The Nicest Place in Michigan: Buchanan

"Honoring Those Who Fought for the First Amendment"


Editor’s note: Buchanan, Michigan, is 2020’s Nicest Place in America! Read much more about how this small, rural town overcame the pandemic to honor America while also joining the fight for racial justice

With Memorial Day parade cancelled, locals find another way to honor the troops.

Drive down Front Street in downtown Buchanan and you’ll be greeted with a huge 10-by-19-foot American flag hanging overhead.

Buchanan, a town of about 4,500 in southern Michigan near the Indiana border, named for president James Buchanan, is patriotic all year long. But people here go all out for Memorial Day. The annual parade, with its procession of hot rods, floats with local dignitaries, the high school marching band, and police and fire trucks, is a don’t-miss affair. It culminates at the town cemetery, where so many flags fly it resembles a mini-Arlington.

big flag over buchananCourtesy Sharon Travis
Main Street, Buchanan, Michigan

“Everyone wears a flag pin,” says local John D. Van Dyke, who nominated his hometown as the Nicest Place in America.

But this year, with the pandemic keeping people at home, the parade was cancelled.

Everybody was bummed. But American Legion auxiliary member Connie Baber thought of another way for the town to honor its heroes: hang banners of local veterans and active military along the main drag.

“We were on vacation last year in Sault Sainte Marie and saw that they had banners up,” she told Leader Publications, a local news outlet. “I thought, What an awesome thing to do.”

Town leaders also thought it was a great idea, and so did local American Legion members. So they put out a call for photos.

signs honoring veterans and a flagEva Cofield Van Dyke/Courtesy John Van Dyke
Flags and banners honored heroes all around the town.

Applications flooded in, and pretty soon the town had more pictures than lampposts to hang them on. So the resourceful people of Buchanan had special brackets made for other street poles so they could hang up more banners. By Memorial Day, 103 smiling faces of vets, past and present, two per lamppost, flew downtown along with new American flags the American Legion bought to honor their service.

“We probably have another 60 to 70 people who have applied who want to see their banners hung,” says Larry Money, who helps run the American Legion in town.

“Our main street is only about three blocks, but it made me beam with pride,” says Van Dyke, fighting back tears.

“We definitely want to do this again next year,” Mayor Pat Moore says.

A week after the holiday had passed, news of George Floyd’s death while in police custody reached Buchanan, and like many people across America, they were outraged at the injustice. Deejra Lee, a Black woman and Buchanan native, organized a protest.

Buchanan protestors kneelingCourtesy Sarah Culton/Leader Publications
Protestors shared an emotional tribute to George Floyd.

Hundreds, including town officials and police, gathered at the high school and marched to the police station, where they kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds to memorialize how long Floyd suffered with a knee on his neck. During part of the march, they walked under the posters of those who fought and sometimes gave their lives so the people of Buchanan—their relatives and friends in many cases—could exercise their first amendment rights.

The moment was especially meaningful for local Mickey Frost, whose father, 92, fought in the Korean War, and whose husband fought in Vietnam and passed five years ago. Their posters share a lamppost in town.

“What perfect timing, the walk coinciding with this being the first time that these flags have ever hung in the community,” says Frost. “It was meant to be.”

banners on a flag postCourtesy Sharon Travis
A pair of banners for Gene Wesner and Ricky L. Frost.

The Nomination

In my home town of Buchanan, MI (population 4,294), we take our parades seriously. This Memorial Day day we cancelled our parade because of the virus. Our local community worked together with our American Legion in identifying 103 veterans and active service members. We made banners of each on them and hung them through our main street.

The pandemic hit Michigan hard. At this writing, Michigan has over 50,000 cases and is approaching 5,000 deaths. Our little town is no exception to the rest of the state.

We know more people who have been our mayor than people who have not.

main street in buchananEva Cofield Van Dyke/Courtesy John Van Dyke
Even though the streets were empty this Memorial Day, the celebratory spirit of Buchanan was far from abandoned.

We have Republicans and Democrats here in our swing state. We have Christians and Jews, liberals and conservatives. And you know what? It doesn’t matter to us one bit where you came from or what you believe: You are welcome here.

When we have a sick kid in the community, they ride atop our fire engine in our parades. We have a Holiday sing along every year. Our library sponsors a ghost walk and story telling competition.