Monday, October 1, 2012

A Sturdy Stuff Tradition And The Mighty Mac

I left Dowagiac, MI Sunday afternoon without a definite destination in mind.  I knew I wanted to be in Au Train in the UP on the shore of Lake Superior sometime Monday afternoon, so I needed to cover part of that distance Sunday afternoon.  I made a quick stop at an old classmate's house to give him a photo of our young grandson, playing with a Sturdy Stuff Toys farm tractor and trailer.

I found Steve mowing his grass. He and I went to school together from 1rst grade through high school, and then even on to college at Michigan State. In grades 1 through 8, we attended Baker, a one-room country school near our homes in rural Van Buren County. He and I were always the only two students in our class.  

Steve's mom and dad were farmers, but they also made Sturdy Stuff Toys...wooden toy tractors, trucks, trains, and even boats. They sold a lot of toys to local kindergartens. As a kid, I had just about every Sturdy Stuff Toy in the catalog. The "toy factory" was in the barn.  During summers as a young boy, I used to help make the toys, doing whatever a young boy could safely do...mostly sanding.  When our son Michael was born in '77, Steve's folks gave him an Oliver 70 tractor and trailer which he played with for many years, and which I still have, although it is sorely in need of restoration.  Many years later, after both his parents and the company were long gone, Steve took me to the barn and dug out a brand new Oliver 70 tractor and trailer and handed them over in the event that Michael ever had a son.  Well, Cameron is now a year-and-a-half old and is enjoying his tractor every bit as much as his dad and granddad once did.  He makes a very realistic tractor sound as he pushes it around.  How do they learn that? It must be in the DNA.  

I left Steve and headed west about 20 miles to Lake Michigan and rode the Blue Star Highway north through South Haven, and Saugatuck, and then jumped on 31 to get through Holland, Grand Haven, and Muskegon.  North of Muskegon, I was planning to hug the shoreline on the two-lane back roads and visit Silver Lake where Penny and I honeymooned  back in 1966. But, 20 or so miles south of Silver Lake it began to rain steadily.  So I stopped in the middle of Michigan farm land, suited up, abandoned the narrow back roads, and hastened eastward to the 4-lane, limited-access ease of Highway 31. Back on 31 I hustled as quickly as conditions would allow to the next significant town, which turned out to be Ludington.  Ludington is the departure point for the ferry across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, WI.  I figured there would be plenty of motels in Ludington to service the ferry traffic, and I was right. When I passed a sign that said Food, Wine, and Lodging, I knew I had found my place for the night.

The food part turned out to be breakfast only, so I still had to find a restaurant for dinner, but as it turned out, Scotty's was a good restaurant with good seafood very nearby.  I enjoyed one of the best seafood pasta dishes I ever ate...loaded with shrimp and scallops in a white wine, lemon, garlic sauce.  The wine part was interesting.  They ran a tasting room in the lobby for a local Lake Michigan winery, Fenn Valley.  I paid a couple of bucks to taste a variety of reds and whites, and bought a bottle of the Meritage to take to the UP.

Monday dawned clear and bright.  I needed to make my way to I-75 which leads to the Mackinac Bridge, the gateway to the Upper Peninsula.  Roads in Michigan are laid out on a grid to the extent possible.  Getting to I-75 in a scenic way involved riding a series of intersecting east/west and north/south roads.  I rode 10 east out of Ludington to 37 north to Mesick, then 42 east to 131 in Manton, and took 131 north through Fire Lake to Mancelona.  A lot of these roads were through the north woods, and I kept an eye out for deer.  In Mancelona I turned east on County 38 which runs eastward over to Otsego Lake, and may be the only twisty road in Michigan.  For a few minutes as I approached the lake, I could have been on a  curvy NC mountain road.  After picking up I-75, it was a straight shot north to The Bridge.

There was no place to get a good shot of the bridge before entering it, but luckily, the right lane was closed for construction and I could pull over between the cones and stop for a photo.  Fortunately, no cops came along, as they would probably have frowned upon that maneuver.  The bridge, which is 5 miles long and 200 feet above the water at mid-span, was opened to traffic in 1957.  The towers rise 550 ft above the water, and the water is almost 300 ft deep in the middle.  I hear that you don't want to ride it (or even drive it for that matter) on a windy day. There is a story about a Yugo, driven by a young woman, plunging off the bridge in 1989, with high winds being a contributing factor: .  You can have a state worker drive your car across for you if you are too panic-stricken to do it yourself, but I doubt that you can get them to ride your bike across for you.  Crossing the "Mighty Mac" is something every motorcyclist should experience.

St Ignace is the town in the UP that anchors the northern end of The Bridge.  Route 2 leads west out of St Ignace, closely hugging the Lake Michigan shoreline.  About a mile out of town, an observation tower rises from a small parking area between the road and the lake. For $1 you can purchase the privilege of climbing 200 steps to the observation deck.

I didn't know how many stair-steps there were when I started, but I do now. I'm not sure I would have climbed it if I had known at the start. But if you persist, you are rewarded with nice views of the bridge and the lake.

Next episode...riding the UP from the one great lake to another.


  1. What is the name of the family that made Sturdy Stuff Toys? My grandmother's (Beth Gillesby, sometimes a substitute teacher in Dowagiac) brother, John Gillesby used to make wooden toys in Keeler Towship for schools. Would LOVE to have a truck to give my father for Christmas. Any thoughts? Thanks!

  2. might help, eh? I'm Rachel Houseman, Henry Houseman's daughter. He's from Decatur and remembers the toys vividly. My email is Thanks!

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