You can’t get much clearer on the connection between a cow and a tasty scoop of Pralines-N-Cream or hunk of aged Gouda than you can through a visit to East Lansing and the Michigan State University Farms. There, you’ll go behind the scenes of the massive milking operations, then directly to cheese and ice cream making, and perhaps get close enough for an accidental kiss from a six-month-old calf named Potato or barn mates with names like Paula, Jemima and Myrrh.

Help comes via a printed farm guide, dairy store video tour and interpretive murals like one labeling parts of a cow, another explaining how food moves through its four stomachs.

“We see the value in letting the general public know what’s going on with animal agriculture, getting people onto the farm to actually see where their food comes from,” says Rob West, Dairy Barn manager. “And it’s increasingly important. A couple of generations ago, everybody lived on a farm or their grandparents owned one. People are getting further and further removed.”

Across the state, farm and factory tours like this self-guided opportunity let families connect with everything from baby calves to age-old crafts.


The chance to hand-feed a giraffe is the inevitable hit of a visit to Battle Creek’s Binder Park Zoo—and perhaps of all the state’s behind-the-scenes travel offerings. Zoo animals roam over a roomy, almost African plains-like 433 acres, so large that trams move human visitors from the park’s main section to “Wild Africa.” Pass the safari vehicles and makeshift tents of base camp, then walk the windy path through lush woodlands to the platform where you’ll inevitably spot a peeking giraffe head or two.

They know this food source well, evident in the way they lope gracefully back and forth in search of someone holding a colorful bowl of tasty lettuce leaves. At $1 a leaf, insiders have learned how to break one into pieces for extended feeding thrills. And thrilling it is to have one’s hand brushed by a soft nose resembling a sock puppet or the giraffe’s long, moist tongue. As the gangly creature takes the offerings and chews with an audible crunch, toddlers scream in delight, adults giggle and 20-somethings give friends high-fives as one proclaims, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done!”


A cool thing to wear is showcased on a factory tour in the western Upper Peninsula city of Ironwood. There, in a third-generation family business, workers craft various versions and patterns of the Stormy Kromer, an Elmer Fudd-style cap with ear flaps and some slight design tweaks that have made this 100-plus year old creation a fashion must in the north woods and on urban streets alike.

As trendy as the brand has become, though, products are still made the oldfashioned way—by hand, and via traditional sewing machines you’ll watch in action on a free tour of the factory. Woven into the tour is the story of George “Stormy” Kromer, a short-tempered, semipro baseball catcher and train engineer who invented the style out of necessity in 1903. His hat kept flying off while on the train, so he had wife Ida sew flaps around its base. A new business was born, which they ran until 1965, the same year Little Golden Books published the story of his hat in Mr. Puffer-Bill: Train Engineer. Post-tour, head to the factory store where product seconds are sold at up to half off.


While some tours showcase products made as they once were, Suttons Bay’s Hillside Homestead offers the chance to “live” as people once did—in Leelanau County, circa 1910 to be precise. At this late Victorian farmhouse surrounded by apple orchards, proprietor Susan Odom greets guests wearing era-appropriate clothing, down to the petticoat and corset. She prepares breakfast from a recipe in the Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book of 1909 (on a wood-fired stove) and offers games like croquet—but only after she found proof that it was played in the area in 1910.

The food historian and agricultural history buff draws on her experience at Greenfield Village’s Firestone Farm in Dearborn to this “live the past” level, and says that kids especially love collecting eggs, helping to feed the 83 chickens, geese and ducks, and hand pumping water. For playing dress up she keeps a stash of period clothing of various sizes that kids and adults alike can borrow from. “Parents get this bright look in their eyes when they see kids experience these things,” she says. “We had one big family that all got dressed up for dinner, took a picture on the porch, and it was their Christmas card that year.”


In the Detroit area, the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, one of the attractions at The Henry Ford, takes visitors on a high-tech trek from 1917 and the origins of Henry Ford’s massive manufacturing complex through the modern-day production plant where workers and robots assemble the aluminum-bodied F-150 truck.

The self-guided tour features a 13-minute film about the history of The Rouge, and a dynamic multi-media show that explains vehicle development. The one-third mile walkway above the factory floor offers views of the assembly line capable of turning out one truck per minute.


The scent of homemade caramel mingles with the rich chocolate being crafted into candy at Kilwins in Petoskey. On a free daily tour, families sniff, sample and watch chocolatiers mold gooey truffle centers or coat them with milk chocolate at the factory of the chain’s flagship store.

Those who want to craft their own chocolates head to the town of Empire, where Grocer’s Daughter Chocolates offers chocolate making classes for kids twice monthly in September and October. Youngsters as young as four and old as nine mold chocolate into tasty dinosaurs, owls, frogs, butterflies and bugs. Kids taste cocoa as a bean (nutty but not sweet), hold the pod in which beans grow on the tree and, using play money, learn how the concept of fair trade helps growers pay for food, shelter and clothes. Families leave with their creations and gift-making ideas.

Or go the savory route and make your own pretzels, the kind so warm and soft on the inside, just-right crispy on the outside that Frankenmuth’s Bavarian Inn sells in the neighborhood of 17,000 of them each year. Some of those are sold via pretzel rolling experiences, where $4.99 buys the pretzel, a class on their making and the story that runs through it all—that of a 16th century monk and teacher who supposedly invented the pretzel as both treat and tale to help teach prayer to his kids.

Lansing-based lifestyle blogger Tatanisha Worthey took the class and says she enjoys hands-on opportunities for the way they connect with her three kids. “When we get to learn about where something comes from or why we have a certain product here, they remember that,” she said. “The things we do together are the ones they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”

This article originally appeared in the 2016 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Kim Schneider is a Michigan-based travel writer whose favorite assignments involve active adventures or wildlife, or better yet, a combination of the two. She is the author of “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.”

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