Historic Structures

Pickle Barrel House, Grand Marais Michigan

Date added: June 24, 2022 Categories: Michigan House Roadside Attraction

The Pickle Barrel House was built at the north end of Grand Sable Lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the summer of 1926. Chicago food products manufacturer and distributor Reid, Murdoch and Company commissioned Harold S. Cunliff of the Pioneer Cooperage Company of Chicago and St. Louis to design and build the house as a summer cottage for Chicago Tribune cartoonist William Donahey and his wife Mary Dickerson Donahey. William Donahey's cartoon strip the "Teenie Weenies" ran in the Tribune from 1914 until Donahey's death in 1970 and was widely syndicated, and its popularity inspired Reid, Murdoch to launch a line of "Teenie Weenie" brand food products, including pickles, for which Donahey was retained to design labels, packages, and advertisements. The Pickle Barrel House was so popular as a tourist attraction despite its isolated location four miles from Grand Marais that, after ten years of enduring summertime hoards of visitors, the Donaheys gave it to a grocery store owner who sold Reid, Murdoch products. In about 1937 it was relocated to Grand Marais, where it was operated as a tourist information booth until recent times. The Pickle Barrel House is an example of Pop architecture from the 1920s designed to look like the product it advertised or sold - in this case, Reid, Murdoch's Monarch Teenie Weenie brand pickles, that, packed in miniature oak casks, were one of the company's staples.

As early as 1658, the Grand Marais area was noted for its natural beauty. The French fur traders Pierre Esprit Radisson and Sieur de Groseilliers were the first recorded Europeans to describe the area. In the summer of 1658 Radisson wrote that the Grand Marais area was "most delightful and wondrous, for its nature that made it so pleasant to the eye [and] the spirit". The nearby Pictured Rocks and Grand Sable Dunes, located west of Grand Marais along the Lake Superior coast, would be described in detail by virtually every explorer and traveler who coasted along the southern shore of the lake from the French in the 1600s to the Americans in the 1800s. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a scientist on the 1820 Cass expedition to Lake Superior, extensively noted the geology of the Grand Sable Dunes and Pictured Rocks, and his collection of Native American lore about the locality inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to pen The Song of Hiawatha in 1855. Grand Marais was an ideal stop for maritime travelers along the southern shores of Lake Superior due to the geological formations along the lake. Maritime travelers embarking from the east (by far most travelers came from Sault Ste. Marie) often stopped at Grand Marais to judge weather conditions before passing the Pictured Rocks' area, where there were few stretches of sandy beach.

Tourism in the area, despite all the favorable reports by explorers and travelers, paled in significance to the fur-trading, lumber, shipping, and commercial fishing industries in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1861 Peter B. Barbeau opened a trading post in Grand Marais and competed with other traders for the Native American pelt business. Commercial fishermen were harvesting whitefish and trout off the shores of Grand Marais by the 1870s. Commercial fishing, along with the lumber industry, enabled the small town to prosper in the 1880s. By the 1890s railroad connections were made to haul timber from surrounding areas to Grand Marais' mills, where the finished product was loaded onto schooners that often crowded the harbor. To accommodate and supply the increasing number of settlers, Roy C. Hill opened one of the town's leading general stores in 1895. In the early twentieth century, however, the industries that relied on limited natural resources began to decline, and a new watershed of activity emerged in the mid-1920s.

With the advent of the automobile and increased leisure time, tourists motored to the Upper Peninsula in search of outdoor recreation beginning in the 1920s. In the mid-1920s local newspapers trumpeted the burgeoning industry and even noted the great pains that were taken to cut a road to Grand Marais that would "not impair the scenic attraction of the drive" (Daily Mining Journal, Aug. 14, 1926). As historian James Carter aptly put it, "the motoring tourist discovered Grand Marais in the mid-1920s". At precisely this same time, Reid, Murdoch and Company in Chicago was finalizing plans to construct the unique Pickle Barrel House for the Donaheys near Grand Marais.

While Reid, Murdoch intended the house in part as a friendly gesture to Donahey, who was creating packaging, labeling, and advertising for Reid, Murdoch's Monarch Teenie Weenie brand lines of food products, their real motive in building the structure appears to have been advertising. Reid, Murdoch heavily publicized the house, built for the creator of the widely popular "Teenie Weenies" cartoon strip after which Reid, Murdoch's Teenie Weenie product lines took their name, as an advertisement for those product lines. The construction of the Pickle Barrel House was kept secret from Mary Dickerson Donahey. To emphasize the element of surprise, local school children dressed up in Teenie Weenie costumes emerged from the woods and issued a well-rehearsed welcome for the Donaheys (Daily Mining Journal, Aug. 20, 1926).

Creating a staved structure on the magnitude of the Pickle Barrel House had never been attempted by Cunliff or any of the builders who took part in its construction. This undertaking required a high degree of craftsmanship and ingenuity. S. P. Stevens, vice-president of Reid, Murdoch, came up with the idea for this original structure after examining one of Donahey's Teenie Weenie cartoon drawings of a pickle barrel house. Reid, Murdoch was using Teenie Weenies as part of its branding for its Monarch line of food products, and the company recognized the unique advertising possibilities of a real pickle barrel house. The structure was designed and its assembly overseen by Cunliff. Two-inch thick white spruce staves, probably harvested by the Pioneer Cooperage Company, were shipped to Grand Sable Lake near Grand Marais. Expert workmen who constructed pickle barrels for Reid, Murdoch journeyed to Grand Marais to construct the structure.

The construction of the Pickle Barrel House was difficult and required a great deal of precision and expert craftsmanship. Drawing in the staves at the top and bottom of the structure resulted in the cracking of two staves, which were repaired. The front door had to be made wider at the top to allow for the structure's mid-height bilge. After windows were cut near the bilge of the main building, they were strengthened with bars to support the openings. Cunliff, when the job was complete, reportedly "threw up his hands and vowed 'never again'" (The Teenie Weenies, p. 8).

William Donahey, the creator of the "Teenie Weenies," was born in 1883. For much of his youth he described himself as a "lone wolf" who used his imagination to amuse himself. Donahey made characters from household items such as screws and brought them to life in his imagination. He married Mary Dickerson in 1905, and both shared a mutual interest in writing books and comics for children. Drawing from his childhood, Donahey created the comic strip "Teenie Weenies." The Teenie Weenies were peace-loving, curious, and industrious miniature characters. In 1914 Joseph Medill Patterson of the Chicago Tribune began running the "Teenie Weenies" in his newspaper, and they remained a feature of the newspaper until Donahey's death in 1970. Aside from producing one of the longest running cartoon strips in American history, Donahey also published numerous "Teenie Weenie" books.

The Pickle Barrel House should have been an ideal setting for Donahey to pen his Teenie Weenie strips. But while the surrounding wilderness gave him inspiration to create his comics, the reclusive Donahey found it difficult to endure the hoards of tourists that visited what they called "Teenie Weenie Land." Donahey once explained: "I didn't realize they [Reid, Murdoch] were giving it to me free and that there would be so much publicity attached to it or I would never have accepted" (Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1964). In another instance he proclaimed, "The Pickle Barrel House was magnificently built, but they had me on the road maps ... every Sunday we had to pack a lunch and get out, because the people came there in droves" (Detroit Free Press, March 26, 1967). Mary Dickerson Donahey expressed a similar sentiment when she stated, "two hundred people arrived on the first day we were in, and they have been coming ever since, from twenty to two hundred a day.... Folks have motored on purpose to see our unique abode all the way from Marquette to Detroit" (The Teenie Weenies, p. 10). A post card view of the cottage postmarked August 1933 shows it with a rustic birchwood fence in front and prominently displayed "PRIVATE" sign. After ten summers at the Pickle Barrel House, the Donaheys gave the house to Grand Marais merchant, Roy Hills, and it was moved to its current location next door to Hill's Store (the store itself is no longer standing). The Donaheys built a more conventional house on their property and were finally able to live in peace.

In its new location the Pickle Barrel House has continued to serve as a tourist attraction down to the present. The house was used as a tourist information center from the time it was moved into Grand Marais until recently. It continues to make periodical appearances in guidebooks and newspapers as a unique roadside attraction. In the summer months a steady stream of tourists continues to stop to read the interpretive sign out front, peer in the large window in the front door, and take photographs.

Pickle Barrel House, Grand Marais Michigan View from west (2003)
View from west (2003)

Pickle Barrel House, Grand Marais Michigan View from northwest (2003)
View from northwest (2003)