Iconic cabin still welcomes tourists to the U.P.

Even in the digital age, when travelers can tap Google Maps for directions or search the internet for hotel and restaurant information, the rustic Menominee Welcome Center continues to serve thousands each year. 

One of the major gateways to the U.P., the Menominee Welcome Center stands along a commercial stretch of Route 41 just across the river from Wisconsin. The log cabin – built using the traditional Scandinavian-chinkless method – has been a way station the past 85 years and is believed to be among the oldest operating tourist facilities in the United States. 

“The history of the building is so rich and goes back many, many decades. It was  one of the first welcome centers in the state of Michigan and came at a time when that sort of facility was just getting started across the U.S.,” says Dan Weingarten, a communications representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation in the Upper Peninsula. “It blends right in with the landscape and architecture of the Upper Peninsula. The Scandinavian method of building log cabins was used, very typical of the camps and rural housing in the Upper Peninsula.” 

Travel information centers were new roadside amenities on U.S. highways when the Menominee center opened in 1937. Listed on the register of Michigan State Historic Sites, the Menominee site is one of six Michigan welcome centers in the U.P. The others are in Marquette, Ironwood, Iron Mountain, Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace.

“Visitors tell me this place really captures the Upper Peninsula’s rustic outdoor vibe,” says Vivian Haight, manager of the Menominee Welcome Center who also serves as curator of the building’s legacy. “Guests comment about the smell of wood and paper and say it reminds them of a family cabin.”

About the welcome center: The building housing the Michigan Department of Transportation Welcome Center opened in July 1937. The original Menominee "Tourist Lodge" – on the same site – was built under the direction of Murray D. Van Wagoner, a legendary Michigan state highway commissioner. The Menominee center followed the success of one in New Buffalo in southwestern Michigan. 

The grand opening of the new Menominee Tourist Lodge in 1937.

Civilian Conservation Corps workers from the nearby Wells Camp constructed the building using the traditional Scandinavian-chinkless construction method. Materials were sourced mostly from the U.P. Norway pine logs came from a state forest, copper for the roof came from mines, and stone for the fireplace came from area fields. The building was designed by Anthony Buyczkowski, who stayed on at the original lodge after it was completed to greet travelers and pass out literature until a full-time employee was hired.
Over the years:  The center was operated by Menominee’s chamber of commerce during the WWII years, and the log building deteriorated as weather and age took their toll.  As early as 1949, a team of professors and students from the University of Michigan took some core samples of the logs to check their health. They determined the logs were still sound, although some would have to be strengthened on the exterior or completely replaced. A few original logs were replaced while some were reinforced with the addition of half logs. 

A new center: In the early 1980s, the state decided to build a new, expanded structure, determining it was not economically feasible to continue to replace  deteriorating logs. The new log building used the original’s Scandinavian-chinkless construction method, which was common in the upper Great Lakes. 

Vivian Haight manages the welcome center, where she has worked since the late 1990s.The original doors, windows, fixtures, fireplace mantel, and slate floor were re-used in the reconstruction. Some 500 Norway red pine and white pine logs were used. MDOT maintenance crews sourced the pine logs from MDOT rights of way through state forestland near L’ Anse, Baraga, and Amasa. The pine construction was appropriate, Haight notes, as Menominee was at one time the leading white pine shipping port in the entire nation. 

Much of the original furniture and fixtures were retained. The desk, log holder, chaise lounge, and map case were made by Rittenhouse, a well-known furniture maker in Cheboygan. Made in the 1930s and 1940s, they are now considered antiques. The building was completed in late spring 1983 and was back in business in late June of that year.

Visitor reaction:  Haight, who has been working at the center since the late 1990s, says there are questions and comments nearly every day about the cabin. Visitors wonder if the building was once someone’s home or cabin. The smell of wood and paper reminds many of a family cottage.   

Maps are a common need among visitors as well, especially older generations. Many want to know how far it is to Munising and Mackinac Island, the two top Upper Peninsula destinations. Paper maps and brochures remain popular because not every traveler wants to download apps or scan QR codes. "We're still a necessary service for people who need information and want that piece of paper in hand," Haight says. "They want to talk to somebody. They want to interact with someone who knows the area. They don't want to talk to an app."

And then there's the issue of cell service. "Phones may not be able to work when they're supposed to in the U.P.," she says. 

Many calls and online questions in the winter focus on roads. “Can you drive in the U.P.? Do you plow the roads up there?” “People can be a little bit afraid of coming up here,” Weingarten says. “We tell them you have to be prepared for winter driving, but you can drive through the Upper Peninsula in the winter.”

There are other welcome centers in Michigan and many across the country, but the Menominee cabin, with its still-working fireplace and taxidermied animals, including a black bear, evokes that "up north" ambiance, resonating with travelers.

“When guests enter our center, we hear wonderful comments,” Haight says. “Someone this past summer said they’d visited Welcome Centers all over the United States and this one is by far the best they’d ever been in."
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