Thursday, 2 October 2014

A wonderful journey of discovery: Introducing the ‘other’ Roscommon!

Enda Cormican

As kids, a lot of us have taken the time to pull out the Atlas and look-up strange sounding places. Sometimes it was places like Timbuktu or even Kalamazoo, just to see if these places even existed and if so, then where they were and what were they like. 

In doing this we often drifted in our searches and ended up turning to the letter R, only to find there was another Roscommon somewhere else in the world. 

Only a child could ever imagine that the residents of Roscommon, Michigan (MI), would walk and talk and act like them. Only a child could imagine that the ‘other’ Roscommon would ever resemble the ‘original’.

With an idle weekend facing me in the boroughs of Chicago, IL, I decided to rekindle that childhood curiosity and go visit the ‘other’ Roscommon. After booking a room in the local Spruce Motor Inn hotel, I tanked up the car, left Chicago and drove around ‘the horn’ of Lake Michigan, heading north-east to Roscommon, MI.

Seven hours and two thunderstorms later I arrived in Roscommon MI. The last 15 miles of the journey involved a drive through Higgins Lake State park, not dissimilar to Lough Key Forest Park. First impressions often last the longest and mine were probably no different to prior Roscommon, IRL residents who have made the journey.

On arriving in the town, I have to admit, I was amused bit to see several businesses such as Roscommon Glass and Roscommon Lumber. I drove by the Roscommon County Post Office and the Roscommon County Jail. Of course there are hundreds of Irish towns with doubles all over the world, but even knowing that, it’s still a funny feeling. 

The Spruce Motor lodge Inn, where I checked in, is on the Michigan register of historical places and boasts one of its most famous guests as none other than Groucho Marks. The great thing about staying in a registered historical building is that the owners are prevented by law from making any changes to the building that would damage its historical integrity. So as I walked up the stairs to my room, I knew that Groucho walked these very steps before me. 

This July weekend was the second annual River festival, a large fishing, canoeing and kayaking festival that is held on the banks of the Au Sable River which runs through Roscommon. After I arrived, I found out that the festival had been rained out and everyone was returning to the bars and restaurants to get out of the rain. At least some things are the same!

There are approx 1,300 residents in Roscommon MI and the village is about one quarter the size of the original. The village of Roscommon MI is the county seat of Roscommon County. It was originally called ‘Mikenauk County’ for Chief Mikenauk, who was an Ottawa Indian back in 1836. An Irishman named Charles O’Malley renamed it Roscommon after a unanimous vote by the Supervisors of the village in 1879.

Curiously, there also exists a Clare, Wexford and Antrim county in Michigan. It is said they were renamed in deference to the large number of Irish settlers arriving in Michigan during the mid 1830s.  The main industry in Roscommon MI during the 1800s was logging and the arrival of the railway line in the late 1800s also helped in the formation of Roscommon County and its lakes and rivers as a resort location.

Today, Roscommon County is noted as the fourth ranking county in the state of Michigan for growth. Roscommon village itself is nestled in vast tracts of forest. There’s an auto parts plant a mile outside town, and a lot of people also drive the 30 miles to Cadillac to work there. They have their own newspaper called the Roscommon County Herald. It’s a weekly publication that’s avidly read.

Along with the obligatory restaurant chains like Subway and McDonalds, there are about 50 local businesses spread throughout the town. The main two streets through town are called 5th street and Lake St. I took a walk down 5th street and wandered into the Tin Fish Cafe and pub for some refreshments. 

After a quick chat with some locals, I was glad to hear that I was not the first Roscommon man to make the journey out here. Also good to note was that Roscommon MI locals pronounce their home town name exactly as we do. I noticed a poster on the wall in the Tin Fish for the Roscommon Hunt club. Hunting is very popular here as is fishing.

There was a lot of talk in the pub about the canoeing and kayaking festival going on that day. People had traveled hundreds of miles to take part in the competitions so I decided to investigate the Au Sable River and see what all the excitement was about. 

Two blocks later and I am standing on the bridge looking down on the Au Sable river watching kayaks and canoes meander down towards their final pit-stop on the banks of the river. The competitions had ended for the day so all that was left were pleasure canoeists. The sun had come out and people were really enjoying the warm waters and idyllic location. There are two Kayak/Canoe renting and leasing operations either side of the river and it looked like great fun.

Later on that night, I popped into Green’s Pub for a drink and the welcome I got was pretty amazing. For such a small village it has a very vibrant nightlife with a lot of colorful locals.

The next morning I revisited the river where the Dock Dog, Big Air competition was in full progress. Owners were tossing their dog’s favorite toy in to the river and their dogs were making amazing jumps off a ramp into the river to retrieve the toy. There were free kayaking lessons and a delicious lunch was being served on the river banks. The rain had held off and the smell of the barbeque was intoxicating. 

If you are ever in the Michigan area, I would highly recommend Roscommon village and all its lakes and streams. The people are very welcoming and you are guaranteed to enjoy yourself.