Local LGBT history explored in ‘Stories of Summer’ exhibit

The “Stories of Summer” exhibition in the exhibation space in Mary Idmea Pew Library at GVSU on display the week of February 10th, 2019. GVL / Emily Modloff

The “Stories of Summer” exhibition in the exhibation space in Mary Idmea Pew Library at GVSU on display the week of February 10th, 2019. GVL / Emily Modloff

Sarah Edgecomb

While the harsh winter has canceled classes and left students dreaming of warmer weather, Grand Valley State University’s Kutsche Office of Local History has planned an exhibit to remind students of sunnier days ahead and provide a historical view of the local LGBT community. The “Stories of Summer” series features photographs of summer memories throughout the history of Douglas and Saugatuck, two Michigan towns who acted as a safe space for LGBT youth, accompanied by informational text.

After receiving a National Endowment for the Humanities Common Heritage grant, the Kutsche Office of Local History partnered with the Saugatuck-Douglas History Center to compile a collection of the towns’ pasts, including photographs, postcards, slides and oral histories. 

While the exhibit touches on tourism along the lakeside, it hones in on the minority communities that found acceptance in Saugatuck and Douglas, becoming known as a “home for all,” according to the Kutsche Office of Local History. The exhibit largely includes photos from the Cold War era, a time that was particularly dangerous for the LGBT community; the acceptance found in Douglas and Saugatuck marked them as popular safe spaces.

Director of Kutsche Office of Local History Kim McKee said that the exhibition captures the voices of both residents and seasonal visitors through more than 30 oral histories and 2,000 digitized artifacts. 

“The project was designed to chronicle the area’s evolution through its turbulent post-war growth of tourism and concurrent rise as a lakeshore destination for the LGBT community,” McKee said. “The exhibit reflects the stories shared with us as part of the project and documents everyday life in the twin lakeshore destinations.”

To sort through the content, first-year graduate student Mollie VanOrsdol was hired on as curator. VanOrsdol sifted through thousands of memorabilia and 40 hours of oral histories, selecting which ones should be included in the exhibit. She was drawn to the exhibit due to her upbringing and personal experience with the towns.

“My interest in Stories of Summer is rooted in growing up in west Michigan, and enjoying time in Saugatuck and Douglas,” VanOrsdol said. “I was also drawn to the project because I grew up in a small town, and so to be involved as Saugatuck and Douglas bring their story to a larger audience was an opportunity I was very honored to be a part of.”

VanOrsdol also collaborated with graphic design student Sydney Schurig, who designed what the boards would look like completed with pictures and text. 

“This experience was absolutely wonderful. I have never done anything remotely like this, and I am very grateful,” VanOrsdol said.

“Stories of Summer” will be on display in the Mary Idema Pew Library Exhibition Space until Thursday, March 14, and will be transferred to the Saugatuck-Douglas History Center’s Old School House on Wednesday, June 12.