The MotorCities National Heritage Area is an affiliate of the National Park Service and is
dedicated to preserving, interpreting and promoting the automotive heritage of Michigan.
The programs and activities of the MotorCities National Heritage Area are designed to increase tourism throughout the State of Michigan through developing and distributing educational and informational programs that tell the story of the American automobile and labor industry.
The “Wayside Exhibits” are a project of MotorCities National Heritage Area with a grant from Michigan Department of Transportation. The exhibits are being placed throughout southeast Michigan where there is interest in telling local automotive heritage stories. The Irish Hills Stewardship Community is MotorCities’ local affiliate.
The Irish Hills Stewardship Community met to gather historical photographs and information to build a series of wayside exhibits at heritage-significant locations in our area. The exhibits are like book jacket or movie trailers that pique your interest in the historical subjects. Also as in a sense of whimsy is the off-beat facts that are presented as “You Auto Know” on each exhibit.
The Irish Hills “Wayside Exhibits” themes and locations are:
- CLIMBING THE HEIGHTS The Lure of Geology in the Irish Hills
Located on M-50 at the entrance to Hidden Lake Gardens just outside the exit gate.
- HENRY FORD IN BROOKLYN Building a Village Industry
Located at Swain Park in the Village of Brooklyn, at the main entrance off Tecumseh Street AT
- THE CROSSROADS Cambridge Junction and the Walker Taverns
Located on M-50 at the entrance to Walker Tavern Historic Site (State of MI).
- ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS at Brighton Hill and Kelly’s Knoll
The location is pending, but will be near the Irish Hills Towers. This sign should be installed in late summer.
Even though the Wayside Exhibits seem simple and very pictorial, the research that is entailed for each of these signs is very extensive. The following is just one report that was written by Bob Kellum to document the creation of the Brighton Hill and Kelly’s Knoll exhibit.
Brighton Hill & Kelly’s Knoll
Witness to an Irish Hills Heyday
In the early 1900’s the Chicago Road retained much of the dust, mire and inconvenience of the settlement road it had once been. As the new century ushered horseless carriages into American life, so Michigan’s growing prosperity and newfound freedom pushed these automobiles beyond what common sense suggested. The public’s impatient hue and cry over deplorable road conditions grew for decades before yielding in the 1920’s to anticipation of the Roads planned paving.
Sensing an emerging market, a group of area entrepreneurs formed the Michigan Observation Company to commercialize interest in the area’s unique topography and renowned beauty.
In 1924, atop a crowning knob along the winding road two competing observation towers sprouted, one on Mr. Brighton’s orchard and the other on Mr. Kelly’s pasture, adjacent to their common line. Among apple trees, the‘Original’ tower rose 50’ and in open pasture, the ‘Gray’tower soon followed, 10’ taller![ The height disparity was untenable and following the ‘Original’s’ 15’ addition there was short, urgent negotiation before it was agreed to cap their height at 65’. For the next 75 years the Irish Hills Towers hosted the motoring public, first as competitors and then as ‘twins’. During those years the towers came to symbolize an area recognized for unique roadside attractions, quaint tourist amenities and burgeoning summer communities set amid countless small lakes and hills.
In its heyday, Brighton Hill, or Kelly’s knoll, sported two inns, a campground, three gas stations, a garage, three restaurants, a dance hall, a picnic grove, a small zoo, carnival rides and a golf course. The hill was an early experiment in one-stop shopping, a virtual tourist Mecca. Fire would strike the burgeoning locale twice in 1931, burning Horn’s Barbeque and the Original Tower Café and Hotel. Each was immediately rebuilt. In 1949, fire again struck the Original Irish Hills Restaurant and Hotel only to rise a third time as a ‘modern’ style restaurant with detached motel.
With the opening of I-94 in the early 1960’s, considerable traffic was diverted from US-12. Also about this time, tourism began a qualitative change. Reaching ones destination became more important than the journey.
In 2004 the State of Michigan paid tribute to this waning style of travel by declaring Route 12 a Heritage Trail. By choosing ‘blue’ highways with numerous side roads and pausing to pursue curious oddities or read dusty wayside exhibits, we travel through a bygone era marked by patient expectation, simple pleasures and unadorned beauty.
Visit www.motorcities.org for the complete list of Wayside Exhibits.
Photos taken by: Maureen Cassidy Keast