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A ribbon of hard surfaced road

By the 1920s, the local economy had declined due to the collapse of the sawmill industry. With several smaller industries attempting to take the place of the lumber manufacturing, the hopes of turning the Manistee County region into a more developed area for tourism became a priority for city leaders.

With the advancement of the automobile by the 1910s, the state was propelled to create better roads for travelers which, coupled with Manistee’s unique beaches and setting along the lakeshore, provided a better opportunity for visitors looking to vacation in Manistee.

Even though the portion of M-11, called the West Michigan Pike, reaching from Chicago to the Upper Peninsula began years prior, it wasn’t until the spring of 1925 that the portion extending through Manistee to the south began being paved. Throughout much of the spring and summer of that year, numerous articles published in the Manistee News Advocate reported on the paving of the new highway which not only informed people of the newly paved route but also teased them with the progression that was much needed for the city.

By the late summer of 1925, plans for the official grand opening of Manistee’s paved portion of the West Michigan Pike had begun to be set in motion. An article published in the Manistee News Advocate on September 16, 1925 details some of the rudimentary plans for the celebration:

“Now it is Manistee’s turn to celebrate.

“The city to the north has set Saturday, September 26, for the day to celebrate the opening of the last link in the paved way on the West Michigan Pike, connecting that city with the outside world. It will mark the longest stretch of paved highway in Michigan, a ribbon of hard surfaced road extending from Chicago to Manistee.

“Western Michigan is going to join in the celebration, and Muskegon, which played an important part in obtaining the improved highway to the north, is to be represented. Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, Holland, Hart, Shelby, Pentwater, Ludington, Scottville and other communities are to join.

“The opening of the new highway is expected to mark the appearance of the greatest motorcade ever to traverse a highway in Western Michigan. It will start at Grand Rapids, where the plans are being made by the Grand Rapids Motor Club. It will come to Muskegon where automobiles from this city will join in the procession. Then it will move north over the Pike, adding to its numbers on the way.

“And the present plans call for the welcome at Ludington by Manistee. It is expected that Manistee will send several hundred automobiles south to meet the visiting motorcade, and then the trip will be made over the new paved highway into Manistee.

“All Manistee appears to be in hearty accord with the visit of the downstate party, which it is now assured will comprise the greatest motorcade to ever enter city, and the visitors will be warmly welcomed, officially and otherwise.”

As the days quickly approached it was reported that the opening ceremonies would be free of “flubdub usually attending such occasions” but visitors would instead drive into Manistee over the newly paved road and be “hospitably received and given the freedom of the city and its various attractions”.

While planning a large celebration for an unimaginable group of people can be difficult, plans were made, erased and made again for the opening of M-11. Efforts were first attempted to divert the high school football game from Muskegon to Manistee but to no avail. Orchard Beach was mentioned as a place to have people congregate and listen to guest speakers but were later switched to the Ramsdell Theater because of the issue of the weather. Other events were to include a special banquet at the Hotel Chippewa and a performance by local bandleader, Mike Kliber and his band.

Along with plans for the big welcome, an edict to business and homeowners to make their storefronts and homes look inviting to the visitors that would be passing through the city:

“In compliment to the many visitors who will be here tomorrow to help US celebrate the opening of the paved way into our city, Manistee should be decked out in her best bib tucker. We should discard slovenly negligee and don our finest glad rags. To this end we urge:

“All business places and residences to display the American flag.

“Merchants to decorate their store fronts, dress up their display windows, and illuminate them brightly at night. Motorists to drive clean, tidy-looking cars, decorated as they deem suitable.

“A neat town creates a favorable impression.”

Finally on September 26 the celebration commenced of the opening of Manistee’s stretch of the West Michigan Pike and the Manistee News Advocate provided a lengthy description of the event.

“The first group of cars from the south numbered more than 75 as it turned onto Vine Street, where a tally was taken. These were principally from Muskegon and were followed shortly by the main Grand Rapids group of more than 30 cars, some of the drivers from the West Michigan metropolis having swung into the first section.

“From the north came the remainder of the group, Honor leading with about a dozen cars and Traverse City, Benzonia and Bear Lake contributing, according to the banners carried on the machines. Each automobile in Traverse City’s group bore a banner with the slogan ‘M-11 Paved to Traverse City by 1926,’ a hope that was universally approved by the many boosters of the West Michigan Pike who gathered here.

“The weather from early in the morning was misty and light showers were inclined to fall at times. However, as the visiting motorists approached Manistee just before noon and during the time they were entering the city, a benevolent autumnal sun brightened and warmed the atmosphere, only to go in hiding again after the visitors had seated themselves to luncheon at the Chippewa.

“Ambushed at Buttersville Corners, a point on M-11 south of Ludington, the advance flank of Manistee’s welcoming unit three automobiles headed by Harry W. Musselwhite, representing the Manistee Motor Club, met the motorcade of 30 Grand Rapids cars at 10:30 a.m. After a 20 minute wait State Police Bailor and Kays led them on and the unit poured over the hill, hesitated, and the first of the great convoy was joined, Manistee leading with four state police on their motorcycles ahead, Troopers Miller and Sidbotham the re-enforcement. The convoy advanced north, spaced about 50 yards apart. At the outskirts of Ludington, Walt and Skeezis of Gasoline Alley, Joe Seely and Little Tom Scott, and Mutt and Jeff, Art Bureau and Earl Draper, wove into the line and headed the convoy. Walt’s car was missing, dropping water and bolts and overbalanced to the port by its red-shirted driver. Mutt drove with abandon with Jeff perched high beside him. This burlesque drew Ludington’s mirth and shop doors were jammed as the unit passed through.

“At Pelton’s Corners, the Freesoil Junction, the motorcade, increased in approximate numbers, fully 25 more automobiles falling line. The wide sweeping curves of the new highway were long passed before the entire troupe had rounded them. At Szymanski’s no especial notice was taken of the point that once was stopped with the road work barriers. The troupe buzzed along, making the turns on Kosciusko, Sibben and First Streets in perfect formation.

“The drew up at the Chippewa Hotel, the first cars parking and unloading the guests before the last car in the convoy had rounded Division Street.

“Probably more cars assembled at the hostelry than the best summer resort turnout ever presented. Muskegon, Grand Rapids, ad Honor men covering all available standing space. Bandsmen, drivers in the motorcade, their ladies and guests made the hotel lobby an assembly that could not be compared with an American Legion’s meeting Jack Dempsey.

“The brand new “WELCOME” signs provided by the city for this particular occasion were hung over M-11 early this morning, one just past Orchard Beach Junction on the northside, at the city limits, and the other at Rietz Park at the southern limits.

“The incoming side of the sign reads, in large letters at the top: WELCOME and below: This is the place you have been looking for; 10,000 people welcome you. The outgoing side bears a courteous “Thank You” and extends an invitation to return.”

One year later, the U.S. Highway System was approved and portions of M-11 were designated as US-31. Throughout the 1950s, the route of Manistee’s line of US-31 was changed with the main highway heading north and south down Cypress Street which was widened to accommodate more traffic.

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