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Wednesday, July 16,2014

State of the state: Weird

‘Oddball Michigan’ author serves up a seminar in roadside diversity

by Lawrence Cosentino

If you’re looking for a summer guide to Michigan’s storied waterfalls, wooded trails and crystal lakes, Jerome Pohlen’s “Oddball Michigan” is not it.

But if you need to know where all the giant hot dogs and colossal cows are, or where to find the Watergate burglars’ tools or the last place Jimmy Hoffa was seen alive, he’s your man. The Chicago-based traveler/author is drawn to “really strange places,” and he’s found 450 of them in Michigan.

“Every time I see one of those Pure Michigan commercials I want to sit on a dune and watch the sun set over Lake Michigan,” he writes in the introduction, “but I inevitably get distracted by the big lug nut atop a Lansing smokestack.”

His favorite Michigan discovery is on the book’s cover — a bizarre menagerie of scrap steel sculptures called Lakenenland, on Lake Superior near Marquette. A metal worker, Tom Lakenen, built 80-plus sculptures from scrap after he quit drinking and needed something to fill his time. The sculptures, most of them bigger than a car, include giant insects, dancing wolves and “a fat corporate pig pooping on the American Worker.” It’s free and you can snowmobile through it in the winter.

Pohlen loves do-it-yourself projects like Lakenen’s. “He does it because he loves it, and we’re the better for it,” he said.

That goes double for the “roadside fetus,” an anti-abortion display in Newaygo, and Dinosaur Gardens, a Christian site near Ossineke that greets the visitor with a giant Jesus, apparently bowling with the planet Earth.

“I admire people who put something on their front lawn that not everyone else would, or trying to create something, express themselves while everyone else is watching television,” he said.

Ideology is not a problem for Pohlen. He includes the birthplace of the Republican Party (in Jackson) and a brisk walk through Michael Moore’s Flint. Wing nuts, lug nuts and assorted sites sacred and profane are all part of his huge Michigan mosaic.

Pohlen packs a lot of history into the candy coating of oddness. He includes many sites with civil rights significance, such as the Underground Railroad monument at Detroit´s Hart Plaza and Sojourner Truth’s grave in Battle Creek and the Orsel and Minnie McGhee House in Detroit, subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case that broke the back of restrictive racial covenants.

It’s not that such sites are odd, Pohlen said, but they’re “out of the ordinary” as tourist destinations. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island can fend for itself.

Pohlen, 50, was born in Colorado and moved to Chicago in 1990, where he taught in the public schools and published math and science books for kids. On the side, he started a self-published magazine, “Cool Spots,” to showcase little-known alternatives to the state’s “hot spots.” Soon his eagle eye for odd attractions and his breezy writing style got the attention of Chicago Review Press. The magazine evolved into into a series of full-length books, beginning with “Oddball Illinois” in 2001. He’s done 10 states and 12 books so far. (Two are expanded versions of early editions).

He visits every spot in each guide personally. “There are some long weeks of touring around,” he said. “I try do do as much research as I can, but you’d be surprised how much bad information there is out there.”

He is careful to include up-to-date directions, hours and contact information. “I want people to actually go out and see these things, not just do the armchair traveling thing,” he said.

In the Lansing area, besides the giant lugnut, Pohlen took a liking to Joe’s Gizzard City in Potterville. “I was impressed,” he said. “The gizzards were pretty good.”

Other Lansing-area attractions featured in the book are MSU’s Magic Johnson statue, Sparty, the MSU Bug House, Malcolm X boyhood homes, the “moon tree” (grown from a seed that orbited the moon) on the Capitol grounds, and Stevie Wonder’s piano and harmonica at the Michigan Historical Museum. Several Marshall sites are also thrown in: the Honolulu House, the US Postal Service Museum, the Crosswhite Boulder and the American Museum of Magic.

Pohlen even included Potterville in a special “Christmas tour” section of “Oddball Michigan,” referring to the hellish town-that-could-have-been from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He noted the luckless town’s numerous train derailments and fires, a 1994 earthquake and a lighting strike that killed 22 people. “Potterville might be the kind of town that old man Potter would rule if George Bailey had never lived,” he said.

After every book, Pohlen is besieged by suggestions for places and things he left out. The second editions of his Illinois and Wisconsin book nearly doubled in length.

“I expect the same thing to happen with the Michigan book, and it’s already pretty long,” he said. “It’s a very odd state.” 

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