Recently, I realized that I mention my hometown extensively without providing many details. Unfortunately, many readers – even seasoned Michiganders – might have no idea where Omer, Michigan is. It is just under an hour north of Bay City. If you take the 188 Standish exit off of I-75, you will likely end up on US 23 north in Standish. Omer is the next small town, approximately 7 miles north on US 23. A bridge over the Rifle River, a caution light, and a set of railroad tracks are all landmarks to let you know that you have traveled through the city.
Being from Omer, Michigan isn’t for the faint of heart. For decades, the city of Omer has held the distinction of being Michigan’s smallest city, boasting a population just shy of 300 souls. Living in a small town does not come without its hazards. Nothing remains private for long. Both of my parents grew up in the area as well, with both of their families having ties to the area going back generations. Growing up attending Standish-Sterling Community Schools, not only was I a teacher’s kid as my mom spent most of her teaching career at Standish Elementary, our family business, Russell Canoe Livery, meant that my family was well-known in both Omer and Standish. In fact, Omer has no school, aside from a Head Start program aimed at preschoolers. When Omer’s school burned down in the early days of the 20th century, it was never rebuilt.
Sadly, despite its location in the heart of Arenac County and its one-time status as the county seat, little remains of a once thriving city. Today, the Arenac Country Historical Society works to preserve the Old Courthouse, the lone remaining structure to tell Omer’s cautionary tale. During the early part of the 20th century, roughly 1905-1918, Omer experienced a series of natural disasters (namely fires, floods, and tornadoes) that nearly destroyed the city. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the local diner, first known as Cody’s and later Ziggy’s (now a Dollar General), had disposable placemats outlining Omer’s history, including the natural disasters.
Originally named Rifle River Mills, Omer’s identity has always depended on the Rifle River. In the late 19th century, lumber from dense northern Michigan forests traveled rivers such as the Rifle to the sawmills in the south, namely in Bay City and Saginaw. In fact, our main location in Omer, our smaller campground, is the remains of an old mill pond. In fact, it becomes easy to imagine the pond if you look at the current topography of the campground. Today, the Rifle River is used exclusively for recreational purposes – fishing, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, tubing, and more. One day last summer, I saw two young girls in bathing suits walking down Carrington St. carrying their canoe. It is forever frozen in my mind as the most “Omer” thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Today, Omer is home to three campgrounds, two of which are also canoe liveries, Russell Canoe Livery and Campgrounds, Inc., being the largest. In addition, Omer is home to Meihls Mechanical, a self-storage business that is continually growing, Dollar General, the Sunrise Side Senior Center, a library attached to city hall, a post office, a small park with basketball hoops and playground, the Old Courthouse, and not much else. While not exactly thriving, the city itself looks better than it has in decades, closed Rob’s Auto and Greg’s Market aside.
Today, Omer is relatively well known for two things: the local sucker run and witchy wolves. The sucker run deserves it own post. As it will be starting soon, stay tuned. My piece on the witchy wolf legend, dating back to right after the US Civil War, can be found here. Omer will never be perfect, but it will always home.