This is a very sorrowful Tourism for Weirdos. Be warned.
Guys, do you go to Atlas Obscura? I kind of assumed everyone did and followed it on all social media like me, and used it for finding fun day trips like me, but if not I’m sad that I didn’t take the opportunity to steal from that site and recycle its content here for you. But maybe you do know about it? I don’t know what the kids know and don’t know nowadays. Anyway, you should go on it.
Because Atlas Obscura is basically the whole reason for this post. Whenever you go on there, the site finds “curious and wonderous travel destinations” near you and puts them up in a tidy little list along the righthand side of whatever article you’re reading. (This is also how I found out about the Midwest Miniatures Museum, I believe.) It always tells me about the Bath School Massacre Memorial. There’s some info in that AO article, but Wikipedia actually has a lot more details and quotes, as well as some of the fall-out from the event. Both articles are very sad, because we’re dealing with the tragic story of a crazy man who took out his craziness on himself, his wife, and innocent children.
Even growing up in Michigan during the nascent years of our current school shooting/basically anywhere shooting/ugggggg era (Columbine happened when I was in high school), I had never heard of the Bath School Disaster. It wasn’t until I was out of the state, working in higher ed in Boston that one of my students (who was originally from Toledo of all places and told me I “wasn’t really from Detroit”) told me about it, incorrectly Mansplaining to me that was why doors legally had to be “push out” in order to allow for escape in case of disaster. (You’re wrong, Soren! I am from Detroit and it was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire* fully sixteen years before Bath that spurred the “push out” decision! Ugg, Ohioans.)
Still, Michigan is a big state! We have two whole pleasant peninsulas! I can’t pretend to know where every teeny town in this whole glorious mitten is! Even ones named after cities in England/places where you clean yourself! Even upon returning to Michigan and seeing the Bath School Disaster pop up on my AO page, I had no idea where the place was. If you had pushed me, I would have said, “Maybe by Niles? Pfft, I dunno.”
That all changed this week. This week I had a day-long conference in Lansing, which is straight-up an hour northeast from where I currently live. So I was talking the day before with a coworker who lives in Lansing who was giving me (unsolicited) directions on how to get to the conference center.
“It’s on the far north east end of Lansing,” she said. “It’s basically in East Lansing. Or actually, I think it’s actually in Bath Township!”
She meant it to show me that it was a very long drive for me, but even thought she kept talking I stopped listening because now I knew that Bath Township was nowhere near Niles (which is honestly not far from me), and that I could finally satisfy this itch that Atlas Obscura had planted on my skin many months ago!
The afternoon of the conference, was lovely! Blue skies, just cool enough for a jacket, but windier than anything. Besides Lansing, there isn’t really much in mid-Michigan, and some would argue that there also really isn’t much in Lansing. (It’s famous for having the mall where a lady yelled at facetaco’s wife), so I turned out of the conference center/golf course, away from East Lansing and the bustling Michigan State University campus, and out into farmlands and country roads lined with ranch houses. My GPS told me the disaster site was only six minutes away from the conference, and it was correct. As I drove along the two-lane road, I saw a flashing yellow light ahead of me and figured this was the “Main Street” I was supposed to turn left onto, but then my GPS lady was like, “TURN LEFT ONTO MAIN STREET NOW!”
Despite the name, this was no main street. It was a simple, quiet neighborhood street in a perfectly nice middle-classish rural town. No sidewalks, just dirt shoulders, and modest houses that looked lived-in and had messy yards. Having grown up on a street very similar, I felt very much at home, very empathetic with the people of Bath who currently live on this street where a terrible disaster happened not even a hundred years ago. And I wonder if maybe the grand plan had been to have this be the main street, but then when the disaster happened, people didn’t want to drive past the site on their way to the general store or pharmacy or whatever, so businesses moved east to Webster Road. I just don’t know! There were a couple of Victorian houses along Main Street, and I couldn’t help but think that those houses were standing and probably occupied when the disaster happened. That their residents probably felt the blast and went running out to see what happened and maybe to help. Or maybe some little kid left that porch that morning like every morning and walked down the street, walked along the shoulder where I parked, went in the school, and never came outside again. Guys, it was really very sad.
The historical marker, the stone with the victims’ names, and the copula were in a little park that was behind the new, 90s era middle school. There was also a little picnic hutch, and a war memorial there. it was quiet and shady at 5 o’clock in March, but it wasn’t hard to imagine this being a great place to play as a kid if you lived in the neighborhood or maybe after school got out at the middle school. Like, I would have loved playing around that copula with my friends, pretending maybe we lived in a castle and that was its turret or something. Which is both seems inappropriate and a little bit perfect. Just like there’s basically still a school on or very near the site. The historical marker’s reference to the town’s “living youth” is particularly telling, I think, and although this tourism took up only a couple of minutes of my day, it’ll stick with me longer than any of the lessons I learned at the conference. Awwwwwwwwwwwwww. Tragedies happen and terrible things occur, but you have to keep living! There’s a future to be thought of, and you have to hope it’ll be better than the past we left! Life lessons here on HM. Very sincere and earnest.
The Bath School Disaster historical marker is at 13751 Main Street in Bath Township, Michigan, and if you visit YOU BETTER FUCKING CALL ME, WE ARE SO CLOSE, but also there’s no parking lot, just an extra wide bit of shoulder with handicapped parking sign near it. If you wanna get more of that sweet sweet sadness, the Detroit Free Press has some additional historical photos of the site, some featuring studly 1920s Michigander dudes, and a photos of Girl With A Cat, my new favorite work of art.
*I think I’ve plugged this book before, but if you are remotely interested in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or labor in early twentieth-century America or women in early twentieth-century America or the American immigrant experience, I cannot recommend Triangle: The Fire That Changed America enough. It’s probably one of my favorite books, which is weird.