Crossroads Village and Huckleberry Railroad are the “best-kept secrets in Genesee County,” according to Denise Bowles, who was appointed manager of the place in January. And, she has met the challenge with great enthusiasm. She can be seen walking throughout the village with a cell phone and walkie-talkie, greeting staff and visitors with a big smile and warm, “Hello.”
Described as an “authentic Great Lakes town from the turn of the last century,” Crossroads Village is comprised of over 34 historic structures and a thriving community. It has attracted thousands and thousands of visitors over the years and is a popular place for school field trips. My City Magazine visited the Village on a hot, July afternoon to see how Denise spends a typical busy day.
“My job is to make sure everyone has a blast and many
of my days are about weddings, brides and craziness.”
Visiting Crossroads Village and Huckleberry Railroad is like stepping back in time; the staff dresses in clothing that fits that turn-of-the-century era. Denise is dressed as a village lady, wearing a long, ruffled skirt and simple top, hat and boots. She sometimes dresses in overalls or as an old schoolmarm. “I love wearing costumes!” she exclaims.
“My job is to make sure everyone has a blast and many of my days are about weddings, brides and craziness,” Denise says with a laugh, adding that she wouldn’t have it any other way. Denise is the only full-time staff member assigned to the Village. With an assistant’s help, she coordinates the schedules of approximately 80 seasonal staff. The first thing she does in the morning is check her e-mails and phone messages to see which staff members may have called in, and then makes any necessary adjustments to the schedule. “I handle calls about reservations for the day, but the issues I deal with always vary,” she explains. “I meet with brides to show them the features of Crossroads Village as a possible wedding venue. I also help plan events, such as Railfans Weekend.” Railfans Weekend will be held this year on August 6-7. “It’s really special,” Denise adds. “Busloads of train enthusiasts come to see the town.”
The manager’s job entails a lot of troubleshooting. She works with the maintenance crew to ensure the animals that live on the premises are safe and secure in their pens; she works with their master carpenter on restoration to make needed repairs to the Village buildings, and helps plan new displays with different artifacts. Additionally, Denise handles reservations for the Genesee Belle Paddlewheel Riverboat and Huckleberry Railroad, and coordinates with outside organizations such as the HealthPlus Crim Festival of Races to help put on the annual Huckleberry Hustle Trail Race. Sometimes, she handles guest complaints. “It’s always different, every day,” she says.
Denise’s busy schedule doesn’t allow much time for a lunch break, so she usually grabs something and eats at her desk. When she gets a little stressed out, she walks down to visit the farm animals. She loves seeing Peanut Butter, a very large rabbit. “And, I love cows!” she exclaims, having grown up on a dairy farm. “When I get stressed, I go and hang out with Oreo and her calf, Stevie.”
Denise makes sure that everything is set for two weddings planned for the weekend, one on Friday evening and the other on Sunday. The Mill Street Warehouse is one of the wedding venues, as well as the Gazebo. She checks the details on an upcoming UAW Pig Roast. “I have to make sure that everything is coordinated and goes like clockwork,” she explains. Denise confirms that all of the outdoor maintenance is scheduled, lawns are mowed, and all motorized vehicles will be off the premises during the events.
As we walked around the Village, Denise stopped by the Buzzell House, where Marilyn Barnes was working with one of the youth-in-training on an old sewing machine to make an apron. Denise says she is so amazed by the knowledge of the Village workers. “They have to put on a show and must also know the history of the building,” she reports. “They want to provide an authentic experience by sharing their knowledge and skills, and they put their hearts and souls into it.”
Denise usually leaves at 4:30 or 5pm, but occasionally stays later. One project she is passionate about is converting a storage room above the bank into a library. There is a shortage of office space and they hope to create a library that can also be used as a meeting room. They have spent a lot of time sorting out the many artifacts stored in the room. “There are so many artifacts in the village,” she adds. “It’s a historic place.”
There are many volunteers who help make the Crossroads Village experience so special, including master gardeners, the Friends of the Carousel, and railroad volunteers, to name just a few. According to Denise, some of them have been volunteering for as long as 40 years.
In her spare time, Denise enjoys exercise. She is a certified CrimFit Adult trainer and also loves to garden. “We have a really nice garden,” she states.
Denise admits she is still learning about her job as manager of Crossroads Village and has big shoes to fill as the former manager, Gerry Pringle, held the position for 17 years. “I’m constantly asking him questions and learning from his vast experience,” Denise says. “Gerry is amazing.”
The next big event coming up at Crossroads Village is “Day Out With Thomas,” August 19-21 and August 21-28, attracting thousands of Thomas the Tank Engine fans from all over the state and beyond.
“I love my job,” smiles Denise. “It means a lot to me to work with so many honorable professional people who are sincere about doing their best. It is a great fit for me.”
Photography by Eric Dutro