Halfway between Detroit and Chicago, is a small town that lives under the shadow of a prison.
But Coldwater is more than a prison town. Founded in 1837, residents pride themselves on their historic downtown, vibrant small businesses, and strong community.
After our visit to Lakeland prison, we returned to Coldwater and asked resident Floyd Tucker to show us around so we could learn more about what the town has to offer.
Driving in from the east side of the state, the roads just off I-94 are lined with red and orange leaves, and a light dusting of frost. As you get caught up gazing at the rolling fields, it could be easy to miss Showcase Gardens & Landscaping. But luckily, a large sign advertising ice cream, cider, and donuts easily catches your eye.
Floyd Tucker is the owner of Showcase Gardens. He says it’s much more than just a garden store.
“It’s a meeting place. A lot of people come and just chit chat and catch up with each other and see what’s going on," he says. "It’s better than a bar.”
Like many things in Coldwater, gardening is a longstanding tradition in Tucker’s family.
“My great-grandfather used to sell potatoes and stuff along the roadside. And then my grandfather had a farm market… and then my dad had one, and my uncle has one as well, [so does] my other uncle,” explains Tucker. “So it’s kind of in our blood.”
Having learned from previous generations means Tucker has a wealth of knowledge for people in the community. He even helped establish Lakeland prison’s gardening program.
But that doesn’t mean he’s done learning.
“My grandfather always told me I have about 60 seasons to get it right, and he’s absolutely right because every time’s different,” says Tucker. “And also just being in the earth and being out in the sunshine, it gives me a sense of fulfillment. And I’m taking care of my family with food, and the community, because we grow farm-to-table.”
Coldwater’s main street is lined with beautiful nineteenth century buildings. Floyd Tucker points out a number of them as we walk along, including the awning on Luedder’s Shoe House that has been restored to its 1940s glory. However, the crowning jewel is just off the main street; Tibbits Opera House was built in 1882 and fully restored in 2013.
Inside, rows of classic red theater seats fill the auditorium. Portraits of various figures hang on the walls, including a large photograph of B.S. Tibbits himself.
Christine Delaney is the executive director of the Tibbits Opera House. She explains that Coldwater used to be the stopping point for performers traveling between Detroit and Chicago. And so, someone had the idea to build a theatre for them to perform in while they stayed.
Delaney says, “[Tibbits] is among the oldest operating theatres in the United States, and that fact that it is operating and it is still standing here is pretty fortunate for not only the state of Michigan, but the city of Coldwater and Branch County.”
The building has gone through a lot of changes in the last 140 years — including a period when it was turned into an art deco movie house. Today, Tibbits hosts a wide variety of entertainment, including local theater, touring productions, musicians, and comedians.
Inside another historic building is a much more recent addition to Coldwater. North Woods Coffee Co. reopened under new owners just two weeks before we arrived, but new owners Kim Neitzka and Lisa Linville are already pleased with the turnout.
“We’ve been fairly busy, which is great. They’re trying to get more business downtown. We’re hopefully helping with that,” says Neitzka.
Linville adds, “We have quite a few groups that come in the mornings and stay until we close. We have our regulars, a lot of downtown areas. And then people have been driving in from different areas.”
Neitzka is a long-time Coldwater resident, and although Linville just moved there, she says she can already see what’s so special about the town.
“I feel what makes this community great are the people. There’s a lot of history, there’s multiple generations. The people look out for one another.”
Down the street from Northwoods is Jeannie’s Diner. A giant egg and bacon hang on one wall, and a train set circles around above customers as they eat their burgers.
Robin and Pete Hughes are sitting at the front table. Robin is a lifelong Coldwater resident, and Pete has lived there with her since they got married in the early 1990s.
The Hughes’ also say the Coldwater community is special.
“I just like Coldwater,” says Pete. “Everybody’s friendly. We know all of our neighbors, and not every place you do.”
Robin says that the town was once extremely tight-knit, and has grown a lot in recent years.
“People are working really hard at making the downtown filled up with anything. Restaurants, bars. It doesn’t really hold stores much any more.”
Pete adds that the downtown used to be home to department stores like J.C. Penny and H.J. Woodward, but now they just have big box stores closer to the highway.
Still, the couple is optimistic that new small businesses could hold their own downtown.
“The little stores downtown just don’t exist anymore, and we need to support that,” says Robin. “I’d like to see more of that.”
After visiting downtown, we head to a classic old farmhouse surrounded by fields and barns. A loud clunking can be heard from the outside, and the smell of burning charcoal fills the air. This is blacksmith Joel Sanderson’s shop.
Sanderson leads us into a room that is entirely filled with a massive engine. It was made in 1898, he explains, and drives the machinery in the shop.
“The best machines for forging were made, in my opinion, mid-1880s through, oh, 1940. So that’s what this is.” Sanderson, it should be noted, is a bit of a history nut. He’s wearing period clothing, including historical leather buckle shoes.
The engine’s giant wheels and pumps are moving belts across the ceiling and into the next room. Sanderson explains that although he can’t get much electricity out to the building, this machine provides almost everything he needs.
Next, he leads us into the forging room. The walls are lined with hammers and nails and other tools. The belts that the engine was moving are running across the ceiling. A brick forge sits in the center of the room burning coal.
“The iron is heated in the fire,” explains Sanderson. “And the machines around it are for hot working the metal. Each one has its own role, and each one is very different. And by having that variation, I can have more variation of what I express as an artist.”
Sanderson grew up on this farm, and has lived in the Coldwater area for most of his life. He says he prefers the lifestyle here.
“In a rural environment, you have everything you have in an urban environment, it’s just spread out more. So you have more space between. But once you’re in an area for a long time, you know where to go to get things. You have to drive maybe farther, but the drive is a lot easier than L.A., for heaven’s sake. So, I think a rural area is a much better place for the work I do.”
“But,” he adds, “I drive a horse.”