Pure Michigan: A two-centuries old marketing tool

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Up North landscapes aren’t necessarily “untouched,” but they’ve been marketed as such for centuries. Image: Marie Orttenburger

By Eric Freedman

Capital News Service

Long before “Pure Michigan” lured tourists and vacationers Up North, images of pristine forests and sparkling streams were doing the same thing — even if what they would see was neither pure nor pristine.

While the state’s slick tourism campaigns of the recent decades are familiar, people might not know that they hark back to post-Civil War advertising that romanticized the state’s nature “and gave it the transcendent qualities that remain in tourists’ imaginations today,” according to a recent study.

The study by Camden Burd, who grew up in Grand Rapids and spent summer vacations on Green Lake in Interlochen, dates the current “Pure Michigan” theme to a 2008 rebranding of the state’s tourism industry. He described the campaign as intended to boost tourism amid the Recession and to connect with the public’s feeling of nostalgia and “longing for tranquility and the restorative potential of a communion with nature that was untouched, uninhabited and idyllic.”

“When the Pure Michigan campaign really kicked off in 2008, it was painted with a really broad brush” and focused on such topics as “forests, water, rest and relaxation,” with photos of forests and shorelines, Burd said in an interview. Later the campaign expanded to promote urban destinations such as Detroit and Jackson.

Burd, who earned his master’s degree at Central Michigan University, worked at a Harbor Springs club between undergraduate and graduate studies. He’s now a doctoral student in history at the University of Rochester. His study, “Imaging a Pure Michigan Landscape: Advertisers, Tourists and the Making of Michigan’s Northern Vacationlands,” appeared in the journal Michigan Historical Review.

The allure of untrammeled nature hasn’t always been, well, alluring. In 1820, for example, naturalist-explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft “imagined a pastoral landscape cleared of forests, tilled and settled,” according to Burd. In fact, Schoolcraft used “bleak” and “desolate” to describe the now-iconic Sleeping Bear dunes on Leelanau Peninsula and the Grand Sable dunes on Lake Superior’s southern shore

To “turn imaginative landscapes into realities, Americans worked hard to alter Michigan’s physical landscape,” Burd said. Railroads crisscrossed the state to access once-remote timber and mining resources. Lumbering leveled large tracts of forests. Farming expanded as new rail lines made it easier to carry agricultural products to distant markets. Canals were built and harbors dredged.

Meanwhile, industrialization caused environmental trauma in cities such as Detroit and Chicago with their polluted waterways and garbage-lined streets, he wrote.

And that, perhaps ironically, made pure Michigan-type promotions feasible and profitable in the late 1800s as advertisers targeted what Burd called “a new, modern citizen–the ‘sufferer,’ an often upper-middle class or wealthier city-dweller who had experienced pollution’s ill effects, both environmentally and morally.”

The solution for sufferers?

Vacation in nature: a message trumpeted by steamship and railroad companies enticing passengers by rebranding Northern Michigan landscapes. The Bay View Association resort on Little Traverse Bay near Petoskey was one such reimagined landscape, Burd wrote, offering an “idyllic recreational environment” with fishing, hunting, sailing, educational lectures — and relief from hay fever.

As the 1800s wrapped up and the 1900s unrolled, one steamship company promoted Mackinac Island as a health resort for “sickly” city folks.

The Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad Co. advertised itself as the “fishing line” and staged performances of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” with a cast of Ojibwe tribal members to “connect urbanites with a romanticized and primitive environment,” Burd wrote.

Up North maintained its popularity in the 20th century by catering to a growing middle class with more transportation options. People headed into the U.P. where cabins, inexpensive campgrounds and state parks “made vacationing in northern Michigan accessible and affordable.”

And that, in turn, helped rally political support for environmental protection activities in the mid-1900s, including the founding of groups like Save the Lake Superior Association, congressional creation of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks national lakeshores, and passage of laws “framed in defense of a tourism-based economy,” Burd wrote.

As for the present, the study observed that the current “Pure Michigan” campaign and that of the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railway Co. more than a century earlier have much in common: “Both advertisers asked onlookers to imagine the potential health benefits of visiting these unique environments.”

The pitches may be essentially the same, but the landscapes aren’t.

“Although tourists want to experience the unspoiled natures of Michigan, no such environment exists,” the study said. “One need only to search for one of the few remaining stands of virgin white pine to partially understand today’s departure from earlier natures.”

Robert Archibald, a research associate at Northern Michigan University’s Center for U.P. Studies, said, “If you think what you’re approaching is untouched wilderness, you’re wrong. This is a landscape that has been incredibly abused.”

By the 1880s, the largest fish harvests in the Great Lakes had ended, said Archibald. By 1910, the U.P. had become a “land of stumps,” mining companies had created “huge paths of pits, some of which are toxic, said Archibald, a historian.

Ironically, he said, the U.P. landscape has partially recovered because the land had been so abused. It is still far from its condition before European settlement and mining and logging, but much  of it is now in national and state forests and parks, with 47 percent of the U.P.’s land area now in some form of protected status.

“What people see when they head north is areas that have recovered in remarkable ways,” Archibald said — but at a cost.

“It’s possible to destroy the very values that attracted people up there,” he continued. “We need to be really careful about seeing tourism as a panacea that has no negative environmental consequences.”

Archibald said, ‘If you go on a beautiful day and want to kayak at Pictured Rocks, you should be prepared to enjoy the splendors with hundreds of your closest friends.”

Burd pointed to two possibly contradictory effects of the Pure Michigan campaign. On one hand, it’s “problematic if people accept the notion of untouched nature” because such thinking conflicts with environmental history and potential current dangers like microplastics in the Great Lakes and an aging pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.

On the other hand, he said, there is potential benefit if environmental groups can harness Michigan’s “cultural mindset” about nature to “to encourage a sense of activism.”

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