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Jackson has prisons, pizza and parks

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Most of the time I speed by the exit to Jackson on Interstate 94, on my way somewhere else. When I do take the time to visit this small Michigan community, I’m always glad that I did, however. Where else can you visit a cell block inside a working prison, eat stuffed pizza that rivals Chicago’s best and visit a county park with a man-made 500-foot illuminated waterfall?

The city, named after President Andrew Jackson, was founded in 1829. Today about 30,00 residents call Jackson home.

It is also home to Michigan’s first state prison, a wooden structure built in 1838. By 1882, that structure had grown into the largest walled prison in the world. The city’s prison history has become quite the tourist attraction.

You can take a tour through the original prison, now the Armory Arts Village, or you can slip up to Blackman Township and visit the Cell Block 7 Prison Museum, 3455 Cooper St., a prison exhibit that’s within the walls of an operating prison. I found it somewhat creepy to visit what is billed as an active representation of current life as an incarcerated inmate. It does make for a fascinating afternoon, however.

Much more fun was a stop at the original Klaxon’s Pizzeria and Pub, 6010 Clinton Road. It’s a sleek, sit-down restaurant and sports bar with 30 high-definition televisions. A second location in Vandercook opened last June at 1361 E. McDevitt Ave. If you visit Klaxon’s, you must order the stuffed pizza, which is incredible.

You choose five toppings—meat, veggies or cheese. They add a pound of mozzarella and slap it between two layers of crust. Then your creation goes into the pizza oven and the magic begins. Stuffed pizza takes a little longer to prepare, but it’s worth the wait. My advice is to come really hungry.

A great place to walk off some of the pizza is the Cascades Falls, a 435-acre county park located at 1233 S Brown St. and a Jackson landmark since 1932. The man behind the Cascades, William Sparks, had a dream to create an attraction that would put Jackson on the map.

His inspiration for the display came from a visit to Barcelona, Spain, where he saw a majestic illuminated fountain. This Memorial Day weekend marks the re-opening of the landmark after the first phase of an extensive $10 million renovation project.

If you haven’t experienced the Cascades, it’s difficult to describe the park’s 16 falls and six fountains, all illuminated. The collective visual impact is impressive, and special events add to the ambiance.

Saturday night, for example, the park was scheduled to light up the sky with a fireworks display, marking the start of summer. What better way to greet summer than with a rousing display of pyrotechnics amidst a beautiful backdrop? Similar fireworks displays occur on Independence Day and Labor Day (marking the end of summer). The Cascades is open nightly from 8 to 11 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day.

If you enjoy music, next weekend is the 14th annual Jackson Blues Festival, staged at the Jackson County Airport June 4-6. For blues fans, the festival is three days of international, national and regional bands under the open sky. Bring your own lawn chair and enjoy the music.

Jackson also has a charming downtown, worth a stroll.

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