The world’s largest crucifix. Rare musical instruments. Michigan’s museums have a little bit of everything. Here’s what we found.
MICHIGAN—From the Detroit Institute of Arts to the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum, Michiganders have some fantastic options to explore art, history, and science. But with over 100 museums within the state alone, there’s plenty to explore. For those that are fans of the unconventional, the wacky, and the weird, Michigan has plenty of unusual offerings that will tickle your interests.
These museums offer the chance to learn more about music boxes, see the largest Tonka truck collection, and even post selfies on an embalming table. Read on for Michigan’s most mystifying museums.
Antique Toy and Fire Truck Museum
3456 Patterson Rd., Bay City, MI 48706
Bay City sits on the banks of the Saginaw River, just a short jaunt away from the Saginaw Bay. It is ironic, then, that a city surrounded by so much water is noteworthy in history for memorable fires. From the 1892 fire that raged across the South End and left 1,300 people homeless to the 1977 Wenonah Hotel fire which killed 10 people, fires have been no joke in Bay City. On the flipside, it’s also grateful for its first responders. This gratitude is in full swing at the Antique Toy and Fire Truck Museum, a museum containing the largest collection of fire trucks in the world.
The Antique Toy and Fire Truck Museum was founded by Jimmie Dobson. He founded it based on the love of toys and trucks that he shared with his late son Jeffrey for over five decades. The museum has more than 60 vehicles and over 12,000 toys.
The centerpiece of the collection is the world’s largest fire truck, the FDNY Super Pumper. This fire-fighting behemoth from New York City responded to almost 2,200 calls from 1965 through 1982. The Super Pumper is capable of flowing over 10,000 gallons per minute, at least five times as much water as a typical fire engine.
Additionally, the museum features the largest collection of Tonka toys and trucks in the world. It also features a NASCAR Room, which has almost every model toy car ever raced. There’s additionally a Snap-On Tool Room, Coca-Cola Room, 9/11 Memorial, Antique Alarm System, and more.
The Antique Toy and Fire Truck Museum is open Memorial Day through the fall season, on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. General admission is $8, with a $7 rate for students and seniors, and free for children 4 and under. For more information, visit the Antique Toy and Fire Truck Museum official website.
Tahquamenon Logging Museum
M-23, M-123, Newberry, MI 49868
In the late 19th century, Michigan was the premier logging destination, thanks to the prevalence of its white pine. From myths like Paul Bunyan to the history of Michigan’s many defunct logging camps and lumber towns, the fortune-seeking axe-wielding lumberjack is seeped in Michigan culture. At the Tahquamenon Logging Museum near the Tahquamenon Falls in the Upper Peninsula, you can learn about these archetypal fortune-seekers—and even eat a real lumberjack breakfast.
The Tahquamenon Logging Museum both preserves and tells the history of the logging industry in the Upper Peninsula. These 29 acres on the banks of the Tahquamenon River keep a number of historic buildings as they were in the old logging days, including a 20th century cabin, a one-room schoolhouse, the authentic cook shack, and the original Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) building. The museum shows the equipment and photos of what life was like for the logging crews. The CCC Building tells the story of the CCC group, a program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to build roads and campgrounds, replant trees, and improve wildlife habitats. After seeing the old buildings, visitors can also stroll the boardwalk for great views of the Tahquamenon River.
For those visitors that are in the area before noon, the best part of the experience is the authentic lumberjack breakfast. For no more than $10, guests can enjoy a volunteer-cooked all-you-can-eat breakfast with bacon, eggs, sausage, fried potatoes, and, of course, lumberjack flapjacks. The breakfasts are prepared exactly as they were in the time of the lumberjacks, over an old wood stove.
The Tahquamenon Logging Museum is open Memorial Day weekend through the fall season, seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $5, with a $2 rate for children. For more information, visit the Tahquamenon Logging Museum Facebook page or the Newberry tourism website.
Kaleva Bottle House
14551 Wuoksi Ave., Kaleva, MI 49645
With our 10-cent statewide bottle return, we Michiganders sure know how to hold onto our pop bottles. But could you imagine holding onto 60,000 of them and making a house out of them? John Makinen did just that in the small town of Kaleva.
In 1922, Finnish immigrant John Makinen partnered with Alex Ketonen to start Northwestern Bottling Works, a soft drink company in Kaleva. Northwestern Bottling Works claims to hold the origin for the popular Midwestern moniker for carbonated beverages as “pop.” According to the claim, the sodas manufactured by the company during that time were bottled in glass bottles with corks. Occasionally, the carbonated contents of the bottles would cause enough pressure to push the corks out, causing a large “pop” sound. The onomatopoeia created the term we still use today.
John Makinen created what is believed to be the first bottle-clad house in the state of Michigan. In 1909, he fashioned an ice house on his farm with bottles for insulation. To Makinen’s surprise, the air trapped in the bottles made an impressive insulation barrier. In 1932, Northwestern Bottlings Works’ technology changed and left Makinen with a surplus of bottles. The same year, he built a storehouse out of them.
Finally, in 1939, Makinen retired and decided to leave his farm. He started construction on a one and one-half-story bungalow in Kaleva that would become the famous Bottle House. Makinen used the rest of the bottle surplus to build the house over the course of three years. Using a specifically developed mortar, Makinen used an assemblage of different bottle varieties, with their bottle necks placed between the framework studs so the bottles’ bottoms were facing outward. He used not only pop bottles, but also wine, beer, and liqueur bottles. Most prominently, the bottles spell out the words “HAPPY HOME” in addition to several other geometric shapes. The home was finished in 1941, but Makinen unfortunately died in 1942 before his family could move in. However, his widow, Maria, managed to live in the house for many years.
In 1980, the Kaleva Historical Society purchased the home to house the Kaleva Historical Museum. The structure was added to the Michigan Register of Historical Sites in 1982 and the National Register of Historical Sites in 1987. The Bottle House remains a museum to this day, where visitors can learn about the Finnish settlers of Kaleva and how they contributed to farming and business.
The Kaleva Bottle House is open from Memorial Day through October on Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. It is also scheduled to be open in December for the holidays. The suggested donation is $3. For more information, visit Kaleva’s official website.
A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum
1404 Sharon Ave., Houghton, MI 49931
The western portion of the Upper Peninsula is known as Copper Country for a reason. The Keweenawan Rift is a geological rift containing Lake Superior within its valley, and it is this rift that created as much as 1.5 billion pounds of pure copper metal that were mined during the copper mining boom. The city of Houghton, home to Michigan Technological University, is situated right in the heart of the Keweenaw Peninsula and was named after the first state geologist and “father of copper mining” Douglass Houghton. It is fitting, then, that the city bearing his namesake also holds the largest public exhibit of minerals from the Great Lakes Region.
The A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum is located on the Michigan Tech campus. Among its 4,000 specimens, it offers the world’s finest collection of mineral specimens from both the Keweenaw Copper District and the Lake Superior Iron District. Many specimens were collected 100 to 200 years ago, with some collected by Douglass Houghton himself. It also features one of the best fluorescent mineral exhibits in the U.S., where a prism of mineral colors shine under black light. At the Copper Pavilion, visitors can admire the Gunness world-record-holding 19-ton copper slab, recovered from the bottom of Lake Superior.
The A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most of the year, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the winter. General admission is $8, with $7 rate for seniors, $4 rate for college students with ID, $3 for children ages 9-16, and free for children up to age 8. Michigan Tech students and employees have free admission. Admissions are good for two days in a row. For more information, visit the Mineral Museum’s official website.
Anatomy of Death Museum
292 Cass Ave., Mount Clemens, MI 48043
Mount Clemens has a unique tourism history. The northern Detroit suburb was initially known through the late 19th century and mid-20th century as a hotspot for mineral baths. Most of the mineral baths dried up after the 70s. By the 90s, the city was known for the public market Gibraltar Trade Center. Michiganders grieved when the popular weekend attraction permanently closed in 2017. Now, as of 2019, Mount Clemens has a new off-the-wall attraction in the form of the Anatomy of Death Museum.
Though the building may be unassuming from the outside, guests will enter the museum through a set of body bags and find themselves face-to-face with all things death. Owner Todd LaRosa displays his personal collection, with artifacts dating back to the 19th century.
The collection includes coffins, embalming tables, amputation tools, and over 55 human skulls and bones. Multiple cultures and their funerary rites are represented, including Indonesian tribes and headhunters of India. Visitors can pose for photo ops on a special embalming table.
Complimenting the museum is the Laid to Rest Antiques and Oddities shop, which specializes in selling death-themed “conversation pieces.” After exploring the museum, visitors can pick up their own taxidermy piece, casket, or an animal or human skull. The shop is located in the same building.
The Anatomy of Death Museum is open Thursday through Sunday from noon until 6 p.m. General admission is $10 per person, with a $5 rate for kids 15 and under, and kids under 5 are free. For more information, visit the Anatomy of Death Museum’s Facebook page.
The Doll Museum at Cross in the Woods
7078 M-68, Indian River, MI 49749
On your next trip to the Mackinaw Bridge, you may want to consider stopping by this curious roadside locale. If you do, you’ll find the unique 30-years handiwork of one Saginaw Sunday school teacher—over 500 dolls dressed in nun habits and religious garb.
The National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods is an open-air Catholic sanctuary in Indian River. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops named the Cross in the Woods one of only two national shrines in Michigan. It is dedicated to Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint. It contains the largest crucifix in the world; at 55 feet of height, it towers over visitors. The figure of Christ was sculpted by renowned Michigan sculptor Marshall Fredericks, who is perhaps best known for sculpting the iconic Spirit of Detroit. Fredericks had to get special permission from the Vatican to fashion Christ’s likeness without the usual crown of thorns.
Although the grounds are serene and certainly noteworthy, perhaps the most offbeat part of this attraction is the Doll Museum, the world’s largest (and only) collection of nun dolls. Sally Rogalski, along with her husband Wally, started the collection with the goal of preserving Catholic heritage. Sally started collecting and dressing dolls in 1945, and donated them on the condition that admission never be charged to see them. Although both Rogalskis have passed on, the Doll Museum stands as a monument to their dedication. Sally grew the collection further by communing with other religious communities to accurately portray their style of dress. The dolls of varying sizes model 217 different types of habits from different religious orders across North America and South America.
The Doll Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the winter. Admission is free. Visit the Cross in the Woods official website for more information.
Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
1010 Campus Dr., Big Rapids, MI 49307
As our national conversations about racism continue, it often becomes necessary to explore the darker sides of our nation’s history. The Jim Crow Museum on the Ferris State University campus is about sparking these conversations towards societal change, through a historical exploration of racial stereotypes in Americana.
“We’re not a shrine to racism, any more so than a hospital is a shrine to disease,” curator and founder Dr. David Pilgrim said in an interview with NPR. Pilgrim is a former Ferris State sociology professor and current Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. Pilgrim bought his first stereotyped object at the age of 12 or 13 in Mobile, Alabama. His collection only grew from there. Unlike most curators’ acquisitions, though, Pilgrim was all too happy to be rid of his racial collection.
This museum is not an easy tour to make, and is recommended for adults over the age of 18. The subject matter of the Jim Crow system of racial inequality is uncomfortable and even violent. The museum’s many displays emphasize how segregation and Jim Crow was much more than simply “Whites Only” signs.
The 14,000 piece collection of anti-Black imagery not only depicts slurs and racial stereotypes, but also glorifies violence against African-Americans. However, this brutal examination has a light at the end of the tunnel, as it is all in the name of teaching racial tolerance. The tour ends in a “room of dialogue” where visitors can reflect on the museum’s contents in the name of promoting social justice.
“We are a resource that does the thing that many Americans don’t want to do… talk about race in a direct way,” Pilgrim said to NPR. The collection focuses on segregation and beyond, starting from the Civil War’s Reconstruction era, through the civil rights movement, and into the present including modern events such as Barack Obama’s presidency.
Initially, the Jim Crow Museum started as a one-room exhibit on the Ferris State Campus in 1996. The museum moved to its current location in the Ferris State library in 2012.
“I want this small school in Big Rapids to be a national leader in the discussion of race and social justice,” Pilgrim said in a 2012 interview.
Pilgrim’s dream is quickly becoming a reality. A planned $18.5 expansion anticipates increasing the museum’s space nearly ninefold, transferring the collection from its current 3,500 square foot space to a 31,130 square foot space by 2024.
The Jim Crow Museum is located on the lower level of the Ferris State University FLITE LIbrary. It is open Tuesday through Friday from noon until 5 p.m. Admission is free. Visitors can obtain a guest parking permit here. Virtual tours are also available. For more information, visit the Jim Crow Museum website.
Call of the Wild Museum
850 S Wisconsin Ave., Gaylord, MI 49735
Did you know Michigan has its own little Alpine Village that takes inspiration from Swiss ski chalets? The northern Michigan snowbelt town of Gaylord may be better known for the cross country skiing at Hartwick Pines State Park and ski resorts Otsego Resort and Treetops Resort. But nestled in this quaint small town is the Call of the Wild Museum, where animal lovers of all stripes can learn about Michigan’s diverse wildlife.
The Call of the Wild has been a roadside family tradition for Michiganders for over 50 years. It contains over 60 displays of about 150 different animals, from elk and moose, to black bears and polar bears, to big cats and timber wolves. In addition to the taxidermied animals in front of hand-painted Michigan scenery, exhibits allow you to hear what the animal sounds like. Other features include a window display of antique fishing and hunting items, a hands-on discovery room, the Wildlife Theater, and more.
Their 5,000-square-foot gift shop is the perfect place to stop for souvenirs from “up north.” Visitors can pick up some homemade fudge, Michigan-made maple syrup, Minnetonka moccasins, cowboy boots, clothing for those frigid Michigan winters, and a number of unique gifts.
The Call of the Wild Museum is open year-round seven days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays it is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Summer hours are extended. General admission is $7.50, with rates of $7 for seniors and $5 for children ages 5 and up. For more information, visit the Call of the Wild official website.
Music House Museum
7377 US-31, Williamsburg, MI 49690
Long before the advent of Spotify and Apple Music, we listened to music through phonographs and radios. At this former farm north of Traverse City, the instruments and music marvels of America’s yesteryear are preserved in a live medium.
The Music House Museum was the invention of locally-known architect David Stiffler and mechanical engineer Dean Junker. In the 1970s, Stiffler and Junker shared a unique hobby of collecting and restoring antique musical instruments. They first presented their collection for friends in 1979. It was such a hit that the duo started renovating the farm’s buildings to presentation areas.
The first display was in the granary farmhouse. When the white dairy barn building was redone, it housed the main collection of restored instruments. The museum first opened to the public in May 1984.
The museum’s collection features musical items dating from the 1780s to the 1950s. The jewel of the collection is “Amaryllis,” a 1922 Mortier Dance Hall Organ, one of less than 100 large dance organs left in the world. At 30 feet wide and 18 feet tall, Amaryllis takes up the entire loft space of the white barn.
The collection also includes nickelodeons, calliopes and other air-powered music machines, church organs, player pianos, and antique music boxes. Recording mediums like radios and phonographs are also on display. It’s primary non-musical exhibit is a miniature recreation of historic Traverse City. The miniature display was on display in Clinch Park from the 30s through the 70s. The museum received it as a donation in 1991.
The Music House Museum is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. General admission is $16.50, with $5 rates for children age 16 and under, and a special ticket package for families at $32. For more information, visit the official website.