I closed my eyes and just for a moment I was fifteen again, immersed in the embrace of Hudson Lake. The Bluebird was open and I could choose from eight different flavors of ice cream, served up by the large and harried Mrs. Miller, who was constantly harangued by the “hoods” that hung around the old clubhouse. No good-hearted Fonzies, these: I was warned to and knew on my own to avoid them. The ice cream was worth the risk.
But I am not fifteen anymore; I opened my eyes. The old foursquare building that was the Bluebird still stands, converted years ago to a private residence. The once-sizable gravel beach is now just a skimpy strip, for Hudson Lake has risen over the past several years. It is cyclical and will likely recede again before my days on earth are done. There were fewer than a dozen people in the water or relaxing on the shore. Squinting my eyes against the descending sun I noted several fishing boats and other pleasure craft. Hudson Lake has always been a good fishing lake, filled with bass and bluegill and more. After all, it is some seventy feet deep and fed by numerous springs. It had been years since I swam in its waters; why had I waited so long?
Hudson is one of the larger glacial lakes in northern Indiana, by far the largest in LaPorte County. It even has an island.
But Hudson Lake is also an unincorporated town, although today it has no school and almost no businesses. Yet there began the earliest settlement in what was soon to become LaPorte County, starting with a small cluster of cabins near a short-lived mission school for the local Potawatomie, established in the 1820s as a branch of the Cary Mission, which was located near present-day Niles, Michigan. The dwellings hovered on the eastern shore of Lac du Chemin, the original–and much more romantic-sounding name– of the lake. (The translation–Lake of the Road–is much more prosaic.) Located on an old trail out of Michigan that became a stagecoach route, the up-and-coming town boasted inns, a blacksmith shop, and, soon, a school for the growing population of settlers. Above-ground archaeology that recalls those brief days of aspiration remains in the name of the Old Chicago Trail that enters the Hudson Lake community at a steep angle out of Michigan. (Well over a century later, my parents often took that road to Niles to see movies at the Niles 31 Outdoor Theater.)
I remember being stunned decades ago reading in a 19th century county history that Hudson Lake once had aspired to claim the county seat. These days I have a greater understanding of the life cycles of towns, and how the lack of a courthouse or a road or a railroad could make or break even a bustling community, such as Hudson Lake–or more accurately, Lakeport, as it was briefly known–was in the early 1830s. LaPorte, more central to the county, got the nod for the county seat, but Hudson Lake continued to thrive until the railroad came in the 1850s, which chose to locate its depot in nearby New Carlisle, a town that started in 1835 on the Michigan Road just to the south. Hudson Lake’s fortunes began to slide, although the lake itself remained a draw for anglers.
To the rescue after the turn of the century came the South Shore–the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad–an electric line that ran along the south edge of Hudson Lake with a stop at the southeast corner. A hotel stood very near the stop, and across the road the Hudson Lake Casino, where hot jazz and dance bands were the order of the day in the 1920s and 1930s.
When I was growing up the community still retained some of its old resort identity. People from Chicago tripled the population in summer. The hotel was gone, although I have a dim recollection of a faded derelict two-story building that must have been demolished before I was five. The casino was long closed, although when I was in high school there was an ill-fated attempt to reopen it as a teen night club. The plan got as far as the promotional announcements for the first dance with appearances by popular disc jockeys from WLS, the reigning rock station in Chicago, to which we listened religiously.
There was a roadside grocery about a mile from my rural home, with penny candy displayed in glass cases–and it really was only a penny. The elderly old world storekeeper shuffled about in leather slippers. Across from the elementary school near the heart of the community was the “supermarket,” probably three times larger with self-service. There my father stopped to pick up the evening paper, the South Bend Tribune, on his way home from work. The store offered Chicago papers, too, and we took a couple of those on Sundays. The store closed sometime after I left home and housed a few other businesses between closings. Nearby was a filling station, and when I was very young, another old-fashioned grocery store that sold penny candy, although it closed before I finished elementary school. Down the road, across from the lake and not far from the empty casino was a general store, which housed an auxiliary post office. Closed for decades, the building, unrecognizable for what it once was, is now a residence. The filling station, now a body shop, still stands, but hasn’t sold gas for many years. The school, abandoned because of consolidation, was mostly gutted years ago to house various rehab and construction businesses. Yet, a pizzeria that opened perhaps fifty years ago out in the middle of nowhere on the road into Michigan survives. The owners are different, but the food is wonderful. People know, and they come. And of course, the South Shore still runs–the last interurban.
Sometimes a dip in a cool lake can be a baptism of memory. The water’s embrace awakens long-dormant images of things long-gone. It’s all still there, but we can’t always see it with our eyes. You can go home again, but it lives in you.