The Jackson Cascades
For a small midwestern city, Jackson has much to brag about. Signs in town proclaim it to be the birthplace of the Republican party (Rival towns in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin claim the same thing). It's also known as home of the big state penitentiary. And Jackson is the final resting place of Mr. Chicken, the heroic rooster.
But Jackson is most proud of its Cascades.
The idea of combining spritzing water, colored lights, and amplified pop music probably began somewhere other than here, but the Cascades is its oldest surviving American incarnation. It was the creation of "Captain" William Sparks, wealthy Jackson businessman and three-term mayor of the city. In the 1920s he formed and commanded the Jackson Zouaves American Legion Drill Team, known for their 300-steps-per-minute cadence marching with rifles (More on them in a minute). While touring with the group in Barcelona, Spain he saw a fountain -- and got the idea for the Cascades.
Sparks bought almost 500 acres of bog on the south edge of town and turned it into a park with the Cascades as its centerpiece. He had it built in the Depression winter of 1931, which may not seem like the smartest time to build something outdoors in Michigan, but the captain wanted it ready to be dedicated on May 9, 1932, his birthday.
It is still a much-beloved civic edifice, "A monument of beauty and distinction that has been a source of enjoyment and fond memories to the millions of people who have visited it for over half a century," according to a post card for sale in the gift shop (It also sells bug spray). 500 feet long, 64 feet high, 60 feet wide, it has six fountains, 16 falls, and 230 colored lights. Hidden plumbing pumps 2,000 gallons a minute over its concrete precipices, with a computer, somewhere, altering the light show and fountain patterns to respond to the hip-pumping rhythm of Elvis or the syrupy crooning of John Denver.
Downwind, in the mist of the Cascades splash zone, is a tiny museum -- really just a small room -- displaying yellowed newspaper clippings about the Cascades and Captain Sparks, along with some old televisions and radio sets. Two-thirds of the exhibit space is given over to the Zouaves. The museum lady told us that the Zouaves were in a 1956 film with Danny Kaye ("The Court Jester"), and pointed to one of the axes that was used in the film, which now rests against a wall. "It was on TV at 4 AM the other night," she said. "I tried to stay up to watch it, but the Zouaves weren't on until more than halfway through, and I fell asleep." The group was most famous, she said, for an act in which they would build, scale, and then tear down a wall -- all within 16 seconds. "They did it all the time on Ed Sullivan."
It hasn't always been Sousa marches and Sinatra ballads for the Jackson Cascades. By the end of the 1960s the Zouaves had retired, Captain Sparks had been dead for a quarter-century, and the Cascades was crumbling, vandalized, and threatened with demolition. Its reputation as the cool hangout for pre-air-conditioned Jacksonites was history. But the city rallied to save its landmark, and the Cascades seem to be in good shape today -- ready to entertain new generations of water-music-colored-light enthusiasts -- even if its days on the forefront of public spectacle are over.
As we drove across the park in the dark, we noticed a half dozen cars and pickup trucks parked with young couples contemplating a free view of the Cascades. If you park at the attraction and enter after paying admission, you can sit on rows of wooden benches and enjoy the show. Climbing to the top of the Cascades via a set of stairs guarantees you a thorough misting, but no photo opportunities -- the fountains only look like something from one direction.
We asked the gift shop ladies what they thought of the Cascades. Their only complaint was that it attracted too many bugs, and that the music tape hadn't been changed in years. (The most recent tune that we heard was 1984's "Ghostbusters.") Plans, however, are in the works to attract a younger crowd with newer music. "What music?" we asked. "Pink Floyd."