The store Up North that’s like a time machine to the 1800s

The Store Up North That’s Like A Time Machine To The 1800s

Photo courtesy of Flickr

By Lisa Green

February 23, 2024

Gone are the days when you could hitch up the stagecoach and round up the kids for a trip to the general store—but on the Old Mission Peninsula, you can get pretty close.

MICHIGAN—As the link between the frontier trading posts of yesterday and the party stores of today, Michigan’s historic general stores still have a lot worth loving from an era long gone.

The sound of creaking floorboards underfoot, the sight of children digging for penny candy, and the smells of cured meat and cheeses are just a few general store experiences that have remained timeless. For these reasons and more, the Old Mission General Store in Traverse City makes for an unforgettable stop when you’re in Cherry Country. But it’s one of several general stores still remaining in Michigan, with other stores including the Dixboro General Store in Dixboro and the Good Hart General Store in Harbor Springs.

The occasional store-bought purchase at the general store has long been replaced by the mass-market chain store experience of driving to your local Meijer. But the classic appeal of a once-in-a-while purchase, with many of those old-timey prices still intact, is a family-friendly experience worth trying the next time you’re traversing Michigan’s favorite “Up North” peninsulas.

The store Up North that’s like a time machine to the 1800s
Photo courtesy of Old Mission General Store via Facebook.

The general store and Americana

Back in the day, the general store was not only the one-stop-shop that has since been replaced by commercial corridors today, but it was also an important community hub.

In the later nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, general stores were plentiful in Michigan. American general stores date back to the Colonial era, but their utility was always most prominent in America’s developing territories. For Americans who lived outside urban markets, such as the Civil War-era settlers of the Old Mission Peninsula, the general store served as an important day trip to stock up on supplies, barter goods, send and retrieve mail, and catch up on gossip with the local townsfolk.

General store proprietors held significant social and even political power, serving as the clerk for the store, the postmaster, and possibly other community-based jobs like town clerk or Justice of the Peace. Aside from serving as a political forum and social club, the general store served as a community message center, with advertisements for local events, elections, auctions, and even wanted posters for criminals.

As advertising became important to manufacturers in the late nineteenth century, the general store became strongly associated with signs, calendars, murals, and other fixtures. These now-vintage marketing products advertised soft drinks, tobacco, farm implements, and more. Such advertisements can still be seen in general stores today and the aesthetic is highly prized and reproduced in pop culture media.

General stores also have common architectural elements. Most often, the old general stores are two-story frame buildings, usually with white siding, and a raised porch. The raised porch served not only as a social center in warm weather but also as a convenient location for loading and unloading goods.

The store Up North that’s like a time machine to the 1800s
Photo courtesy of Old Mission General Store via Facebook.

History of an old mission institution

The Old Mission General Store is one of Michigan’s oldest general stores still in operation. Part of the reason for this is because the Old Mission Peninsula was the first permanent settlement in northern Michigan.

Presbyterian minister Peter Doughtery first built a home in the Old Mission Peninsula in 1842. A few years later, after Doughtery left to create a “New Mission” in New Grove Mission Church, the Rushmore family bought his old house, called the “Old Mission.” The Rushmores laid the foundation for Old Mission as a resort and farming community; then, once tourism picked up in the 1960s, it became a wine destination, which it is to this day.

The Old Mission General Store might be easy to overlook during a visit to the Traverse City area, but its crimson-roofed visage is an echo resounding from the historic days of Doughtery’s first mission.

First built on the shoreline in 1839, the Old Mission General Store was the first retail and general store between Fort Wayne and Mackinaw City. It was also the first post office north of Muskegon and south of the Mackinac Straits. In either 1850 or 1870, the general store relocated to its current location.

Henry Ford himself was a frequent customer and visitor to the Old Mission General Store, especially during the summers. In 1917, Henry Ford purchased the present-day Power Island (then called Marion Island), which is located in the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay. He changed the name to “Ford Island” and brought his friends to vacation on the island. The island’s ownership changed hands again in 1944, but before that time, Henry Ford brought special guests such as John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs. Even Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren G. Harding were Ford’s guests. All got a chance to walk through the doors of the Old Mission General Store, too. In one story, Henry Ford brought Harvey S. Firestone to the general store and tried to convince him to install a gas station. Supposedly, Firestone never did.

The center section of the Old Mission General Store is its oldest, originally built in 1845, with worn-down floors and a potbellied stove. Another relic is its old telephone switchboard, now defunct, but once used to connect calls. Perhaps the centerpiece of the collection is the old-fashioned cash register, silver-colored with gorgeous filigrees, and still in working condition.

The store Up North that’s like a time machine to the 1800s
Photo courtesy of Old Mission General Store via Facebook.

The best pizza in the county, penny candy, aged cheese, and a pickle barrel

Though the Old Mission General Store doesn’t sell everything it sold in the days of old, there are quite an eclectic variety of items available. They have the food, snacks, spirits, and souvenirs that you might expect from an Up North roadside haunt, but they also offer things with nostalgia and more than a little kitsch.

The pizza is purported to be the best pizza in the county, which, considering the Traverse City and Old Mission Peninsula are culinary destinations, is saying a lot. The pizza is New York-style with a thin, crispy crust, available with your favorite toppings either to go or to enjoy by the slice in the parlor.

Not to be missed are the deli sandwiches, which, in one infamous story, were enjoyed en masse by Babe Ruth in the summer of 1936 one afternoon, while he sat in front of the Old Mission Inn and batted balls into the bay. Whether Babe actually did this is debatable, but he did definitely visit the inn, and the Old Mission General Store sandwiches are truly delicious.

The store also sells hand-dipped ice cream, which truly hits the spot on a hot summer day. Their cherry pies and pasties are also delicious take-home treats befitting of an Up North vacation. You’ll also find a mini coffee bar featuring a full bar of espresso products.

The general store offers plenty of grocery items, including jams, jellies, crackers, dried fruit, and more. The homemade aged cheddar cheese is a popular takeaway item, as are the dill pickles from the old-fashioned pickle barrel. An assortment of both old and new candies can be found in glass containers and wooden barrels, from Charleston Chews to more modern creations like Skittles.

Among the souvenirs, you’ll also find plenty of antiques and nostalgic items, like coonskin caps and corn cob pipes, and even the old-fashioned powderhorns once used to store gunpowder. The store stocks a wide variety of odd things, including straw baskets and snow shoes.

The store Up North that’s like a time machine to the 1800s
Photo courtesy of Old Mission General Store via Facebook.

A Shakespearean actor and history buff

With nearly two centuries worth of history, the Old Mission General Store has gone through several owners. But the current owners, Jim and Marcy Richards, have owned the store for so long and so enthusiastically that they’re an integral part of the general store’s atmosphere.

Jim Richards is distantly related to the Lardies, who originally owned the store and sold it to him in 1998. He was born in Detroit, raised in Berkley, and spent some time on the cast of a soap opera in California, where he met his future wife. His acting credits include working at the Houghton Lake Playhouse. He spent a lot of time in the Old Mission General Store as a child, so it’s definitely a labor of love.

Though Jim Richards is retired as an actor, his projecting, booming voice is unmistakable. He is still known for spinning yarns about the Old Mission General Store’s history, singing into the store’s rafters, and improvising into the antique telephone. Marcy still cooks up some of the best treats offered in the store, including the pizza, giant cinnamon rolls, and huge cookies.

If you go, make sure to grab one of Marcy’s big cookies and sit down for a story from Jim Richards!

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.The store Up North that’s like a time machine to the 1800sThe store Up North that’s like a time machine to the 1800s



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