Gerald Ford went from washing dishes as a college student to leading the country as the president of the United States. This former Grand Rapids, Michigan, resident lived an unexpected and remarkable life, which visitors can learn about in detail at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.
The second-largest city in Michigan, Grand Rapids has produced many outstanding characters whose lives have helped shape the town. Frederik Meijer launched the Meijer retail empire, then used his wealth to create a beloved botanical garden. The Robinette family started a simple farm that grew to a major agritourism attraction. Two friends started a brewery that defied expectations and became one of the most prominent breweries in the state.
Each of these visionaries realized their own version of the American dream, which guests can learn about on tours of the Frederik Meijer Gardens, the Robinette’s Apple Haus and Winery and the Founders Brewing Company. Groups discover the interesting characters of the town’s past and present at these quintessential Grand Rapids attractions.
Founders Brewing Company
Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers of the Founders Brewing Company were so far behind on rent that they came to work each day with bolt cutters, fearing their landlord might try to lock them out of their brewery. On the verge of bankruptcy and resigned to the death of their dream, the pair decided to brew one last batch of beer.
Since it would be their last batch, Stevens and Engbers didn’t formulate it to appeal to the masses. Instead, they experimented with flavors and brewed the kind of beer they like to drink. Surprisingly, this new beer found an audience of beer enthusiasts with similar tastes who helped the brewery grow into one of the most recognized brands in the country.
“The cool thing about the Founders story beyond the excitement of the tour is this American dream story of two entrepreneurs that would not take no for an answer,” said Nitkiewicz. “They have ultimately grown more expansively than any other brewery in the country in recent years. They have doubled every year.”
During tours of the brewery, visitors learn about the technology behind brewing beers and get to sample a flight afterward. The company has won six World Beer Cup medals and produces eight year-round beers, with several seasonal brews.
Robinette’s Apple Haus and Winery
When Jim Robinette looked at his finances at the end of the day in the late 1960s, he realized his small farm wasn’t able to turn a profit. To avoid selling his land to developers who would turn it into houses and shopping centers, he took a chance on building a cider mill in 1971.
This changed the produce farm into a retail destination that is now a popular agritourism stop in Grand Rapids. Guests can still watch as cider is made fresh at the farm.
“They have great Michigan wine you can taste right alongside the cider and apple doughnuts in the fall,” said Nitkiewicz. “There is an opportunity to taste various apple treats there as well.”
Now operated by the fourth generation of Robinette farmers, the 1911 farm offers a plethora of local flavors to sample. A tasting bar inside a renovated 1881 barn features hard cider, apple wines and a souvenir wine glass. Seasonally, groups can pick apples, peaches and cherries.
Other fall activities include hayrides with horse-drawn wagons pulled by Belgian horses, hiking trails, a giant corn maze and a shop with original west Michigan artwork and other gifts.
Frederik Meijer Gardens
In 1962, Frederik Meijer opened Meijer Thrifty Acres with his father. He helped pioneer the one-stop shopping stores now common in the modern world.
When the West Michigan Horticultural Society approached him and his wife, Lena, asking for funds for a botanical garden in 1990, the couple embraced the idea. They donated significant funding for the project, as well as a tract of land and their entire sculpture collection to the organization.
Today, the 158-acre botanical garden and outdoor sculpture park is the state’s second-largest tourist attraction.
“There is a stark contrast between the art and natural beauty of the gardens,” said Dave Nitkiewicz, specialty markets sales manager for Experience Grand Rapids. “The couple was a big fan of sculptures, so they married their interests with the garden.”
The most popular attractions at the garden include Michigan’s largest tropical conservatory, three indoor theme gardens and an eight-acre Japanese Garden that opened in 2015. The 30-acre outdoor sculpture park showcases 170 sculptures by world-renowned artists, among them Auguste Rodin, Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder. Visitors can also view rotating temporary exhibits from modern sculpture masters.
Groups can explore the vast gardens on their own or with a docent. A 45-minute narrated outdoor tram tour runs from June through December 31. The gardens even incorporate art into dining experiences, since Dale Chihuly glass sculptures hang from the ceiling of the Balk Cafe.
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum
By 1974, America’s vice president and president had resigned in disgrace within a year of each other. It was at this inauspicious moment that Ford became the 38th president of the United States, despite not appearing on the ballot in the last presidential election.
Before President Richard Nixon selected him to replace the vice president, Ford had planned to retire from the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of the year. His sudden rise to power came as a surprise. He took up the challenge and tried to heal the country after the Watergate scandal.
“He restored credibility to the White House after Nixon,” said Nitkiewicz. “He showed strength of character and leadership with his ability to be the moral arbiter of the country. He was able to see past party partnerships.”
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum reveals his fascinating life story from his time growing up in Grand Rapids until his death in 2006. The 44,000-square-foot triangular museum houses 20,000 artifacts from his life and career, including Boy Scout memorabilia, head of state gifts and re-election campaign materials.
Groups can walk through a replicated Oval Office, watch videos of president Ford and see a gallery on the Watergate scandal. An interactive Cabinet Room allows visitors to imagine how they would handle various presidential decisions that Ford faced.