Phoenix Street, South Haven’s version of Main Street, feels like walking into the 1970s –– and it’s best enjoyed with a scoop of Sherman’s ice cream and your favorite friends and family members.
Family roots in South Haven, Michigan
My family roots run deep there. My grandfather grew up in South Haven, and he and my grandmother bought an old two-story house perched on a bluff above the river, with a view of the lake, in 1970. At the time, South Haven relied more on industry than tourism, and real estate was affordable. They planned to renovate their turn-of-the-century structure and live there, but my grandmother got sick and those plans never materialized. The house stood empty for years.￼
Lucky for me, my mom and her two sisters inherited the property, which didn’t have proper plumbing or a working kitchen for decades. We’d spend a few days “camping” there, filling buckets with water from the outdoor spigot to flush the toilets. Eventually my mom, a retired librarian, bought them out, and about 20 years ago, she fixed the place up and moved in. A lifelong art lover with a sense of humor, she decorated one room to look exactly like Van Gogh’s painting “Bedroom in Arles,” complete with a rubber ear on the bedside table. Still, she kept things simple, with used furniture and thrift shop accessories and enough books to stock a library.
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I’d time my visits with her to coincide with the annual National Blueberry Festival each August. By then, the tourism industry had revived. The city built a marina and a small park just below my mom’s house on Huron Street, and we could sit on her back deck and listen to live music. We’d walk a few blocks to catch the Blueberry Festival parade, I’d run the 5K, and we’d sit in Adirondack chairs beneath the towering trees sipping cocktails and watching boats glide past.
Moving Mom to Denver
My mom turned 85 last month, though, and can’t live alone anymore. Late last summer, my sister and her husband whisked her to Denver to be near them. It was a monumental task, made more difficult because my mom had to leave behind such a beautiful place that she loved.￼
My sisters and I returned to clear out the house, and a few weeks ago, my husband and I spent a week painting, caulking, and improving the property so we can rent it out. ￼
I hope people who stay there appreciate the history of the place, which began as a lumber town in the 1850s. As the land was cleared, fruit growers planted bushes and trees on the land. South Haven became known for its peaches and blueberries, and related industries cropped up. A canning factory opened, and another factory started manufacturing baskets to hold fresh fruit.
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In the mid-1800s, big hotels and small cottages popped up and tourists started coming. South Haven, known at the time as the “Catskills of the Midwest,” became famous for its beaches and social activity. Big steamers carried tourists across the lake from Chicago for 50 cents round-trip. (In 1915 one of those ships, the Eastland, sank while docked in Chicago, drowning 844 people.)
But by the 1950s and 60s, the resort business declined. When my family acquired the house, South Haven wasn’t nearly the place it is now. A house on a bluff above a river used mainly for industry wasn’t all that desirable.
Tourism is booming in South Haven￼ today
Today, though, the tourism industry is once again booming.
The annual National Blueberry Festival takes place the second weekend in August ––– this year’s event is set for Aug. 11-14 ––– and it’s one of the busiest times of the season. There’s a blueberry pie eating contest, music (The Guess Who, Blue Oyster Cult, Steppenwolf, Edgar Winter, and Lover Boy have all played the festival, although today’s concerts trend toward tribute bands), sidewalk sales, a 5K run and more.￼
I always spend an afternoon plucking blueberries at DeGrandchamp Farms. Years ago, I’d bake a few pies while I was still in Michigan, then transport tubs of blueberries back to Texas, where I’d bake a dozen more pies and deliver them to friends.￼
Today, you can ride on a reproduction of a century-old square-rigged topsail sloop named Friends Good Will, based at the Michigan Maritime Museum, or pedal a bicycle on the 33.5-mile Kal-Haven Trail, which runs from South Haven to Kalamazoo. ￼
Phoenix Street is lined with quaint shops and restaurants (don’t miss Clementine’s for local perch), and every visitor should be required to walk out on the south pier to watch the sunset.
It feels weird that strangers will soon be mixing gin and tonics in the kitchen and watching sunsets over Lake Michigan from our back deck, but it makes me happy, too.￼
I hope they make memories as good as the ones I’ve made.
If You Go
South Haven is home to numerous rental cottages and homes (including my mom’s house on VRBO), a few chain hotels, a rental train car called the Caboose Inn, and a waterfront hotel called the Old Harbor Inn.