In Oceana county of Western Michigan, near the small town of Hart, a young school teacher named Maverick Farmer fell in love with Bessie Wright, the daughter of the couple he was lodging with. Soon after finding bliss, the two bought a farm near Mears, the once prosperous logging town in Golden Township. A few years later, in 1926, they had their first child, my grandmother Ellener Farmer. On that farm my great-grandmother gave birth to three more children, my great-aunts Doris and Margaret (Peg) and my great-uncle Richard. The fourth was too much for Bessie and within a year she passed away from complications. My great-grandfather eventually remarried a woman named Dorothy Cram, whom my mother was later named after. They raised their family in the region, and that part of Michigan has always been important to my mother’s family. I’m close with that side of my family and when Mom mentioned I should make the Hart-Mears region a part of my project, I knew she was right.
I also knew my great-aunt Peg and her husband Gene were still living near Mears, just walking distance from where my grandma and grandpa once lived for a short time in their youth. For over a decade-and-a-half my grandma and some of her daughters, including my mother, made a pilgrimage to Hart-Mears on the first weekend in October to celebrate what they called “Old Broads Weekend”. My grandma’s sister Doris, whose birthday loosely marked the occasion, passed in 2010, ten years after it began. My grandmother had passed too, just a year before my visit. My grandma was very influential in my beginning the This is America Too project; she always told me I needed to write about my travels and the project became my way of doing that for her. Getting a chance to make her home a part of my travelogue was a necessity and getting my visit to coincide with a tradition like “Old Broads Weekend” would be an honor. We contacted Peg and she let my mother know the two of us could stay with her for the weekend. With the dates secured I started to work on the rest of the necessities for the trip.
My mother and I left for Michigan on the Wednesday before the gathering because I wanted to get a chance to explore the region a bit before the others showed up. In addition to us, my Aunt Maryann and Aunt Sara with some of her family would also be visiting. Getting to the Hart-Mears area from where I was staying in Kenosha, WI is normally a four to five hour trip that could be done by either a car ferry across Lake Michigan or the interstate around the southern lakeshore. Neither seemed very exciting so I opted to double the drive time by taking back-roads and hugging Lake Michigan all the way into Chicago, through northern Indiana, and then north into Michigan. Throughout the trip the weather wavered between peeks of sunshine through heavy clouds, gloomy drizzle, or heavy downpour. The drive took longer than expected but despite the erratic climate it was enjoyable. We even got a chance to take advantage of a break in the rain to stop at the Indiana Dunes State Park. Closer to our destination the clouds once again began to clear and on the final drive west towards my great-aunt’s home the sky burst with vivid shades of orange, red, and purple as the sun set ahead of us. When we reached the house we were greeted, dropped off our things, and my mother and I went back out to grab a quick bite to eat. The long drive took a lot out of us and when we returned we only stayed up a bit longer before retiring for the night.
My great-aunt and uncle’s house was humble and very inviting. From the outside it reminded me of a deluxe model home one might find in a trailer-park. Inside everything was very tidy and clearly decorated by a couple in their 80s. It was a close replica of the idealized home I had held in my imagination as a child. I stayed in the room my grandmother had when she came for the weekend gathering and that first night I couldn’t help but think how this trip was already bringing me closer to her than I would have imagined. In addition to the home’s coziness, it felt very much secluded. The place sat on a large parcel of land that was wooded to the rear of the house and blocked from the street in front by more trees. Yet as tucked away as the home felt when we first arrived, I quickly learned it was located only a stone’s throw away from over 2000 acres of sand dunes that sit in between Lake Michigan and the tiny Silver Lake. From July to September the area is swarmed with vacationers from the Chicago area and beyond. During my visit the town was mostly abandoned but I got a sense of how crazy it had been just weeks earlier. According to Peg, my great-great-grandfather built the first log cabin on the lake, and as tourism began to grow in the mid-20th century, our family played a part in the nascent industry. I hadn’t realized it that first night, but over the next days I came to see how important the area was to my family’s history.
When I woke up the next morning Peg and Gene had already left for morning appointments. I ate a light breakfast, drank instant coffee, and watched some of an old Carey Grant movie with my mother before going into Hart alone to explore. Hart is around six miles from Mears and the two towns share a similar history. Both were born out of the lumber industry, but while Mears was now nearly a ghost-town, Hart survived and flourished on agriculture and tourism. Signs of the agriculture industry were present everywhere on the short drive and at that time of the year it was apple orchards that seemed most ubiquitous. Fall had only begun, the lush greens of summer were still present and the combination with the bright red glow of ripening apples made for pleasant scenery along my short trip.
When I got to Hart I took a quick drive around before parking near Main and State Street in the heart of the town. Getting out of the car I thought to myself that it was the most nondescript town of my project so far. Also, for the first time, I felt like I stood out and wasn’t necessarily welcomed. I wondered if it was the Illinois license plate on the rental car or that people recognized I wasn’t local. Likely it was my imagination but I didn’t shake the feeling for a couple of days. I spent an hour or so exploring Lake Hart, which sits on the town’s northern border, the small historic district on the eastside, and the small downtown that is made up of a couple of blocks near where I parked. When I felt I had covered most of the area I grabbed a coffee from a bakery on State Street and sat outside to people watch. Quickly I realized there wasn’t much action so I downed the coffee and went to the local brewpub for lunch.
With the exception of Lone Pine, the first town of the project, I had found a brewpub in each of the locations I visited. Hart was no different and after passing one on the way in, I already knew I would be lunching at Big Hart Brewing Company. Walking up from the parking lot the first thing I noticed was a handful of very large stainless steel barley stalks bunched a few feet in front of the entrance. The exterior was painted white and aqua blue with a stainless steel awning which together with the barley gave a sense of sterility that one would expect in a brewery. Inside, a bar sat to the left upon entering and in the far back was a dining room with the brewery itself behind glass windows to the right of it. I sat at the bar, looked over the beer menu, and decided on their Smoke Follows the Jive Ass, a smoked porter that I felt compelled to order based solely on its name. It was a medium bodied porter that was imbued with an unmistakable smokiness that worked perfectly. To compliment it I ordered the brats with homemade sauerkraut and chips, one of my favorite Midwest dishes. The bartender’s name was Laura, she was very welcoming and told me a bit about the location. It was opened just over a half-a-year earlier and the master brewer didn’t live locally but visited often and provided all of the beer recipes. I told her a bit about the project and she mentioned her family had deep roots in the area, and that her great-aunt and uncle might be good candidates for an interview. She also told me a bit of her story and I mentioned I would even be interested in sitting down with her. Soon my food arrived, two brats smothered in kraut and a generous helping of house-made chips. I devoured my lunch and exchanged numbers with Laura before leaving contented with my meal and the possibility that I might have a contact lined up.
After lunch I stopped in Mears on the way back to the house. The whole town consisted of a church, a handful of business that were mostly closed along the main street, a small historical park, a separate historical society location, and no more than twenty houses. I parked near the church and walked four blocks to the other end of town where the historical park was located. It was closed for the season, similar to what I had found within Hart’s historic district, but I was able to read some of the history that was printed on plaques outside the buildings. While reading one inscription I noticed the last name Lathers, the family that Laura the bartender said she was a part of. I strolled back to the car and returned to the house to see if my mother wanted to join me on a trip to Silver Lake. There I told my great-aunt about meeting Laura and her family name. She told me the Lathers were important in the region’s history and that my grandma was once best friends with a woman named Thelma Lathers. At that point I really hoped I had a chance to meet up with Laura or her family to learn more about their story.
It was midafternoon when I finished chatting with my great-aunt and my mother and I decided we would take a trip to Silver Lake and the dunes. We were given directions how to get there but I didn’t realize how close it was. Within minutes we were in the resort town which we found mostly deserted but hosts thousands of tourists during the summer. From the eastern shore we could see the massive dunes separating Silver Lake and Lake Michigan and I thought to myself they were unlike anything I had witnessed. The town was quaint with all the signs of a tourist trap, hotels, restaurants, etc. I imagined what it was like during its summer peak and couldn’t fathom living as close to the madness as my great-aunt and uncle did. I couldn’t get my mother to climb the dunes with me so we decided to take a drive south of the lake to the Little Sable Point Lighthouse.
After the Civil War the lumbering industry was booming and shipping from the region to Chicago and Milwaukee was increasing. Shipwrecks became a common occurrence and when the schooner Pride was beached in 1871 the final wakeup call pushed the U.S. congress to take action. The answer was the stunning 107 foot tall light house that was constructed and first lit in 1874. Like many of the attractions in the region, the lighthouse was closed for the season when we visited it. Still the towering structure sitting on Lake Michigan among rolling white sand dunes made me question if this was the same lake I grew up swimming in. The scenery reminded me more of something I might find on the California coast than across the lake from where I’d spent the first two decades of my life.
When we finished our visit to the lighthouse I dropped my mother off at the house and returned to the larger dunes north of Silver Lake to explore. As I parked in the lot near the dunes I couldn’t tell exactly how spectacular this phenomena of nature was. Once I reached the top and looked out across them I couldn’t believe my eyes. The white sands seemed to stretch for miles with Lake Michigan in the far distance and Silver Lake just to my left. As I walked out onto them I felt as if I was walking alone across a barren desert with only the sounds of dune buggies in the distance to remind me of where I was. I felt giddy like a child exploring what he might believe is uncharted territory. There were no signs of life besides the dune buggy riders in the sectioned off area to the north. I walked towards the western edge of the dunes where they met Lake Michigan and in the distance a forest appeared like a mirage lining the coast. After nearly forty-five minutes I turned back, but I told myself I would return and make the full trip to the dune forest. Sadly I didn’t make it during the visit. When I finally got back to the parking lot I jumped in the car and headed back to the house for the evening.
That day my Aunt Maryann made the trip from her home near Madison, Wisconsin. She got into town in the early evening and soon after we all sat down for a dinner my great-aunt and mother prepared. The ritual of sitting down together for a family meal, saying grace, the small talk, and the passing of dishes was something that I rarely took part in as a single adult with no children. It was nice to be a part of the experience and it made me feel a bit of nostalgia for my childhood when I was still innocent enough to believe in the illusion of the perfect nuclear family. After dinner I played the card game Phase Ten with the ladies while Gene sat and watched. Everyone chatted and I listened to the stories about our family, the area, and the memories my mom and her sister had about visiting there throughout their lives. Later, as I laid in bed waiting for sleep to come, I recounted the stories I heard, happy to be there.
One of the reasons that “Old Broad’s Weekend” took place at the same time of year was that it coincided with an annual charity bazaar and luncheon at the Mears United Methodist Church, which is followed by a small parade through town. The morning of my third day there was when these events took place. When I woke I sat down for breakfast and then went off alone to grab a coffee and get on the internet. The service for my phone was spotty at the house and my great-uncle didn’t know the password for their internet so the only way to stay connected was by driving to a gas station between Mears and Hart where I got a solid phone signal. When I finished I went to the church where I was supposed to meet the ladies but I couldn’t find them and someone there told me things didn’t start for another hour-and-a-half. I returned to the house and no one was there, went back to the church and still no sign. Finally I just decided to kill time and take a drive east into the Manistee National Forest. I didn’t get very deep into the forest before turning around and heading back to Mears. In town I noticed the Historical Society was open and decided I would peek inside before making another trip into the church. There I talked a bit with the women volunteering and one of them, her name was Marge, was very excited to show me around. I figured it would be best get to the church since it was nearing the time I was told the event would start so I told Marge I would return with my great-aunt after lunch.
Back at the church (for my third time!) I finally found my mother, aunt, and great-aunt in the basement playing cashier for the bazaar. They didn’t seemed concerned that I was so late and I joined them while they filled in for the person who was scheduled to take money for the charity. A few people entered, looked over the banal household items for sale, and some who knew my great-aunt made small talk with her. Finally, the woman who was supposed to be volunteering showed up and the four of us went to the cafeteria upstairs for lunch. We secured a table and then got in the line to purchase our food. My mom and I decided to share an egg salad sandwich and a chopped bologna sandwich, while I ordered a bowl of asparagus soup and a cup of Kool-Aid for myself. My aunt forked out ten dollars to cover all our food and with our trays full we sat down to eat. The location was full with some fifty or so people, most of them elderly. I was surprised so many people showed up on a Friday morning and guessed there must have been as many bodies there as were in the whole town of Mears. Although the event was something I wouldn’t normally attend, I appreciated stepping out of my comfort-zone and experiencing another side of small-town life. While we ate I told them how I wanted to return to the Historical Society with Peg. She agreed to go and when we finished the two of us made the trip there.
When we entered we were greeted by another volunteer named Ester who was old friends with my great-aunt. She showed us a display that highlighted the farm she once owned and represented the history of agriculture in the region. The Society also had a replica of an old school house on site that Ester explained would soon be moved to the historical park down the road. While we were talking about the area’s rich history, my mom and aunt showed up. Eventually my great-aunt told Ester I was working on a project and I then filled her in on what I was doing. Both Ester and Marge, who I met on the first visit, agreed to sit down with me the following morning in Hart. As I secured our plans, my mother, aunt, and great-aunt left to find a spot to watch the parade. I joined them just as it was starting and within minutes it was over. By far it was the shortest parade I had seen with just a small float, a handful of tractors, a marching band, and a few classic vehicles. Once it passed, the thirty or so spectators departed and we did the same. Before returning to the house I joined the ladies for a trip to the flower shop and then a visit to the family cemetery plot where my great-grandfather Maverick, his second wife Dorothy, and my grandmother Ellener were buried.
Back at the house I sat down with Peg for the first interview of the visit. We talked for an hour and she shared stories about my great-grandparents, her childhood, my grandma, and how the region had changed over the years she had lived there. It was surreal that I was learning the history of the region through her stories, just as I had done in each of the towns I had visited to that point, yet now it was also my family’s history I was hearing. She tried so hard to remember dates and make sure everything was accurate but I assured her that the stories alone were enough. In just our hour of chatting I learned so much more about my mother’s half of the family and felt I was gaining what I hoped for-a chance to know my grandmother better. There were other stories as well that I couldn’t help but chuckle at like when Peg told me about the “hippy problem” they once had in the 60s. According to her, my great-uncle Richard, her brother, owned land across the way and allowed “the narcotic people, the drug people” to stay on the land “for free” before it was raided and Richard was fined. I asked her if Richard was a hippy himself to which she replied confidently, “he sure was”. I cherished the moment with my great-aunt Peg, realizing how special the memory would be in years to come. When we finished, I decided I would take a drive to the small town of Pentwater to explore a bit more.
I took backroads to the Pentwater, a short thirteen mile drive along a spectacular narrow two-lane highway lined with trees, some were just beginning to morph into their fall colors. The town itself is a tourist destination like Silver Lake, but with a decent population year round. It takes its name from the lake it sits on which is connected to Lake Michigan by a narrow strait. A small marina lines the lake and it seemed most of the boats that docked there in summer were already stored for the season. I walked along the main street which is lined with restaurants, gift shops, and bars. There were people on the streets and it was much more alive than Silver Lake but there was no doubt that summer was over and Pentwater was getting ready for hibernation. Before getting back in the car I made a pit-stop into one of the local bars called The Antler. It was mostly dead inside with the bored employees huddled together gossiping. The interior was hardwood and brick and it seemed the place had a lot of potential but the décor gave me the impression it was more of a college sports bar and I imagined it drew that type of crowd on busy summer nights. I finished a beer, drove back to the house, and ate dinner with the family before calling it a very early night.
The next morning I had a meeting set up for ten with Ester and Marge in Hart. I got up early and enjoyed some coffee before driving into town. We decided to meet at the Chadwick-Munger house which was built in 1892, named after its two most famous residents, and turned into the headquarters of the local Historical Society in the mid-80s. When I arrived Ester was already there and Marge arrived soon after. I was shown around the building and given literature on Hart and its history. Eventually the three of us sat down to talk. Similar to the experience I had in Seward, Alaska, with Willard and Margaret, I found that the two of them complemented each other and helped to jog the other’s memories. We talked for over an hour and I felt I learned so much about the region and the importance of agriculture to its economy, growth, and history. Both women were very much a part of that little piece of the country and as we talked I began to realize how important the region was to the U.S. as a whole. One example in particular was how Marge’s son started a plant processing the apples grown on regional farms and was one of five suppliers to Mc Donald’s. When we finished I was sent home with a plethora of material on Hart and I thanked both of them for what I thought was a very successful and enlightening chat.
On the way back to the house I stopped at the parking lot of a local grocery store to check my voicemail. My aunt Sara and her family had gotten into town the night before and my Uncle Tom was trying to reach me. I called him back and we agreed to meet at my great-aunt’s house. When I arrived they were already there and I said my hellos. They mentioned they were hungry so I suggested we go to the brew-pub for lunch and they agreed. At the restaurant the six of us- my mom’s sister Sara, her husband Tom, two of their grandsons, and one of their daughters who also happens to be a favorite cousin of mine-got a table quickly and I recommended they try the brats. We ordered and while we waited for our lunch we caught up. I noticed that Laura the bartender from my first visit was working and coincidently just before we arrived I received a text from her telling me that she was there all day but might be free the following late afternoon. At one point she brought over a beer my cousin ordered and I could see she was busy so I just told her I got the text and would reply later. Unfortunately I left the next day before we had a chance to meet and I was a little bummed that I didn’t get to learn more about her family’s history in the region. Everyone was pleased with the meal and my cousin couldn’t get over how there was a brew-pub of that caliber in such a small town.
When we finished lunch we all traveled back to the house where everyone was preparing for a gathering that was going to take place that night. One of the other traditions that took place over the weekend each year was the last cookout of the season. Every year my great-uncle prepared a bonfire in the yard to cook hotdogs and sausages over while my great-aunt prepared sides to accompany them. All weekend it was raining and the forecast called for more rain that evening. When we got back to the house the rain was still holding off so the kids were put in charge of collecting kindling for the fire and soon we had a steady blaze going. Not long after, members of my great-aunt and uncle’s immediate family began to arrive and in no time the house was full of chatter as the ladies set up for the meal. Outside the guys sat around the fire catching up and preparing the dogs and sausages. Overhead the sky threatened the gathering with rain, but Mother Nature held off, and we were able to finish cooking the meal. When the last of the meat was done everyone took a seat inside at one of the many makeshift locations set-up around the house and devoured the spread of salads, mac and cheese, and sausages. Not long after dinner most of the guests departed and eventually it was just those staying at the house and my Aunt Sara, Uncle Tom, and their family who remained. We had a few last beers and chatted for a bit as the rain finally began to fall. Before long they too left to return to their hotel in Hart and the rest of us cleaned up and found our way to bed.
The next morning I joined Sara, Tom, their family for breakfast at a little diner in Mears. Afterwards we all returned to my great-aunts house and they said their goodbyes. I also prepared my stuff for the trip home but stayed a bit longer. My mother decided to ride with her sister Maryann since they had a tradition of making a few stops on the way back to Wisconsin and when they were ready we all said our goodbyes. I profusely thanked my great-aunt and uncle for everything, and then drove off alone, stopping to take a few more photos of farms in the area before getting on the highway home. Like each of the towns I visited before for the project, I left with a heavy heart knowing a small part of myself was still there. Yet, departing the Hart-Mears area was different because of the connections I built with my great-aunt and uncle. I knew we were not getting younger and there would not be many more chances for me to share that kind of experience with them, especially not with my mother and other members of the family. I hoped the trip would bring me closer to my grandmother by teaching me more about her past, and it did, but maybe as important it brought me closer to my family, especially my great-aunt, and gave me memories I will cherish forever, just as the ones I have of my grandmother.