The Coe House Museum
The Coe House is the home of the Grass Lake Area Historical Society (GLAHS) and has been since 1972. The building itself was constructed in 1871 in the Italianate Tuscan Vernacular style. It was contracted through the Shelly Lumberyard by Henry Vinkle, owner of the furniture and hardware store in Grass Lake at the time. The Vinkles left Grass Lake for the Dakota Territory in 1887. The next known owner was the Detroit, Jackson, and Chicago Railway Corporation, one of two competing interurban lines through Grass Lake, in 1901. The Herman Mellencamp family owned the house from 1909 until 1926, when Catherine Walz purchased it. The front parlor was rented out as a tourist room during her tenure. In 1953 Archie and Myrta Coe bought the home, and it was from Mrs. Coe, by then a widow, that the GLAHS bought the house in 1972 for $12,500. Mrs. Coe was invited to live in the house as long as she wished. It was agreed that the building would be called the Coe House Museum. In 1974, the GLAHS started renovating the house, and the museum was opened to the public in 1977.
During the years since 1971 when the GLAHS was founded, it has had four presidents. Between 1971 and 1987 Jim Stormont, Pat Kooiman, Diane Loring, and Sam Knecht served in this capacity. Mike Fensler has held the office since 1987. During most of this time, a tenant has rented the upstairs of the Coe House, giving a sense of security to the building as well as bringing in some additional income.
The house was restored and the interior refurnished by volunteers working between 1974 and, actually, never stopping! The kitchen and bathroom were renovated several years after the living room, dining room, parlor, and downstairs bedroom, and the barn behind the house is the latest part of the property to be “fixed up” and open for viewing since the summer of 2004.
The GLAHS has two events during the year, one on the Labor Day weekend in September (this event is now shared with Whistlestop Park) called Heritage Day, and a Christmas Auction now held on the first Tuesday in December. The house is also opened by appointment by contacting the GLAHS. The Coe House has a good collection of local historical artifacts, but the historical society is always looking for anything tying in to Grass Lake history.
The GLAHS has been setting up displays at the Jackson County Fair for several years to help others in the area become aware of the Coe House Museum and what it offers the community. In addition, the GLAHS has provided a History Award scholarship to a deserving high school senior every year since 1987, and for the past few years, the award has been in the form of the Alfreda Atkin Foust Scholarship, currently a presentation of $600 to help defray college expenses.
The Coe House Museum welcomes visits from interested parties as well as new members. A single membership is only $5.00; $10.00 for an entire family. For more information, or, to arrange a tour, contact Historical Connections President Mike Fensler at 517-522-5141.
The Lost Railway Museum
Before paved streets and buses the electric Interurban railway system in Michigan was the primary mode of public transportation. It was the link between cities and rural villages. It delivered guests to lake side parks and casinos like the one on Big Wolf Lake. It expanded local populations into regional ones. Most interurban systems started in the late 19th century and only operated until the late 1920'S. A very short lifespan for such a significant industry; that grew quickly and died just as fast. Most people alive today have never heard of the interurban system. It is the Lost Railway.
Jackson County was one of the largest railroad hubs in the nation during most of the early 1900'S. More than six different interurban rail lines intersected the county. They connected Jackson County communities Like Grass Lake to larger cities Like Ann Arbor, Jackson, Battle Creek and Lansing. Competing interurban Lines ran through the Village of Grass Lake on different track systems, in addition to the coal-fired steam railroads of the time. For over a century, the citizens of Grass Lake have had a close relationship with the railroads which ran through the middle of downtown.
In 1987, a group of citizens took it upon themselves to rebuild a historic rail station that was severely damaged by fire. It only took a few years to raise the money and complete the reconstruction. Since then, many of the artifacts (including the old safe) that were removed over the years have been donated back and proudly fill the same places they did at the turn of the century. The "new" old train station now serves the community as a public meeting place and event center.
A few years later, a section of the old interurban rail bed and right-of-way was made available to Grass Lake Area Historical Connections. Again, Grass Lake residents, working with Grass Lake Area Historical Connections, rose to the occasion. The land was acquired in a donation from the family of the late Judge Gordon Britten, and a replica interurban waiting station was constructed on the property directly behind the Coe House Museum.
With the development of the interurban property, Grass Lake residents began to look for other ways to remember and honor the rail history of the community. In 2013 an original interurban car (#29), which used to run the rails in Grass Lake, was located at a nearby lake. It had been converted to a cottage after the collapse of the interurban industry. Again, working with Grass Lake Area Historical Connections, local residents raised money, acquired the car, moved it to Grass Lake and began working on the early stages of a full restoration. Currently, a group of over a dozen local residents are working to make that dream a reality. In 2015, a 501(c)(3) organization was formed to raise donations and fund the project. A team of local craftsmen continue the process of the complete the restoration of the car. Resources are being gathered and the wheels are turning; it's time to get on board.
A PLACE FOR HISTORY
A building located at 142 W. Michigan Avenue in Grass Lake has been acquired by the Lost Railway Museum organization. Jackson architect Bob Cole of Architonics, an extensively experienced designer of museum spaces, designed the renovation plan that turned an abandoned old building into the showpiece of downtown Grass Lake. Ultimately the final project to include over accumulated 7,000 square feet of exhibit and community use space. Mike McKay at MR Builders took charge of the restoration of the building that currently exists today.
The Lost Railway Museum is led by Board President Phil Willis who provided leadership in the idea of creating a new museum and tourism destination in Grass Lake. Willis was born and raised in Grass Lake, growing up on Willis Road and graduating from Grass Lake High School in 1959. His family has continuously lived in the community since 1860. Mr. Willis an accountant and entrepreneur, continuously supports the greater Jackson community. One notable achievement was serving simultaneously as Jackson Symphony Orchestra board chair and co-chair of JSO's $4.0 million capital campaign. His involvement in this project is based in his love for the Grass Lake community and his desire to make it a better place.
A STRONG TEAM
The Lost Railway Museum board of directors possesses the skills and experience in entrepreneurship, business development, finance and law that are necessary to successfully manage this venture. The current directors include: Phil Willis, President/Treasurer: Steve Makulski, Secretary: and directors Thomas A. Grace. Dennis C. Regan, Daniel Machnik, Linda Hutchinson, Greg Million and Larry Lloyd. A committee of community volunteers has been working on the restoration of the interurban rail car since 2013. The committee includes Jerome Drouillard, Rich Willis, Jim Stormont, Scott Willis, Jon Flannery, Ken Soderbeck, Don Dakin, Thomas Grace, Bob Brownsey and Tom Nolte. As the project moves forward, it is attracting the interest of many strong supporters from the greater Jackson community who can contribute to its success. In addition to the board, restoration committee and facilities team, Bob Michaels, with RJM, is assisting with marketing and communications plans. Lynne Loftis, retired executive director of the Ella Sharp Museum, is assisting with research and content and display development. And, the project fits clearly within the promotional objectives of Experience Jackson, Jackson County's visitor bureau.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
The museum tells the story of how the rail line was important to Michigan's transportation history and the significance of Grass Lake and Jackson County in its development and operation. The museum is located at 142 West Michigan Avenue, within the central business district of Grass Lake, Michigan. Development of the site has included a complete renovation of the existing structure into a modern museum with available community use space. Alternative considerations include the construction of a turn of the century railway and the acquisition of a turn of the century horse drawn trolley car operating near the museum; enhancing the interactivity of the museum and displaying a precursor to electric railway systems and the interurban syste.
The Lost Railway Museum needs your help. Together, we can grow tourism in Jackson County while telling the story of Michigan's Lost Railway Museum. Together, we can stimulate economic development in the Village of Grass Lake and create a stronger sense of community pride. Your financial support today will help make this shared community vision a reality. For more on the details of the Lost Railway Museum, click the link below: