The Pickle Barrel House in Grand Marais is a wonderful example of “Pop Architecture” in the tradition of novelty structures. Some examples from Michigan’s past include the Windmill Gas Station in Holland, the giant milk bottle at the Asselin Dairy in Norway, and Hedge’s Wigwam Restaurant in Royal Oak, now all gone.
One other barrel-shaped building that survived is the Douglas Root Beer Barrel, which had been closed for some 40 years, but was saved by the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society and reopened in 2018, selling root beer, hot dogs, and snacks.
The Pickle Barrel House is unique in that it was built as a house, but it also served as a promotional, advertising piece. The unusual structure was built by Monarch Foods, a division of the Reid-Murdoch Corporation of Chicago for author/illustrator/cartoonist William Donahey and his wife, author Mary Dickerson Donahey. William Donahey was known for his popular Sunday cartoons of the “Teenie Weenies,” which were widely syndicated since their debut in the Chicago Tribune in 1914. The Teenie Weenies were a self-sufficient group of courteous, hard-working two-inch-tall “people” dealing with life in a world sized for humans.
The popularity of the Teenie Weenies inspired the Monarch Food Company to launch a line of “Teenie Weenie” brand food products, including pickles, and Donahey was retained to design labels, packages and advertisements. One ad featured the Teenie Weenies living in a pickle barrel in the woods. In 1926, Monarch Foods decided to surprise Mr. and Mrs. Donahey with a life-size pickle barrel cottage, a large-scale version of the miniature oak casts that held Monarch’s sweet pickles.
Mr. Harold Cunliff of the Pioneer Cooperage Company of Chicago was contracted to design and build the unusual structure, located on the shore of Grand Sable Lake about four miles outside of Grand Marais. The house was actually two wooden stave barrel-shaped structures connected by a short passageway. It was constructed as a typical barrel would have been, only on a much larger scale, requiring a high degree of craftsmanship and ingenuity.
The main barrel has two stories standing 20 feet tall. It is built with two-inch thick white spruce staves held together by six steel hoops, and capped with a circular roof, coming to a peak in the center with extending eaves over the ends of the staves. The ceiling is made up of roof joists that form a sort of umbrella over the interior. The first floor of the main barrel originally held the living room. A spiral staircase leads from the first to the second floor, originally the sleeping quarters. In the rear of the main barrel is a passageway that originally served as a pantry, leading to the second barrel, which housed the kitchen. The smaller barrel, built in the same manner, stands nine feet tall.
While Monarch Foods intended the cottage to be a friendly gesture of appreciation for Donahey’s work, the real motive may have been advertising, since the company heavily publicized the one-of-a-kind house, including in a 16-page advertising booklet. Monarch Foods also placed photos of the pickle barrel house on the national wire services, and visitors soon starting arriving to see the unusual structure.
The Donaheys expected the cottage to be a quiet place of inspiration for their work, and enjoyed the lake, woods, sand dunes and hushed solitude. That is, until the tourists discovered it, calling it “Tweenie Land.” Over the 10 summers that the couple lived in the pickle barrel cottage, they became increasingly frustrated with the hordes of unannounced visitors and sightseers disturbing their peaceful life. In 1937, they gave up and turned the structure over to Roy C. Hill, who owned a store in Grand Marais that sold Monarch products.
Standing next to the Hill store (now gone), the pickle barrel over the years served as an ice-cream stand, information booth and a souvenir gift shop. By 2003, the building was in dire need of repair, and the Grand Marais Historical Society acquired and restored it as a museum, refurbished in the style of a 1920s cottage, with much of Donahey’s artwork on display. The museum opened to the public in 2005. It is listed in the Michigan Register of Historic Sites and the National Register of Historic Places.
BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the book “Historic Leelanau: Recognized Sites and Places of Historical Significance.”