Michiana Girl Goes Home

The madness was increasing, the pressure growing. No time, no time, and I had been hearing the clarion for weeks. I had not seen the Lake in too long. There was a little space of time to get away between too many projects, no matter what, no matter the emergency oral surgery the very morning of departure!

Being with the Lake remained the priority. Just a couple of days, but oh! Two magnificent sunsets, two early mornings! (I do not do sunrises. Indeed, only the Lake can rouse me out of bed.)

Always the Lake. This time I stayed close to the border, within 20 miles of where I grew up, at a secluded historic inn. The Lake was just across the road, straight down very long wooden stairs. At long last! The glaring sun cast long shadows–still April after all, but with the  trees all leafing out, probably still as confused as I. The waves were quiet and gentle, but soothing all the same. I lingered until the sunset, marveling at the patterns in the sand and the stones that jumped into my pockets.

I had not slept so well in ages. I arose early to a joyous cacophony of birdsong and woodpecker hammering, and headed outside after a quick cup of coffee in the lobby. Sitting on the long porch and writing was tempting, too, but the Lake’s siren call was irresistable.

135 steps down, give or take. And that’s just from the road. The inn is on top of the dune–yes, this is all duneland here. The Lake was quiet, the waves a bit more energetic than the night before. I walked a good way along the shore, past deserted little cottages, and a shimmer of buildings on the horizon that must have been Chicago. More stones leaped into my bag; I walked, I danced!

I stopped to accept the Lake’s caress, leaning into the breezes playing about my hair. Oh, the wonder, the Presence, the Being Present!  All so intermingled that I was barely aware–it just was: the Lake, the wind, the glorious day, all One.

Back up those steps to the Inn with the object of heading northward a ways to Glenn, where I’d hoped to have breakfast at the old restaurant where the town’s nickname of Pancake Town, seemingly now forgotten, originated. What is today Blue Star Highway was once the main road, US31, along the Lake, and in 1937, a blizzard stranded scores of tourists for three days. Food supplies ran out, all except a recent shipment of pancake flour, so that’s what everyone ate. For several years after, the town held an annual pancake festival. The restaurant has changed hands numerous times since I discovered it many years ago, then still a roadside diner and community gathering place. Some subsequent owners tried to make it more upscale, but they never seemed to last long. Alas for this trip: apparently new folks have once again taken ownership, but they were not opening until the following week. So, it was back to South Haven for lunch, but first a stop just a little beyond Glenn to see the matriarch of Dee’s Lakeshore Farm.

I have written much of Dee, at whose farm market and secondhand shop I’ve stopped for at least thirty years. How saddened I was to learn her husband had only just died the previous week, but there she was in business. She loves people (and they love her); it keeps her going. At 89, she’s a delight, and she is tough. 

South Haven is not the lakeside town I knew in my youth, with supermarkets, local hardware, and dimestores downtown, along with small industries and regional tourism. No, it has given over completely to a tourist town identity, and instead features fudge shops, souvenir stands with tacky teeshirts, ice cream–and lots of restaurants, bakeries, and other assorted treats. Food was not a problem, but I puzzled where the local folk got their groceries and bought nails. Holland? I suppose. That city has become a massive sprawl that I largely avoid these days. Headed back, then stopped at Weko Beach, which, owing to relatively recent acquisitions by the state, is now directly adjacent to Warren Dunes State Park, where I spent so many years amidst its woods and drifting sands.

I walked and walked and found myself in the past: my past–these hills were so very familiar to me–and the distant, geological past. All one, all wonder. I was sixteen again, and lost in time–and the Dunes held the answer to all.

Finished the evening with a walk along the beach to the mouth of the creek that quietly sidles into the Lake, bathed in the sunset glow. My soul at peace, I slept well.

So lovely to awaken refreshed the next morning amidst tall pines and hardwoods with the Lake in view–not to mention the woodpecker alarm. The spartan room–luxurious, perhaps, in 1915–suited me fine. Coffee and a bite or two of the scone purchased the previous day, then one more descent to the Lake to bid a long farewell.

Headed back in a leisurely fashion with a stop in Three Oaks, very changed indeed from my childhood, when it was a little agricultural village (it’s the town featured in the movie Prancer) that had a bowling alley my parents often went to on weekends. Still, if you’re going to go all touristy, they’ve mostly done it right. Three Oaks exudes charm. The old corset (yes!) factory houses a theater and artist studios. There are fancy shops, but also a butcher shop dating to the turn of the last century, where my favorite poet Carl Sandburg shopped, for goodness sake! It has not changed much since. The old Featherbone Company building is now the town library. Three Oaks has kept its head.

Hard to go. I can depart from Michiana, but it never leaves me.

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Tales from the Road: The Lake and Leopold, Part 2

After a night at cheap chain motel in Appleton, Wisconsin, having descended from Door County the evening before, I was off to Baraboo, a little over a hundred miles on winding roads through the heart of the state. The day was sunny and the terrain rolling, the landscape agrarian. I saw a sign or two directing folks to such-and-such supper club, a Midwest (particularly in Wisconsin) institution that has nearly disappeared. These were sort of a combination affordable but nice dining establishment and social club. There might be entertainment and/or dancing, but food and socializing were the key elements. 

Wisconsin State Prison at Waupun

I reached the town of Waupun where I was changing highways, and I stumbled on an amazing structure I wish I could’ve explored further (and stopped to photograph properly). Parts of the castle-like Wisconsin State Prison complex were constructed in the 1850s and are still in use. The whole thing is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I was meeting some folks at the Aldo Leopold Center and I still had quite a ways to go. I reached Portage–a town worth exploring another time, I thought–and headed onto Levee Road, one of Wisconsin’s “Rustic Roads,” which translates to your getting the experience of what most roads were like before World War II. After about eight miles of washboard jouncing, I pulled up to the Leopold Center.

Aldo Leopold is one of my heroes. Many decades ago I ran across his book A Sand County Almanac at a used book sale; intrigued by the title, I purchased it. When I got around to reading it, I was transfixed and continued to dip into its pages at regular intervals. Much later in graduate school, my professor used it as one of the textbooks for his class on environmental history. Leopold was a graceful and descriptive writer, who penned essays on his experiences and observations during his time he and his family were working to restore a wornout farm some 50 miles north of Madison along the Wisconsin River. During the week Leopold taught at the University of Wisconsin and on weekends headed up to his “sand farm.”

Standing in the entrance of Aldo Leopold’s Shack

I met the folks who were going to give me a tour into the Shack, a National Historic Landmark. I had seen the Shack before on earlier visits, even scooped up gravel from the bank of the nearby river (which I still have, displayed in a wine glass) but I had never been inside. The structure and its surroundings have been undergoing a major restoration and stabilzation project. Whereas during my previous visits the Shack was not visible from the road, largely obscured by a forest of pines that Leopold had planted, it now was plain to see, with the prairie restoration well underway before it.

Interior of the tiny Shack where the Leopold family spent their weekends

Did I mention what a glorious day it was? The bluest of skies. Sun like summer. Air  clear and fresh. We went down to the river and talked of Leopold and cranes and wonder. I ran my fingers through the many-colored stones that form the gravel bed of the river. Heaven.

Wisconsin River behind Aldo Leopold’s Shack

We returned to the center, talked more, and said our farewells, but as I was crossing the parking lot I encountered a turtle about which I had suspicions!

Blanding’s Turtle spotted in the parking lot of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

I gently guided it out of harm’s way and later confirmed that indeed, it was an endangered Blanding’s Turtle! I notified the folks at the Center. I had never seen one before except in captivity at Pokagon State Park in Indiana.

I headed a few miles west and stopped at the International Crane Foundation, once again to admire their refreshed and enlarged headquarters and exhibit spaces that had opened in 2021. I’ve been a member for many years. Pairs of all fifteen of the world’s cranes are on display, now in habitats that mimic–as best as can be done in a northern Midwest clime–the areas in which each lives in the wild. Cranes live on all continents except South America–and Antarctica, of course. North America claims two, the now multitudinous sandhills and the still-very-endangered whooping cranes. Many others around the world are endangered, too, and very good interpretative signage explains the status of each and what is being done to help. I took my time and wandered amongst them all.

Pair of whooping cranes at the International Crane Foundation

Famished by this time, I headed into Baraboo and checked into the 1950s-era Spinning Wheel Motel–my kind of place. The room was neat, clean, and comfortable. I headed downtown in search of supper; the Little Village Cafe looked intriguing, and the food proved to be delicious. The place appeared to have been a typical diner in the past, now scaled up. As there was still a bit of light left I took a drive up to the Dells, but its tackiness overwhelmed me. The Dells themselves, beautiful cliffs and fantastical formations along the Wisconsin River, are still there, of course. The previous fall I had taken a boat ride and enjoyed what millions of tourists have experienced for over 150 years. But the town’s garish signage, blinding lights, and plethora of oddity museums and tacky tee shirt shops seem to attract many people more than nature’s wonders. Ugh. Much of the route between Baraboo and the Dells on US12 is lined with these so-called attractions, but I discovered an old route back that took me almost directly to the motel through the lovely countryside. 

Jen’s Alpine Cafe, founded 1930, in Baraboo, Wisconsin

The next morning I headed to one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, Jen’s Alpine Cafe, a time warp into the 1930s. They offer fabulous breakfasts and the atmosphere is just. . . so cool! All decorated for spring, it looked lighter; I’ve never been up here this time of year. Delightful to experience spring all over again. I wrote for awhile and then took a walk around downtown Baraboo, with its spas and health food stores–and bars and tattoo parlors, mostly in historic buildings. What a mix of people inhabit this town!  Working folks and roustabouts, scientists and environmentalists. And of course thousands of tourists, the majority probably for the Circus Museum (which I’ve never seen) and Devil’s Lake State Park, never mind some spillover from the Dells. A pleasant dreamy morning–it was difficult to leave.

CCC-built shelter at Devil’s Lake State Park

I wanted to stop in Devil’s Lake to check out the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC, the New Deal agency that employed two million young men to do conservation projects during the Great Depression) in the park. The last time I’d been in the area I purchased a book describing the work that took place during their long encampment at Devils Lake, and I was eager to see how much of it was still there and still in use. The park also held memories for me. Years back, when I lived in Chicago and my parents still dwelt in Michiana, they occasionally took a weekend trip to south central Wisconsin and visited Devil’s Lake, Mirror Lake, and just wandered the backroads (you see it comes naturally to me). A couple of times I went with them, discovering Baraboo, Lodi and the magical glacial moraine and sandstone bluffs. That was a LOT of years ago, and I couldn’t place any particular location in the park, but it all seemed vaguely familiar.

Merrimac ferry over Wisconsin River

I had miles to go before I slept, so I finally left, continuing down Highway 113 toward Merrimac, where I hoped to catch the car ferry, although I had been warned that it might not be open yet. But it was. I do enjoy this experience of crossing the snaky Wisconsin River, a mile wide at this point. The ferry, called Colsac III (a merging of the two counties it links–Columbia and Sauk), has been in operation for a hundred years, although this particular boat, larger than its predecessors, dates to 2003. Free since 1933, it’s the only ferry that survives in the Wisconsin highway system. Many times it was threatened with replacement by a bridge, and in the late 1960s it was thought that the new interstate bridges not that far off would render it obsolete, but the ferry is much loved and likely will remain. I always imagine that Aldo Leopold and his family must have taken the same ferry to get to the Shack from Madison.

Wisconsin River from the ferry leaving Merrimac

Not far south past the ferry is the charming town of Lodi, a place I remember seeing with my parents all those years ago. Lodi is noted for Susie the Duck, originally a female mallard that in 1948 nested in a WPA-built stone planter along the creek that runs through town. There have been many mallards since, and forty years ago Lodi started an annual Susie the Duck festival, which has grown into quite the regional attraction! I stopped for a bit at a favorite place, the Buttercream Bakery (and ice cream shop) overlooking Spring Creek.

Too early in the season for “Susie” the female mallard to nest in her favored basket in Spring Creek

Yes, miles to go before I slept, so onward, save for a stop at my favorite cheese shop (this IS Wisconsin, after all), Ehlenbach’s Cheese Chalet, third-generation family-owned. Their morel mushroom and leek jack is pure magic. At Janesville I decided to take old US14, which was lovely in its early spring garb. I marveled how clean the roadsides were, consistent throughout the state, unlike those in Indiana, sad to say. US14 sidles into Illinois at an angle until a few miles north of it, but after I crossed the border I made some poor decisions. They led me into that sometimes dreary endless prairie of east central Illinois where the roads seem to go on forever. I also tend to forget how very north Illinois extends above Indiana’s northern reaches.

More poor choices took me to I-65 after dark and numerous traffic jams from construction. I kept my cool, mostly, not wanting to lose the wonder, peace, and joy of Sand County.

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Tales from the Road: The Lake and Leopold, Part 1

So I had finally made a journey around Lake Michigan, and it was wonderful. But owing to insufficient time, not to mention the rain my last day out, I had missed a lot of the “wrong side”–that is, Wisconsin. I wanted to go back and see more of the western shore and some of fabled Door County. An opportunity arose when I was invited by the Aldo Leopold Foundation for an inside tour of my hero’s Shack near Baraboo. I had discovered Aldo Leopold decades ago, when I found A Sand County Almanac at a library sale. The title intrigued me. (I now have several copies–I dip into the book regularly–and it was required reading for my Environmental History class in graduate school. Most of it was written at the Shack.) Yes, that lies pretty far west of Lake Michigan in the central part of the state, but I reasoned I could take the day before along the shore, spend the night, and leave for Baraboo the next morning.

Choosing to dash through Chicago straight to Wisconsin proved surprisingly easy, a quicker trip than I thought. I bypassed Racine, as I had driven through it on my previous trip, and skipped Milwaukee again, although this time I took the interstate that sliced through it and was intrigued by its historic buildings––ah, another time! It has been decades since I visited there. And––Lake in view!

Looking east from Lake Church, Wisconsin

Once past Milwaukee, I got off and headed straight east to the Lake through a crossroads called Lake Church, the land around pleasantly rolling and the day, glorious. 

Lake Michigan near Lake Church

Before me rippled the vast freshwater sea from a different vantage point than usual. So odd to be on this side. Sand, but no dunes here; they are formed through the actions of the water and the prevailing westerly winds across the Lake. Ah, the swoosh and lapping of the waves does me much good. 

Amsterdam Dunes Wisconsin

From beach to beach I hopped; my next stop Amsterdam Dunes––I almost want to put quotation marks around that! There is a small park, perhaps a 20-foot ridge of sand, and then a lovely little beach––but nothing I would call dunes. Still, it is the Lake and it caresses my soul.

Intriguing ruins of a barn near Amsterdam Dunes

I follow Sauk Trail Road and wonder if it references the same band of native Americans as does the road of that name in Indiana. Might it even have been a continuation of the same trail? Or perhaps a southward leading route to a meeting place at what became Chicago? I vaguely mull over these things but lose myself in the beauty of the day. I reached Hika Park near the village of Cleveland, about halfway between Sheboygan and Manitowoc; it’s a flyway stop for migratory birds and boasts a wealth of habitats typical of the ridge-and-swale topography once common along the Great Lakes––and all with appropriate interpretive signage. We must better understand this beautiful world of ours! And what a delight to discover a Leopold bench on the beach here! Such a simple design, it requires only six boards and is surprisingly comfortable. Leopold built several of these around the Shack and wrote many of his essays while seated on them; the design makes it easy to turn and rest a notebook on the corner.

Leopold bench at Hika Park

I passed through Sheboygan, which I had seen on my earlier trip, but stopped and took a brief walk around Manitowoc. Its historic downtown was not devoid of occupants and interesting shops but largely empty of people. Well, it was late in the day. 

downtown Manitowoc, Wisconsin

I needed to move on myself; I was hoping for a diner or drive-in (not likely in early May in Wisconsin) but spotted none. I came upon what was––up to that time––the largest solar array I had ever seen, taking over what surely had been several farms, going on for miles! Oh sure, once the power companies could get their greedy hands on it, solar power is in. And all that farmland lies fallow (unlike that beneath wind turbines, I note.) 

downtown Algoma, Wisconsin

It was growing late and I had still not quite reached Door County, which was my goal, but I was hungry and, happily, came upon a little diner in Algoma. The town was filled with beautiful historic buildings, but the sun was descending and I was determined to watch it set at Sturgeon Bay, an inlet off Green Bay, so, onward northward. I could not help but celebrate the fact that I was experiencing spring all over again. Here the forsythias and daffodils were still wildly blooming. long gone back in central Indiana.

Observatory of the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society

I reached Sturgeon Bay, crossed it, and wandered the area a bit, delighted with discoveries of an observatory and, for my historian’s soul, an 1857 Norwegian farmhouse, all within an area called Crossroads at Big Creek. Most of its 200 acres comprise nature preserves––a place worth exploring further!

1857 Norwegian farmhouse at Croosroads at Big Creek, Sturgeon Bay

But now I needed to find the bay, and finding the town with which it shares its name proved a bit tricky. I found a small park near the mouth of Sturgeon Bay looking west toward Green Bay, and laughed with the tulips still blooming there.

tulips at Graham Park, Sturgeon Bay

Sunset beyond the open drawbridge was stunning, and I lingered long. 

sunset, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

Darkness was rapidly descending as I hurried south toward Green Bay (the city), which seemed to take forever. Knowing that the next day’s destination was in the center of the state, I continued on to Appleton until I found a motel. I’m sure these cities have their attractions, but urban areas held no appeal this trip and all I wanted to do was settle in to dream of the Lake and Leopold.

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Tales from the Road: ‘Round the Lake, Part 4

So I awoke on yet another gorgeous fall day rather far–well, perhaps 5 miles–from the Lake, but in a beautiful old farmhouse rehabbed and enlarged by my friend, a colleague from long ago, and his wife. After some bracing coffee and conversation, he offered to give me a tour of nearby Cedarburg. The town boasts eight National Register listings, including the main street district and the Wittenburg Mill, which dates to 1864. Poignantly, this undeniably charming town was a destination my mother had read about in her later years and suggested we should visit someday.  This is for you, Mom. Established in the mid-19th century, the majority of Cedarburg’s historic buildings are constructed of the local limestone–others of a yellow brick produced locally as well–and built to last! Milwaukee is only about 20 miles away but this is another world.

Cedarburg WI

Alongside the downtown, the morning sun glinted off the ripples of Cedar Creek below the mill dam. It was a perfect fall morning, the town’s many trees well into early autumn mode, singing with the thousands of flowers that bedecked the town. And the buildings! From the 5-story mill to a high-style former gas station to an art deco theater to a New Deal gymnasium, so many structures to love!

The sun was high when I bade farewell and continued on my Lake journey. I skirted Milwaukee to save it for another day, then headed east to the Lake at last and drove along an old highway that followed the shore. I sneaked into Racine from the north, technically in the Greater Milwaukee area, but it is certainly a city unto itself. I stopped at a park along the Lake just adjacent to their zoo and greeted the lapping waves. A lighthouse stood some distance to the north. The weather was clouding and the beach deserted, perfect for an intimate conversation with the Lake.

Some of the mosaic murals at North Beach/”Zoo Beach,” Racine WI

It seemed as if I could’ve walked for miles. The wall that faced the water holding back the sandy bluff was enlivened with numerous whimsical mosaic murals.

historic structures in downtown Racine

I drove through downtown Racine, whose abundance of historic buildings encouraged further exploration someday, then headed down Wisconsin 32, which follows the lakeshore pretty closely and, I was soon to learn, becomes Sheridan Road north of the Illinois line.

Wisconsin 32 heading south

At times it was almost a corridor, wooded on both sides, very interesting if you know what you are seeing. Periodically there were deserted supper clubs, empty motels. Some of these places were purported to have gangland connections long ago. There was a stretch of restored prairie and I turned to get a closer view of the Lake along a road barely wide enough for a Model T. The brooding and indecisive sky made the landscape eerily beautiful.

Lake Michigan in very southern Wisconsin

I drove through Kenosha, a moderately large town close to the border, passed a few diners and finally stopped for lunch at Bob & Anne’s Restaurant somewhere over the Illinois line, near Waukegan. The waitress, who probably had worked there for years, called me “honey” and the food was delicious. But while inside, the skies opened and I realized my journey was now to be more of a slog, although the actual rain was on and off.

Bob & Anne’s Restaurant, Waukegan IL

I was determined to stay on Sheridan Road, which I remembered driving periodically years before when I lived at the far north edge of Chicago. That was not such an easy task; there were many more turns than I remembered, and my determination became grim.

Great Lakes Naval Training Center

I did pass Great Lakes Naval Training Center where my dad entered the Navy before World War II, but it appeared impenetrable, and besides, it was raining again. Passed through all those fancy northern suburbs–Lake Forest, Highland Park, the road abruptly turning this way and that, often with the Lake too far to view. I lost the route a few times. I don’t remember its being this convoluted! Suddenly on my right loomed the Baha’i Temple, completed in 1953 in Wilmette near the shore. When I lived in Chicago, I drove up to it often and took people to visit; it is a gloriously spritiual, mystical place filled with light and wonder.

Baha’i Temple, Wilmette IL

At least now I had an inkling where I was and knew Chicago was nigh. First I had to meander through Evanston, passing the 1873 Grosse Point Lighthouse complex–how intriguing! 

Grosse Point Lighthouse, Evanston

At last I reached the Chicago city limits: Rogers Park, where once I lived. I recognized almost nothing; Sheridan Road is now lined wall-to-wall with highrise apartment buildings and condos. And the traffic was at a standstill. Yes, it was rush hour, but after all, I was heading INTO the city, not out of it. It took close to an hour to reach the fabled Lake Shore Drive, which still retains its magic, with Chicago’s Gold Coast (is that name still used?) and the Loop, looming Oz-like ahead. The Lake roared and snarled off to my left.

Lake Shore Drive heading south toward the Loop

I finally swung around the Loop and through the edge of Grant Park, another traffic mess, but still–the Lake! And more rain. The temperature also was falling rapidly.

Outer Drive near Jackson Park, Chicago

The Outer Drive–which my grandfather, a heavy equipment operator, helped to construct in the 1920s–is mostly tree-lined with the Lake beyond.  The divided highway extends farther south now than when I last followed it. and I was on US41. By the time this new route petered out and became city again, old and gritty and interesting, night had fallen and the rain intensified. I lost 41 around 99th Street but found it again shortly before reaching Indiana. That part of 41 is endless at any time, but the dark and the rain made it more so. Reached I-94 and took the interstates home, filled with Lake dreams.

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Tales from the Road: ‘Round the Lake, Part 3

I seldom see sunrises or anything close, but my motel window facing Moran Bay glowed with the dawn. I dressed and walked down to Lake Huron but I could hear Lake Michigan beckoning, whispering seductively in the morning breezes. After coffee and cookies with the motel manager, who was from Ukraine, bless her, and a conversation with the 70-year-old owner, who was already out working on his place and making plans to improve, I was on my way. I think, though, that I will be back.

Moran Bay Motel

I headed straight west along the top of the Lake out of St. Ignace, stopping at the Mackinac Bridge memorial, which boasts a spectacular view of the 5-mile bridge and a fine bronze statue of an ironworker. Five men died building what is sometimes called the 8th wonder of the world, at 5 miles the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere. The visitor center contains numerous informative displays.

Mackinac Bridge and Memorial

Highway 2 has numerous roadside parks with stunning overlooks to the Lake far out and below; several have trails heading in that direction. Most have informative markers with fascinating historical and geographic factoids that make me hunger for more information.

St. Helena Island in Lake Michigan

I was wandering one such park when a local trucker stopped to take a break. He enthusiastically shared his joy in the beauty of the place and recommended the incredible pasties (a signature delight in the UP and the upper part of Michigan’s mitten) just a half mile up the road where he’d made a delivery; said they were fresh from the oven. I thanked him and stopped at Lehto’s, a tiny shop out of which wafted the most tantalizing scents! I’d had no breakfast and the trucker spoke truly. Best I’d ever had! The baker was very proud of them (rightly so); they were made entirely in the traditional Cornish way, with a thin crust and rutabagas! I don’t often have a conversation about rutabagas, but I grew up with them, one of the many crops from my dad’s abundant garden.

On I went; clearly I had crossed the “fall” line and most of the deciduous trees were blazing, chiefly reds and golds, although some oaks were stubbornly clinging to their green. This lovely two-lane highway sometimes is surounded with nothing but forest, other times the Lake is practically lapping at the pavement.

somewhere east of Manistique

Stopped a few more times and finally reached Manistique, where I had once spent the night on my way to Pictured Rocks.

lighthouse at Manistique

I was eager to get on to places I’d never seen before, so I chose not to meander through Manistique’s downtown (except to photograph the New Deal-era police station).

New Deal-era state police post at Manistique

Onward to Escanaba, again with the Lake often just at my side.

northeast of Escanaba

At last I reached Escanaba on the Little Bay de Noc; it boasted a large commercial corridor with wonderful historic buildings; later, I learned this district is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But sadly, its heyday seemed to be past; there were a couple of remarkable theaters that were in shabby condition, and far too many empty buildings. 

Once grand Delft Theater in Escanaba

I marveled at the imposing former post office built in 1908, now the seemingly underused Ludington Post Suites, an office building currently ripe for redevelopment again. A short distance away is the stunning House of Ludington, dating to the mid-1860s!

It seemed deserted but I later learned it indeed still is used in multiple ways as an air bnb, longterm housing, and event center (a destination for another time, perhaps!) I also wondered why so many things were named Ludington (which to me is the name of a port city in lower Michigan), and it turns out they were named for one of the major lumber barons and entrepreneurs of the region.

Escanaba’s lakefront belies its downtown, however, and is lovely, boasting a lighthouse from 1867.

1867 lighthouse at Escanaba

I made a mistake–hardly the first nor the last–by not following the road along the Lake straight out of the downtown, which actually would have been heading nearly due south toward the top of Green Bay. Instead I headed back into town and out Highway 2 for awhile, not realizing its betrayal. It was actually heading away from the Lake! No wonder I was feeling frazzled without those waters to soothe my soul! When I realized this I began a series of zigzags down county roads until I reached M35 that ran along the Lake–whew! I stopped at a little park, which I had all to myself except for a large flock of Canada geese enjoying a swim. The breeze ruffled my hair and the Lake purred.

county park on M35 south of Escanaba

I figured I must be getting near to the Wisconsin border–turns out that park was halfway     between Escanaba and the stateline–but I wasn’t sure. It was a fine country drive amidst woods and farms that gradually gave way to more houses and at last, Menominee. Across the river of the same name was its twin city, Marinette, Wisconsin.

Menominee, Michigan

I poked around town a little but the sun was heading downward and I was not sure where I was going to spend the night; I had figured around Green Bay–the city, that is. Heading south on the venerable US41, I saw signs for Peshtigo. I was intrigued, as this was the town that suffered an even worse fire the same day as the great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871. So I turned that way and at least saw the town in the fading light.

Peshtigo Fire Museum

Darkness had descended by the time I reached Green Bay. I thought I might stop and call some friends I had not seen in years. When I did so, they invited me to stay the night with them. They were another hour and a half away–well, longer, since I got myself a bit lost south of Green Bay–but it was more than delightful to see them again, living in a lovely old farmhouse. Sleep came easily after an hour or so of murmuring conversation among folks of a certain age and long acquaintance.

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Tales from the Road: ‘Round the Lake, Part 2

I left the edge of Manistee with a supply of muffins and fruit from the continental breakfast provided at the cheapish chain motel. The Lake was calling! It was a beautiful morning; I headed north on M-22, up and down through wooded dunes and beautiful hilly farms and orchards. I had not been in this area for a long time, passed through Onekama on to Arcadia, which did not appear too tourist-tainted, even an old motel or two that I must remember.

path to beach, Arcadia MI

The path to its very nice beach was lined with cheery local art and covered with a layer of mesh over the sand–what a good idea! I reveled in the Lake’s swells, how the morning sun shone through the water, how it continually broke into fluffy foam. The beach was very stony at that moment, good waves but not not overly wild. Yes.

beach at Arcadia MI

My next stop, apart from a quick peak from an overlook (ahhh!) was the beach at Elberta, where the waves were much wilder and singing lustily, with nary a stone to be seen at the water’s edge. The Lake has many moods.

beach at Elberta MI

Elberta lies south of the inlet–to the Betsie River, I believe–across from Frankfort. Frankfort, a most charming town with aspirations higher than its station, is a “city,” if you please. Whatever it calls itself, I could stay a long time, sit and write for hours, dance with the waves, or wander the streets. I think I could live here.

renovated theater in Frankfort MI

There is a New Deal-era post office and a real movie theater. And charm in spades–and people who walk. Lake people. Of course, I wandered over to Frankfort’s beach as well. The Lake was quiet, peaceful. For now.

beach at Frankfort MI

Oh, I love it all, but onward to Glen Haven, Glen Arbor, not to mention Sleeping Bear! First, a stop at Point Betsie Lighthouse, not far north of Frankfort. I think this must be one I had missed.

Point Betsie Lighthouse

It’s a lovely complex of red-roofed white buildings nestled amidst twisted birches on the windy shore. The museum is closed, alas, which is one of the downsides of traveling in the off season, especially on weekdays. I linger awhile in shady spot amidst those trees buffeted by the wind off the Lake. Sleeping Bear called, so I turned inland, winding through forested dunes until I arrived at the Pere Marquette Drive, which I had not driven in years.

The Lake and the Sleeping Bear in the far distance

The views were spectacular and I stopped several times to drink it all in on this, yet another glorious day of sun and breezes. After making that circle I headed ever northward to Glen Haven, once a thriving lakeport. It was a ghost town when I first saw it decades ago; the National Park Service brings it to life seasonally. The old cannery is a museum; there is plenty of interpretive signage throughout the site.

The former cannery at Glen haven MI now houses a museum.

They were working on the old hotel that day; people will soon be able to reserve overnight stays in the tiny village amidst its many ghosts. Glen Arbor, on the other hand, is a small town between Glen Lake and THE Lake (Michigan), and determinedly caters to locals and tourists alike, tipped a little toward the latter, it seemed. I did not stop; I had remembered it with fewer “attractions” and more charm.

I was starting to get awfully hungry but Leland was not far. Alas, a very likely place had just closed and the town seemed too touristy. Onward. I reached Northport and lunch at last, at the funky New Bohemian Cafe. Still too many tourists, but not so bad. I know, what am I? Well, a Lake-wanderer, as I have been all my days. I left the lighthouse for another day and started down the west side of the Grand Traverse Bay, still faithfully following M-22, one of the prettiest “highways” (barely!) in the Midwest. The lake lapped on my left, and I passed through Suttons Bay, which even had an active theater. Michigan folk around here love their arts!

theater in Sutton Bay MI

I had hoped to stop for coffee in Charlevoix with a woman from Freshwater Future, an environmental organization I support (who isn’t for clean water?) but I was fast running out of time to make it. I hit Traverse City, which I have enjoyed in the past, but it is losing its funky 50s motels, where I had often stayed years ago. Still, despite the crawling traffic and behemoth hotels and condos, the lakeshore drive retains some of its magic. Perhaps it’s because I can still hear the lake singing. US31 along the east side of the bay is not prettiest drive. In my memory it always has seemed a bit torn up, even as development continues marching northward alongside it. The sun was beginning to sink and I grew frustrated by the traffic. I passed by, but not through, Elk Rapids, where many a time in the past I’d had breakfast after spending the night in one of those funky motels in Traverse City that I mentioned. I was too late for my tentative meeting, so I slowed down and began to enjoy the road again as I reached Charlevoix.

world’s largest cherry pie pan, south of Charlevoix MI

There I stopped to behold the World’s Largest Cherry Pie–or at least the pan in which it had been baked. Yes, this was a “thing”–a stunt for the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. The pie was fourteen feet in diameter and contained nearly 5000 pounds of Michigan cherries! According to the signage this was one of the Top 20 USA Bicentennial events and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records. Fame is fleeting, however, and the site languished until renovated as an Eagle Scout project in 2009.

Big Rock Point north of Charlevoix MI

Continuing through Charlevoix now with Lake in view, I stopped in a narrow park at Big Rock Point near the former site of a nuclear plant that closed in 1997 after 35 years, then the longest running nuclear plant in the country. Consumers Energy–owner of the plant–later restored the site. It is named for a landmark that identified an important gathering place for the Odawa (Ottawa) tribes. I lingered awhile; it was so pleasant poking about the rocky shallows with the Lake muttering in the distance. Onward to Petoskey, where I spotted an abandoned or at least underused New Deal (almost certainly) building that I had to stop and admire.

former county highway garage near Petoskey MI

Getting into fudge country, so stopped at Kilwin’s for a disappointing chocolate soda, then elected to head up old 31, a straigher shot to Mackinac than M-22, and the light was fading. It has its own charms, still many old motels and tourist cabins.

former depot at Pellston MI, now a museum

Passed through Pellston, which I remember well from years past–goodness, I remember when the railroad was still there. Happily, the depot remains and is now a museum.

Big Mac, the magnificent 5-mile-long bridge that crosses the Straits of Mackinac

I reached Mackinaw City around sunset and paused again to admire the grandeur of the Bridge, now sporting colored lights, before looping around to cross it, always an adventure.

crossing the Mackinac Bridge at night!

I’d called ahead to make a reservation at the Moran Bay Motel, which proved to be, happily, one of the few remaining funky motels in St. Ignace (it used to be full of them!), overlooking  the bay.

Moran Bay Motel, St. Ignace MI

It was a tiny 50s room into which the owners had squeezed two queen beds, so it was actually difficult to maneuver within the space. No matter. It was cozy and I saw there was a pot for coffee in the morning. I took a look at it and could not figure out how to turn it on! I’d never seen anything like it. Gave up but just before I headed to Dreamland amidst the snuggly flowered sheets I picked it up again and spotted a button on the handle. I was stunned when it glowed a beautiful cobalt blue! Psychedelic dreams of the many Lake encounters that day.

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Tales from the Road: ‘Round the Lake, Part 1

For years I have been wanting to drive all the way around Lake Michigan, exploring. Never enough time. And this journey, along with my truncated excursions on the Lincoln Highway, tells me that I must make the time–while I can. But at least I did finally go around my Lake, and I have that. If I can go back and do it right, I’ll not be sorry.

After dithering about whether to go clockwise or counter–originally I had planned the former–I decided to head up into western Michigan in a hurry, passing areas I already knew so well, since I had only four days. It did not escape me that this all would have been so much easier if I had been living in Michiana where my heart dwells. My first stop would be Dee’s, north of Glenn.

86-year-old Dee at her farm market north of Glenn MI

I’ve written about octagenarian Dee before. I’ve been stopping at her farm for thirty years or more. She has always seemed ageless, energetic and independent. But this (this time for sure!) was to be the last year for Dee’s Lakeside Farm market, and I wanted to get my winter’s supply of apples. As always, she greeted me with a cheery “Hi, Honey!” and threw in some extras of a different variety with the half bushel of Romes that I bought. Then she offered me a piece of blueberry pie–she grows those, too. I left inwardly shaking my head, not wanting to believe I would not be seeing her the following year.

I had not yet greeted the Lake, so I paused for awhile at Pier Cove a few miles to the north, where once there had been a thriving town, although no evidence of it remains. A couple, carrying buckets, was poking about in the surf searching for “lightning stones,” they said. I had occasionally picked up stones such as they showed me for years, brownish with vivid white streaks, but I never knew they were called that most appropriate name. Apparently tourists buy them!

Lake Michigan at Pier Cove MI

Then onward, flying past Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon–towns I had explored often and to which I would return, but I was hellbent northward to reach the soda fountain of the pharmacist’s daughter, who makes the best traditional chocolate sodas in the state. Lipka’s had originally been a corner drugstore on the main street of Montague, “twin” town to the larger Whitehall on the opposite side of the river.  After the pharmacist Mr. Lipka died, his daughter returned and reopened the store as a cafe, centering on the 1948 soda fountain. One wall of the restaurant, which is quite the local hangout, is covered with displays of old drugstore items and other historical memorabilia. Alas, it was only 4 in the afternoon but Lipka’s had just closed as I dashed in. I’ve been stopping here for years, too, so Patti Ream, the afore-mentioned pharmacist’s daughter, let me in long enough to order a soda to go. It’s better in the traditional fountain glass, of course, but the styrofoam cup diminished its yumminess only a little, and I continued on my way.

Cherry Point Market

Some 25 miles north of Montague, along the twisty and tricky Shoreline Trail, is Cherry Point Market, yet another destination I try to reach at least once a year. My earliest vague memory of it is passing by while traveling with my parents on a weekend jaunt up to Wilderness State Park. I’ve observed the surroundings change over the decades that I’ve been stopping there. Once completely filled with orchards, both apple and cherry, the land is more open now; Cherry Point today boasts an adjacent herb-filled labyrinth surrounded with lavender and a gathering area for fish boils, a favored local custom. When owner Barbara Bull is on hand, we have comfortable philosophical chats about the land and the Lake. Several years ago, Barbara wrote a memoir about her family farm and from there went on to become an award-winning fiction writer of novels based in the area.

Petit Pointe Au Sable Lighthouse
the clear waters of Lake Michigan at Petit Pointe Au Sable Lighthouse

A few miles north is the Petit Pointe Au Sable Lighthouse, completed in 1874. I lingered awhile, sifting the cool sand through my fingers and noting the sun slowly heading down toward the singing Lake. I had been hoping to spend the night at Manistee, so it was time to head north. Still, I did not want to miss the sunset. I paused at Pentwater and headed to its beach. Pentwater, which I’ve passed through often, holds a warm childhood memory of a row of hollyhocks alongside an old drugstore long gone, but over the years it has become upscale and touristy to my eyes. The beach already had its winter fences installed, cramping the space. It was surprisingly crowded–although perhaps not so surprising. In my past experiences, Pentwater always had a community of sunset people migrating to the beach late in the day. Before I got there, I tried to call the Lakeside Motel in Manistee, but the phone just kept ringing. As it was still a 40-mile drive away and the northern Michigan dark was enveloping me, I looked, reluctantly, for other options.

sunset at Pentwater MI

Manistee. Talk about change over time. I don’t remember when I first discovered it, but I fell in love, and it was always my destination if I made it that far north. A once thriving lumber town with a secondary major industry of salt, it boasted a beautiful historic downtown and a plethora of 19th century houses once occupied by bankers and lumber barons. Early on I stayed in a rundown old frame hotel on the “wrong side” of the river. It was fine; I was young and it was cheap. Manistee has a lovely beach, dunes, and two lighthouses. At the edge of the beach was the charming 1950s Lakeside Motel that I had always thought, given its prime location, would be too expensive. But I dreamed of staying there. I discovered another very old motel on a lake (actually a sort of delta of the Manistee River) on the north edge of town, the Moonlight. Indeed, I stayed there one night when the moon turned the surface of the lake to silver. It’s long gone. But the beachfront motel lingered on, and finally one year I decided to stay there. The town was beginning to change: all kinds of upscale new restaurants and bars, but some of the old charm remained. What a surprise to discover the price for a night at the Lakeside was so reasonable! Very basic, the room, but two entrances, one directly to the beach, with Lake providing lullabies all night. I was charmed beyond measure. Stayed one more time a few years ago. 

And then, when the pandemic began to lift in late 2020, I took a run up to the area and called, but they said they didn’t even have linens; they hadn’t opened. Now,two years later—oh, it brings tears to think of it. It is gone. The time warp, timeless experience will never be mine again. A new 5-story monstrosity is taking its place, with a bar open to the beach. Manistee is lost to me.

Never mind. I would do better next day after a good night’s sleep in a cheap chain motel–more Lake, more walking, more wonder.

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Preservation Tales: The House No Longer a Home

Oh no. Not another one! I have written before about National Register buildings I have lovingly researched and gotten listed, only to see them threatened and even demolished years later. A listing will not save a historic structure, and we must remain vigilant!

Now it is Portage Manor on the northwest side of South Bend, the St. Joseph County Infirmary (its original name). County homes in general are a particularly endangered species. Once upon a time, every one of our 92 counties had one. At the time I wrote the nomination 20-odd years ago, there were about thirty still in existence and in use; today there are fewer than ten! The county commissioners almost certainly have been planning this move for a good while. Surely it is obvious to anyone that they want to sell off the land for development, since sprawl has been galloping up Portage Avenue at a furious pace in the last twenty years, and that beautiful rolling farmland on which Portage Manor sits would be oh-so-much better with yet another subdivision or big box store surrounded by pavement. The commissioners did not renew the lease on the farmland that had given the home at least some stable income. Needed maintenance has been held off with temporary fixes, an old trick well known to those of us in preservation. But Portage Manor is a handsome building that houses a community of people living out their lives with dignity and compassion. It should not be closed; it must not be destroyed.

Portage Manor in 2000, when it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places

In 1905 South Bend architects Freyermuth and Maurer prepared plans for a new county infirmary that would replace a smaller, earlier facility in a different location. The St. Joseph County Infirmary built the following year was the last of a series of care facilities established by the county for the elderly and incapacitated indigent. By the turn of the twentieth century the St. Joseph County Asylum, or poor farm, as it was commonly known, had long since ceased to serve the needs of its residents. Inspectors from the State Board of Charities sharply criticized the facility and its “antiquated and inadequate buildings.”

The mission of these county institutions in general had begun to change in the 1890s, and while far from enlightened by today’s standards, poor farms and asylums (essentially interchangeable terms) were attempting to become something other than dumping places for society’s unwanted. The degree to which they succeeded over the next several decades is questionable; admission records from the mid-nineteenth century through the first few decades of the twentieth do not suggest a great deal of change as to whom the institution accepted. Initially poor farms provided minimal refuge for an astonishing variety of indigents, including those who were elderly, chronically ill, convalescent, mentally ill, disabled, injured, unwed mothers, or simply homeless. Ages ranged from infants (when in the company of a needy parent; orphans went elsewhere) to people in their nineties. Those who could usually were expected to work, and there was little if any effort to distinguish among them to meet their needs. The common denominator was poverty. As other public institutions geared toward specific needs were established by local and state governments, some inmates were sent to these other types of facilities, or else went there initially. In the early twentieth century, for example, many epileptics were sent to the state’s new Epileptic Village near New Castle. Nevertheless, many who might have been better served elsewhere still ended up in the county asylum, especially those diagnosed as insane. State facilities were too crowded to accommodate them all.

In 1905 the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners bought the Rezeau Brown farm northwest of South Bend, just past the Riverview Cemetery on Portage Avenue. The property included several farm buildings, a wooded area, and land that was largely level and proven quite suitable for general farming. Little time, then, need be wasted in establishing the new poor farm’s self-sufficiency. Over the next few decades old buildings were remodeled and additional farm structures were erected, such as a hay barn, a large hogshed, and a small building for butchering.

The St. Joseph County Infirmary–its name reflecting the Progressive-Era changes in the theory, if not the fact, of the facility’s mission–opened with great fanfare as “a model poor farm” in February 1907. The new asylum was to house “those who [were] so unfortunate as to be left alone in the world without money and without friends or who are afflicted with the ravages of disease and who are unable to procure the necessary hospital service without money.” Records indicate that indeed, among others, anyone from abandoned pregnant women to severely injured laborers to those of any age who were “feeble-minded,” found temporary or permanent refuge within the county infirmary.

Certainly the new facility was vastly superior to the previous poor asylum, but life at the St. Joseph County Infirmary was no bed of roses. Anyone who was capable was required to work (although the records imply this was not always the case), rules were extremely strict, and occasionally residents were “dismissed for disobedience.” A few even ran away; many more may have wished to if they could. Men and women were segregated; those diagnosed “insane” were locked in metal cages in the area termed the “insane ward” near the boilerhouse, part of the original accommodations offered at this new “model” facility. Conditions grew so crowded in the 1930s that beds were crowded nearly head to foot in the cells to house inmates who were often, at worst, merely “feeble-minded.” In the 1950s patients diagnosed with severe mental illness were transferred to the new Beaty Memorial Hospital in Westville. The cells, however, remained in use through the 1970s for inmates who tended to wander and sometimes for residents who broke the still-rigid rules. (For example, talking was not allowed during meals.)

In 1947, by act of the Indiana General Assembly, the name of the facility became the St. Joseph County Home, again reflecting changes in care and management philosophy. The average population of county infirmaries had grown older and less able-bodied; this, along with the fact that mechanized farming was rapidly replacing earlier, more labor-intensive practices, suggested that “productive employment of residents is futile” and should be performed only on a voluntary basis. As early as the mid-1930s the idea of discontinuing farming at the county infirmary was considered, but still it remained in place for several more decades, until the late 1980s. Thereafter, the land was leased to a local farmer.

The new idea of the county home was to be just what the name implied: “a congenial place of abode,” a safe haven. Once again, the mission remained more theory than fact for some decades, although conditions overall had improved greatly since shortly after the turn of the century when the facility first opened. By the early 1970s the name had changed yet again, to Portage Manor. In the late 1980s Portage Manor became a state-licensed health care center and underwent a major renovation that preserved much of the building’s historic character while creating a cheery, home-like interior–the mission fulfilled at last!

I visited Portage Manor this week. I was not allowed past the lobby but it still appeared cheerful and welcoming to its residents, many of whom were outside sitting amidst the lovely wooded grounds enjoying the early spring day, grey but with soft breezes. This is their home, not just a bland and boxy institution. Portage Manor is among the best of Indiana’s surviving county homes and retains a high degree of integrity. It stands as a three-dimensional document of the history of social welfare in St. Joseph County. More than that, it is in fact a true home to a community of people who need it–and each other–and it reminds us of the better angels of our nature, which is something the county commissioners seem to have forgotten.

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GJ in LA, or a Midwest Girl in LaLaLand

Flying into Los Angeles

Last fall I embarked on a plane to Los Angeles. We won’t go into my fear of flying. I had not been in a plane in 30 years. The experience has changed, to put it mildly. What passes for first class–oh, excuse me, “business class”–these days is tighter than the ordinary seats were back in the day. And the extra rows they’ve squeezed in? I’m not even five-foot-two and even I couldn’t stretch my legs out. The airlines may not have required masks anymore, but I was danged if I’d get Covid, so I donned my N-95, along with a face shield for this four-hour torment. I figured I made a good call when the woman next to me displayed symptoms of whooping cough throughout the entire flight. We arrived “only” about four hours late; there had been several delays getting started. Picked up a Lyft at the airport for the miles-long drive into town.

Heavens, it was hot. Temperatures were well over 100 during most of the visit. It was very late when we reached the hotel in Hollywood, which did not have a restaurant. Famed Hollywood Boulevard was four blocks away.

interior, Mel’s Diner, Hollywood

We walked to Mel’s, a legendary all-night diner, very pricey, as was everything here. The street was filthy, the air fetid. The shadows were filled with homeless whose dreams had failed them. The magic of Hollywood is clearly gone.

stunning but empty buiding near Hollywood Boulevard

Except–even in the dark I could see gorgeous historic buildings, many empty, derelict (hmm, so many unhoused people, so many vacant structures. . . ). Massive palm trees loomed, shoving out of the pavement and straight up to the sky; exotic flowers trailed into the street. I felt like Dorothy in a dystopian Oz. 

Griffith Park Observatory

The next morning I headed off to see the Griffith Park Observatory. Did I mention it was hot? It felt as if the heat would melt me into a puddle on the pavement. The walk from the parking lot ($10!) to the observatory (free!) was almost too much to bear. Long had I wanted to visit this art deco masterpiece, funded in part by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration, location for numerous cheap science fiction movies as well as key scenes in James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause.

view from Griffith Park Observatory

The views from the site are spectacular, the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign in plain view. Inside the observatory was a vast array of astronomical exhibits, but the building itself was the greatest attraction, despite the crowds.

Walt Disney Concert Hall

We headed back down the mountain and into Los Angeles proper–if there is such a thing; it seemed an endless jumble of new buildings crammed among parking lots and historic structures, with freeways ramming through from all directions. Had a quick glimpse of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, opened in 2003.

interior, Bradbury Building, Los Angeles

Stopped to see the Bradbury building, famous setting for many a movie and TV episode, but the guard refused to allow me to climb even to the second floor on the beautiful stairways within that surround a vast atrium.

the once grand Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard

The next day, still enveloped in murderous heat, we walked to Hollywood Boulevard. It was shabby and crass. The once-stunning Egyptian Theatre stood vacant. The trash-filled street was overrun with tourist shops of tacky souvenirs all along the “Walk of Fame.” The glitter rubs right off, and this is nowhere.

90-year-old George Chakiris signing his memoir

That evening, dancer/actor George Chakiris, most remembered for his Oscar-winning role in West Side Story over 60 years ago, was appearing at a film convention. He was soft-spoken and moved like a panther, belying the fact he was 90 years old. Never mind, I still went a little gaga.

interior, Roosevelt Hotel, Hollywood Boulevard

The last full day there, we walked over to the Boulevard again and this time went northward. Still trashy, but better, if you squint to avoid all the tourist trappings. Saw the stunning Roosevelt Hotel (built 1927), site of the first Oscar ceremony and still redolent of old Hollywood glamor.

entrance, (formerly) Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

Nearby, the (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre, the one with all the footprints and handprints in the cement out front, still stood, very much a tourist attraction. I found 1930s bombshell Jean Harlow’s prints in remembrance of my mom, who was surely her biggest fan.

Sneaked a peek inside the restored El Capitan Theater, courtesy of the guard who happened to be from the tiny birthplace of my grandfather! 

entrance, El Capitan Theatre. Hollywood Boulevard

Toward the end of the day it became cooler–amazing how lovely 95 can feel! I took another walk up toward the Hollywood Bowl and discovered a museum (after hours, unfortunately) housed in a former barn from the old Lasky-Griffith studio. There are a few pieces left of those old golden days. 

barn from Lasky-Griffith studio, 1910s, now part of a museum

Over 40 years ago my mom and I traveled to California to see the sights. We drove all over LA in a rented car, visiting some of those same places–the Chinese Theatre, the Walk of Fame, and so much more. It was fun, exciting, no problems. The memories are bright; the city has faded.

view from Hollywood Boulevard toward HOLLYWOOD sign

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Preservation Tales: “Progress” Goes Before a Fall

“It’s a historical building, but I guess it’s progress,” said Marv Blessing, an alumnus of Pine Village High School, in a recent interview with IndyStar.  After decades of work in historic preservation, little pains me more than this continuing assertion by many that demolition is necessary for “progress.” Why have we bought into this fallacy? I ask this every time I hear it said–either in celebration or resignation, as in this case. It breaks my heart.

I went up this weekend to Pine Village in Warren County to see this wonderful gym that is slated to be torn down in March. New Deal-funded and constructed in part by the Works Progress Administration in 1940, here is a building still much loved and much used, a three-dimensional document.  It was built next to the old high school, which succumbed to fire in the 1940s. That school’s replacement stands in front of the gym and is soon to be demolished as well.

The town is very small, only a little over 200 people. It’s a farming community. You can stand in the middle of the intersection of highways 26 and 55, and the edge of town is just a couple blocks away in all directions. Much of the town’s identity and heritage are tied into this building, a place where the community still comes together (but not for much longer). It was home to the tiny but mighty Pine Knots basketball team, who won the sectional in 1972–the smallest team to do so–the year before Pine Village’s high school was consolidated. Most folks in town think it’s shame to lose the building, but what can they do? 

interior, looking north, Pine Village gym

As I ran excitedly around the building trying to get some photographs of the interior through the entrance sidelights, a young man walked up and offered to unlock the door for me. Turns out he is the school custodian and like everyone I talked to in town, an alumnus. The gym was immaculate––after all, there is one more basketball game on the schedule this week. I felt a shimmer and I was back in my long-gone high school gym, also a New Deal project with a similarly designed interior. The stage was still framed with deep blue curtains emblazoned with “P V” at the center. Behind the stage off to the sides were two classrooms, one the former bandroom. The other room was filled with art supplies and projects in various stages, ready for pupils to return.

interior, looking south, Pine Village gym

Stories vary as to why this beloved building must go, but it boils down to money. Still, many would see saving this gem, clearly eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, as a good investment. The roof is only a few years old, yet the custodian showed me the black mold on one wall of the bandroom and leaks elsewhere. I may be an outsider, but this suggests a problem that should be taken up with the contractor who installed the roof. There may be boiler issues; in the town’s quick stop gas station a woman, who also had attended the school, said there were sewer problems, although I did not run across this issue mentioned elsewhere. Why isn’t Indiana Landmarks involved in trying to find alternatives to demolition? It seems the school corporation had not mentioned tearing down the gym when plans for removing the non-historic school came out, and apparently no one thought to seek help from the organization when the plans grew to include it. And so another beautiful New Deal structure, not one that had stood abandoned for years, but a well-used building that is the beating heart of the community, disappears. It breaks my heart, too.

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