Roadside Attractions: Michigan’s Delightful 20-foot Root Beer Barrel

 Roadside Attractions: Michigan’s Delightful 20-foot Root Beer Barrel

Before it gets to Lake Michigan, the Kalamazoo River widens to form a couple of connected lakes and on either side are the towns of Saugatuck and Douglas — and one of those roadside attractions that is a “barrel of fun.”

First, a little background on the area, which is perfect for a Michigan RV trip.

By Tom & Patti Burkett
There seems to be a (mostly) friendly rivalry between the two communities, both established as getaway destinations for Chicago residents fleeing the summer heat. Saugatuck has a reputation as an artist colony, and Douglas as a classic lake resort town. You can’t visit one without seeing the other, and there’s no reason to try. Both are delightful and, although residents have turned down a merger more than once, they share a school, a library, and a fire department.

About that root beer barrel…

In the 1950s, when resort life was getting fired up (and still today), Oval Beach on Lake Michigan was a favorite summertime hangout for families. Joe Decker got the idea he could make a good living selling cold drinks and hot dogs to beach visitors. This was the heyday of the American road trip, and roadside attractions were springing up everywhere.

Decker and his friend Kelly went to work in his backyard in Flint. They cut and fitted staves to make a 20-foot-high barrel. After it was finished, they took it apart and moved it to Douglas, where Decker owned a piece of land right on the way to the beach.

The Douglas Root Beer Barrel was the spot to be in those days, selling frosty mugs of Mason’s signature brew along with foot-long hot dogs. Inside the barrel was room for two workers, and outside a carhop or two took and delivered orders to the thirsty patrons just arrived from the city or returning from a long day at the beach. Residents who worked at the barrel in the summers recall lines a block or more long on many summer nights, and how the local doctor and police officer were always passed to the front of the line as a courtesy.

An image of the Douglas Root Beer Barrel, one of many roadside attractions worth a stop.
This old image shows the Douglas Root Beer Barrel when it was a newer roadside attraction. (Photo courtesy of douglasrootbeerbarrel.blogspot.com)

A barrel is reborn

The barrel operated until the early 1970s. Then, as was the case with many outdated notions, it lost its popularity, closed, and fell into disrepair. 

When word began to circulate in 2011 that the barrel was going to be demolished, residents formed a group called Friends of the Barrel and rallied to save it. The building was once again dismantled, and dozens of volunteers repaired and refinished the 125 staves that make up the exterior. 

Students from the high school industrial arts program built a new base and support structure for it, and in 2018, it reopened at a new home along the beach road.

Now, again, you can stop in for a frosty mug of barrel root beer and a foot-long coney dog on your way to or from the beach. If you plan to be in the area, be sure to check the barrel’s active Facebook page to look for special deals and to be sure they are going to be open.

An image of the 20-foot Douglas Root Beer Barrel
The 20-foot Douglas Root Beer Barrel awaits customers today.

By the way, if you’re traveling near Westport or Olney, Illinois, keep your eyes open, because that’s where the other two of these can be found.  They’ll be in a back yard or on a street corner in one of the neighborhoods you won’t ever see unless you take time to wander off the beaten path.

CLICK HERE to read more of Tom & Patti Burkett’s off-the-beaten-path reports. And listen every Wednesday on the RV Podcast to hear their dispatches from the road. Subscribe from your device’s app store.

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Each Monday we publish our RV Lifestyle Newsletter, where we share weekly articles about RV travel that inspire and inform. As soon as you sign up, we’ll send you for free the RV travel checklist that Jennifer and I use. You can save it to your computer and print it out for every trip like we do. No more forgetting things!  Plus, besides the insider’s newsletter each Monday, you’ll get lots of special perks and RV discounts. 
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Mike Wendland

Mike is a veteran journalist who, with his wife, Jennifer, travels North America in a small motorhome, blogging about the people, places, joys and adventure of RV life on the road. He enjoys camping (obviously), hiking, biking, fitness, photography, kayaking, video editing, and all things dealing with technology and the outdoors. See and subscribe to his RV Lifestyle Channel on YouTube, where he has hundreds of RV and travel related videos. His PC MIke TV reports, on personal technology are distributed weekly to all 215 NBC-TV stations.

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