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Michigan Musings

volare-station-wagonSummertime brings with it memories of travelling and visiting family in regions far and near. Every time I get into a hot vehicle and the first blast of warm, muggy air comes out of the car vents, I remember all those sketchy (though money-saving) motels we stayed at while traveling to Michigan in the summer. At least the rooms had air conditioning, unlike the 1977 navy blue Plymouth Volare wagon we traveled in.

Every two years, we would travel out to Michigan to see family. My father had been born a “Michigander,” settling in New England after serving in the Navy from 1958-62. Though I do remember a few trips with both of my parents, it was only after their divorce in 1978 that I recall the details from the many trips to and from “The Great Lakes State.” (And thus the reason for the somewhat seedy motels… my mother would never have agreed to that!) Packing my sister Melissa and my brother Ted and as much luggage and toys as the car would hold, we set off, seatbelt-less and bouncing back and forth from the front to the back, to the “way back.” My father was an incredibly patient man… it would usually take a physical fight between my siblings to get him to raise his voice. The silence was golden!

Traveling out, we usually followed the same route: from New Hampshire to Massachusetts, to New York (and its awful Thruway…bump/ssstssstssst/bump/sssstssstsst/bump for miles!) Skirt around Albany and on to Batavia, New York, which is where we usually stayed the night. Dad normally avoided big cities, giving them names like “Beef-alo” for “Buffalo;” somewhat inexplicably, a place to be avoided (I had yet to understand the issue of traffic flow). We would then head south along Lake Erie, going through Pennsylvania but around Cleveland, Ohio. Then, north along Lake Erie, avoiding Toledo, Ohio, and heading north into Michigan. Then it was just another half an hour until we reached our destination: Mohawk Road in Tecumseh, Michigan, Lenawee County. There was much rejoicing in the station wagon as the long 19-hour journey finally came to an end (bless you, dad!)

After greeting our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, we always wanted to explore… especially any of dad’s old haunts. The River Raisin was a favorite spot… he enjoyed swimming, fishing and just walking along the rocks. This river is about a 5-minute walk from Mohawk Road. I remember one time walking down there and dad stopped, looked, then went over to the side of the path and pointed at something sticking up in the brush. “You kids see that? That is a Christmas tree stand that your Uncle Chub and I made.” We were thrilled to see something that old, and amazed that it was still there! We walked until we came to a spot where there used to be a bridge, but now just the supports were intact. One year, I was stung by nettles as we walked along the water. I couldn’t believe that a plant could “sting.” On another trip, I spent the summer collecting flowers for our pressed flower collection. I picked this pretty, purple flower that turned out to be common blue eyed grass. Poor dad, all the way to and from Michigan that year, I was forever asking him to pull over so I could pick the wildflowers!

We also visited “downtown Tecumseh,” which was a lot smaller back then, and this included a tour of Tecumseh High School, where my dad played football, basketball, did track and wrestled. He might have only been 5′4″ and 130 pounds but he was feisty! In honor of dad’s sporting days, my sister and I usually scored a “Tecumseh Indians” black and orange T-shirt. My brother usually chose a toy. One year, dad took us to the John Deere store located out there and proudly purchased Ted an authentic green and yellow John Deere toy tractor. My brother loved that truck and played with it for many years.

After shopping, it was time to eat. Meals were mostly eaten at grandma and grandpa’s. Grandma made chili (using Campbell’s tomato soup as the base) and lots of hamburgers and hotdogs. One year, dad and his brother Walter (everyone called him Chub), went fishing and brought back a whole slew of bluegill that they caught in Lake Erie. Uncle Chub patiently showed us how to open and gut the fish, and grandma fried them up. Delicious! Served alongside her famous summer marshmallow fruit salad, we felt like we were tasting quintessential Michigan.

When we didn’t eat at the homestead, we had a favorite restaurant that we could only eat at when in Michigan: the Big Boy (dubbed “The Large Fellow” by my Tecumseh cousins) for meals. There are a lot of these restaurants in Michigan, but only a few scattered in just three other states. The Big Boy is an American-style burger joint perfect for families. If we didn’t have dessert there, we would go to get ice cream at what is now G & J’s Frosty Boy, formally just “Frosty Boy.”

At the end of the visit, everyone had to gather to take pictures. This was a more painful process than it is now and one was never sure of the results until the film was developed. My grandmother was in such earnest to get every family group and then the entire family. My father was a master at ruining a good picture. Sometimes grandma would catch him in time (“Carl!”), and sometimes she wouldn’t. There are a series of shots showing dad “gearing up” for the goofy face… it’s almost like time-lapse photography! Needless to say, my brother and my nephew Joey continue on in the tradition. Thankfully, digital cameras now guarantee at least one good picture.

There are a lot of great places to visit in Michigan, such as the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, and Little Bavaria in Frankenmuth, but don’t dismiss little Tecumseh. Some of my best family memories have been made in that small midwestern town.

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Carla B. Howard is the Senior Circulation and Media & Marketing Assistant at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the September 3, 2020 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.


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