A Michigan Boyhood


This is how it was in the old days. A family that wanted to go from here to there went by railroad train because there was no other way to do it. If the distance was very short, ten or a dozen miles only, you might hire a rig at the livery stable and let the horses do the work, and if you lived on deep water you might go all or part of the way by steamboat, but as a general thing to make a trip meant to take a ride on the cars. The process was slow by later standards, the journey was apt to be bumpy and dusty, and there were inflexible schedules to keep, but it was exciting, especially for children past the time of actual babyhood. It differed from modern travel in that the mere act of departure was a great event.

We always began by going to the railroad station at Beulah. Mr. Benner had a wagon that left the Benzonia post office in time to meet all the trains, under contract to receive and deliver the mail; he carried our baggage, and his wagon had crosswise seats for passengers, who could ride for a modest fee, so he usually carried us as well. The trip to Beulah was unexciting—no driver in his senses drove down that hill at anything but a plodding walk—but once we reached the depot the atmosphere changed and we began to understand that we were really going somewhere. Actually, we already understood it. Mother felt that her children ought to be presentable if they were going on the cars, so the night before we all had to take baths, even though it was not Saturday night —a gross violation of custom that led us to utter vain protests—and when we got dressed on the morning of departure we had to put on our Sunday suits, so that the special quality of the event had already been impressed on us. But when we reached the station platform, the reality of the whole business came home to us.

For all that Beulah and Benzonia together made no more than a decidedly small town, this seemed like a busy place at train time. Somebody would be wheeling a platform truck down to the spot where the head-end cars were to stop: empty ice-cream freezers going back to the distributor at Cadillac, ice-packed containers from the Beulah creamery bound for assorted destinations downstate, a travelling salesman’s sample cases, somebody’s trunk, a few suitcases, a mysterious cardboardbound parcel or two, and so on. People who were going to get on the train stood about looking expectant, while behind the platform teams waited for passengers or packages coming down from Frankfort. The station agent was out, keeping an eye on the platform truck while he assured some anxious woman that this train would infallibly reach Copemish in time for her to catch the Manistee & Northeastern going southwest. Miss Marshall, who collected personal items for the weekly newspaper, would be moving about with pad and pencil, asking people where they were going and when they would be back, and there was always the usual assortment of men and small boys who had nothing in particular to do and had just sauntered over to see the train.

Then at last, just as the tension was almost more than we could take, we would hear the train as it rounded Outlet Point and came along the lake shore, the clear notes of its whistle sounding across the water, and finally it would drift around the last curve and swing up to the platform, smoking and hissing and clanking, with the locomotive putting on its characteristic act of looking and sounding like something alive. A few passengers would get off, and the conductor would call a longdrawn “All abo-o-o-a-r-d!” and we would scramble up the steps and into one of the cars, racing down the aisle for a pair of facing seats. By the time Mother arrived to settle the inevitable argument as to which of three boys would occupy the two places next to the windows, the train would be moving again. Wisps of smoke and steam would whip past the windows as we took the first curve and left Beulah behind; then came the familiar East Hill crossing, and Will Case’s sawmill with men putting lumber into a boxcar, and we were really on our way. In some ways the mere act of leaving was the high-water mark of the whole trip.


The next big moment came fourteen miles down the track when we reached Thompsonville, where we changed cars. No matter where we were going, we almost always began by changing cars at Thompsonville, where our Ann Arbor railroad crossed the north-south line of the Père Marquette. The Ann Arbor went all the way to Toledo, 280 miles away, but somehow our affairs never seemed to take us in that direction; we usually were going to visit Grandfather in Petoskey, one hundred miles to the north, although once in a while we went south, around the foot of Lake Michigan to Chicago, and in either case we got off at Thompsonville, lugged our suitcases across the tracks to the Père Marquette station, and lightheartedly went through the whole platform routine all over again.