Michigan's Small Town Treasures: The Garfield Inn

by Julie Royce /
Julie Royce's picture
Sep 02, 2008 / 1 comments

The Garfield Inn is Steeped in History – Both Documented and Rumored!

I won’t promise you the best food in the Thumb, although you can’t argue with Cedar Planked Roasted Atlantic Salmon slow roasted and served with a mild BBQ sauce.  I won’t promise you the most elegant room you’ll ever stay in, although as B&Bs go, the Garfield’s six air-conditioned rooms are worthy of your consideration.

Garfield Inn


Instead I will tell you that if you find yourself in Port Austin, you need to stop at the Garfield Inn, walk the gardens and reflect upon the history – both that which is fact and that which is rumor. The Garfield Inn, 8544 Lake Street, is a National Historic Site, located in the small village of Port Austin at the top of the “Thumb” in Michigan’s other “Up North.” 

This much is true: The Garfield Inn was purchased by Charles G. Learned, in 1857 with money earned from his involvement in constructing the Erie Canal. Learned was said to be a financial genius who had earned his first ten thousand dollars by age eighteen. Keep in mind that we are talking about the mid-1800s when that was an enormous amount of money. After purchasing the structure Charles immediately set about expanding it for his beloved wife, Maria.

It is also true that Charles was a close friend of James Abram Garfield who became president in 1881. Garfield visited the Learneds at their Port Austin home on many occasions. So, yes, Garfield did sleep there.

Now, this is where the story gets interesting and I can’t tell you how to sort the fact from fiction. It is alleged (and evidenced by risqué letters between the two) that Garfield became extremely close - quite literally - to Maria. In fact, it is said that he was absolutely smitten with her. When Garfield was mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet in September 1881, he lingered for eleven weeks before succumbing and it is said that he wanted to travel to Port Austin to recover in the Learned home because of his love for Maria and also to be enveloped in the many fond memories of his earlier visits there.

As with many stories, it is likely this one contains some fact and some fiction. Some versions floating around the small town say he died at the Inn. This makes little sense since his beloved Maria had died six months earlier of tuberculosis and it seems hardly likely the grievously injured president would want to spend his last moments in the company of a friend he had betrayed.  Also, from a strictly practical point of view, Michigan’s Thumb sustained a horrific fire in September 1881; it burned out much of the area’s forests. It seems unlikely the president would have been allowed to travel to a small town during that particular fire season, not to mention concern for the medical care available in Port Austin as compared to that available in Washington D.C.

Garfield Inn


Stories aside, the Inn is French Second Empire style with lovely Victorian gardens. It is an architecturally unique structure unlike anything else you’ll see in the area. Curiosity should make a stop worthwhile. Phone numbers for the Garfield Inn are 800-373-5254 or 989-738-5254. The restaurant has seasonal hours and is open for dinner Thursday through Sunday in the summer. Saturday and Sunday it is also open for lunch and Sunday breakfast is served. Rooms are available year round. You can check them out online at:


Oh, yes, while in Port Austin spend a day at Port Crescent State Park and enjoy nearly three miles of white, sandy beach. 




Julie Albrecht Royce, Michigan Editor, is the author of Traveling Michigan's Sunset Coast and Traveling Michigan's Thumb, both published by Thunder Bay Press. She writes a bi-weekly column for wanderingeducators.com, entitled Michigan's Small Town Treasures.


 Photos courtesy and copyright of the Garfield Inn.


Comments (1)

Leave a comment