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Cold War|Hot Towns:
Saugatuck-Douglas in the 1950s-1970s

Saugatuck, Douglas as a Mirror of American Life in the “Atomic Age”

This successful exhibit ran for two seasons from May 2017 through October 2018 and reached over 12,000 visitors.


This exhibition chronicled how the two small lakeshore villages of Saugatuck and Douglas reflected the contrasting worlds of fear and fun during the Cold War era of the 1950s-1970s.

Prior to World War II, the villages had a remarkably good relationship with visitors, but in the post-war years this cozy relationship was disrupted amid a rapidly changing world. New cars, superhighways, and plenty of cash drew the pre-war tourist clientele to more exotic destinations, leaving the towns ripe for invasion by wild youth in fast cars and motorcycle gangs who arrived on summer weekends by the thousands. Some were hippies, most were not. Some were locals, most were not. The streets were clogged with cars parading up and down. Ruffians zoomed through town on loud motorcycles. Bars were plentiful—from classy to trashy—and the live jazz and rock music was the best in Michigan. Add in big boats and the Oval, the marvelous “drive-in” beach, to complete a '50s scene where automobile, sand, water, and beach crowd met like nowhere else.

Looming above it all, from high atop the once-friendly old Mt. Baldhead dune, beamed a frightening message. In the new Cold War, a U.S. Air Force radar station was built to monitor approaching Russian bombers—a scary and omnipresent threat of a nuclear attack from abroad. Dauntingly, the tower and its constantly revolving radar screen looked down upon a divided nation, ushering in an unsettling era of fallout shelters, school “duck and cover” practice, and air-raid drills, as well as assassinations, student protests, and anti-war music and culture.

Troubling, unsure, but also happy, it was a time of sharp contrasts. Local authorities, although fair and adept, found the young visitors impossible to control. The music played on, and the visitors had a blast. It was indeed the hottest town in Michigan.

Welcome to Cold War|Hot Towns.


Interactive Map, Other Artifacts Featured

The south Museum gallery features the History Center's popular "SuperMap" -- a 6-foot high, 12-foot wide illustrated color wall map of the Saugatuck-Douglas area with an interactive computer display to provide a virtual tour through these historic villages, highlighting significant people, places and events of both past and present. Map artwork, created by Holland artist-cartographer Mark Cook based on History Center research, recalls the entertaining illustration/poster maps of the 1940-50s era, combining street layouts with stylized sketches and notes.

The map offers Museum visitors an engaging way to soak up the story of the Saugatuck-Douglas area. Nearly 100 map-highlighted references are keyed by number to let visitors select and learn about sites of interest by calling up information, narratives and historic images using a nearby computer screen.

Visitors will also have the opportunity to learn about other landmarks of Saugatuck-Douglas history through smaller exhibits in the south gallery. This includes a scale model of the famous Big Pavilion, accompanied by a rare photo of the Pavilion during its construction, two historic wooden watercraft, and the history of the Pump House building (1904) which the Museum occupies.

The south gallery also features the Museum's popular gift shop, including several one-of-a-kind souvenirs of your Saugatuck-Douglas visit and our collection of award-winning publications discussing aspects of local history. Continuing the History Center's tradition of offering locally authored books created to accompany exhibits past and present, the gift shop highlights the popular Big Pavilion book by Saugatuck author-historian Kit Lane, telling the story of the town's grandest attraction from its construction in 1909 to the day it burned down in May of 1960.