Baldwin celebrates 43rd annual Blessing of the Bikes

BALDWIN — The roar heard around Baldwin this past weekend wasn't thunder. It was the sound of more than 4,000 motorcycles screaming up and down the streets of Lake County for the 43rd annual Blessing of the Bikes.

Held each year to bless bikers with a safe and prosperous riding season, the event took over the entire community May 15 to 17. In addition to the blessing ceremony at the Baldwin airport, there were vendors lining streets of Baldwin, food trucks feeding the masses and special events all around town for visitors to attend.

"We love being able to shop, eat and look at the bikes," said attendee Mike Lake, who had just bought a vest and shirt for his wife, Cris. "There are thousands of bikes down here, we're among peers and it's a nice ride down. They really did a good job with it this year."

Fellow rider Marvin Rosenberger agreed.

"It's such a great group of people. You can leave your helmet out or your leathers by your bike and no one will take them," remarked Rosenberger. "I especially like Baldwin because they're changing it up at some of the other events. In Muskegon, they're moving their big bike event out of town. What's great about Baldwin is you can hang out downtown, grab a bite and check out the businesses. It's always so welcoming."

Stunt riders performed on Main Street, the fire department set up a tower for people to view the scene from above, and there was even a three-night concert called "Hog Bash" held at nearby Putnam Lake Camp Grounds to raise money for cystic fibrosis research.

"We've set up a concert previous years down near Bitely, but we think we may have found a permanent home for Blessing of the Bikes over at Putnam Lake," said Ken Ferrier, who organized the event. "The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation supports finding a cure for a very deadly disease, and our group has been working for six years to raise money."

One of the major draws this year was the presence of the Michigan Vietnam Memorial Wall at AMVETS Post No. 1988 north of town. On it is the name of every Michigan native who was killed or declared missing during the Vietnam War. Although it was a sobering reminder amidst the fun of Blessing of the Bikes weekend, most agreed it was a welcome addition to the event.

"We came up for Blessing of the Bikes but wanted to support the AMVETS and the veterans," said visitor Shannon Carney. "It's always good to take an opportunity like this."

The blessing itself went off without a hitch, said the Para-Dice Motorcycle Club who organized the event. Lisa Ansley, a member of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, a group that supports missionaries and charitable events like Blessing of the Bikes, was one of the many nonprofit representatives present at the airport. She said despite concerns about the weather, the day turned out to be beautiful and many riders were in attendance and eager to see how they could help organizations such as her own.

"It was a little slow this morning because of the rain last night, but since then it's been as busy as ever and we've had a lot of people coming up and asking about our group," said Ansley.

The blessing was led by Father Ronald Schneider, pastor of St. Ann's Catholic Church in Baldwin, for the sixth year in a row. Schneider made a special note before he began the blessing to thank those who come to Baldwin for the event. He said they are such a huge boon for the people of Lake County, especially the small businesses, nonprofits, the needy and the elderly.

"I want to acknowledge the blessing all of you are for the people of this community," Schneider told the crowd. "There might be other places with better accommodations than here, but I hope you will have no better welcome than here."

Schneider then began the eponymous blessing, beseeching God for guidance, wisdom and safety for all bikers.

"The people who come here are a wonderful gift to You," he spoke in prayer. "We hope You will reach out and touch their hearts, enlighten them and keep them safe. Walk with them, ride with them and bless them."

Bruce Schantz, vice-president of the Para-Dice Motorcycle Club, reported about 1,500 riders in attendance, down from more than 2,000 last year. While still a large crowd, some of the organizers were concerned about the smaller number of attendees.

"There were probably more bikes in town than down at the airport," said 35 year Para-Dice veteran Dave Quint. "Weather is always a factor, and it did rain a little this weekend, but we had good weather all Sunday."

While the reasons for a smaller crowd at the airport vary, after going on for 43 years, some riders are not old enough to remember its beginning and thus, purpose.

"I've never gone down before, so I didn't this year," said rider Justin Christenson, of Holland. "I love this weekend because it's an excuse to go for a ride."

Still, those who did come to the airport were not put off by the smaller crowd and said this year measured up well to previous blessings.

"It was cool, as usual," said Chris Anderson, a St. Joseph resident who attended the blessing. "We like the gathering, the people, the bikes. It's great every year."