How the largest gay resort in the Midwest is in Michigan's "Bible belt"
This week Michigan Radio is airing a series called Community Vibe. We’re showcasing one interesting thing about different towns across the state.
Today we’ll visit the neighboring communities of Saugatuck and Douglas. They’re artsy, waterfront resort towns in West Michigan. Although Saugatuck-Douglas sits in what’s known to be the Bible belt of the state, it’s also home to a vacation destination to a large gay community. Michigan Radio’s Emily Fox reports on how Saugatuck-Douglas became the gay resort of the Midwest.
Jonathan Schruer has lived in Saugatuck for 11 years. He lives downtown, which is lined with boutique and artsy mom and pop shops right on the water. Schruer and his partner run a Bed and Breakfast here.
In his spare time, Schreur has been working on a project with the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society to tell the story of how the gay community came to be. As it turns out, gay men and women have been coming to Saugatuck-Douglas for a long time.
If you follow the Kalamazoo River about a mile from downtown Saugatuck, it dumps into Lake Michigan where you see miles and miles of dunes. Up until five years ago, one of those dunes hosted a private nude beach. Schruer says that’s where the gay community gathered for more than a century.
“There were newspaper articles from the 19th century that referenced men laying out in the nude,” Schreur says, “So in the 1890s already, that was going on.”
We don’t know if those naked men were necessarily gay, but Schreur says the gay population did start to take off around 1910 when the Art Institute of Chicago opened up a summer program in Saugatuck, called Ox-Bow.
“A lot of people who attended Ox-Bow, a lot of the creative types maybe were gay men and women,” Schreur says.
Once Ox-Bow was established, the artsy community and Chicago urbanities were traveling to Saugatuck-Douglas and more gay people started hanging out at the dunes.
Carl Jennings started coming to the area in the 1960s. Back then, he was living near Grand Rapids with his wife and kids. He was still in the closet. At that time Grand Rapids wasn’t a safe place for gay people.
“If you were known to be gay or something like that the police would harass you and want you to give them the names of anyone you knew that happened to be gay,” Jennings says. “It just wasn’t an easy way to go.”
Jennings would escape to Saugatuck on the weekends to bartend at the de facto gay bar in town, called The Blue Tempo, under the guise that he was making more money for the family.
“Back then you had to live and lead two lives. You had to be a straight person, or at least appear to be that way and then if you’re fortunate enough to find something like Saugatuck,” Jennings says, “It just felt warming and accepting.”
It was very different than the religious and conservative communities of Zeeland and Holland, just north of town. Jonathan Schreur, the B&B owner, grew up there and says Saugatuck-Douglas was referred to as “sin city.”
Schruer says back when Carl Jennings was bartending at The Blue Tempo, there was actually a law that said that you could not serve alcohol to homosexuals.
“We were lumped in with prostitutes and vagrants,” Schruer says.
Jennings says The Blue Tempo ignored the law and the police chief didn’t enforce it. But that doesn’t mean everyone got along.
“Around two in the morning, when the bars would let out, there was a little hot dog stand on the corner, about a block or block and half away, and quite often there would be confrontations between gay persons and what I would refer to as maybe some redneck trouble makers,” Jennings says.
The Blue Tempo burned down in 1969. There wasn’t a gay bar in town for another decade after that. By the early 1980s Jennings had come out to his family and he and his new partner wanted to start up a gay resort and bar in the area.
But the Saugatuck City Council wouldn’t grant them a liquor license.
“They said over their dead bodies would we ever have a license,” Jennings says.
So instead, Jennings and his partner drove across the river to Douglas and were able to open up a resort there. The Dunes Resort is now touted as the largest gay resort in the Midwest, with around 80 rooms.
Jennings says there were a lot of problems when the Dunes first opened. There were bomb threats and young men would try to break car windshields in the parking lot with baseball bats.
But Jennings says the gay population is much more accepted and integrated into the community these days.
You can see that at play at Douglas’s Friday night watering hole—a restaurant called Everyday People. Matt Balmer runs the place. He’s a lifetime local and was Douglas’ first mayor. He says there’s always a large mix of people that dine at his restaurant, but says there’s also a large gay crowd that shows up on Friday nights.
“Friday nights have been dubbed, not by me but by a lot of our guests, they dub it as Fri-GAY nights,” Balmer says.
In a room of about 50 people, about a dozen guys are gathered in the middle, hugging and greeting one another.
One of those men is Bobby Carlson. He says his crew is a bunch of busy professionals who live and work in the city.
“We all come in from Chicago and Detroit. We all converge after a whole long week of work. We all know, come to Douglas, our beautiful four block town and come to Everyday People,” Carlson says.
Carlson says they all have second homes just down the road from each other here. Like the first gay wave a century earlier, they have a place where they can escape from the city, relax and feel like they belong.
Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.