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In the Spotlight- Michigan Whitetail Hall of Fame

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“If you build it, he will come.”  That’s the famous line from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner and Hollywood icon Richard Burton. Despite all odds and protestations of family the protagonist, Ray Kinsella, builds a baseball ball field in the cornfield behind his Iowa farmhouse despite the reservations of his family.  How do I know this when I never saw the film?  Because the phrase “if you build it he will come” is as iconic as “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

“I built this place because of that movie,” said Craig Calderone, owner of the Michigan Whitetail Hall of Fame and the Museum of Early Hay Tools on Willis Road in Grass Lake Township.

The sojourner pulls into the gravel lot bordering the first hole of the Calderone Farms Golf Club on Willis Road, separated by a net attached to quebracho trees staked in the rough.  Still, golf balls shanked into the rough unnerve the herd of deer in the enclosure west of the tee.

A pure white doe rose and stared at the bipedal as tall as the doe is long, the buck with impressive antlers, protector of the herd stared intently at the intruder sticking his fingers through the fence.  She licked my palm, smudged my notes.  It was love at first sight.  I wanted to take one home.     

The Hall of Fame is managed, owned, and operated by Craig Calderone, no relation or affiliation with the golf course.  Standing six feet five inches tall Calderone is himself a force of nature.  Age 56, he works a full time job, coaches tennis for the Lumen Christi High School tennis team in Jackson, and serves as curator at the Hall of Fame and the Museum of Early Hay Tools.

Over the years Calderone has searched more than 1,100 barns across the Midwest looking for nineteenth-century farming artifacts.  Like Indiana Jones minus the whip and the fedora Calderone has traversed the amber waves of grain to collect and preserve early farming tools for his impressive collection stored in his barn in Grass Lake.

The result of Calderone’s agricultural adventures has yielded a massive exhibit of vintage hay-storage and harvesting tools in a 1,600 square foot barn behind the deer exhibit.

“I got fascinated by it all,” Calderone said.  “Ladies like the chain saws.  I do, too.  They’re old and hard to come by.  I kind of get carried away.”

What do herds of dear and ancient farm equipment have in common?  Not much, because deer don’t watch Duck Dynasty or any reality TV show centering on power tools, but Calderone packages them in a unique environment that appears to have no equal in the Grass Lake environs.

Grass Lake does, however, have the distinction as the location in the Great Lake State where two of the largest deer in the state were killed in 1986 and 1996 not far from where the Whitetail Hall of Fame sits on a bluff overlooking the interstate.  Troy Stevens shot one in 1996.  “I’m the other guy,” said Calderone, who shot his prize buck in November 1986 on his twenty-seventh birthday.  The beast’s bust hangs on the wall in the museum next to a photograph snapped after the kill.  The deer that Calderone shot tipped at scales at one half pound less than 200 pounds.

Calderone’s exhibit receives “thousands” of visitors each year, including day-trippers from the Lake Huron region and Chicago.  “People want to see live dear, not trophies, though we’ve got plenty here also.”

Yeah, they do.  To reach the early hay tools exhibit visitor’s pass the Whitetail Hall of Fame, plunk down five dollar bills or ‘one buck’ for children, and view the impressive collection of rare and common creatures past hanging on the walls or posed in natural positions, the marauding black bear, the timber wolf crouched to pounce, and the focalized skull of an American lion, a species that died out at the end of the final ice age, and the skull of a saber-toothed tiger excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits in what is now La Jolla, California.

The entire exhibition, the ghosts of creatures past and the early hay equipment remind the visitor that life existed prior to Wi-Fi and the cable news networks.  Museums don’t highlight who we were so much as where we came from and who we are as a society today.

Toward the south side of the exhibition is the open dear paddock where bucks and does roam like housecats across the carpet and the furniture, basically a petty zoo full of animals that run from humans in wild.

The star attraction of the Hall of Fame is Ronan, a three-year-old fifty-seven point buck. Ronan is a big boy, about 200 pounds, and reticent of his prowess and star power.  He shied away from the camera yet left his autograph on my palm.  I pointed to a pile of graying antlers by the barn.  Calderone explained that bucks shed their antlers each winter and grow them back in the spring.  Ronan’s antlers are so big I wondered whether the poor deer needed a chiropractor off-season to steady his bull neck before he sprouted his knotty headset again come April.

“Doesn’t the noise from the interstate freak them out?” I asked Calderone.

“Not at all,” he responded.  “Most deer get killed by hitting cars or by other bucks.”

Buck on Buck homicide.             

I‘m not a hunter, fired a gun twice in my life, a pistol handed to me by an uncle in Florida when I was ten, shot a bullet into the compost, and a shotgun blast in high school that nearly broke my shoulder.  But hunting goes back to the dawn of time, as does agriculture as we know it, since the Neolithic era, 500,000 years ago.

Until the invention of the internal combustion engine replaced the horse, hay was as vital to Midwestern farmer as fossil fuels are today.  When the world was young humans and animals communicated with each other and each knew their place, the bipedal and the four-legged beasts of the forest.  The earth was not made for man; man was made from the earth.  Animals know this more than we think they do.

Calderone took a risk in opening the Michigan Whitetail Hall of Fame, together with the Museum of Early Hay tools.  He built a unique location to appreciate Michigan’s agricultural heritage but reached into the land before time began. The present is predicated on the past.  Build it and he will come.        

The Michigan Whitetail Hall of Fame Museum and the Museum of Early Hay tools is located at 4220 Willis Road in the Village of Grass Lake.  Entrance fee is five dollars for adults and ‘one buck’ for children.       

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