100 Years of Irish Hills Amusements
It's been around 100 years since Irish Hills started attracting tourists with their 5-mile stretch of amusements, all up & down US-12.
Any Mid-Michigander who is anybody knows about the Irish Hills area. Anyone old enough remembers what it used to be: a haven for families who needed a nearby getaway for an afternoon jam-packed with all sorts of fun stuff for everyone.
The entertainment aspect of the Irish Hills started in the 1920s with the building of the original Irish Hills Tower. It opened to the public in 1924 for a five-cent admission. The second one – the “spite tower” – was built by Ed Kelley, who owned the other half of the hill where the first tower sat. He attempted to make his taller and a competition between the two went on for months.
People came from all over to gawk at the tower(s), climb to the top, get pictures, and grab a bite at the restaurant. Buses – up to 52 a day - would stop throughout the day, bringing travelers who were curious. Seeing how popular the towers were (and seeing dollar signs in their heads), entrepreneurs started adding their own tourist attractions up and down the highway, hoping to cash in on the towers’ popularity.
Hotels and restaurants began springing up along the five-mile stretch, and sure enough, here came the tourist trap attractions:
Mystery Hill (late 1950s)
Frontier City (1959-1974), complete with holdups, shoot-outs, and stagecoach bandits
Prehistoric Forest (1963-2002), with 35 life-size prehistoric animals.
Stagecoach Stop (1965-2007 and re-opened), with the same stuff as Frontier City, but more little shops
Fantasy Land, with amusement rides and fairy tale characters.
US-12 that runs through Irish Hills is said to have been a trail that was traveled by prehistoric mammals, possibly the reason for their ‘Prehistoric Forest’ attraction. US-12 was also used as a Native American trail, and eventually became a stagecoach route, thus the reason for the ‘Stagecoach Stop’ attraction.
In the 1840s, immigrants from Ireland arrived here after fleeing the 1846 Potato Famine. They were impressed by the landscape that resembled their home country, and dubbed the area ‘Irish Hills’.
Nowadays, the Irish Hills attractions are Michigan International Speedway, Walker Tavern, Walter J. Hayes State Park, Wampler’s Lake, Mystery Hill, and the former 1839 stagecoach stop, Bauer Manor (now known as Davenport House).
Now, go back 100 years in the photo gallery below and see some of the fun that travelers and families had at Irish Hills, beginning in the 1920s!