An East Jordan general store is reborn as a unique Airbnb, part of a family’s desire to breathe new life into this historic town.
Featured in the February 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
My family and I stayed the night in our own private, old-fashioned candy shop—Gunther’s General Store in East Jordan. Our well-appointed living room and bedroom were part of a beautiful renovation capturing the remarkable history of what was once a working general store, complete with swivel stools at the counter, penny candy and an old-fashioned cash register. Already want to book a stay? Don’t worry, this story will wait for you while you arrange your own trip to East Jordan.
Ok, all booked?
Great. Here’s the story of a Depression-era general store run by a single mom working to help her family and community, and the modern-day family picking up that legacy of building and sustaining a strong community.
Gunther’s General Store is the beginning of a community revitalization project, led by an extremely thoughtful and capable local woman named Forest Rebecca Gotts, her husband, Rick, and her up-for-the-challenge family that includes five children. The general store was renovated with history at its heart and the help of 90-year-old Elaine Dvoracek (her maiden name is Gunther), who was raised there.
The original exterior door, which reads “Tin Shop and Stoves,” separates the main store area from the back bedroom. Visitors to East Jordan can now book an overnight stay in the renovated old-school candy shop. // Photos by Karie Anne Photography
With their candy shop-turned-Airbnb rental now completed, Rebecca and Rick are going on to renovate a handful of historical buildings in East Jordan—including a marina and a future tap house with an antique boat and woodworking shop. They’ve also opened a new waterside wedding venue and completed two houses, which are available for rent. “We want to make sure the project is going to help East Jordan in the future,” Rebecca emphasizes. “That means seeing a future for East Jordan that includes places for people to enjoy both the history and the landscape.”
No doubt, East Jordan will always be a foundry town, most often recognized for being the original home of the internationally known ironworks company EJ, formerly East Jordan Iron Works. (Next time you’re crossing the street in a city, doesn’t matter where, look for a maintenance hole cover, aka a manhole cover. There’s a good chance it will have the worldwide recognized logo of East Jordan [EJ] Iron Works. Some of the company’s production facilities have since moved to nearby Elmira, but offices and other aspects of the corporation remain in town, and EJ is still the largest employer in East Jordan.)
However, the town is in the process of revitalizing both physical spaces and its regional identity. Locals, and people who visit and fall in love with the town, embrace it as the gateway to Lake Charlevoix. The town lies at the base of the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix, at the precipice between the long slender lake arm and its main tributary the Jordan River, a blue-ribbon trout river.
As you drive into town from the southwest side, you pass through a small neighborhood of old buildings and new commercial businesses before you cross the bridge into the downtown area. This neighborhood, located before the bridge, used to be its own village called South Arm. It’s been incorporated within East Jordan for many years and, as such, its historical identity has been a bit lost in the mix with East Jordan. Until now.
Forest Rebecca Gotts // Photo by Naomi Stevens
Rebecca and her family are working to rebuild and refurbish the neighborhood with enterprising, thoughtful and ambitious undertakings. Their goal is to bolster the identity of South Arm and support East Jordan by focusing on the community’s already-existing beauty and history.
This South Arm area is actually older than the town of East Jordan, as it lies on the southwest side of the river and served as an original access to the waterways. However, once the bridge was built, and the ironworks business established, East Jordan proper became the center of commerce in the area.
Elaine Gunther (now Dvoracek) was just a child when her parents ran the general store in South Arm. After her father left, her mother, Julia, ran the store on her own, while raising kids, and providing what she could to the local community during a time when everybody had almost nothing—the Great Depression. The most common order at the store was bologna and crackers. In addition to food items, they also sold things like leather shoes and had one of the first electric coffee grinders in the area. The goods came in on the railroad. Most of the locals grew and harvested their food, but the store was a place to access things that they otherwise couldn’t get, which was the goal for Elaine’s mother. She wanted the store to be a place that not only supported her family but also ultimately supported the community.
East Jordan’s Main Street in the 1930s. The manhole covers in town still bear the worldwide-recognized East Jordan Iron Works logo.
Emily Gunther (Elaine’s older sister) and her dog Buddy in front of Julia Gunther’s Store in the 1940s.
Elaine is very proud of her mother, how she handled the responsibility and a difficult situation. Having been around long enough to remember when the bridge from South Arm to East Jordan used to swing side to side to allow boats through, Elaine has seen the community go through many changes. And now, as the Gotts family breathes new life into Gunther’s and South Arm, Elaine and the family have become good friends. “I truly love Elaine,” Rebecca says. “She’s become like a grandma to our youngest daughter. She’s a cool lady that we would’ve never met if we’d torn down the general store.”
The history of the store became apparent quickly after the Gotts purchased the building. “Once we found the general store was insulated with old food boxes between the walls, we realized the history of this building and the town that once existed here,” Rebecca remembers. “We joined the historical society and even got to host a meeting at Gunther’s with Elaine as the special guest to talk about what it was like growing up in the Depression, and life helping her mom and sister run the store.” One remnant of that era—Elaine is somewhat of an expert at math, but mainly on multiples of very specific numbers. They were the most common numbers added up on the cash register when Elaine used to help her mom with sales.
Rebecca and her family started with Gunther’s General Store and a cottage next door, intending to retain the buildings’ history while meeting East Jordan’s needs today. The Gotts were tuned in to the fact that there was a lack of places for visitors to stay in the area.
But they didn’t stop there. Picking up on the interest couples have in getting married in Northern Michigan, the Gotts envisioned their rentals working for those couples, and then they took it to the next level. They built The Boathouse, a wedding venue across the road that opened at the end of July 2020. The Boathouse stands as a beautiful representation of the future vision of what Rebecca and her family hope to do to revitalize the South Arm community.
“The venue is exactly everything we’ve dreamed of,” says General Manager Anora O’Connor. “It’s modern, open, industrial, warm and classy.” The Boathouse is a truly special wedding venue that’s “not only cutting edge but on the water’s edge,” with long views of Lake Charlevoix from three sides and a large private wedding garden. The Boathouse, like the Gunther renovation, reflects the Gotts’ incredible eye for design and creating experiences that tie into the region and community.
The Boathouse // Photo by Karie Anne Photography
You can imagine after reading this that I had to see this place for myself. I arrived at Gunther’s General Store with my family on a snowy afternoon and discovered that my vision of a unique yet comfortable getaway fell short of what we were able to experience, which was better than I could have hoped.
We dropped our bags in the beautiful bedroom, accessed by a sliding barn-style door in the back of what still appears to be Gunther’s General Store. Our daughter found her way to the Christmas tree set up in the corner of the store by the old-fashioned soda cooler, filled with Faygo products and other classics, complete with a bottle opener on the side. The tree was next to the front windows that looked out onto the main road. Gunther’s has a true storefront, with tall windows, a large awning and a small porch with chairs. The living area is comfortable and simple, with a TV, couch and chairs, and cozy decorations intentionally placed on the eclectic pieces of antique furniture. To our surprise, three Christmas stockings were hung from an open antique travel chest, with our names on them. This was when we realized, that among many qualities, Rebecca and her family pay incredible attention to detail and have a true passion for hospitality.
I had assumed that the general store feature of the rental would be a small representation, with the focus on the living and sleeping areas. I was wrong. While the living and sleeping areas are up to the standards of any modern vacation rental, the most prominent aspect of the space is the actual general store section of the main room. Tall, floor-to-ceiling shelves are packed with penny candy and local goods. Between the large shelves is a massive old cash register (and it still works!). Colorful metal stools line the low countertop. On the counter sits an impressive tray of complimentary cookies and a bottle of wine. The Gotts hope to carry more locally made goods at Gunther’s that would be representative of the products that were sold there in the early 1900s. All the candy and goods, including unique necessities for travel like wooden-handled toothbrushes or a comb, are available for purchase to the renter through an honor system, and your money can be placed into the old National Cash Register.
Once you’ve experienced Gunther’s, it’s easy to believe the Gotts will bring the same creativity and eye to history in their next endeavors, including renovating the large building next door to The Boathouse, which will house an antique boat collection and boat workshop. They hope to partner with a distillery or taproom to include in the space. Whatever the Gotts take on, it’s all truly an exceptional example of ingenuity, historical mindfulness and pure passion.
The Gotts family, still humble throughout their efforts, have found creative ways to support themselves and their community. It’s impressive and inspiring from the outside, but it’s not hard to see what truly drives them. “I’m still stunned and smile when I see how creative and fun the pictures look of people enjoying the space that was once a dream,” Rebecca says. “We are lucky to live in this community.”
Food boxes were found in the walls (used as insulation), giving the Gotts a clue to the general store’s past. They found Kellogg cornflake boxes, laundry soap, leather shoes and bakery boxes from Petoskey, all from around 1915. Some had railway postage labels still on them. The Gotts completely renovated the shop, upgrading utilities and salvaging what they could.