Border residents cling to Michiana name
Niles — You won’t find Michiana on a map and you’ll rarely hear it in conversation.
But take away the name? That could start a border war.
A northern Indiana business group has raised the hackles of southwestern Michigan residents by dropping Michiana from marketing campaigns.
Michiana describes a region in southwestern Michigan and northwestern Indiana centered on South Bend.
Residents of the Mich-part of Michiana are much chagrined by the marketing campaign, which replaces Michiana with “South Bend region.”
For one thing, Michigan residents don’t want to be linked to a city that isn’t even in their state.
For another, isn’t South Bend the home of the evil empire, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team?
“You stepped off the wrong tree, son,” said Richard Smith, owner of Rusty Hooks Bait and Tackle shop in Niles.
“This ain’t South Bend. It’s good ol’ Michigan. I’m a Michigan boy.”
An unscientific survey along U.S. 12, which runs along the state border, found residents and businesses clinging to the Michiana name.
Everyone from a Michiana Idol winner to the Michiana Paranormal Society said they’re proud to be from the region.
Like the Ozarks or Cajun country, the name gives the area a distinctive identity, they said.
They’re Michianians, dagnabbit.
“I will stick with Michiana because everyone knows that forever,” said Missy Mettler, a Sturgis dental office manager who was the 2013 winner of Michiana Idol, sponsored by a local radio station.
Kim Wieczorek, a Galien village trustee, said she named her paranormal group after Michiana to let residents of both states know she’s available for ghostbusting.
“We will always be called Michiana,” she said about her service. “Nobody can make me change that.”
The term Michiana was created in 1934 when a South Bend merchants group sponsored a contest to name the region.
The 55-mile-wide area comprises old factory and mill towns surrounded by vast expanses of woods and farms.
For a small place, Michiana has multiple personalities.
It has two time zones; three state affiliations when you consider Chicago residents with summer homes in the region; and Niles’ claim to fame is that it was the site of a fort inhabited at various times by four nations: France, Britain, Spain and the U.S.
Residents rarely use the Michiana name but businesses and the local media love it.
“On the news, it’s Michiana, Michiana, Michiana,” said Roger Batton of Three Oaks.
Batton began a storytelling group but, instead of naming it Michiana, he reversed the order. It’s called Indigan Storyteller.
Businesses like the appellation so much that even ones located outside the region use it.
A study by the Buchanan Area Chamber of Commerce found Michiana in the names of businesses from Kalamazoo to Valparaiso, Indiana, from South Haven to Warsaw, Indiana.
When the St. Joseph County (Indiana) Chamber of Commerce talks to companies about moving to Michiana, it invariably gets asked the same question.
Where, pray tell, is Michiana?
The chamber defines it as any county that sends at least 500 workers a day into St. Joseph County. That leaves the six counties that surround St. Joseph, including Berrien and Cass counties in Michigan.
When the chamber mentions South Bend to outside companies, it no longer gets a blank look, said chamber officials. That’s due to the national TV broadcasts of that cursed football team.
“Our customers have a harder time identifying with Michiana,” said chamber president Jeff Rea. “It’s not a real place and can’t be found on a map.”
In 1999, the Michiana Regional Transportation Center changed its name to South Bend Regional Airport.
The reason: Visitors to South Bend often flew into Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids because they didn’t realize the Michiana airport was located in South Bend, said airport officials.
Of course, with the old name, travelers probably didn’t realize the transportation center was an airport, either.
Some Michigan residents are sympathetic to the chamber’s plight. They sometimes struggle to explain where they live.
During the unscientific survey, everyone seemed to have a different way to explain where Michiana is located.
One said east of Chicago. Another said north of Indiana. A third uses the Michigan hand.
If that doesn’t work, Katie Riley will use the infamous landmark.
“If they don’t know, then I’ll say Notre Dame. But I don’t want to say it,” said Riley, who co-owns Riley’s Recycled Relics in Niles.
Michiganians also concede South Bend is the focal point of Michiana.
They often trek across the border, and not just for the fireworks stores lining the Indiana side.
Don Lyons tries to remain loyal to businesses in Dowagiac. He has been the mayor for 18 years.
But even Hizzoner finds himself shopping in South Bend 25 miles away.
He and his wife also have season tickets to the South Bend Symphony Orchestra.
“The state line means nothing,” he said. “We go to South Bend regularly.”
Many residents said they like the Michiana name.
Replacing it with South Bend region ignores all the other towns and their individual identities, said Daysha Amster.
“New Buffalo has Four Winds (casino). South Bend has Notre Dame. We have antiques and Amtrak,” said Amster, owner and chef of Olfactory Hue Bistro in Niles.
A few doors down, at Crumb Crossing Bakery, owner Gail Hanchar agreed with Amster.
“I like it because it’s Michigan and it’s Indiana — together,” she said, clapping her hands for emphasis.
“It makes it sound like we’re friends,” said her father, Tom Reames.
Others fretted the Michigan communities are already overshadowed by South Bend.
When U.S. 12 was supplanted by I-94 as the major east-west route in southern Michigan, towns along the highway began to shrivel up.
The towns felt forsaken by Michigan, said residents.
A dozen businesses wanted Cass County to secede from Michigan and join Indiana in 1979.
The business owners said all of Michigan’s money went to Detroit and Grand Rapids while rural areas were ignored.
Michiana’s best days are behind it, said Kevin Tonkin, a former Niles Township trustee.
He said the highlight of the Fort St. Joseph Museum in Niles is a two-headed sheep named Ditto.
“That’s not even uncommon,” he said. “I was raised on a farm. I’ve seen all kinds: two-headed cows, animals with five legs.”
Tonkin, for one, wouldn’t miss Michiana.
The news stations’ overuse of the word drives him batty, he said.
As Michiana has grown with far-flung businesses using the term in their names, various communities have touted themselves as the center of the region.
The late Tom Kerr once pronounced tiny Edwardsburg the hub of Michiana.
Kerr — a village councilman, Lion’s Club member and town cutup — was just trying to get some attention for the square-mile community, said his daughter, Jo-Ann Boepple.
“Edwardsburg is this little dot on the map,” she said. “It couldn’t be any smaller.”
When Boepple retired as assistant school superintendent, she helped found the Edwardsburg Area Historical Museum.
The museum comprises an 1800s hotel, boarding house and stagecoach stop.
Asked if she was the town historian, Boepple had a quick retort.
“Let me put it this way,” she said. “Everyone else has died and I’m next.”