Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2006

The Irish Hills Towers

By LeRoy Barnett


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Opened in 1924, the “Twin Towers” along the main route between Detroit and Chicago were a welcome sight to weary travelers. A climb to the top provided a beautiful view of the many surrounding lakes and green Irish hills.

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They stand by the side of the road like a pair of bedraggled sentinels from a defeated army, seemingly a couple of rear guards defending all that is left of better times. Where once they were nattily attired and regionally popular, today they are lonely remnants of their former grandeur. The siding is falling off, the windows are boarded up, the paint is chipping off and the doors are locked to visitors.

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These deteriorating icons of a bygone era are the dual adjacent towers in Lenawee County's Irish Hills, once one of the state's principal tourist destinations. Situated in the beautiful lake district several miles east of Cambridge Junction, the man-made pinnacles are located at an elevation that affords a scenic view of the picturesque and gently rolling terrain.

The story of these regional landmarks

goes back to late summer 1924 when the newly established Michigan Observation Company approached Edward Kelly about buying some of the high-ground property next to the US 112 highway (present-day US 12) for the purpose of erecting a viewing tower. Not wanting such a structure in his front yard, Kelly turned down the overture.

The determined company contacted Kelly's next-door neighbor to the east, Edward Brighton, about buying an adjacent hill in his orchard. Brighton agreed to the deal and the lookout opened on October 4, 1924. A band from Jackson and 1,200 people came out that first weekend to see the autumn colors from this new vantage point.

The original tower was erected just

six feet from Kelly's property line so as to be on the highest part of the Brighton tract. Twenty-four feet square on the ground and 14 feet square at the top, the 50-foot high structure had an interior stairway to the top. Admission was five cents and visitors passed through a souvenir shop en route to the viewing platform.

Kelly was angry that the sightseeing tower had been constructed so close to his property and that it partially spoiled the pretty view from the front of his house. To get even with the Michigan Observation Company, Kelly built an almost identical edifice on his own property just 12 feet from the opposing structure in late October 1924. This second configuration was popularly referred to as the “Spite Tower.” To gain the upper hand in this contest, Kelly made his lookout taller.

The Michigan Observation Company responded by raising its observation platform to equal Kelly's. To stop this competition from continuing indefinitely, the company made it clear to Kelly that

if this vertical one-upmanship continued,

it would demolish its wooden building and erect a much higher steel structure. The threat brought an end to the

contest and both structures topped out at about 60 feet.

Once the two contenders agreed their towers would remain the height, they found other ways to draw visitors to

their duplicate attractions. Because of

its superior corporate resources, the Michigan Observation Company had the advantage. Within several years, the company offered pets to feed (two alligators and a half-dozen monkeys), an arcade, picnic grounds, a gas station and a large restaurant.

With the addition of these amenities, plus a golf course, dance hall and café nearby under a different management,

a little community developed around the twin towers. With so much commercial activity to attract people, Greyhound opened a bus station and a ticket office on the premises. By 1929, up to 52 buses a day stopped at the site, allowing travelers to climb the observatories, use the rest rooms or grab a quick bite to eat. Thousands of people visited the towers each day.

By 1930, if not earlier, the business complex around the twin lookouts was operating 24 hours a day. It is doubtful if the towers were open at night — although they would have been romantic heights from which to view the stars above and the lights spread out for a great distance below. But other services at the location were certainly in demand around the clock.

The growth suffered a temporary setback in October 1931 when the combination restaurant-and-bus station was destroyed by fire. Located just a

few yards to the east of the towers, the

fire did not threaten them, thanks to the favorable winds.

The renovated quarters reopened in February 1932. The new building was more elaborate, containing a restaurant with a dining room, a U-shaped soda fountain/lunch counter, a large portico at the entrance for protecting guests from the elements and a 14-room hotel on the second floor.

After the eatery was rebuilt, the traffic returned, reinforced by many truckers who used US 12. This highway was paved in 1927 and for so many years was one of the main roads between Chicago and Detroit. To help provide for the amusement of these travelers, the new restaurant brought in three public slot machines and a giant telescope formerly used at the Chicago World's Fair was installed in the tower.

The towers continued to attract customers steadily throughout the rest of the Great Depression and World War II. During this period, whether due to strapped finances or gas and tire rationing, most recreational activities were conducted close to home. With the Detroit metropolitan area just 70 miles away, motoring visits to the Irish Hills remained popular and affordable daytrips into the mid-1940s.

Despite the success, in October 1947, the Michigan Observation Company exited the business and sold its lookout to nearby Brooklyn resident Frank Lamping.

As time passed, Americans grew more affluent and traveling great distances for leisure purposes became easier to accomplish. Short trips to rural Lenawee County waned in popularity as drivers sought more impressive sights. With the decline in patronage, it became clear that the two towers could no longer compete and survive. In February 1957, Lamping bought the second tower from one of Ed Kelly's heirs. He connected both structures at the base, making them into one unit.

By 1966, around two million guests had visited the towers. Having devoted a fair amount of his working life attracting people to these buildings, Lamping sold his towers to Anthony and Janet Moustakas of Grosse Pointe Farms.

A year after the Moustakases acquired the twin lookouts, construction began on the Michigan International Speedway

less than five miles away. Taking advantage of this fortuitous development, the Moustakases joined with other Detroit-area investors to create Irish Towers Inc. This new corporation tore off the tops of the towers and planned to build a restaurant on the tower crowns. Unfortunately, this enterprise soon ran into financial difficulties, leaving the observatories headless and closed for three years.

The towers remained without their superstructures until 1972, when Allen and Dorothy Good of Brooklyn acquired the property and started restoring the buildings to their former glory. Operating under the name of Killdowney Corporation, the Goods repaired, reinforced, fireproofed, painted and landscaped the facilities. Their greatest challenge was replacing the shaved-off observation decks. They built two 5-ton platforms on the ground and then used an 80-foot hydraulic crane to lift them into position on June 27, 1972. At the same time, the Goods also put in a walkway 64 feet above the ground, spanning the distance between the two towers. This allowed visitors to go up the east tower and down the west, eliminating two-way congestion in the staircases.

After investing over $40,000 in improvements, the Goods reopened

the observatories on a daily basis. Unfortunately, patronage proved inadequate to pay the bills, and late in 1974, the Goods defaulted on the towers' mortgage. The National Bank of Jackson retained ownership until May 1976, when the complex was sold to Ronald and Donna Boglarsky of Onsted.

The Boglarskys again took on the challenge of making the site a popular tourist destination. As late as 1986, on pleasant summer weekends, up to 300 people a day paid admission ($1 for adults and 50¢ for children) to visit the towers. What did customers get for their money? According to a Detroit news reporter who visited the lookouts during this period, upon reaching the top, patrons saw on a clear summer day “seven houses, a barn, two shops, four lakes, two boats and every shade of green appropriate to the Irish Hills around them.”

The meager panorama was an insufficient return for most customers, and the observatories closed at the end of the 2000 season due to poor patronage.

The changing tastes and adverse economics have stacked the deck against the continued survival of the towers. But this story is not meant to be the last rites for some dying landmarks; so much as it is a well-earned tribute to revered friends before they retire from the scene.

This copyright story originally appeared in Michigan History Magazine and is reprinted by permission.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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