How to Experience Jackson’s Automotive History

How to Experience Jackson’s Automotive History

Today, Jackson has approximately 350 manufacturing firms, 60 percent of which sell to the automotive market. But did you know that Jackson once made entire cars?

Jackson was home to 23 car manufacturers from 1901 to 1954, the first being the Jaxon car made from 1901 to 1903. For a recent tour with the MotorCities National Heritage Area, we created the perfect itinerary to showcase Jackson’s automotive history. The MotorCities National Heritage Area is an affiliate of the National Park Service dedicated to preserving, interpreting and promoting the automotive and labor heritage of the State of Michigan.

Ye Olde Carriage Shop

Ye Old Carriage Shop
Ye Olde Carriage Shop with (from left to right) Rebecca Calkins of Awesome Mitten, Shawn Pomaville and Brian Yopp of Motorcities and Lloyd Ganton of Ye Olde Carriage Shop and Ganton Retirement Centers

The Ye Ole Carriage Shop is a local museum centered on the Ganton’s car collection. Tours are by appointment and visitors can view over 60 antique and classic cars including 5 one of a kind and 16 made in Jackson including a 1902 JAXON.

Grand River Brewery & The Original Jackson Historic Prison Tours

The Grand River Brewery makes a perfect lunch stop for our automotive tour; the building was actually a former bus repair garage from the 1920s to the ’70s. The building’s steampunk industrial décor also brings a manufacturing edge to our meal, surrounding us with gears and gadgets.

Our guest for dinner was Judy Gail Krasnow, author, storyteller and founder of The Original Jackson Historic Prison Tours. Judy regaled us with stories of Michigan’s First State Prison (1838-1934), once the largest walled prison in the world.  At the height of the Industrial Revolution, a prison provided something valuable – cheap labor in the factories. Prison labor was involved with the auto industry and before that the Jackson Wagon Co., which now houses Art 634. This decision actually made Jackson one of the wealthiest industrial towns in Michigan. See How Prison History Shaped Jackson.

Ella Sharp Museum

Ella Sharp Museum Car
Marion-Handley automobile at Ella Sharp Museum with Brian Yopp of Motorcities and Amy Reiman of Ella Sharp Museum.

The local museum of art and history was the next stop on our trip. The six galleries include the Jackson History Gallery, which features a restored 1916 Marion-Handley automobile, as well as plenty of Sparton Radios and Horns. The Marion-Handley was an automobile built in Jackson by the Mutual Motors Company from 1916-1919. Ella Sharp Museum is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.

The Cascades

The cascades motorcities
The Cascades from left Brian Yopp, MotorCities; Jennifer Cronkhite, Experience Jackson; and Shawn Pomaville, MotorCities

Originally opened to the public on May 9, 1932, this Jackson landmark has now received visitors from every state and from 33 countries. Built by businessman and philanthropist “Capt.” William Sparks, he modeled the musical fountain after one he saw in Barcelona, Spain. Sparks was a three-term Jackson mayor, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and co-founder of the Sparks-Withington Co. By the early 1920s, their Sparton horns were on 42 makes of automobiles. According to the Jackson Citizen Patriot, by 1929, one of every 15 workers in Jackson was employed by Sparks-Withington, making them the city’s largest employer during the Great Depression. If it weren’t for the Withington’s hiring a young bookkeeper by the name of William Sparks, the beloved Cascades waterfall may never have been built. Open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, check out this infographic for more fun facts about The Cascades.

Old Irish Mill

Old Irish Mill
Old Irish Mill from left Austen Smith, Shawn Pomaville and Brian Yopp of Motorcities, Daniel Ross of Old Irish Mill and Transpharm and Jennifer Cronkhite of Experience Jackson

Our final stop brought us to Brooklyn for a tour of the Old Irish Mill. This future tourist destination will promote the heritage of the Irish Hills with a full service Irish restaurant, brewpub, sandwich shop, indoor farmer’s market and recreation park including canoe livery and ice skating rink. This property was once part of Henry Ford’s Village Industries project taking advantage of the hydroelectric power of the River Raisin to make horn buttons and starter switches.  During World War II, production shifted to parts for B-24 bombers. After the war, production shifted to armrests and lamp lenses before finally closing in 1967.

Plan a Jackson automotive heritage tour of your own!

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I am the Communications Director for Experience Jackson. I manage the social media @ExperienceJxn, email newsletters, blogging and website content. I grew up in Jackson, Mich. and returned after attending college at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. When not working, I enjoy cooking and traveling, always looking for the next culinary or cultural adventure.