In the 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, influential plebeian George Bailey is granted a wish to see what life would’ve been like without his existence. But when the disbelieving George walks back into town to see his wife, kids, and business partners, it is not the amicable Bedford Falls community he is returning to, but the cold, poverty-stricken slums of “Pottersville,” named after the wicked old miser who ran everyone else out of business. The friendly, low-income neighborhood of Bailey Park has become a graveyard, Martini’s lively tavern has changed hands to a surly bartender named Nick, and George’s beautiful old house has become an abandoned haunt again. It seems that George’s influence everywhere has been replaced by Potter’s; history has taken a turn for the worse.
If bad luck accompanies name associations, Potterville, Michigan sure makes a case for the superstition. It was founded in 1846 by the hardnosed Linus Potter, the first supervisor for Benton Township. A dogged settler if ever there was one, Linus traveled by steamboat to Detroit and proceeded to walk sixty miles inland, carrying his three-year-old son and infant daughter the whole way, before deciding on a suitable place to start life in Michigan.
Since the early days, the city whose main claim to fame was “Gizzard Fest” has perfected an uncanny ability to invoke extraordinary calamities. Disasters that overcome wild odds, the kind that perpetuate the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction.”
On a pleasant afternoon in July of 1994, a rogue lightning bolt shot down from a seemingly benign sky and hit the water at Fox Park, injuring twenty-two beachgoers. The sheriff’s report claimed that the bolt “walked up the beach,” a curious description for a phenomenon known for aquatic conductivity. But then again, lightning can be unpredictable…
Lightning also doesn’t strike the same place twice, according to myth, and so less than two months later Mother Nature decided to send Potterville an earthquake instead. You read that correctly—an earthquake. Most of mid-Michigan felt the tremor, but as the epicenter was just a couple miles east of town, Potterville weathered the brunt of it.
In 2002, the city let its guard down on Memorial Day only to experience one of the worst train derailments in US history. Thirty-five Canadian National railroad cars jumped the tracks at the Potterville Station for a calamitous wreck, and when it was discovered that each one of them was carrying a load of toxic propane, the entire city had to be evacuated.
It was starting to seem like a cruel twist of déjà voodoo when a second derailment occurred in 2006—same company, same location. But it wasn’t the fault of the tracks or the railroad station; blame was placed on a faulty wheel bearing in the eighty-second car, which means the only reason this occurred in Potterville and not Charlotte, or Lansing, or Toronto or Chicago…was dumb luck.
In August of 2008, a tornado touched down just south of town, wreaked F3-level havoc from the western city limit to the eastern city limit, and dissipated into the sky again. It was the worst tornado to affect Southern Michigan since the Great Tornado Outbreak of 1991, which damaged many areas of the state, including—and you ought to be expecting this by now—Potterville.
On a cold night in January of 2010, a fire broke out in downtown Potterville, destroying historic main street edifices over a hundred years old. And it wasn’t just pet shops and apartments that burned. Like the twist of a knife after it enters the flesh, antique shops and bookstores were reduced to cinders as well. It took eight different fire departments to help battle the blaze, and just when they thought the fire was under control, Potterville’s water supply ran out, forcing the firemen to call for backup tankers. After twelve hours, the inferno was quelled, but Potterville Fire Department forgot about the “double tap rule.” Two days later, fire sprang up from the ashes, causing havoc and mayhem throughout the downtown business district before the firemen could put it down for good.
The list ends there, for now. As you can see though, the timeline suggests Potterville is overdue for another disaster. The Potterville Curse is alive and well. A creative (and slightly sadistic) mind wonders what’s next. Tornadoes and firestorms seem imminent, but if the trend for long-shot freak accidents continues, some unorthodox preparations might not be a bad idea. Perhaps the next train wreck will contain Stranger Things-like monsters from a top-secret governmental experiment, or the next lightning strike will come in the form of alien abductions. Maybe a sinkhole will emerge and swallow the town altogether. In any case, if there was ever a time for a real-life George Bailey to realize his worth, it is now.
In the meantime, be cautious about visiting Potterville. It’s worth a stop, certainly for a quirky lunch at Joe’s Gizzard City alone, but just remember that the time clock for calamity is ever ticking.
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.