No rain ‘til we’re loaded! Then it poured on the Pa turnpike. Had pancakes in Youngstown. Got home at 4:15. Great place and Jim had it all cleaned up and lots of goodies to eat.
Marge Binder, August 16, 1969
This passage reads like a movie climax: a race towards home, battling every mile against the Family’s travel nemesis — the Pennsylvania Turnpike (though there’s always time for pancakes!) — resolving in the warm glow of Dad’s tidy largesse. We are home at last with “goodies to eat.”
It was a fun and fulfilling 62+ days, both back in 1969 and here in 2019, constructing this blog.
A Few Words with Mom
Mom and I talked a lot about the trip when I visited her last week at our place on Lake Michigan. Here’s a bit of that, shot with the SHAKIEST selfie stick I could find.
There’s one question I forgot to ask Mom in this interview: “We’re you worried about anything on this trip?” So I just asked her on the phone. She thought about it just a few seconds and said, “Nope.” She talked about the new car and her skills with the tent. When I probed a bit, she didn’t back down. “Nope, I knew we’d be fine.”
Loaded up and got started about 9:30. Ate cheese sandwiches on the way and reached Youngstown about 5. Set up and “built ourselves a tommy ache” of ice cream. Then swam.
Marge Binder, August 15, 1969
We camped at the same place every summer, right off exit 16 of the Ohio Turnpike: The Ohio Motel near the Pennseyvania border. It was mostly a campground, with a small and stately structure for those incapable of fending for their own shelter under canvas. Sad.
It had an arcade with the latest (and oldest) pinball machines, and we’d squander the spare change we’d earned for keeping quiet during that day’s drive.
The “‘tummy ache’ of ice cream” could be gotten at Fronz (sp?), a place that made its own ice cream and candy. It was in a strip mall a few miles down the road from the Turnpike. We stopped there pretty much every summer. The owner was a friendly guy, a stocky Wonka type, sans top hat and libretto, who remembered us and gave us tours of his operation. Impressive!
A rite of passage (that I’m sure I never even attempted) was to wolf down a Belly Buster, a massive sundae of some 10 or 20 scoops. Heck, it could have been 31, I can’t say. I’m sure Tim tried, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he succeeded one day.
In constructing this blog, I’ve not been able to unearth a single shred of evidence that Fronz ever existed. That is really sad.
Wait, have we learned nothing on this trip? I hope we waited an hour after the ice cream to take this swim.
We arrive home tomorrow, after 62 days away. Come back for an interview with the Marge Binder of MargeBindersEpicAdventure fame, as well as to share in some of the excellent feedback and accolades her trip received via this blog. Thank you for that!
Went to Allen’s restaurant for pancakes. After lunch took the little guys to Jean Trask’s to swim. They loved it.
Marge Binder, August 13, 1969
Like most of the restaurants and small businesses Mom cites in her diary, Allen’s appears to have been forgotten like a rogue hashbrown slipping between the griddle and the fryer. But there is hope!
A few days ago we were visited here at the Lake by cousins Pam and Jen Trask, and Joan Zemmin. They had some serious intel on the fate of a very special place…
…The Polka Dot
Originally housed in a pre-fab shell just north of Ithaca proper, I went to the Polka Dot with Mom and Gran a number of times. We’d meet up with a tableful of ladies for a full-on coffee klatch that could drain a few urns and burn a full morning. What I remember most was the hard-earned dime one of them would leave on the table for the excellent service.
Thanks to the cousins’ insight we learned that the Polka Dot is now living its third incarnation, at least, now as an all-day restaurant with full bar going by the name of JJ Rubys. When Mary and I visited Ithaca yesterday (August 12, 2019) for an upcoming blog post, we stopped there for lunch. We were happy to learn that the Pure Michigan niceness is real at JJ Rubys, as is the sodium. Not a bad thing.
Aunt Margaret’s Place
Aunt Margaret made these chocolate cookies with a sweet, sour creamy dollop that were just the bomb.
She was married to Gran’s brother Dale. Uncle Dale passed away when I was very young, and Margaret and Gran remained like sisters forever after, truly. I would ride my bike over to her place on West North street to hang out on her back porch, especially if one of the cousins was passing through.
Among them were members of the Trask tribe I mentioned above. We had a nice reminisce about Aunt Margaret (aka Nonnie) and a few others, like Kim Trask. In Mom’s diary today, she references Kim’s mom, Jean, who did indeed have an awesome. Even in this socially mediated world. I’ve lost connection to Kim.
At the same time, I’ve reconnected with Mark Zemmin, a cousin for life and a best friend for a few days when we were kids tripping about Ithaca. Props to Facebook for that!
West Center Street & Hanners
West of the main drag are the stately Ithaca Fire House and what is now the Gratiot County Historical Society. The latter is housed in a home built in the 1880s. Back in my day, this home featured a little store called Hanners.
I remember a few times my brothers and I walked down to Hanners after dinner for penny candies and soda pop. It was a dark, tiny place — in my mind’s eye there is candlelight, but I doubt that. No question: it smelled like wood and sugar. There was also a rack of magazines, comic books down low, girlie mags up top.
We stopped by this area yesterday, during our visit to Ithaca; I’ll share some video in a later post — don’t wait up though.
Want to learn more about the area (and you should), Visit the Gratiot County Historical Society website. It’s a nice site with lots to dig into.
Ready to call Ithaca home?
Check out this nifty guide to everything you need to know about life in the seat of Gratiot County, Michigan.
Washed, packed and Mike and I drove down to Harold’s. His apartment looked very nice—new rugs, etc. He took us to dinner, gave the boys $30 in change and we watched TV and drank champale.
Marge Binder, August 9, 1969
I got my middle name from my Grandfather and my Uncle Harold. Turns out that “Unc” and I shared a few other things in common: dark complexion, unibrow, a droll sense of humor and a bit of a rogue demeanor. But he was also tall, with a full head of hair and a great smile.
I visited his home a few times in my youth (though not on this occasion). He was a bachelor for life, a drinker and a smoker and a slob. In my 20s and 30s: Check, check and check. I won’t dwell further on his traits because some readers might misunderstand these comments as insults. They are quite the opposite; they are aspirational even.
Aside from Mom’s own observation about the condition of Unc’s house (“very nice”), she notes in her diary that he “gave the boys $30 in change.” Unc was famous for that. As a gift, he’d dump his loose change on us to sort, roll and cash in (and keep). We’d think he was Mr. Uncle Vanderbilt.
In Mom’s diary, this is the first reference to champale. As described in an earlier post, Mom assured me that she had a champale most nights on this trip. Deservedly so!
Rained at 6AM. Miserable morning but we got to Ithaca at 5PM. Gran just beat us. Talked and washed. Mike pretty sick. Took a bath!
Marge Binder, August 6, 1969
More travel woes: rain, “miserable morning,” “Mike pretty sick.” But that was the last morning Mom would be waking up in a tent with three boys — at least for a week or so.
An arrival of sorts.
We’re far from home yet, but today we arrive at Gran’s home in Ithaca. For the next few days we’ll be hanging in this little town smack-dab in the middle of the mitten. It’s a place we visited every summer of my youth, as far as I know.
Mom went to high school here; she and Dad got married at the Methodist Church down on Center Street. Gran is buried a few miles away in the North Star Cemetery, along with a few of our relatives who helped to settle this part of the state in the 1800s.
Over the next week, please indulge me to unload years of memories of this place, most of them watercolored by five decades of romanticizing.
I remember the wide streets and lumpy sidewalks, the stately courthouse with its tolling clock tower across the street, the candy store with the girlie mags over by the firehouse, the A&W Drive-In out by the highway, the house on West North Street where my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Dale lived, days riding my bike everywhere and nights in the front yard chasing fireflies.
I remember how Gran’s house smelled (sweet and calm). Mom references here that she took a bath the day we arrived, likely the first in months. I can tell you this: the whole place must have smelled like sulfur when she ran the water. And later that night, it probably smelled like Swiss steak.
When it’s your Gran’s house, though, all of the senses just surrender and you are overcome by the embrace of acceptance and love. Welcome to Gran’s.
Got a good start but had to stop 2 hours to get Tim a shot of cortisone. Camped at the free campsite in Atlantic, Iowa. Had another town pool plus a fair to visit.
Marge Binder, August 4, 1969
Looks like Tim was still battling “something poison,” so we stopped for two hours to get him some cortisone. But hey, free campsite. And a fair! (Note: exclamation is mine, not Mom’s.)
A Fair to Remember, or not.
I had a nice post planned: I figured I’d research this fair in Atlantic, Iowa and paint a nice picture of community, tradition and middle America. Early on in my (internet) research, I learned that Atlantic is the seat of Cass County, so the fair Mom references must have been the Cass County Fair.
The Cass County Fair looks spectacular on the internet. Its site has lots of historical depth and artifacts dating back to the 1850s. I learned that over the years the fair had been touched by the Civil War (there were loyalists on both sides), the construction of the Pacific Railroad through town (the fair had to relocate a few blocks away), as well as local politics and public taste.
What a lovely all-American story and event…200 miles away in Cass County, Missouri. Check it out.
The next Cass County Fair I fell in love with I soon discovered occurs in Cassopolis, Michigan — celebrating 168 years! Check out this neat program.
Turns out there is also a Cass County Fair in Weeping Water, Nebraska; Pine River, Minnesota; and Logansport, Indiana. (There are nine counties in the country named Cass, all of them after Lewis Cass, the losing candidate for president in 1848.)
But I digress.
Finally I found my virtual way to the Cass County Fair in Atlantic, Iowa. Once I confirmed I was in the right place, I felt a pang of disappointed that the Iowa version doesn’t match the scale and significance of the others. Here’s the Facebook page for Iowa’s version of the Cass County Fair. Claim to fame: “largest free fair in all of Iowa.”
According to the Atlantic News Telegraph website, this Cass County Fair includes an early morning Beef Show, followed “one hour later” by the “beef fitting contest.” Color me curious.
Fairs vs Carnivals
Growing up in Vienna, Virginia we had an annual summer carnival — not a fair — housed in the parking lot of the Giant and Peoples Drug stores. When Bob’s Big Boy got built (where the Outback Steakhouse is now), the carnies moved to a plot of scrubby land off Church Street (now a proper park). Vienna’s carnival had a midway of food and games and the latest rides like the Scrambler, Tilt-a-Whirl, a Ferris wheel, swings. Here’s a wiki of some of those wicked carny rides through history.
My wife knows the difference between a carnival and a fair. The woman I believed to be a Chardonnay-sipping sophisticate was a closet county fair fan all along. She grew up in Missouri (but never heard of Cass County) and was involved with the 4H Club. I’ve learned that a proper fair might have a carnival component, but the heart and soul are the animals. I’ve spent more time around pigs and cows in the past 10 years than I did in my first 44. Quality fairs also celebrate local lore and culture, like food, art and photo competitions, tractor pulls and demolition derbies, and campy (and big name) entertainment of all kinds.
We have at least two county fairs to visit this summer — here in California and in Michigan.
And someday, maybe, we’ll roadtrip to all those Cass County Fairs throughout the midwest, starting in Missouri.
You can see (kind of) that much of the interstate construction was not complete in this area of the country.
Also, I spoke with Mom today, and she recalled that the “mountain stream” she describes here made her uneasy. She’d seen flooding before and she worried that, because we were perched on a bend, just a bit of a rise might wipe away our tent.
More Wyoming then Colorado—short day for a change. Set up on rocky ground next to a mountain stream at Eldorado Springs. Mike & Doug swam in a big pool there and saw a drowning.
Marge Binder, July 31, 1969
This episode I (think I) remember. Great pool, lots of kids, lots of activity, Mike and me splashing about. And then everything stopped. Silence. Something weird was going on.
It’s one of those memories, like the Redwoods and “Bomb Cambodia” a few weeks back, where I might be melding it with others. As I recall, this sad occasion is when Mom offered the advice: Don’t swim for an hour after eating. If it did happen like this, it was brilliant of her, because I still subscribe to that advice today.
Mom picked a great place to spend a few days (note the three Ws in the ad below; that’s Woodall’s highest rating!). I don’t remember anything else, but her diary lists out Mike’s allergy shots, shopping and some car maintenance. I have to think there was also plenty of hiking, playing and other things that make childhood childhood in a place like Colorado.
Sorry for that kid though.
I love that the ad for the campground welcomes “wagons.” I’m picturing a wagon train emerging Brigadoon-style from a dust storm on the prairie and finding this place most welcoming. Act II: Everyone is strung out on “modern restrooms” and “sanitary.” Act III: We’re staying.
Also, as I mentioned above, the place had a “nationally known pool.” Gotta say, the only other that can boast that is the Reflecting Pool in DC. I don’t recommend diving.