My New Year’s resolution is to see more of what Michigan has to offer outside of Ann Arbor. This month, I chose Jackson, MI, located 35 minutes from Ann Arbor, straight shot off I-94. As I explored the city, it’s evident there is pride in preserving its history while moving forward and reinventing itself. Plus, with this staycation, I didn’t have to “stay.” There’s no need to overnight in a hotel when exploring this close to home.
Jackson was once one of the largest and most prosperous urban settlements between Detroit and Chicago. A major reason for its economic growth was the founding of Michigan’s first state prison. The original prison, with its 25 foot stone walls, was the largest walled-in prison in the world when it was completed in 1834.
The story goes: when offered a choice between accepting the relocation of the University of Michigan from Detroit or the building of a prison, the city of Jackson chose the prison. At the time a logical choice because with the prison came a major railroad system and cheap prison labor, fueling the industrial revolution; however, in hindsight, the city may have wanted to reconsider that decision.
After serving as the Michigan National Guard Armory, the old prison is now home to the Armory Arts Village and the Prison Museum. Historic Prison Tours are available to learn more about Michigan’s first prison, and in 2021, a new tour was added, Parishes, Prisons and Prodigious Paint Tour, that combines the history of the prison and celebrates the arts and culture of the city.
As you stroll through Jackson, the dedication to the arts is prevalent all around the city but particularly in the downtown historic district thanks to the Bright Walls Art and Mural Festival which was initiated in 2018. The festival brought in artists from all over the worldto create 40 impressive murals covering entire walls of buildings. The festival was interrupted by the pandemic but is slated to conclude in a grand finale in September of 2022.
Downtown Jackson has been going through a revival. In addition to the office presence of larger employers such as Consumer Energy and Henry Ford Allegiance Hospital, a number of shops, markets, craft breweries, and local farm-to-table themed restaurants have been popping up in and around the historic sites down to the Grand River.
Across from the Grand River Farmer’s Market, open weekly Friday to Sunday, is the Grand River Brewery. The industrially-inspired spacious locale offers a great selection of over 30 seasonal and regular craft beers on tap, all made on sight, in addition to a selection of house made bourbons and gins. The drinks make for perfect accompaniments to the selection of tasty handhelds, hardy entrees and wood fired pizzas as well as house specialties such as on-site smoked beef brisket, smoked trout chowder and poutine. Just to name a few!
Other classic stops for a quick downtown lunch are at Chilango’s Cantina Grill for Mexican cuisine where you can build the largest freshly-pressed tortilla burrito that I have ever had, the Junkyard Dog for a selection of hot dog specialties — my favorite: the Chicago dog, and for wings and beers, The Dirty Bird is the go-to place in town. Jackson Coffee Co. is also perfect for a quick house roasted brew or espresso.
Most of the Jacksonians that I have met have proven to be proud, caring people with a strong sense of community and hospitality towards others. This was evident for the staff at one of the newest fine-dining establishments recently added to the downtown scene, Veritas, named for the owners’ dedication to “truly” good food.
Veritas combines high-end cuisine in a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere. The menu has a variety of options from dry-aged steaks, fresh seafood, creative sushi, and unique takes on craft cocktails as well as seasonal creations. The wine list is well rounded with value options for most all price ranges. Desserts were homemade, and the ingredients, from farm raised trout and butchered meats to locally grown produce, even the spirits, are locally sourced.
We visited Veritas on a chilly January evening (parking was very easy) and sat in the main dining area next to ceiling high bookshelves filled with eclectic cookbooks. The restaurant has a clean, modern, but warm aesthetic. Our waiter brought over warm ciabatta bread and began enthusiastically explaining the menu, pointing out his favorite dishes.
We started with a couple of cocktails, Oysters on the Half Shell, and the Honolulu Ahi Poke. Both the tuna and oysters were fresh and the latter shucked perfectly. Next, we enjoyed the Spinach Salad, which had a unique twist on a traditional side by pairing mustard dressing with apples, bacon, red onion, and hard boiled egg. The flavors were balanced and surprisingly complimented each other very well.
Based on our waiter’s recommendations, we had the Blackened Chicken & Tortellini and the Wood Grilled Scottish Salmon as our entrees. The pasta dish was comforting yet light while the chicken gave it some hardy substance. The salmon was cooked perfectly, lightly crisp, while the lemon flavored béarnaise sauce sprinkled with chives elevated the delicate complexity. We ended our meal with a slice of Cheesecake with caramel sauce. The experience left us wanting to come back for more.
I look forward to visiting Veritas again to try their many other offerings including house specialties such as the tempura based sushi rolls and the classic surf & turf as well as their Sunday brunch and the bi-monthly Drinks & Deceptions nights hosted by magician, Daniel Martin.
Other Jackson Highlights Include:
A family favorite in town is the Ella Sharp Museum and Park. The museum has an 1860’s log cabin, country store and Planetarium. The park is situated on 562 acres with a golf course, hiking trails, gardens, picnic area and playground.
Take a step back in time at the nostalgic Jackson Candy and Fudge Factory, dating back to the 1800’s.
Gilbert Chocolates, established in 1900, is known for its history of quality, gourmet chocolates.
Chateau Aeronautique Winery & Blue Skies Brewerywas founded by an airline pilot in his Hanger. Now, there are multiple locations to sample the Michigan-made wines in addition to a variety of beers. The tasting room in Irish Hills has an open air Biergarten in the summer. It is covered and heated in the colder months.
Nicer weather lends itself to visiting the Jackson County Fairgrounds where concerts and State fairs are regularly held. The fair grounds are located just north of the downtown area along the Grand River.
The summer months in Jackson have an active scene with nature trails, lakes and golf courses.
Visit Falling Waters trail where you can enjoy over 10 miles of flat asphalt rail-trail that follow the old railroad bed for a leisurely walk or bike ride, perfect for the youngest and more senior.
Cascade Falls in Sparks Foundation County Park is a man-made waterfall attraction with light and music displays throughout the summer and special shows on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.
Dahlem Conservancy is a natural history education center that the kids will love! Consisting of 5 miles of hiking trails, including bluebird trails where you can hear Eastern Bluebirds.