The property that is now Discovery Center ~ Great Lakes has an interesting past. It has been home to several industrial and commercial uses over the years, including the Parsons Corporation. John Parson, who is known as the father of numerical machining, used the structure that is now home to the Great Lakes Children’s Museum. He was the head of plant that manufactured bombs during World War II. When the war ended, John began the Parsons Corporation initially to make small kitchen units to supply all of the soldiers and their families as they came home and began their civilian lives. However, after he took a trip to Greenfield Village to see the first production helicopter in flight, he was inspired to change the direction of his business. As an innovator who was always looking for a good challenge, he saw great potential in the manufacturing of helicopter blades. He and his chief engineer, Frank Stulen, went on to develop the idea of numerical machining using mathematics. This innovative idea allowed for the mass production of complex helicopter blades for the first time. This idea was later adopted and used in the production of many kinds of machined parts in plants around the country. The Parsons Corporation was involved with several projects at different Traverse City locations, including the Discovery Center property. In addition to the mass production of helicopter rotor blades, these projects included the development of fuel tubes and tunnels that were instrumental in sending the first man to the moon. Other uses of the building through 1986 included Rapid Design Service, Dean Anderson Appliances, Traverse Foreign Car Service and Tom & Irv’s Truck Repair.
In 1973, the south parcel of the Discovery Center campus contained two small cottages and a home with a two-car garage when it was acquired from Hoyt Coddington, who lived in and operated his insurance office from the house. The cottages were connected and converted to business use for Scuba North, and the docks were built for their boat rental and charter fleet. A pole building (now known as Building #4) was built in 1974 for Seese Marine, which eventually became West Bay Boat Works. The home was eventually converted in 1980 to business use for Sail North.
In 1978 Mike Wills started Sail Plan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the joy of sailing. Sail Plan brought in experts from around the country to speak on topics related to sailing. Through this organization, Mike Wills met Mike Dow of Okemos, Michigan.
In 1984, Dow became a partner in Sail North, and soon West Bay Boat Works was acquired along with a lease on the 60-slip coal dock marina from Traverse City Light and Power. Buildings #1, #2, and #3 were constructed over the years for boat sales, service, and storage; building #4 was converted to a paint shop.
In 1985, Wills and Dow formed the Harbor Corporation to purchase, renovate, and expand Harbor West marina. The boat sales and ship’s store operations were moved to Harbor West and renamed the Harbor Boat Shop. Service and storage functions continued on the south parcel as the Boat Service Center.
In 1989 the “railroad parcel” lying to the west between the south parcel and the railroad tracks was acquired from Bob Andrews. This parcel was known as the “railroad lot’ because it bordered the rail line that is now part of the Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation trail system (TART). A year later the north parcel with the brick building that is currently home to the Great Lakes Children’s Museum was purchased from Arnold Bohn. A small vacant home on the north side of the brick building also came with the property and was demolished.
The Harbor Boat Shop ship’s store and boat sales operations were relocated from Harbor West to the brick building in 1992 and continued until 1996 when the business was dissolved and the building was rented to Harbor Sea Doo and then Bayshore Sports Outfitters. The south parcel and all its buildings were rented to Bayshore Marine from 1996 through 2006.
In 2004, after he and Mike Wills reflected on the potential for the property, Mike Dow approached Rotary with the idea of donating the valuable land, waterfront, and buildings with the intent that the property would remain in the public domain. Elmwood Township then undertook an ambitious planning process to evaluate and assess the long-range potential of its shoreline and waterfront in the Greilickville Waterfront Area Study. The Greilickville community was most interested in development of the property as an education center.