Forward to the Hinterland, Part 1

Saint Clair Shores, Michigan my hometown and the jumping off point for the Pykonen Family (there are six of us:  Mom and Dad, Sister Linda, Brothers David and Tad and myself) vacations to visit Dad’s relatives each August from 1959 through 1974 to the Copper Country on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Incorporated in 1951 Saint Clair Shores derives its name from nearby Lake St. Clair (located between Lakes Huron and Erie) it named by French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle after the feast of Saint Clair of Assisi (who followed Saint Francis of Assisi).  For many generations farms dominate the region but as it grows land converts into cities and suburbsSaint Clair Shores was the home to the Jefferson Beachamusement park built in 1927 featuring the longest roller coaster in the United States but in 1955 a fire destroyed several buildings and the park slowly merged into the Jefferson Yacht Club of today. With help from its location on Lake Saint Clair, St. Clair Shores grew from a resort community to a suburban city rapidly after World War II and prior to its incorporation recognized as the largest village in the United States. 

Up to 1974 the area friends and I converged on consists of about eight and one half square miles of romping room with most of the action taking place around the homestead on  Arrowhead near the intersection of Harper and 13 Mile Road.  Here Mark, Brian, Tad, Joe, Michael, myself and other neighborhood boys played street hockey, front yardfootball, backyard baseball, basketball, snowball fights in the winter with the occasional snowball finding the side of a car.  A quick hop over aneighbor’ssix-foot fence and you found yourself on Harper Avenue staring right at the Bow Rack where one can sharpen archery skills, play pinball, or pool and just next store Stroh’s Ice Cream Parlor awaited.  This is the same Stroh’s family that opened their brewer in Detroit, sadlyboth the Bow Rack and Stroh’s are no longer in Michigan, but we changed as well growing curious of Detroit and beyond.  One interesting aspect I should point out relates to the roads labeled “Mile” (like 13 Mile road)this is due to surveying up the land back in the early 19th Century and also as a means to facilitate navigation.  The “Mile” roads start in downtown Detroit at the intersection of Michigan and Woodward Avenue(two of the six “spokes” that run north, east, and west from downtown’s center, Campus Martius) so every 5280’ north there is a “Mile” road and eight miles from the intersection is the survey “baseline”, Eight Mile Road, then Nine, Ten, Eleven, all the way to 38 Mile Road into northern Macomb County.

Twenty-four hours before the trip begins all six of us are busy packing clothes, toiletries, cameras and film, Mom and Dad making sure the Chevy station wagon is gassed up, and billfold full of money (no debit cards in days of yore).  Then off to bed with the reminder of the five a.m. wake up call as the drive is 12 hours and Dad intends to drive straight through, except for the meal/gas, restroom, and stretching break, so the early start is necessary.  The August morning is chilly and the sun hides below the horizon as we are rousted from deep sleep, resisting at first (heck this is summer vacation there is no school!) but, we rise wipe the sleep out of our eyes, dress, and help pack the car.  With the plants left in a bathtub of water and inside lights on timers Dad backs the station wagon out into the street and for about 20 miles drives through suburbia until Troy, Michigan, a thriving center of business in automotive and financial sectors.  Here, Dad merges the car onto northbound Interstate 75(the same I-75 that begins in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and terminates at Sault Saint Marie, Michigan) accelerating to the maximum speed limit of 70 mph and away we go, Copper Country here we come.  

The first hour is peaceful for Mom and Dad as we fall back to sleep listening to the hum of the road however, as Flint, General Motors country, comes into view through the windshield we awaken as our growling stomachs remind us of the breakfast not eaten before leaving.  Mom and Dad fight off our persistence to stop preferring to press on but soon give in and we pull off just north of Flint, drive time since leaving one hour.  Dad has a sister that moved from northern Michigan to Flint married and had two children her husband worked for and retired from GM.  The one thing I will always remember is the billboard on the side of I-75, as you enter the city, a night shot of tall buildings office lights twinkling their financial success reminiscent of the opening of television’s Bewitched, and maybe the town was!  Fur trader Jacob Smith founded Flint in 1819 and aside from trading it has been a part of the lumber industry and also produced horse-drawn carriages.  Flint is notably known as the birthplace of GM to which filmmaker Michael Moore’s movie Roger and Me brought national attention to the city when GM decided to save money and move car manufacturing elsewhere causing an economic collapse Flint is still trying to overcome.  Amongst the many athletes from Flint two stand out MLB pitcher Jim Abbott who overcame the disability of not having a right hand and LA Dodgers third base man Jeff Hamilton who was part of the 1988 world champions. 

Back on the road the town of Saginaw comes to view but the interstate takes the traveler east of town and passed a city founded too on fur trading then capitalized on the virgin forest of White Pine trees, and then into the automobile business supplying steering gears to Detroit.  With the decline of the auto business Saginaw suffered with high unemployment and crime and like Flint is looking to rebuild however, what stands out in my mind is the suburb of Zilwaukee, its close resemblance in spelling to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the high span of the Zilwaukee Bridge over the Saginaw River.  On occasion freighters anchored along the shore waiting to either be unloaded or loaded with an unknown cargo and then north up the river and to markets via Lake Huron.  To a young child the bridge is massive, the freighters intriguing, and the city name memorable.  A short distance from Saginaw is Bay City which the interstate takes us west of the former lumber, mill, and shipbuilding town where Warren Avis founder of Avis Rent A Car and Singer/Actress Madonna were born and now nothing but open road, some cars, rolling hills, and lots of farmland.  Mom, to keep us from harassing each other, engages us in-car bingo for nothing exciting passes before our eyes until we get closer to Mackinaw City.

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4 thoughts on “Forward to the Hinterland, Part 1

  1. I’m from the Detroit area (Redford), went to a boarding school for high school in Saginaw, and lived in Bay City for several years afterwards. My first husband’s family lived there.

    1. dont know enough of saginaw but read the book “Holy old Mackinaw” by Stewart Holbrok which is about the lumber era in this country starting in maine, sweeping through the midwest and saginaw and ending up in the pacifin nw is where i reside today. i always think of the tv show “Here come the Brides” based off of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” whenever i read of the lumber business.

  2. I have fond memories of growing up in Saginaw (and some not so fond), I can remember driving “Up North” and anxiously awaiting a view of the Mackinac Bridge.

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