Sixty years ago, my parents took us on a driving tour of Lake Michigan. A lot has changed between then and now, but the pull of the open road is as strong as ever.
By Bob Zeni
When I was growing up, my family normally vacationed by visiting our relatives for a long weekend. In 1962, however, my parents took us on a genuine summer trip—a driving tour to circle Lake Michigan. Thirty-two years later, I did the same with my wife and children. Or at least I tried to.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At ten years old, I believed all the cool kids in my town—Decatur, Illinois—had done it. They’d eaten fudge on Mackinac Island, kicked ashes at the site of the Peshtigo Fire, watched the Tommy Bartlett Water Show at the Wisconsin Dells, and rode the Bobs at Riverview in Chicago. I’d do all that great stuff, too.
Dad, per usual, sat in the dark in our ’61 Chevy with the motor running, chain-smoking unfiltered Camels. He’d showered and shaved well before 5 a.m. Meanwhile, Mom harangued my teenage sister Carol to get dressed and threw clothes on my infant sister Lori and me as we tried to wake up. She grabbed our suitcases and lunch—a bag of celery and carrots. We assumed our positions in the car. In front, Mom coddled Lori on her lap. Carol sat behind Dad. I was behind Mom, my slumbering face sweat-stuck against the half-open window. (Child-safety seats? Air conditioning? Seat belts? Not in ’62.) Dad confirmed we’d all used the bathroom, and we headed north on Route 51.
The terrain of central Illinois—then as now—alternates between thousands of rows of low-growing soybeans and thousands of rows of looming corn. Then, the flat landscape was dotted by rocker-style oil pumps idly extracting raw energy from the ground. Now it’s skewered by monstrous wind turbines harvesting the same from the sky. Every few miles, sitting next to one of the railroad tracks splayed south from Chicago, there’s a town. It’s most often a grain elevator girded by a gas station, a post office, a few stores, and a handful of houses with residents who prefer a low horizon. One of larger ones is Clinton. I recognized it by the tiny brick cabin on the edge of town with HOME KILLED MEATS painted on the side.
Dad hung his left arm out the window near Bloomington. We’d reached Route 66. He began humming the theme song from the TV show of the same name, no doubt hearing the cool jazz piano, wandering strings and Rat Pack horns in his head. He’d finally relaxed. It was now safe to bug him to stop at Stuckey’s. If my pestering wasn’t enough, successive billboards reminded us that we were ten miles away, then five miles, then two miles, then one mile, then a thousand feet. Then we were there, staring at the blue-roofed building filled with its famous pecan log rolls as we sped by without pause.
We skirted Chicago to the south, passed briefly through northwest Indiana, around the southern tip of the Lake, then picked up the Red Arrow Highway in southern Michigan, and ended the first leg by stopping, finally, in Benton Harbor. Mom’s sister Katie lived there. She agreed to babysit Lori for a few days.
Benton Harbor was also home to the House of David. It combined three great American traditions: baseball, amusement parks, and religious cults tinged by sex scandal. Two of those appealed to us. Dad enjoyed the famous pepper game, performed by the HOD players whose straggly beards and waist-length hair frightened me. Carol was fascinated by the miniature stone castle. I loved riding the miniature train. Mom, a moderate Methodist, was amused by the adherents’ Victorian attire and the names of the HOD dorms—Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
The next leg was north on the Blue Star Highway, passing drive-in theatres, lonesome diners, townie bars and no-reservation, mom-and-pop motels whose neon signs promised beach access despite sitting miles from the Lake. Mom inspected several near Mackinaw City, eventually finding one sufficiently cheap and free of bedbugs.
We took the ferry to Mackinac Island, the Fudge Capitol of the World. We walked up and down the main street, rubbernecking tchotchke shops and “trading posts” selling coonskin caps left over from the Davy Crockett craze. We bought fudge. We ate fudge. As bicycles and horses are the only mode of transport (no cars or trucks permitted), we gagged on the miasma of manure laying everywhere.
Mom and Dad were determined to see the Grand Hotel. It sat high on the hill. It had an airport, a golf course, a dining room staffed only by Jamaican men, suites named after famous guests, and the world’s longest porch where guests could sit in rocking chairs and look down at the town below. We did see it—from the border of the property. Mom refused to pay just to stroll around the grounds.
I heard a carriage behind us and spun around. “Hello, Mrs. Johnson,” I said as the carriage approached. “Hello, young man,” she replied in a soft Southern twang. Young man? Was she talking to me? She smiled and waved to Carol, who smiled and waved in return. A herd of reporters and photographers stampeded around a curve and thundered by us. “Who was that?” Mom asked as the carriage receded up the hill. “Lady Bird!” Carol said.
The apex of the trip, for Dad, was the five-year-old Mackinac Bridge, then the longest suspension bridge in the world. He worked at a structural steel company, where beams were cut, drilled and welded for assembly at a bridge site. The work was hard, dirty and dangerous, and demanded enormous skill and precision. In an era when products were valued for being strong, simple, and durable, workers in heavy manufacturing were iconic, their know-how a source of pride. As we crossed the bridge, Dad lit up, talking more in the span of a few minutes than he normally did in a week.
We drove up and around the northern end of the Lake, through the forests of the Upper Peninsula, into Wisconsin. We approached the site of the Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest blaze in American history, which torched more than a million acres and killed at least fifteen hundred people. Many of them died from hypothermia, waiting in the chilly Peshtigo River for the firestorm to pass. The paradox fascinated me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves—it started on October 8, 1871, the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. I thought there’d still be evidence of the destruction. I’ll never know. Dad didn’t stop.
A few miles later, we reached Green Bay, where we detoured to drive slowly around New City Stadium. All we could see was the permanent construction scaffolding beneath the empty grandstand. “That’s where the world champion Green Bay Packers play,” Dad said.
We did stop in Milwaukee to tour a brewery. It, too, had a distinctive smell—mashed grain with a hint of cleaning solvent. In the taproom afterwards, a server gave me an orange juice. He gave everyone else a pint of beer. Carol smiled. Dad smiled. Mom frowned and said, “She’s fourteen!”
In 1962, before white flight, suburban malls and the neglect of urban transit, every big city had a beloved department store anchoring its downtown shopping area. Marshall Field’s in Chicago; Pogue’s in Cincinnati; Halle’s in Cleveland; Hudson’s in Detroit; Wasson’s in Indianapolis; Dayton’s in Minneapolis; and Kaufmann’s in Pittsburgh. They were locally owned—most often run by a second- or third-generation scion—and treated employees as extended family. They were filled with polite, well-dressed salespeople eager to attend to a customer, no matter how full or empty her purse.
Gimbel’s was that store in Milwaukee. Mom insisted we stop. As she and Carol roved the woman’s clothing department, Dad and I loitered nearby. For some reason—probably boredom—I started rolling around on the aisle floor, making weird noises. Dad found this hilarious. Mom and Carol did not. In fact, Carol started crying, which provoked me to roll around even more, provoking more laughter from Dad. A saleswoman walked toward me and, without looking down or breaking stride, stepped over me and kept going. Which provoked more laughter and more tears.
It was a chilly ride from Milwaukee back to Benton Harbor.
We returned home the next day. We hadn’t stopped at Stuckey’s or Peshtigo, nor the Dells, Riverview, or the House on the Rock (all way out of the way), or even ventured into the waters of Lake Michigan. Still, I’d eaten Mackinac fudge, seen where the Packers play, and visited a blue ribbon brewery. Maybe I could be a cool kid, too.
Fast-forward to June 1994, and my wife Wendy and I set out on the same trip, now branded as part of the “Great Lakes Circle Tour.” I was behind the wheel of our au courant, white-on-white minivan with Wendy in the passenger seat and our children Jason (nine) and Rebecca (twelve) in back.
We made the obligatory stop to see Aunt Katie. In the 1970s, she’d moved to a new house in St. Joseph, a few blocks away from the old one. She warned us that what remained of the House of David was “certainly not for children,” and told us to stay out of Benton Harbor entirely. (See The Other Side of the River, Alex Kotlowitz’s masterful 1998 book on race relations in the twin towns.)
We stopped in Holland to tour a wooden shoe factory, buying a souvenir corkscrew rather than a pair of no-chance-in-hell-we’ll-ever-wear-these shoes. We saw a windmill at Windmill Island. We took the swing ride at an aging amusement park. The four of us were the only ones on it. A loose rope secured each of us in our seats. The carnie started it and walked away, returning twenty minutes later. Rebecca and Jason got off ecstatic. Wendy and I stumbled away.
We spent the next afternoon at the Pleasure Island Water Park in Muskegon. It featured its “famous” Weenie Hut and “legendary” Black Hole water slide. The chute began with a steep drop, made a series of curves, and fed into a tube that tunneled into a hill then elbowed sharply upward. Riders arced airborne out of the tube into a pool at the base. I went first, flailing in the sky before splashing down. I stood up and signaled for Jason to go. He slid down the chute, entered the Black Hole…and got stuck in an eddy. I had to climb in and pull him out.
We returned to our motel in the evening. A crowd was staring at a TV hanging behind the bar. It showed a continuous helicopter shot of a white Bronco being followed by a phalanx of police cars on an empty L.A. freeway. “What’s that?” I asked another guest.
“Yeah, he killed somebody.”
“What?” We laughed at the surreality of the Hall of Fame football player/wholesome movie star/trusted TV pitchman being accused of murder, then trying to flee in slow motion while the whole world watched. We were oblivious to its import or tragedy, blind to its revelations about celebrity entitlement and the American justice system.
Next stop: Traverse City. We climbed Sleeping Bear Dunes, surprised to find a pocket Sahara amid the fecund Midwest. We walked the docks of Fishtown in Leland. We drove through Empire, passing the Manning Lighthouse, one of more than a hundred that ring the Lake. The last evening in Traverse, we ate at a restaurant on the Bay. A crowd was staring out a window. I had to see, too. There was a pair of rainbows with vivid, seemingly solid, colors. They arced up from one side of the restaurant, over the top and down the other side; ending on a nearby dock where a bride and groom were posing for what no doubt would be one of the most beautiful wedding photos ever taken.
We drove north through Charlevoix, where I ogled the yachts, wondering how much they cost. We took the ferry to Mackinac Island. We toured a fort. We rented tandem bikes, circling the entire island, continually swerving to avoid mounds of manure. We ate fudge.
I’d waited thirty years to stay at the Grand Hotel. I had called months in advance to make a reservation. The cost? More than our monthly mortgage payment. So we stayed at an inn near the water instead. We did, however, spring for lunch at the hotel. Once there, I felt smothered by our dress-code attire, cowed by the sideways glances of other guests, and uncomfortable being served by the staff of Jamaican waiters standing like lawn jockeys. As we sat in the rocking chairs afterward, I thought, careful what I wish for.
Our van was primitive—no ports for video games or drop-down TV screens. We’d spent a week entertaining the kids with books and license plate games and talking. I’d had enough. Forget Wisconsin. So we headed back through Michigan. Wendy wanted to stop in Saugatuck, but I was intent on making it a straight shot.
Things, of course, have changed.
Clinton’s brick slaughterhouse is gone. A few old-timers claim it was demolished in the 1970s, but they’re not sure. Route 66 is gone but remains a ghostly presence haunting the Interstates from Chicago to Santa Monica. In 2003, Rebecca and I drove to Los Angeles, stopping at several Route 66 museums along the way. Most were a counter in a strip-mall store littered with moldy Life magazines, eight-ounce glass bottles of Coca-Cola, and a poster of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean together in heaven.
The Stuckey’s north of Bloomington is gone, but sixty-five locations in the Deep South still prosper. Stephanie Stuckey, the founder’s granddaughter, took over as CEO in 2019. She opened an online store selling hundreds of branded items, including cups, candy, hoodies, coonskin caps, pecan log rolls and a craft beer with the flavor of…pecan log rolls. I bought a shirt.
The House of David died in the 1970s, but vestiges were reincarnated as Eden Springs Park. The only cultists these days are miniature train buffs who keep the engines running. Pleasure Island closed in 1997. Windmill Island is still around. New City Stadium shed its high-school-field chrysalis to become palatial Lambeau Field. Despite Green Bay being the smallest town with an NFL franchise, the Packers routinely humiliate Lions and Vikings and Bears.
Gimbel’s closed in 1997 after twenty-five years of buyouts, takeovers, consolidations, and realignments. Other downtown department stores suffered the same torture. Milwaukee’s mass-market brewers are gone—only Miller, now a subsidiary of Molson Coors, survives. In its place, dozens of local craft breweries offer a diversity of styles and flavors. In 2019, I spent a day alone touring many of them, drinking ample samples at each. No kids to confuse a server or stop me from driving between taprooms. Meanwhile, Wendy spent the day at the Art Museum, viewing its collection and marveling at Santiago Calatrava’s Burke Brise Soleil.
Most mom-and-pop motels have been shuttered, replaced by inns, Holidomes, and Airbnbs. In 2017, Wendy and I celebrated our anniversary in Saugatuck, Michigan. We cruised the galleries, stopped at shops, ate great meals and stayed in a genuine bed-and-breakfast owned and operated by a gay couple. It was wonderful. We also visited the Meijer Japanese Garden and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids. The eight-acre garden is a masterpiece of space, balance and proportion. The thirty-acre park features monumental sculptures by world-renowned artists in enough open space to fully appreciate them.
The Grand Hotel remains frozen in time, continuing to flaunt its gaudy plantation insularity at extortionate prices. It has a tiny suite named after Lady Bird.
Aunt Katie died at ninety-three years old. We spent an afternoon with her at a nursing home near St. Joe shortly before she passed. Spry and alert, she’d mellowed into non-judgmental optimism. She adamantly believed, however, that I was a fellow she knew during World War II—eight years before I was born.
COVID, of course, changed things drastically. Campgrounds and hiking/biking paths were busy, but tourist-dependent bars, shops, and restaurants were devastated. Many found a way to survive. Many didn’t. Holland canceled its ninetieth annual Tulip Time celebration. Milwaukee canceled three signature events: Summerfest, Brewfest and the Marathon. Traverse City canceled its annual National Cherry Festival for the first time since World War II. The Packers’ sixty-year streak of sellouts ended. Lambeau may have looked full on TV, but the seats were stuffed with cardboard cutouts, video phantasms and a smattering of flesh-and-blood fans.
In the summer of 2020, Rebecca, Wendy, and I took turns hosting socially distant backyard gatherings. We swapped memories of family excursions and dreamed up the road trips we’d take in 2021, once the pandemic had subsided. The events were a big hit with friends and neighbors. Like us, their only summer vacation that year was a trip to the grocery store. ■
Bob Zeni is a writer, editor, and designer in the Chicago area.
Cover image of the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan. Public domain image by Gary Todd.
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