Showers lower Blessing turnout, but event still revs local economy

After his prayer, Father Ron Schneider ended his second Blessing of the Bikes with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, please start your engines,” to which hundreds of motorcycle engines responded with a deafening roar.

Rain on Saturday diminished the number of people hanging out in Baldwin’s business district during this year’s event, but the 39th annual weekend-long event was still a welcome boost for businesses in Lake County and West Central Michigan as a whole.

“We still have a decent crowd,” said Bruce Schantz, president of Para-Dice Motorcycle Club, which sponsors the blessing ceremony. “With rainy weather, it’s storming down in Grand Rapids, and everybody south has been holding back.”

As drizzles on Saturday gave way to warm, sunny weather on Sunday, bikers ventured outside to Baldwin vending markets, stores and restaurants. While some described the turnout at the actual blessing, which occurred Sunday afternoon at the Baldwin Municipal Airport, as less than half of what it was last year, for Tom Pieske, other events just don’t compare.

“This is great,” he said shortly before the blessing. “There’s a lot of rides and a lot of sponsored rides, poker runs and that, but you don’t see what you see here.”

At the blessing ceremony, approved vendors raise money to support area nonprofits by selling food and other items. Almost four decades after its establishment, the Blessing of the Bikes remains one of the biggest money-makers for the Baldwin area today.

There is large number of bikers, like Richard Winans, known by his nickname “The General,” who believe the blessing gives them a better advantage in staying safe on the roads.

Winans, 75, of Nashville, Mich., attended the Blessing riding his vintage, Army green 1938 BSA motorcycle – something he has done every year for the last three decades, he said.

“I think it’s one of the best things that could happen to bikers,” said Winans, a U.S. Army veteran. “If they’re blessed, they have a better chance of not having a terrible thing happen, and that’s why I bring my bike every year.”

As a year-round Baldwin inhabitant, Norris Wythe, 42, enjoys the camaraderie of other biker friends when they descend upon the area. Wythe was among those who had gathered at Sunday’s blessing.

“It’s a dangerous hobby,” he said. “I get blessed for a safe year.”

However, Fr. Schneider, of St. Ann’s parish in Baldwin, said the actual benefit was much greater as a much-needed boost to the local economy.

“You coming here is a huge blessing to this area,” he told the crowd gathered. “All blessings come from God, so if you’re a blessing and you come here as a blessing to us and to the people of this county in so many ways, then you come here as a gift from God.”

Schneider also issued a challenge to strengthen the original spirit of the gathering: Next year, bikers should better connect with the area churches during the Blessing.

“I’d like to see our churches this time next year be filled up with people who ride bikes, so that they can see the kind of blessing you are,” he said. “In turn, you’ll be able to connect with them and have more personal contact with those you are benefiting and being a blessing to.”

Schantz denied rumors that the Blessing would be moving to Irons next year.

“We’ll be here (in Baldwin) for our 40th anniversary, we’ll be here for our 50th,” Schantz said. “We’re not moving. This is the home of the original Blessing of the Bikes and that’s where it’s going to stay.”