One hundred and five carloads of people gathered at the Hillsdale County Fairgrounds for the 83rd annual Lewis Emery Treasure Hunt on Oct. 22, waiting to hear the first of 12 clues that would lead participants throughout Hillsdale County to Lewis Emery Park, where two tokens, signifying the end of the scavenger hunt, and refreshments awaited.
This year, the annual treasure hunt saw a 38 percent increase in participation, and Geoff Mayers, one of the hosts for this year’s hunt, said a strong number of teams saw the hunt to completion. He attributed this higher rate to the decreased distance between the clues, which could all be found with fewer than 100 miles of driving, whereas past treasure hunts had required as many as 200 miles of driving. Though some teams took as long as eight hours to complete the hunt, the winning team clocked in four and a half hours after the hunt began.
Each year, the hunt begins with a riddle leading participants to the first clue, traditionally hidden somewhere at the fairgrounds. Each puzzle’s solution tells the location of the next clue. Mayers said this year’s clues included some traditional wordplay, like crossword puzzles and letter columns, as well as reassembling a map or following road signs, while other clues were uniquely constructed for this year.
One clue required participants draw out the letters spelling the next location, rotating the paper and erasing and drawing new lines to form each individual letter. Another clue involved spelling out missing letters from a comic strip, and another required participants to find two separate papers at a park containing grids of letters, and overlay them atop their car headlights to read the next clue.
“We tried to create clues that were fun to solve, that had an ‘aha’ moment where you were rewarded for unlocking it. We avoided clues that were too tedious,” Mayers said.
Another clue had participants arrange a series of historical events in chronological order, which would unscramble one of the attached columns of letters to indicate the next location.
“That one was totally unlike the clues that had come before,” Mayers said. “It was something we had created, and we were pretty proud of that one.”
Mayers has participated in the Hillsdale treasure hunt since 1994, when a friend invited him to participate with their family. Even after moving away for college at University of Michigan, Mayers brings a team of friends back to Hillsdale each year for the scavenger hunt.
When his team won last year, they began planning this year’s hunt, spending months scouting potential clue locations and assembling the final set of clues the participants would be looking for. During the treasure hunt, the team monitored the clue sites and gave hints to teams that were stuck.
“It was fun just to be at the clues, watching people run out of the cars and find it,” Monica Magiera, a member of last year’s winning team, said. “I ended up having way more fun watching people do the hunt than I thought.”
Their work culminated around 3 a.m., as they waited for any final participants to check in after the hunt.
“To be honest, those were some of the most excited teams — the teams that came in at 2 in the morning,” Mayers said. “There was a team with a young boy and a young girl, and they were just ecstatic to finish the race. That was really fun to see how excited they were to have completed it, and how much fun they had on it.”
Though the earliest clues are from the 1953 treasure hunt, records date the origin of the treasure hunt all the way back to 1934 under varying names, including the Lewis Family Treasure Hunt and the Lewis Firestone Treasure Hunt.
“My understanding is that there was a woman named Anna Lewis that started it for her own family, and it became a community event, then her kids carried it on after her,” Mayers said. “Once they couldn’t do it they passed it on to the community where the winners would host the following year’s hunt.
Now, the task of planning the treasure hunt falls to this year’s winners, a family team that has won four times since 1993.
“There were lots of good clues this year,” Scott Gutowski, a member of this year’s winning team, said. “The people who did this year’s hunt were pretty innovative, so we’d like to continue that for next year.”