Once Upon a Midwest: A nostalgic Michigan in its purest form

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - 4:37pm

There are 480 million acres of Midwest, filled with 68 million unique human beings. Hundreds of rivers and lakes amble through plains and forests. No one Midwestern state is quite like the other. For that reason, it can be difficult to understand the Midwest as truly one territory. Were there a library to mythologize the Midwest, the images and ideas of what we are and want to be might astonish you. This series wanders through the stories and imagery, the myths and legends, woven into the fabric of our identities.

A twinkling piano rings in slowly, as dark grapes are picked, water ambles down a gentle rocky slope and children scamper through cornfields after some kind of carefree happiness. A familiar voice — deep, warm and gruff — sounds, shepherding us through the simplicity tucked behind the force of habit. An old country store settled beneath the trees, wooden barrels full of resting apples and waves tickling leaves pinched between the rocks. The voice welcomes us to Harvest Time, over sweeping trees in shades of bonfire. While a young boy grabs a pumpkin, we’re asked to grab ourselves a piece of Pure Michigan.

Like fresh-picked Jonagolds in October, this advertisement was picked from scenes of my childhood. When I was a boy, my father worked on an orchard, mowing between the trees, baling hay and harvesting apples. I have a distinct memory of riding on a tractor one crisp October night while my dad worked the haunted hayride, tugging me and other kids along through the pines for modest spooks. Otherwise, I spent my youngest years running between apple trees and chasing my dad around the farm. Given that this great state is the third-largest producer of apples, I imagine many other Michiganders share memories of orchard escapades.

Each Pure Michigan advertisement is a poem, perhaps not one of love, but certainly one of shy admiration. Narrated by Michigan’s favorite son, Tim Allen, each ad depicts scenes that are both familiar and forgotten, as if we’d lost sight of those things most distinctive to our home. Scenes of the craft breweries, of which we are so prideful. The color and majesty in the natural splendor of our upper peninsula. Pictured Rocks, lighthouses and hot air balloons all find their way into the bundle of beauties that make up the ads, each one a little reminder that despite the misfortune of years past, this is still beautiful country. Their only blemish is that their original purpose isn’t necessarily meant for Michiganders. After all, they’re a tourist ad, and therefore must be beautiful. It can be hard to find them sincere when they’re intended for profit.

In 1848, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech criticizing Lewis Cass, who had been the governor of Michigan Territory for nearly two decades. Cass had apparently embellished his military triumphs, and as he was running for President, Honest Abe declared, “I mean the military tale you Democrats are now engaged in dovetailing onto the great Michigander.” Lincoln called us a bunch of geese and we decided not to let him have the last laugh. Thus, our preferred demonym was born. There is perhaps nothing more midwestern than embodying one’s faults. Ultimately, it’s what Pure Michigan is all about. Purity isn’t the feigned decadence we all think it is. It’s being earnest about what you are and using that to forge onward, to reach the point where the charm outweighs the heartache.

This story is ours and we owe it to ourselves to tell it in a way that resembles who we are. We decided that “Michigander” wasn’t something that hurt, but rather something that reckoned with both gaffe and pride, and we adopted it as our own. In much the same vein, Pure Michigan helps us rewrite the narrative. We are most certainly our hardships, but we are even more our beauty. We often forget that, becoming too familiar not only with those things that are beautiful, but also with the hurt. Pure Michigan is a prompt, reminding us that this isn’t just our state, it’s our home. 

The Midwest is often referred to as “fly over country,” but those of us who are lucky enough to live in Michigan know it isn’t true. We know there is a kind of purity in our gumption and our kindness. Michigan is humble and it’s authentic. That’s the story we’ll tell.