All About the Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore

falling rock cafe owners jeff and nancy dwyerThe Owners

We (Jeff & Nancy) bought a vacation home on Powell Lake (near Munising, Michigan) in the summer of 2001. After enjoying the beautiful year-round surroundings and getting to know many, many wonderful people, we decided to “retire” from our careers at the University of Florida (Nancy was a professor in Nursing, Jeff was an administrator in Health and Aging) and make Munising our full-time home.

original building for the falling rock cafe & bookstoreThe Location

Our buildings were built in 1896, the year that the City of Munising was incorporated, and originally housed the Smith and Lapham Hardware Company. Originally, the middle storefront and the corner storefront (now the Munising Wood Products Company) were “sisters,” but the middle and end storefronts became a pair decades ago.

The Falling Rock Story!

When we were kids we often camped, fished and traveled during vacations in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Ontario Canada (north of Sault Ste Marie). Waterfalls, the Soo Locks, the Log Slide, the Marquette Ore Docks, the Pictured Rocks and many other destinations were part of our childhood.

During these trips we often saw yellow signs warning “Watch for Falling Rock.” When asked (repeatedly, I might add) our father told us this story…

“Many, many years ago there was a young Indian woman who had a son named Falling Rock. One day he became lost and did not return home. His mother searched for the rest of her life throughout the lands we now know as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Northern Ontario. As she searched, she occasionally wrote on the rock faces ‘watch for Falling Rock’ so that others would keep an eye out for her son. Unfortunately, she never did find him. Centuries later, when roads were built through the same areas that this Indian woman traveled and wrote her plea for her son, the builders placed her words on yellow signs as a way to honor her devotion. That is why we now have signs throughout the United States and Canada that warn ‘Watch for Falling Rock.’ ”

There are, of course, many variations of this story that have been told throughout the years. This is the one that we believed for far too long. Perhaps it is useful for you to know that our father also accurately counted cows in the field and attributed this ability to a skill he acquired during summer jobs counting livestock during college. When asked years later how he did this, he said “you just count the legs and divide by four!”

Unfortunately, Dad passed away on June 6, 2002, at age 64. During the memorial service I shared a number of stories – including the story of Falling Rock – most of which my children, Amanda (age 12) and Rebecca (age 7) were hearing for the first time. Months later, when we raised the issue of a name for the café and bookstore, Amanda immediately said “Let’s call it the Falling Rock Café & Bookstore.” And so it is.

Tin Walls & Ceilings

Early in the demolition of the buildings we discovered that the original tin remained virtually complete and intact throughout the walls of the middle storefront. Tin sheets and cornices were also salvaged from the original ceiling, but it was not possible to restore the ceiling because all of the plumbing for the second floor had been installed between the original ceiling and the initial false ceiling. The use of tin ceilings developed in the mid-nineteenth century, when mass produced sheets of thin rolled tinplate became readily available in America, and reached the zenith of their popularity in the 1890s. As a result, many historical buildings like ours boast original antique tin ceilings, cornices, wall panels and wainscots. We have uncovered all of the tin wall panels and wainscots and have restored the walls to their original beauty.

Maple Floor

The original maple floor of the Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore has been uncovered after removing layers of carpet, linoleum and plywood. Due to settling, some boards were loosened over the years and replaced with plywood. The floor has been leveled, the flooring replaced, and the entire floor has been refinished to its former beauty!

Prismatic Glass Transoms

In 1897, Frank Lloyd Wright patented a style of prismatic glass tile designed to refract and diffuse light into the building from the outside for maximum lighting efficiency. These tiles were generally used in store fronts as the transoms to the larger plate glass display windows. Wright patented this design for the Luxfer Prism Company in 1897. Some of the tiles that were made have a beautiful geometric flower design, a raindrop pattern, a pleated design, or some were just plain. Wright patented 96 designs in all (see Luxfer Prism Company).

When going through the initial demolition stages to rehabilitate the storefronts, we uncovered the plate glass and transom framing that we believe was installed in the early part of the 20th century, but had been covered-up for decades. Transoms, a type of window opening, provided for natural light and air circulation and were often hinged for opening to improve ventilation. They were comprised of panes of glass, frequently semi-transparent or ribbed, which diffused light while allowing more sunlight into interiors, providing a source of lighting. The panes of glass were held in place with soldered zinc, surrounded with a steel frame, and installed as a band of lights across the front façade. Some transoms were comprised of many small prismatic panels making it possible to vary patterns. The transoms also gave an expansive effect to the interior spaces. These designs were engineered to capture, magnify and disperse light from the front to the rear of the store.

During the period of initial work, we were apprised of the sale of glass prisms on Ebay that were represented as originating from a building in Munising, Michigan. Remarkably, a woman now living in Arizona had purchased the prisms – still in the original frames – from an antique dealer in Munising in the early 1980’s. Following an extended e-mail and telephone dialogue, the Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore was able to purchase all 400+ prisms in her possession! Approximately 300+ prisms are what are referred to as a panel design with rectangular ribs on the smooth, exterior side. These have been used in reconstructed transoms that are now installed in our rehabilitated building.