Saugatuck-Douglas History Museum Opens New Two-Year Exhibition This Memorial Weekend
An ambitious new two-year exhibition at the Saugatuck-Douglas History Museum opens for the season on Memorial Day weekend at noon, Sunday, May 28, contrasting the complex stories of Mt. Baldhead’s role in the “Cold War” of the 1950-70s and the cultural evolution that characterized Saugatuck and Douglas during that volatile period.
The Museum occupies the historic Saugatuck Pump House at 735 Park Street, in a scenic garden setting along the west bank of the Kalamazoo River at Mt. Baldhead Park, a short walk north from the Saugatuck Chain Ferry landing. Admission and nearby parking are free.
Titled “Cold War / Hot Towns…Saugatuck-Douglas in the 1950s-1970s”, the new exhibition relates how a sleepy resort community became a battlefield for conflicting “invasions” in the unpredictable and scary early years of the nuclear age.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, a 13-foot-tall tower depicting Saugatuck’s iconic Mt. Baldhead radar tower, features a four-sided display highlighted with pieces of the original radar instrumentation and a video presentation. The display dramatizes both the Cold War’s existential tensions and the tower’s creation in 1956 as part of America’s first electronic early-warning system against airborne attack.
A high-tech marvel in its day, this radar network replaced human skywatching plane spotters — one of whom was Saugatuck’s recently honored Citizen Of The Year, artist Peggy Boyce. Initially built with no enclosing dome, the tower’s relentlessly rotating radar screen looked down upon a divided nation, in an unsettling era of fallout shelters, school “duck and cover” practice and air-raid drills.
Ironically, it symbolized both the state-of-the-art in defensive protection and the silent, pervasive fear that a nuclear nightmare could start at any moment.
Around the exhibition’s periphery, the community’s concurrent cultural changes unfold in successive text and visual panels, enhanced with slide-show and video presentations. They tell the story of how, after the Great Depression and WWII, Saugatuck’s era of resort vacationing faded away to what seemed a symbolic end when the Big Pavilion burned down in 1960.
In that rapidly changing world, new and better cars, superhighways, air travel and plenty of cash were drawing the pre-war tourist clientele away to more exotic destinations, while the village, waterfront and harbor began spiraling into decline.
To test the memories of those old enough to recall the era, the exhibition includes a “Guess The Decades” game inviting visitors to match “trivia” with the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, focusing on “hottest” car, song, fashion, etc.
A “feedback station” will invite visitors to leave written memories of the era or comments about the exhibition, offering an e-mail portal through which they can later share Saugatuck-area experiences or photos reflecting those years.