- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
THIRD OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
If there was time we strolled down the main street to see the sights. These were not numerous or startling—after all, Thompsonville was a mere village—but in those days it was a busy little place, with two hotels, two railroads, a saloon or two, and several little sawmills, and it struck me as decidedly metropolitan. Compared to Benzonia, almost every town was metropolitan; and anyway, this was the gateway to the outer world, bound to the great cities by steel rails, definitely though remotely in touch with the main currents of life from which our city on the hill was so completely insulated. One thing puzzled me: one of the mills at Thompsonville announced itself as a clothespin factory, and that seemed odd; how could there possibly be a demand for the unutterable quantities of clothespins that could be produced by an entire factory working ten hours a day, six days a week? It just did not seem reasonable.
Sooner or later the northbound train arrived, and again we sat by the windows to enjoy the delights of travel. It must be confessed that after a while these began to wear a bit thin. We had to stay in our seats—Mother refused to let us roam up and down the aisle, annoying our elders—and presently we began to get somewhat bored. We never admitted this because we knew that travelling by the cars was exciting, but it was there just the same and we resented it. What we could see out of the windows took on a monotonous sameness: acres and acres of stumps, low hills covered with uneven second growth—usually aspens packed so tightly together that you could not imagine playing Indian among them—and weedy farms with tired-looking houses that had lost all their paint and most of their prospects. It was nice to go through a little town because we could see people hanging about and we could reflect in a superior way that we were travelling while they were mere stay-athomes, but most of these places were dying lumber towns and they were depressing to look at. It was always a relief when we finally reached Petoskey and took the carriage up the hill to Grandfather’s house.
It was even better when we took the night train, because to ride in a sleeping car was to touch the summit of human experience. This did not happen often, but every other summer or thereabouts Mother took us children to Minneapolis for a visit with her sister and the sister’s husband, Aunt Vade and Uncle Ed. Aunt Vade’s given names, by the way, were Sierra Nevada; Grandfather had quite a few daughters, and he gave the rest of them workaday names like Emma and Kate and Ida and Belle and Adella, but when this girl came along he spread himself. As an aunt she was as dignified and in many ways as impressive as the mountain chain she was named for, although she was not at all icy; on the contrary, she was warm and affectionate, and although I was a little bit scared of her I was a little bit scared of all adults, including my own parents—they lived in a different world and seemed to be accountable to strange gods, and it was necessary for a small boy to watch his foot in their presence. I realize now, although I did not know it at the time, that my aunt probably sent Mother the money to pay for these trips to Minneapolis, because the academy paid starvation salaries and Father could not possibly have financed them.
In any case, when we went to Minneapolis we usually went by way of Chicago, which meant that we got to Thompsonville late in the afternoon and waited there for the night train, and sometimes we had supper in a Thompsonville hotel, which to my mind was another bonus. Later on I came to see that meals in a village hotel in that era were pretty bad. A typical supper would include stringy pot roast with lumpy gravy on a boiled potato, a bowl of stewed canned tomatoes laced with hunks of soggy bread, and rice pudding under blue milk; but small boys eat to get full and not for pleasure, and this stuff at least was filling. After supper we went over to the Père Marquette station, to wait in the darkness, looking up a track spangled with green switch lights, watching for the far-off glow of the engine’s headlight, listening anxiously for the first haunting note of the whistle, which came in like an echo of all the horns of elfland.
This train arrived, I suppose, somewhere around ten, mysterious and magnificent, long shaft of light shining down the track ahead, red glow from the cab if the fireman opened the firebox to shovel in coal, baggage man lounging in the open door of a baggage car, smoker and day coaches brightly lit, with passengers drowsing in their seats … and then the Pullmans, vestibule doors open, thin strips of light coming out from below the green curtains here and there, porters swinging down to the platform when the train stopped, planting footstools in front of the steps and chanting quietly: “Pullman car for Chicago … Pullman car for Detroit …” When we went aboard, the berths had already been made up, and it was nice to go down the curtained aisle to our own places.