Half Full/Mark Wilcox

The other day I was reading an article in National Geographic, (I guess that means I’m all grown up. There was a time when I just went hunting for “special pictures,” but that’s a column for another time.)

The article was by Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor, a writer I enjoy and a man I’ve met on a couple of occasions when I worked for MPR.

Keillor’s article was a geographical remembrance of Minnesota, in particular of the Twin Cities. He recalled the neighborhoods of youth, the various landmark buildings and the memories they inspired.

At first I was a bit jealous of Keillor, kind of like when I watch a Scorsese movie set in the inner city. I mean, I grew up in a town with one “block” and I use that term liberally. To read about this building, or that neighborhood with its ethnic sights and smells made me embarrassed by my little village. Heck, we didn’t have assorted neighborhoods, our whole town didn’t even make up a neighborhood.

Then it dawned on me – you could consider the Upper Peninsula a city in and of itself, and all the small towns are like neighborhoods miles and miles apart. And like neighborhoods in a city, each with its own individual personality.

When I was a small boy, the extent of my “neighborhood experience” was limited. But each little town had a feature or business that made it special.

In summer I played Little League. (I use the term “play” loosely, because this was before there was mandatory minimum playing time for Little Leaguers. So basically I was “audience in a uniform.”)

Each town had its own team and we’d travel to a handful of hamlets in the Central U.P., namely Skandia, Perkins, Rapid River, Trenary, Eben and Chatham. The big thrill of Little League in those days wasn’t the thrill of victory, but where we’d stop for snacks after the game.

Games in Alger County were best because you’d have to go past The Hub Cafe in Traunik, right on U.S. 41. It doesn’t exist anymore but in those days it was a popular stop for 10-year-old right fielders and their families.

The Hub was one of those burgers, meat loaf and homemade soup and pie kind of places. Not really the place youngsters dream about. But they had what evey small diner had in those days – ice cream. Served from those cool freezers with the duel doors hinged in the middle. The server would have to reach deep inside the freezer which didn’t have glass like today, and comeback with a colorful scoop of deliciousness.

The first time I had soft serve ice cream was at the dairy creme in Rapid River. And when that wasn’t an option we’d stop at the A&W across the street. Rapid River was also the home of Jack’s Restaurant, which every 4-H-er in the Central U.P. knew was where you boarded the bus for Exploration Days or any other trip to East Lansing. Speaking of which, no 4-H trip was complete without a stop at the Cut River Bridge.

Every little town had one of those special places, even my home town of Rock. Of course we didn’t think our restaurant was as cool as the ones on the road, but it was neat to see kids from other towns make their selections there, especially in later years when my parents owned it.

Lest you think me shallow, most of these “neighborhoods” had features that had nothing to do with eating. I loved going over the Syphon Bridge in Manistique, which had walls along the road because the water level was actually higher than the road. Speaking of Manistique, it had one of the two “Paul Bunyans” of my youth. Right at a main stop sign, back in the days before U.S. 2 bypassed Manistique and you had to go downtown, there was about a 25 foot high sign, depicting Paul Bunyan holding a sign declaring he helped build Manistique. Escanaba had a Paul Bunyan sign too but my memory of it has faded.

As I write this, memories of stores, restaurants, parks and yes, eventually bars of the U.P., cascade in my head like the landmarks of Keillor’s Twin Cities.

The Gladstone Beach, the Dutch Mill park near Rapid River, the Boney Falls Dam in Cornell and so much more.

Many of these places were stops made by my family when we were on adventures. A trip to Manistique nearly always included a stop at this little store in Isabella for ice cream. One memory has come full circle, sort of. When I was about 14, I helped my dad paint the old Croatian Hall in Escanaba’s North Town. When I needed a break I’d run across the street to Viau’s Market for pop and chips. The store was owned then, and still is, by the family of DMG Associate Editor Scott Viau.

Family vacations could fill an entire column with stories of my brother Dan and cousin Jeff diving for coins off the Munising docks, riding my bike past the Pine Mt. Ski Jump in summer, exploring Fayette with my sister and so much more. And keep in mind all these wonderful small town experiences were within 50 miles of where I grew up. I haven’t even begun to explore the memories of the Western U.P.

I guess the point of all this is, like Garrison Keillor, landmarks and geography make up so much of my childhood experience … but for us in the U.P. it just took a little longer to get from place to place.