- Historic Sites
Last Of Four Installments A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
We lived in Indian summer and mistook it for spring. Winter lay ahead just when we thought June was on the way. The school, the town, and the people connected with both were coming to an end that seemed to be a beginning. They had been created by an era that was closing, and nothing like them would ever exist again because what had brought them forth was gone; yet twilight at the end of the day looks much as it does at the dawn unless you watch the shadows move, and for a little while time stood still. The shadows were not coming down the slope. They would dissolve when the sun rose, and the future—when it appeared: there was no hurryabout it—would wear a familiar image. What we were going to be was determined by what had gone before. We accepted the unbreakable continuity of the society that had produced us.
That continuity, although we did not realize it, was already breaking apart. We knew of course that changes were taking place. The forests were gone, and all around us the little towns were falling into a long decline. The farms that had appeared so hopefully on the hills and in the wide flat valleys were going the same way. One by one—indeed, ten by ten, if anyone had bothered to count—they were going back to brambles and sumac. The section that had found it worthwhile to support us was becoming less and less able to carry the load. School and town had been built to provide a light in the wilderness, but now the wilderness was gone. We understood that there would have to be some readjustments.
But we hardly doubted that the readjustments would be made. Much had been invested, worth nothing at a sheriff’s sale, worth everything to the investors: hard work, sacrifice, courage, and the wavering dreams that make a barren life tolerable because they reach out to something better beyond the high ground ahead. It was not possible that all of these could be wasted. Somehow, someway, all that had been done would justify itself. The light that had been lit on our hilltop could not be allowed to go out just because the surrounding darkness was gone. It would still be needed to light a path for the feet of men not yet taught to lift their eyes to the sky. We never bothered to formulate this faith. We just had it.
It was easy to feel this way because Benzonia’s concerns were small—small enough to fit into the deepest recesses of the human heart—and its history was uneventful. The individual might have his own pack of grief, suffering, and shattered hopes to carry as he clambered up the long stairway, but the community as a whole knew contentment. A less worried place probably did not exist anywhere. We were isolated from the rest of the world, and the isolation was pleasant. The happenings that tug at the memory today were small happenings.
The town was essentially a crossroads settlement, with a cluster of wooden business buildings rising where the north-south road intersected the main road from west to east. There were three general stores, a meat market, a bank, a barbershop, a post office, a drugstore, and a blacksmith shop, and for a time there was a run-down hotel that hardly ever had any guests.
The blacksmith shop was interesting, although the blacksmith did not like to have small boys hanging around. He was important to us, however, because if we found any bits of old iron he would buy them from us, and so he was an occasional source of pennies; we had no pocket money whatever, and to get two or three cents was to become rich. Money thus obtained was almost always spent on candy at Simon McDonald’s general store. We felt that Mr. McDonald gave more for a penny than the other stores did, and he sold an odd confection of peanut butter coated with chocolate that came three for a penny and was highly enjoyed. This store, by the way, was like the country store of tradition. Toward the rear there was an open space in front of the counter, with a wood-burning stove surrounded by chairs where men sat and smoked corncob pipes and discussed matters of state; I believe there was even a cracker barrel in connection.
Mr. McDonald, a remarkably genial, easygoing man, enjoyed the distinction of being just about the only Democrat in town. Ours was a devoutly Republican community, and when the village went for Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 election it felt mildly guilty about it. During the 1912 campaign all of us boys wore party campaign buttons pinned to our shirts, and the only Woodrow Wilson buttons I remember seeing were those worn by Mr. McDonald’s two sons, Douglas and Dwight. They lived just across the road from us, and we were very good friends, and I used to tease them about those buttons: why wear the emblems of a sure loser? They got even, with accrued interest, when the election returns came in; and sometime next spring Mr. McDonald was duly appointed Benzonia’s postmaster. Everybody agreed that this was no more than right; Mr. McDonald was universally liked, and the political spoils system was accepted without question.