Baldwin once known as Snowmobile Capital of Michigan

BALDWIN — Outdoor recreation has always been big in Baldwin, such as motorcyclists being drawn here with Blessing of the Bikes being one of the Lake County's biggest annual events. But locals also recall the time when snowmobiles became huge in Baldwin, even to the extent that the town was known as the Snowmobile Capital of Michigan.

An event which really ushered in the popularity of winter sports and snowmobiling was the Sno-In, which commenced in the late 1960s.

From the Lake County Star on Dec. 26, 1968: "'Snowmobile' is the password that will gain one entrance to the beautiful forests and woodlands in and around Baldwin — the Snowmobile Capital of Michigan — on the 17th, 18th and 19th of January, the dates set for the first annual Baldwin Sno-In. Ideally located on M-37, Baldwin will be the staging point for three days of events and activities designed to interest and include every snowmobiler and sno-family in the state of Michigan."

During the first Sno-In weekend, the fun began Friday with a snow sculpture contest, a skating contest and a winter moonlight ride at 8 p.m.

Saturday featured a West Michigan Snowmobile Championship, with an award of $2,000 to the snowmobilers who amassed the most points in a 75-mile cross country race. Oval and drag races took place at Sippi Flats, and dog sled races, sponsored by Wolf Lake Ranch and the Great Lakes Dog Sled Association kicked off at Wolf Lake, with a $125 prize to the winner.

Saturday concluded with the crowning of the first winter snow queen.

Linda Beth Koole, a switchboard operator in Grand Rapids, whose family were summer residents in Lake County, was named first Sno-In Queen, at a luncheon at Baldwin Congregational Church, sponsored by the Baldwin Woman's Club.

"This was the first award of its type for the growing snowmobile weekend held in Baldwin and will be an annual event for years to come," said a Jan. 29, 1969, issue of the Star.

Runner-ups were Christina Matson, of Detroit; Lee Ann Russell, of Baldwin; and Ann Wroblewski, of Bitely. All contestants were presented with winter clothing apparel. The queen was crowned at the Sno-in Ball, at the Baldwin Hall, with John Riley making the announcement and Norma Wogatzke placing the crown on the queen's head. An award of roses was made on behalf of Kay Shafer, of the Woman's Club.

Sunday featured the Pere Marquette Snowmobile Safari, a mother-daughter broom hockey game, and conclusion of the West Michigan Snowmobile Championships.

Through the years, the event snowballed with momentum, larger attendance and more fun, wintery events.

In 1972, it was noted the biggest year for the event yet, with hundreds coming to town, and more than 225 snowmobiles lining the streets, stretching over two mile.

Dave Eby, who was the well-loved band director at Baldwin Community Schools, played a large part of the snowmobile movement, recalls his son, Doug Eby.

He remembers his dad riding snowmobiles and motorcycles a lot with Joe Brooks Sr., Chuck Radden and others.

Eby also recalls a snowmobile clubhouse, which he remembers being in the commons between St. Ann Catholic Church and the Lake County Historical Museum. He still has a bright orange sticker which says "Snowmobile Capital, Baldwin, Michigan," that he got from the clubhouse, and placed it on a toolbox his dad gave him in 1968.  

"Boy Scouts did a snowmobile safari (snowmobile trip) all over Lake County back then too. The Snowmobile Club did many also," Eby said. "There was a snowmobile shop in town just east of the Road Commission called Mad Jon's Escape."

The Sno-In faded out in the 1980s, some locals saying changing weather patterns played a part, some saying certain trails being blocked off also played a part, but winter recreation continues to play an important part in Lake County, such as dog sled derbies, and trails groomed for snowmobiling.

According to Jeff Cole, sled dog races picked up the slack in the '70s and early '80s, and the county purchased a trail groomer, which greatly enhanced Baldwin as a start off point, for winter sports.

Cole said the men and women of that era — Clint Cole, Chuck Cole, Dwayne Farmer, Ted Pettingal, Fr. Dave Hawley, Joe Brooks, Dave Eby, Ben Childress, Gordon Allison, Dave Kessel, Mr. Kagey, Joe Kutchinksi, Norma Russell, Stephanie Kutchinksi, to name a few — "put Baldwin on the map and things they started are still celebrated today."