The Underground Hot Spot of Three Oaks, Michigan
Three Oaks, Michigan, lies five miles from the shore of Lake Michigan, almost an hour and a half outside Chicago. A tourist destination and celebrity getaway for Michiganders and Chicagoans alike, Three Oaks has been home to a thriving artistic community, including Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg, film director John Hancock and actress Joan Cusack.
One of the main attractions is the Acorn Theater, a featherbone corset factory turned performance space. The owners happen to be my cousin, David Fink, and his partner, Kim Clark. They have made it their passion to provide comedy, music and theater performances to the community for over ten years.
Before I visited them there, I assumed my gay cousin and his partner opened their theater in a gay-friendly area where there would be same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand and rainbow stickers displayed in store windows. Instead, I saw no evidence that there were any gay people in Three Oaks other than David and Kim. Were they pioneers?
There is, in fact, a gay population in Three Oaks, but it is not the parade-marching, club-raving community more likely found in nearby Chicago. My first thought was that the LGBT population must keep to itself because of an unsupportive, unwelcoming environment. Three Oaks is not a clearly gay vacation destination, like Saugatuck, 70 miles north. But the fact is that Three Oaks opens it arms to all residents who enhance the lives of its residents in some way.
David and Kim first moved to Three Oaks after Kim acquired a burned-out farmhouse, which they initially intended to transform into a writer’s retreat. That writer’s retreat evolved into a bed and breakfast that they ran for about four years before the reality of inn-keeping set in. “It’s horrible to be friendly to strangers every morning,” my cousin confessed to me. I personally can’t imagine a greater hell unless I also had to cook for strangers. Seeing as how David and I are related, it was not a surprise to learn that he was quite happy to hang up his inn-keeping apron.
In 2001, David and Kim turned their sights to the Warren Featherbone Factory, where hundreds of workers once stripped turkey feather quills to use in corsets. After two years of renovation, the Acorn Theater opened its doors to the public and has seen a wide range of performances ever since.
The Acorn has never been a gay venue per se, but David and Kim book many acts that happen to appeal to a gay audience. Whether featuring the bawdy Weird Sisters cabaret act, cast members from RuPaul’s Drag Race, curating Adult Education Storytelling evenings or offering an opera series, gay patrons fill the theater alongside weekenders from Chicago and local artists who appreciate all kinds of performance and live theater.
As word of the Acorn spread, David and Kim put down roots in Three Oaks. They founded Harbor Arts, a non-profit organization that supports the community through art events. Harbor Arts runs a free concert series in the park throughout the summer. The theater also provides a space for students from the local high school to hold gay-lesbian alliance meetings.
The Acorn Theater is not solely responsible for attracting a gay community. There were always gay residents in Three Oaks. When David and Kim first moved there, however, they encountered a parallel universe to the typical gay scene we imagine. Here, lesbians were more visible than gay men, socializing in town while the gay men tended to entertain at home. Three Oaks celebrates a long history of women-owned businesses, and it could be that Three Oaks attracted more lesbians than gay men in the past.
When the Acorn first opened, few specifically gay establishments were in Three Oaks. David and Kim started weekly gay nightclub evenings in the theater, where members of the LGBT community could meet. Gradually, other venues (fueled partially by smartphone apps) have provided additional opportunities to connect.
Still, residents and visitors are not necessarily looking for the rainbow flags when they come to town. Nor are celebrities looking to see and be seen. Gay men and women, artists and media personalities put art before political agendas and celebrity status. The art galleries, restaurants and welcoming atmosphere make up for the lack of rainbow stickers on shop windows. There is a communal sense of pride that transcends sexuality and makes everyone feel at home. I know I did.
Small-town communities can be easy to reach — Three Oaks is just ninety minutes outside Chicago on the Michigan Services route to the neighboring town of New Buffalo. Where can Amtrak take you to next?