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Call of bygone era

AP Wire • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:25 PM

The animals, forever frozen in place along with dozens of their stuffed friends, are among the exhibits at the Call of the Wild museum in Gaylord.

This unique place, the kind of local roadside attraction that used to punctuate the exits along the state's major highways, is more than just a collection of wild animals — it's also a museum of a lost era of tourism.

The museum hasn't changed much since it opened. There are no flat-screen televisions here, no interactive features, no tour guides.

Instead, self-guided tours take visitors through a darkened walkway that features animals preserved by local taxidermists up to half a century ago and posed in ways suggestive of how they behave in the wild.

Bright-feathered pheasants soar in constant flight behind a pane of glass. A possum perpetually carries its young on her back up a log. Two elk lock antlers in unending battle.

And a bear named Pokey, who's curled up in a sleepy ball in his own display, is designated as your tour guide. The paw prints painted on the floor, leading the way through the museum, are proof of his leadership.

The Call of the Wild couldn't be simpler or cornier. And despite that, or because of it, the museum is immensely popular.

"I would like to think it's the substance, that the heartfelt love of nature is reflected in what we do," said Janis Vollmer, the 65-year-old owner. "We're true naturalists."

Her father, Carl Johnson, founded the museum in 1957 after his trips through the Midwest as a traveling salesman took him to similar attractions and inspired him to open his own.

For years, he collected stuffed and mounted animals and kept them in his attic until he finally got his own building in Frederic, where he founded his dream museum and called it the Underground Forest. A few years later, however, the completion of I-75 to Mackinaw City diverted traffic from the little town and drained it of tourists.

Not long after, he moved his museum to Gaylord, right beside the new high-traffic freeway, and reopened it in 1965 as the Call of the Wild.

His three children took over the family business after Johnson died in 1973. Vollmer is usually the one behind the counter in the gift shop, day after day. Summer is the busy season, she said, while on some days in the winter it's often just her and the animals.

In an era when the attractions at the edges of most exit ramps are usually gas stations, big-box stores and fast-food chains, the Call of the Wild is a charming throwback to the era of unique roadside offerings that reflected the place where they sprang up.

"I know we're old-fashioned," Vollmer said. "It's family-friendly and very child-friendly, and that's one of our assets."

Vollmer's daughter — 32-year-old Morgan Vollmer, who has worked at the museum for 18 years — said kids love it.

"We see some kids three times a week," she said. "Parents will actually avoid our street in order to avoid coming here because, as soon as they see it, kids want to go here again."

The exhibits are low-tech and uncomplicated. The backdrops were hand-painted years ago by local artists and depict Michigan landscapes with rolling hills, white pines, sunlit fields or snow-coated forests.

The foregrounds contain shredded Styrofoam to represent snow, dried moss to hint at grassy plains and withered leaves to suggest a passing autumn. A few sentences on backlit panels next to the exhibits offer information detailing the animals' habits and habitats.

Other elements are even quirkier. Cow horns are wired to cords so visitors can put them to their ears and listen to the howls and barks of the animals. An exhibit features old-time fishing tackle boxes, while another displays the kinds of guns the early settlers used to kill the same kinds of animals displayed here.

And offsetting everything is a quaint poetry alcove painted in the colors of a child's room, where short poems read to the founder in his youth by his mother are lettered on wooden plaques that hang from the walls.

It all adds up to something very distinct, very local and very Michigan.

The landscape backdrops were painted by artists from the area. The poems in the poetry room were hand-lettered by a former employee who lived nearby. Neighbors donated old-fashioned rods and lures for the fishing exhibit, and local taxidermists often replace natty animals with fresher ones. The family makes fudge on site, and the gift shop sells everything from rabbit pelts to raccoon hats.

"This place is magnificent," said Carol Dinsmoore of Fairgrove, near Bay City, while visiting with her 5-year-old granddaughter Raegan on their way to their cottage. "We have to go through about a half-dozen times before she'll let us leave here. We can't get this kid out of this place."

Dinsmoore's parents first brought her to the museum years ago. When she had a son, she used to bring him, too, and now the two of them bring her granddaughter.

For Dinsmoore, a stop here is a touchstone to not only her personal past, but also to a more innocent time of tourism, when a building full of stuffed animals could capture a visitor's attention for hours.

"I can't say enough about this place," she said before turning back and chasing after her fast-walking granddaughter, who had finished her tour but just had to go through the museum one more time.

— By John Carlisle, Detroit Free Press (AP)

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