"You are never more than six miles from a lake, river or stream, no matter where you may be standing in St. Joseph County, Michigan," boasts a tourism brochure. The county is awfully watery, with seven rivers and 55 lakes in a tabletop-shaped area that's about 12 miles by 11 miles. Its name derives from its largest river, the Saint Joseph, which runs diagonally across the county northeast to southeast. La Salle paddled the rivers and its tributaries in the mid-17th century for his French employers. In 1796 the English took title, and in 1827 the area was ceded to the U.S. Settlers headed in from the east, especially from New York and Pennsylvania, chasing out the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa Indians along the way. One of the major old Indian trails is still a main thoroughfare, U.S. 12, stretching west to east across the southern portion of the county and beyond. Visitors from Chicago can aim for this highway via I-90 through Gary and then I-94. The trip clocks in at about two and a half hours and covers a distance of about 130 miles.
Some 60,000 people live in Saint Joseph County, many of them farmers. In addition to producing a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, farmers here boast of cultivating more seed corn and popcorn than anyplace else in Michigan. A drive through the area is a rolling ride through pastoral scenes of lush fields, ancient oaks overhanging rusted fences, and old-fashioned farmhouses. The central portion of the county even boasts an Amish settlement of about 200 members, their black, buggy-drawn vehicles clip-clopping here and there along the concrete roads.
Small towns dot the county. Some have old-fashioned Victorian homes, some have smallish industrial plants, and some have both. Sturgis, in the southeast part of the county, ranks as the number-one metropolis, with a population topping 10,000. Next comes Three Rivers in the west-central area, with about 7,000 residents. Centreville, White Pigeon, Mendon, and Colon have a thousand or two residents each. The county offers a good dose of touristy activities, from the county fair in Centreville to the annual Magic Get-Together in Colon, self-professed "Magic Capital of the World."
Some of the residential streets in Sturgis are still cobblestone, but busy factories produce everything from aluminum truck bodies to orthotic supports, town boosters note. (Community spirit is also evident in the fact that the local girls' volleyball team was the first in the nation to tour the Soviet Union, and the $35,000 in expenses was provided by community contributions.) The New York Central Depot on West Main Street, the town's old brick train station, dates from 1873 and has been nicely restored to enclose a museum of Michigan artifacts and offices of the Sturgis Area Chamber of Commerce. Visitors will find plentiful brochures here and people to answer their questions (616-651-5758).
An unusual local attraction is the Heartlight Center, a non- denominational Christian community of about a dozen residents that has been here for about 20 years. A bright white archway emblazoned with the words "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God" beckons from the road. Visitors are welcome to walk around the 117 wooded acres, participate in weekend spiritual retreats or the Sunday-evening Global Peace Meditation (6:15 to 6:45 PM), or even spend a night for the price of a freewill donation. The center is at 67138 Shimmel Road about six miles northwest of Sturgis proper (616-651-2234).
In town, a nice place to spend the night is Christmere House Bed & Breakfast (110 Pleasant St., 616- 651-8303). Built as the city's first hospital in 1882 and later converted into a rooming house, the handsome Queen Anne brick home has ten rooms and nightly rates that range from $65 to $85. Continental breakfast is complimentary, as is afternoon tea out on the porch during the summer.
There are also some peaceful campgrounds nearby, including Green Valley (616-651-8760), Hidden Valley (616-651-9870), and Sweet Lake (616-651-8149).
Three Rivers's two- block central business district along Main Street was the first in the state to be named to the National Register of Historic Places. Frankly, the strip is a depressing mix of going-out-of- business signs and funky gift shops. One of the better venues is Paisano's Italian Restaurant (16 N. Main, 616-278- 8525), which is attached to the Flip Side Lounge. The atmosphere is festive, the food hearty--from pasta to 17 kinds of humongous submarine sandwiches.
Just south of downtown is diminutive Scidmore Park, which overlooks the spot where the Rocky River flows into the Saint Joseph. (The Portage River joins the Saint Joseph just to the east, hence Three Rivers.) Short on funds and in danger of being closed soon, the site has an old-fashioned, handmade feel to it, as if a bunch of guys got together years ago and said, "Let's build a park!" There are grassy lawns in need of a manicure and a couple of roofed picnic areas with grills. Just across the river is a kiddie playground. Best of all is the tiny zoo, an odd collection of exotic chickens, sorry-looking horses, a couple of mountain goats, and even a primping peacock.
The town also hosts the annual Three Rivers Water Festival, which runs June 13 through 15 this year. It includes midway rides, food, beer, and entertainment, an arts-and-crafts flea market, a demolition derby, and a climactic nighttime fireworks display and parade of lighted boats. For information call 616-278-8193.
A couple of miles northwest of town is Saint Gregory's Abbey, an Episcopal monastery tucked into 600 tranquil acres of woods and fields that welcomes visitors for a day, a weekend, or longer. One needn't be Episcopalian or even religious to visit. Guests are simply asked to respect the monks' strictly scheduled regimen of prayer, work, and private time--which means you pretty much have to keep yourself entertained. The cost is a donation, generally about $20 to $25 per night. Pastoral assistance for individuals or group retreats is available from the monks upon advance request. For information call Brother Placid at 616-244-5893 between 9:30 and 11:15 AM or 2:15 and 4:30 PM Michigan time (they're an hour ahead of us).
In town modern accommodations are available at a number of familiar chain hotels. There's also the Three Rivers Inn (1200 W. Broadway, 616-273-9521), a good choice. Somewhat flashy and underbooked (at least during our visit), it boasts an indoor atrium swimming pool and a decent restaurant. Rooms run $51 to $58 a night for a double. Poolside rooms cost more, but they totally lack natural light. Brisette- Wheeler/Victorian Place Bed & Breakfast (208 N. Main, 616-278-8147) harks back to the 19th century with nine period-decorated suites. Complimentary full breakfast and afternoon tea and free access to bicycles are included in the $38 to $72 nightly charge.
There are many outdoor activities in Saint Joseph County. Its waterways are not only numerous but also navigable nine months out of the year; they rarely freeze solid. Three Rivers Canoe & Kayak Rental (55737 Buckhorn, 616-279- 9326) rents vessels and gear for fishing, camping, or just-plain-cruising trips from a half day to a week. A guide accompanies groups of seven or more for the price of rental.
Swiss Valley Ski Lodge, ten miles west of Three Rivers in the town of Jones, has 11 downhill ski runs, rental equipment, lessons, and a lodge with the customary roaring fireplace. Call 616-244-5635. For a snow report call 616-244-8016.
A real find for families is YMCA Camp Eberhart (616-244-5125), which has 128 acres of woods and shoreline on Corey Lake due west of Three Rivers. While booked by organized kids' camp groups during most of the summer, the camp invites families and individuals for Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends that keep them busy with everything from environmental education to campfire marshmallow roasts. Winter family weekends and a week-long camp between Christmas and New Year include cross-country skiing, hill tubing, and downhill skiing at nearby Swiss Valley. Group accommodations are in rustic lodges and all meals are provided for about $34 per kid, $56 per adult for a three-day weekend. Make reservations for these popular events about two months in advance.
The Saint Joseph County Grange Fair, considered one of the state's best such events, takes place at Centreville's fairgrounds every fall; this year it runs from September 15 to 21. A rodeo, harness racing, food, entertainment, and the usual 4-H displays are all part of the fun. Call 616-467-8935 for information. Also at the fairgrounds every year is the Caravan Antiques Market, the midwest's largest, with more than 600 dealers. It runs one Sunday per month, from 7 AM to 4:30 PM: June 9, July 14, August 11, and October 13 this year. The market is organized by the Chicago company J. Jordan Humberstone (227-4464).
Langley Covered Bridge, constructed over the Saint Joseph River in 1887, is the longest of Michigan's few remaining covered bridges. Due north of downtown Centreville, the bridge and adjacent park are the site of the annual Covered Bridge Festival, this year from July 12 through 14, featuring country music, arts and crafts, homemade baked goods, and all that good stuff. Call 616-467-9885.
For a bit of rude Amish ogling, drive east of Centreville toward the town of Nottawa and drive north on Nottawa Road.
"Magic Capital of the World" is what Colon calls itself. Legendary magician and illusionist Harry Blackstone bought property here in 1925 and spent the theatrical off-season trying out new routines on the locals in the downtown opera house. His presence attracted other magicians, among them Australian Percy Abbott, who founded Abbott's Magic Manufacturing Company, which sponsors the annual Magic Get-Together. Running August 7 through 10 this year, the event draws professional and aspiring magicians from all over the world to introduce new techniques and demonstrate new equipment, take classes, hold contests, and pull all sorts of tricks out of the bag in public presentations. Call 616-432-3235 for information.
A pleasant place to stay is the nearby Mendon Country Inn overlooking the Saint Joseph River (440 W. Main, Mendon; 616- 496-8132). Built as a hotel in the 1840s, the inn has 11 rooms plus 7 VIP suites with fireplace and Jacuzzis, a rooftop garden for sunbathing, and complimentary continental breakfast. Nightly rates run $45 to $125.
Miscellaneous tours that may prove entertaining (or may not--we didn't have a chance to check them out) include: Wagner Magic Pop Popcorn (616-432-3251); Cary's Flower Farms (616-489-2976), Hunter Mint Farm (616-467-7380), and Stuby Sheep Farm (616-435- 7432).
For more information on Saint Joseph County call the River Country Tourism Council (616-467-4505) or visit them in Centreville at 150 W. Main.