August 10, 1969: “Talked till 4AM”

Harold cooked us a big breakfast and fancy dinner. Mike visited the store a lot. Left about 5 and stopped at Dee’s. Talked till 4 AM.

Marge Binder, August 10, 1969

Dad and Harry Reed were newspapermen together at The Pontiac Press in the 60s. They became lifelong friends, even after Dad moved to The Detroit News. And the spouses did too. Mom and Dee Reed became creative and business partners, as well as friends. They staged puppet shows around southeast Michigan until we moved to Virginia.

It’s no surprise that Mom and Dee would have talked until the wee hours on this visit. They did this every time they got together in the decades that followed, along with Dad and Harry, playing bridge and hitting the Jack Daniels (I’ve been told). Sadly, Dee passed away a few months ago, and Harry several years ago.

August 9, 1969: Uncle “Unc” Harold

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
Gran, Unc and Mom

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!

August 8, 1969: Ithaca, MI 48847

Got new glasses for Tim and new shoes for Mike and me. Dried out the tent and sleeping bags.

Tim’s been effectively blind since his glasses flew into a campfire back on July 22 in Oregon. Now that we’re staying put in Ithaca, Mom can take care of some other business as well.

“My” Ithaca

I’m going to continue my romanticization of this idyllic little town in the middle of Michigan. In previous posts I covered the circumstances for Gran settling down here with Mom and Uncle Harold in the 1940s. The kids went off to college and then stayed within a few hours’ drive of here, while Gran retired into a cottage across the street from the stately county courthouse. Ithaca, you see, is the seat of Gratiot County, something that I was raised to be quite proud of.

We visited Gran every summer after we moved to Virginia. For a few years in the mid-70s I got to spend a couple of weeks here, just me and Gran. I had a bike and free reign to pedal about wherever the day might take me. Gran’s Ithaca was a kid’s paradise, at least through my eyes.

Gran’s Place on Newark Street

This is Gran’s home, current day. Looks like it’s been barely maintained for the last few decades. Back in the day, I can assure you, it was a magical little place full of warmth, love and ice cream. There was nary a weed in the entire yard — Gran paid a dime for pulling a full weed, a nickel for just the above-ground part. That made for me having some serious walking-around change to blow downtown.

Gratiot County Courthouse

The courthouse was across the street from Gran’s place. This photo is not taken from that POV — that view is now impeded by unsightly county offices (and the jail). As I write this, I realize that I never once stepped foot into this building, but I sure did revere it.

The stoplight in this Google-grab, I think, is new — at least, since 1980. There was one at the intersection a block behind the camera. One is enough for Ithaca, if you ask me.

Downtown Ithaca

Ithaca’s main drag was two blocks from Gran’s place. As I recall, it had a couple of grocery stores, a movie theater, a few small restaurants, and various other businesses that a kid had no use for.

The Downtown Dime, on the left side of this photo, occupies the same space as the 5&10 back in the day. Back then, it had a little soda counter where we got sundaes and milkshakes. Our visit in 1969 might have been the time when, after I had inadvertently ingested a red-hot candy and started screaming my head off, Mike hustled me here for a cherry pop. Epic big brother move!

Center Street had back-out parking, as it does today. Gran piloted a big rolling barge made of solid lead (not really), and she was notorious for leaving impressions on passing cars that failed to yield her backward-moving intentions.

The Funeral Home

Here’s the view from Gran’s place to the Beebe-Dewey funeral home on the corner. I remember a few occasions when, after reading the morning paper, Gran would get dressed up and walk across the way to say goodbye to an old friend. No drama, all very normal, I suppose.

The funeral home was bought by a chain who closed it down a few years back, according the the internet. They built a new place out near the highway where they boast better parking and three chapels, including one designed for big groups. Seems like the death business is recession-proof.

The Church

This is where Mom and Dad got married in 1950. It’s a few blocks from Gran’s house but walkable. I attended services with Gran a few times over the summers I was there. She loved to sing and did so with grand, unbridled, way-off-key enthusiasm. You go, Gran!

In a later post, we’ll visit some of the happening places on the west side of Ithaca, including stops at Aunt Margaret’s house and Hanners.

August 7, 1969: Pure Michigan

Rained. Washed hair, wrote bills, etc.

Marge Binder, August 7, 1969

A pretty chill day for Mom, especially after almost eight weeks of rigorous, daily roadtripping.

Seems like a good time to get the lay of the land. Here are some of the places we’ll be talking about in the next wee — our Family’s footprint in Michigan. (Or, as true fans of the Mitten might say: our Family’s handprint. That’s the kind of side-splitter that’ll score you an extra slice of pie!)

Mom is Pure Michigan

She was born in Grand Rapids at the height of the Great Depression. She and the Family spent her first ten years moving about the area, including a stint in Muskegon Heights. Her Dad (my Grandfather) was a civil engineer who designed bridges and only occasionally found himself without a job, even in those tough times. Whenever the topic came up later in life, Mom had no complaints about surviving the Depression. Neither did my Dad, for that matter (though his was a very different story).

After her Dad’s untimely death at only 41, Mom moved with her Mother (Gran) and brother Harold (“Unc”) to California. We explored some of that journey in this blog back in early July; I think that was really the impetus for the roadtrip we’re on now.

When they returned two years later, Gran settled in Ithaca and took a job as a teacher and later principal of the elementary school. Mom graduated from Ithaca High School as Valedictorian (duh) and went on to Central Michigan University (nee College) in Mount Pleasant. That’s where she and Dad first met and courted. They married while still in school and became BCOC — the Big Couple on Campus.

After graduation, they headed to the Detroit area in southeast Michigan where Dad worked for Goodyear and then as a reporter and editor for the Pontiac Press. They started a family: Tim in 1954, Mike in 1961. Eventually, they bought a home in Northville, in the burgeoning suburbs west of the city.

This is where I come in. I was born in ’65 in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, where Mom earned her Masters Degree in History. As a result, we are a Go Blue! Family.

We are All Pure Michigan

Looking north towards Silver Lake and the miles of sand dunes. The three houses on the lower right constitute the “Family compound.”

In 1954, Dad’s Mom — my Gramma Essie — purchased land on Lake Michigan just north of the lighthouse at Little Sable Point and built the first house there. Today, the land she bought features three houses, seasonally full of cousins. It will continue as the family “compound” for generations to come.

Back in 1969, we didn’t visit the Lake as part of this trip, but it became an annual pilgrimage starting in the early 70s.

Cosmic coincidence: we’re arriving there tonight, August 7, 2019.

August 6, 1969: Gran!

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.

Gran in 1983

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.

August 5, 1969: The ER!

Mike snorting and snuffling. Ran into rain in Omaha (yesterday). Crossed the Mississippi. Camped near Utica, Illinois. Tim fished. Mike swam. Had to take him to St. Mary’s LaSalle emergency room for his ears.

Marge Binder, August 5, 1969

We are officially back east, now that we’ve crossed the Mississippi into Illinois. Even with the typical daily activities of Tim fishing and Mike swimming (where was I? Knitting?), Mike also found time to snort, snuffle and eventually visit the ER. I would agree that this post’s headline is a little sensational for an ear ache, but this is — shockingly — the only ER visit cited on the entire trip.

Below is a postcard of the hospital in La Salle, Illinois back when people sent postcards of hospitals they visited. Actually, my brother Mike would have been a prolific mailer (sorry, Miko!).

August 4, 1969: A Fair!

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.

Image result for cass county fair, iowa

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.

Cows at a 1960s Cass County Fair — in Missouri

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.