We Remember 1963: When Michigan Outdoors Came to Gratiot County

Above: A shot of Leonard’s Michigan Outdoors Center in 1964. The center sat on the southeast corner of Pine River Plaza, north of what is today Mackenzie’s Party Store.

John Wood was the first manager of the Michigan Outdoors Center; Dick Shaver worked as the station manager.

Station attendant Doris Parks helps a driver in 1967. Drivers could stop at Michigan Outdoors Center for coffee, directions, maps and just a break.

Mort Neff was the host of the “Michigan Out Doors” television program that started in the 1950s. Leonard’s Refineries became the show’s leading sponsor in 1956 and Neff made several appearances in Gratiot County during the program’s run.

In the early 1960s, Leonard’s Refineries of Alma had plans for a “Michigan Outdoors” Sales and Service Station. This station was located on the Pine River Plaza’s southeast corner at the corner of Alger Road and M-46.

 Leonard’s Michigan Outdoors station was constructed with a large paved parking lot and a display room that could be seen from the road. A gas station and car maintenance center sat next door. When drivers traveling along US-27 needed a break or directions, they could pull into the parking lot to be greeted by a hostess who offered free coffee, directions, and maps. John Wood became Leonard’s first manager, and the station opened on November 1, 1963.

The idea of a Michigan Outdoors station had roots in the 1950s. In 1956, Leonard’s Refineries initiated sponsorship of Mort Neff’s “Michigan Outdoors” television program. Mort Neff was one of Michigan’s leading ecologists and produced one of the largest outdoor shows in Michigan. Eight television stations carried the program on Thursday nights, encouraging Michigan outdoorsmen to think about the upcoming weekend, regardless of the season. One of the show’s highlights was a large Michigan map with a light on the back. If Neff told viewers, “The perch are biting off of the pier at Ludington,” the light would move across the state and rest on that location. The same could be said about hunting pheasants and other outdoor events in Michigan.

Mort Neff knew how to draw people, and it was said that when the map and light came on, another fifty fishermen or hunters from downstate Michigan would appear in the area to hunt or fish – all because of Mort Neff’s program. 

When it came to Mid-Michigan, Neff loved to fly his plane into nearby Maple Rapids to hunt or fish. He was also the featured speaker at local high schools. He once appeared for a fundraiser for the Gratiot County Humane Society. Mort packed them in that night, and the fundraiser was a sellout.

Leonard’s gas station is long gone today, but there once was a Michigan Outdoors Center in Pine River Plaza.

Copyright 2023 James M Goodspeed

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