Michigan Roadside Attractions: Douglas Root Beer Barrel
Michigan Roadside Attractions is a periodic feature on Travel the Mitten that will explore the many interesting things that can be found on the highways, byways and back roads of Michigan, ranging from the interesting to unusual.
We are always looking for new and unique roadside attractions as we travel across Michigan. Sometimes we find them completely by accident while headed to other destinations. A November trip to the Saugatuck Pump House Museum was one of those times, as it was impossible to miss the Douglas Root Beer Barrel on the way there. This iconic local landmark was a popular seasonal restaurant from the 1950s to the 1970s, and in 2018 it was opened once again to the nostalgic delight of this lakeshore community. It was closed for the season by the time we visited, but this is on the list of must-visit locations for summer of 2021.
A large sign with pictures details the history of the barrel. “The story of the Barrel begins in Flint, Michigan, when two friends, Joe Decker and Harold Kelly, decided they could make their fortunes on the other side of the state by selling frosty mugs of root beer and footlong hot dogs to people after a day at Oval Beach. They had the perfect spot on Center St. just east of Ferry. But they knew that an eye-catching gimmick would help lure people out of their cars. And so, hour by hour, stave by stave – 125 in all – this superb example of American roadside architecture came into being and opened for business in 1952.”
“During its two-decades heyday, the Barrel was a thriving hub of local comings and goings. Stopping at the Barrel was part of the ritual of going to the beach. For customers who would rather not get out of the car, carhops (the “Barrel girls”) would bring food to you.” The sign continues with information about menu changes, the addition of a gift shop, and more before noting its slow decline and closure in 1974.
The other side of the sign details the restoration effort to bring the Barrel back to life, including a set of step by step photos of its reconstruction. Those who donated to help make this project possible are also honored as “stave savers.”
A Holland Sentinel article from September of 2018 heralded the reopening of this landmark (a seven year process!) with decades of history. The Douglas Root Beer Barrel maintains a Facebook page with all of the information you could need about the menu and hours of operation. If you have plans to visit Mt. Baldhead or head to Oval Beach this year, be sure to make this a stop on the way there or the way back.