Sunday, August 18, 2019

Small-Town Memories; Small-Town Future. Part 1: Growing Up in White Pigeon, Michigan.

Kalamazoo. South Bend. Three Rivers. Elkhart. Constantine. Bristol. Mottville. Shipshewana. Sturgis. Goshen. Portage. Mishawaka. Niles. LaGrange.

White Pigeon.

These are the place names that will forever be stuck in my consciousness. They're the names I grew up with, the places that shaped me. Its churches, corn fields, Amish buggies, RV factories, stores, and schools were the backdrop for my childhood, teen years, and early adulthood.

Why do I expect you to care? I don't. But it's important to remember our roots and reflect on the people and places that served as our early windows to the world, that shaped our values, our likes and dislikes, our personalities. Maybe those places nurtured us, or maybe they spit us out. Maybe we still live there, or maybe we chose to venture out into the bigger world. But those places are forever an integral part of us either way.

And since our family is planning a move from the big city to a small town, I thought it might be an appropriate time to reflect on what small-town life is like. It might be a shock to my soon-to-be 8-year-old to make such a drastic change, in ways she can't fathom yet. It might even be a shock to my wife, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs, lived with me in the greater D.C. area, and has called suburban Seattle her home along with me for the past nine years.

I was born in a small town... 

The land office, still standing,
now on the National Register
of Historic Places.
Photo: Wikipedia.
I was raised by my maternal grandparents just outside the bustling metropolis of White Pigeon, Michigan -- population roughly 1,455 when I came into the world. My grandparents adopted me, so I only ever knew them as Mom and Dad, and that's how I'll refer to them here.

White Pigeon's greatest distinction lies in its historical importance. Situated a few miles north of the Indiana state line on the old Sauk Trail, roughly halfway between Chicago and Detroit, White Pigeon is the oldest incorporated village in Michigan and served as an important crossroads, a resting spot, and a small oasis of civilization in the frontier wilderness as far back as the 1820s. A land office opened in White Pigeon and began selling ceded lands from the Potawatomi peoples for $1.25 an acre in 1831. Around 250,000 acres were sold out of that office, making it the central point from which pioneers began to settle Southwest Michigan.

I wouldn't say White Pigeon is a train wreck of a town,
but it was the site of a pretty spectacular locomotive
collision in 1901. Remarkably, no fatalities.
Photo: Kalamazoo Gazette.
The village was incorporated in 1837 and soon became an important stop on the railroad. The rail was supposed to pass through Constantine, the next village to the north, but the residents of White Pigeon caught Constantine sleeping and successfully lobbied to get the line for themselves. That sleight of hand proved to be serendipitous, as a branch line was later built to satisfy the original stipulations that the railway had to meet both Constantine and the St. Joseph River, which winds through the entire region and flows through downtown Constantine. That line was extended into the abundant woods around Grand Rapids, which supplied both lumber and furniture to the region, and thus did White Pigeon become the junction point between lines that ran between Chicago and Toledo to the west and east, and Grand Rapids to the north.

So important was White Pigeon to the developing region that it became home to a grand hotel, the Kingsbury, that housed weary railroad travelers. It was said to be one of the most elegant lodging places in the entire state, even surpassing anything Detroit could offer at the time.

The long-gone Kingsbury Hotel.
Photo: St. Joseph County
Historical Society.
The town's one small brush with fame came about when Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie was conducting a whistle-stop tour on his 1940 campaign. His train pulled in to the White Pigeon depot, and he slept there overnight in his sleeping car.

That's about as exciting as it gets in White Pigeon. It's well past its heyday now. Although it's still a notable crossroads between bigger faraway places, with east-west US-12 and north-south US-131 intersecting just west of town, its already modest fortunes began to fade when trucking and air travel diminished the importance of the railroads by the mid-20th century. The Kingsbury Hotel is long gone, and White Pigeon's depot, which sat empty and in disrepair for decades, today has been restored and serves as a public meeting place, preserving a link to the town's past.

My enduring memories of White Pigeon are more places than people -- probably because I was never a popular kid, and in a small town, either you're in the clique or you aren't.

Kalamazoo Street, looking south.
There was the old Sun Theater, where I saw Star Wars with my parents when it first came out in 1977. Last time I went home for a visit, the theater had been converted into a church.

There was our small, humble library, where I rifled through the card catalog to see what interesting books I could find and take home to read; and the post office right next door, where my family's bills and letters would find their way out to the larger world.

There was Troyer's IGA (later Supervalu), where I'd tag along and play the sole arcade game just inside the entrance while my parents shopped. The game console changed over the years, but I remember playing Pac-Man, Qix, Wizard of Wor (a game that talked to you -- that was really something in the early '80s), and maybe Galaga, but I'm not sure about that one anymore. 

Once my dad's service station,
then a pizza joint.
Now... probably empty.
There was my dad's service station, on the corner of US-12 and Kalamazoo Street. He was a mechanic, and it had always been his dream to open his own shop. While he was a good and trusted auto repairman, he went into business at a bad time, during the recession of the early '80s. He soon went back to working for other people, while the service station eventually was converted into a pizza shop. As far as I know, it sits empty today.

There was Pigeon Inn, the restaurant and bar right next door to my dad's old station. It was a total dive, but their chicken dinners were consistently delicious, and I always enjoyed plugging quarters into the jukebox while we ate. Happily, Pigeon Inn is still open for business after all these years. Word has it that some scenes were shot inside Pigeon Inn for an indie film called Fawn River, due out sometime in 2019.

Pigeon Inn.
There was, along the main drag of Kalamazoo Street, little family-owned Wittenberg Hardware, where my dad would buy things he needed for repairs around the house; Village Video, a little mom-and-pop where we rented VHS tapes for the night; and Roy's, a tiny convenience store where my best buddy and I would take all the bottles and cans we could find, cash them in for the 10-cent refunds, and blow our riches on penny candy. 

There was Burgess Drug, run by an odd, cranky old guy who didn't seem to like kids. That old drugstore was empty last time I went home. Roy's and Village Video are long gone, too, and I don't think the Wittenbergs own the hardware anymore, if there even still is a hardware.

There was the town doctor, and by that I mean the town doctor. He was the only one. He was a D.O. and had a gruff bedside manner. But he knew what he was doing, and to the best of my memory, he always fixed us up right whenever we needed it.

The Tasty Nut Shop (and Soda Bar).
There was the Tasty Nut Shop. If White Pigeon is still regionally known for anything, it's probably the Nut Shop. But for some reason, I never set foot inside it, in all the years I lived there. They boast of "nuts from all over the world," the largest assortment of toasted nuts in the United States, and an honest-to-goodness soda fountain, straight out of the 1950s. I finally popped in to check the place out a few years back. It's worth your time if you're ever passing through.  

St. Joseph Catholic Church.
There was St. Joseph Catholic Church, out on the east end of town. Although my parents often visited other Catholic churches around the area, St. Joe's was our home base. That's where my faith was formed. It's where I was baptized and had my first confession and communion. And it's eventually where I was confirmed. We were too small to have our own priest, so we had to borrow priests from neighboring parishes. They'd drive in to celebrate Mass on the weekends, working around the Mass schedules of their home churches, while St. Joe's was overseen day to day by Sister Max, a tiny little lady who was full of energy and as kind as you'd expect a sister to be, yet politely stern when the situation called for it. 

The concession stand, overlooking
the field where the football team
used to play.
There was Central Elementary School and White Pigeon High School. I had good times, bad times, and awful times there. My favorite memories are associated with the football field, where I'd watch our team play on Friday nights. 

The most anticipated game of the year was when we played our arch-rival, Constantine, for the right to claim a tomahawk that a farmer had plowed up in a field between the two towns. After more than 80 years, the Tomahawk Game ended in 2007, when Constantine joined a new football conference, thus ending one of White Pigeon's oldest and greatest traditions. 

In high school, as first-chair percussion, I played snare drum on that field with the marching band during halftime of the football games. But long before that, as my dad and I sat in the stands one Friday, drinking hot chocolate on a bitter, rainy fall evening in 1980, we heard the PA announcer call out the number on the $1 raffle ticket we'd bought. Our prize was a football signed by all the members of the football team. It was quite a special ball, too, as that happened to be the year our team advanced all the way to the state championship -- where we lost to a team from Munising, way up in the wilds of the Upper Peninsula. 

To this day, that football is the only thing I've ever won. I donated it years ago to the high school, where, as far as I know, it still sits in a showcase display.

And finally, there was the house I grew up in -- a beautiful old 19th-century brick Italianate-style house that towered over the surrounding fields about a mile south of town. My family told me it was built by a retired Civil War general. My parents always had high hopes of restoring the place to its original grandeur and never quite succeeded. But that didn't matter. It was still home, with all its flaws. I'd sit with my mom and our dogs on summer nights in our ramshackle back porch, music playing on the console stereo, while we watched the fireflies flickering their lights in a private fireworks display. On spring and summer days, when we got tired of listening to music or playing Atari 2600 games, my best pal and I would sometimes climb out the cupola windows, sit on the roof of my house, and look out over the countryside. Or we'd ride our bikes down the dirt paths that cut along our property line and back into the fields. We'd hunt for wild berries, explore the old corn crib that belonged to the farmer next door, and hang out on the concrete slab that was all that remained of a long-gone farm building.

From my room, with the window open at night, I could hear, accompanying the chirping crickets, the droning hum of the paper mill that lay about a mile away, past the fields and trees, on the very south end of White Pigeon. It was comforting in its own strange way -- as was the click-click-click of the center-pivot irrigation machine that watered the corn across the street. I always looked forward to the summer nights when the irrigation would swing around to our side of the field and lull me to sleep. It was a bonus whenever we'd get a spectacular thunderstorm, with the thunder rumbling and the rain pattering down outside.  

The Blizzard of '78. That's really what it looked like.
Photo: WOOD-TV.
Winters could be harsh out there on the open prairie. The upstairs of our house got so cold in the winter that we had to put salt in the toilet to keep the water from icing up and cracking the porcelain. Wind chills could reach 40 below, while lake-effect snow caused white-outs and could unexpectedly dump inches and inches of snow in a single day. If you ever got caught driving in that kind of snow, you had to learn really quickly how to brake without spinning out of control, and to stick to the divots that the cars ahead of you created.

Snow was just a given in the winter. I was born in a blizzard, I'm told. The most intense winter storm I can remember came in early 1978, when we got buried under three feet of snow in about a week's time. Even in a part of the country where hardy people shrugged off the snow and we had plenty of plows to keep the roads passable, the '78 blizzard paralyzed our region for days. My most enduring memory of that storm was the day my dad, craving nicotine, trudged through waist-deep snow across the fields to White Pigeon, a good mile away, to buy a pack of Winstons. That's either determination or insanity. But he was a two-pack-a-day smoker, and I guess you do what you gotta do.

And oh, by the way, the house was haunted. We all saw and heard things we couldn't rationally explain, even visiting friends, neighbors, and family members. The house eventually became too much of a burden on my aging parents, and the man who bought it from them sank a lot of money into restoring and remodeling it to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast -- but he didn't stay in business long. I always wondered if too many things went bump in the night and scared away the guests.

I went back to visit my old house a few years ago, having never seen the interior since it was renovated. I barely recognized it. Walls had been torn out, bedrooms had been given adjoining baths, the kitchen had been expanded ... it didn't look like the house I grew up in. The family that lives there now seems to have taken good care of it, but I guess it's true when they say you can't go home again. The home I knew there no longer exists.

So what's with the name? you're wondering. Why White Pigeon? Well, our little town was named in honor of a Potawatomi Indian chief, whose name, Wahbememe, translates to "white pigeon." The chief had befriended the white settlers in the region. When he was attending a meeting of chiefs in the Detroit area around 1830, he overheard plans to invade and attack the settlers where he lived. The chief left the conference, and according to the legend, he ran, nonstop, for the entire 150 miles, so he could warn the settlers. After returning and delivering the news, he died of exhaustion. In gratitude for saving them, the settlers named their town White Pigeon in his honor. A historical marker lies just west of town, marking the approximate spot where he died.

With that in mind, while naming sports teams after American Indians has become somewhat controversial in recent years, White Pigeon offers a case in which naming its school teams the "Chiefs" was more an act of thanks than one of appropriation.

So is it good or bad to live in a small town? Well, on one hand, you almost always have people looking out for you, and it's much easier to get to know people personally. On the other hand, it can be hard to break in if you move there from someplace else, and everyone knows your business. If you value privacy and anonymity, you'll struggle in a small town. If you value community, and provided the community accepts you, small towns can be great.

Growing up in White Pigeon, I was a loner and had a very small circle of friends, all of whom but one I almost never saw outside of school. But people knew me because they knew my dad, and it's anyone's guess what they thought of me or said about our family when we weren't around. I just kept to myself, hung out with my best buddy, and made the best of things. There were bullies and cliques in high school, but really I felt that most people were indifferent to me outside of school. And the feeling was mutual.

Like I said, my best memories are of the places, and not so much the people. You make the best of your situation, and that's exactly what I did.

(Part 2: Life in Michiana-Plus.)


  1. I grew up with you on the same road east of Kalamazoo Street on a farm in an old house too. My mother still lives in the house. I remember everything you spoke about. I always love that house you grew up in. To this day, everytime I drive past it, I admire it. It is beautiful. Nice story. Those were the best of times.

    1. They were good times. I'm glad I could stoke some memories. Thanks for the kind words!

  2. Even though I was a cheerleader from 8th grade thru 12th, I know the lonliness of which you speak....I came to the school in my 8th grade year, when all the Union kids came, too....I was never really accepted, either. I was invited to a couple of parties that ppl had, but only out of obligation...they kinda couldn't ignore the fact that I was a cheerleader....back in the day, we were looked up to for whatever reason (?) I never went to a class reunion till the 35th year one.....I never saw nor hung out with anyone from my school years for that entire 35 yrs....Never was invited to even one wedding of my *friends*......let alone asked to be IN one :( ....nope, they forgot all about me the minute I graduated,I really didn't have any choice.......
    My mother lived there from 1966 to 2009 when she passed away....I still never felt any roots to the town...I actually only lived there till the summer I graduated....there was no work to be had in MI in 1971 and I migrated to the job market in, 5 years is all the memories I have of White Pigeon...... I remember the places much more so that the ppl, too.....It was a nice little town to grow up in.......but I wouldn't want to live there for life....

    1. Small-town life can be a real struggle. It was for me, I think in part because I was socially awkward, or maybe people in town knew how messed up our family was. Who knows, really.

  3. I lived in that same house from late 80's to early 90's.

    1. In the Indian Prairie house? I'd love to hear your thoughts and memories if you're willing to share.

  4. I always loved that house. I lived between Blue School Rd and Indian Prairie Rd. It’s crazy I live in Houston, Tx but I still miss the small town feel that White Pigeon gave me when I was younger.

    1. I think I remember your name! Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Nice article, I enjoyed reading it as it brought back a lot of memories for me too! I moved to White Pigeon (WP) when I was in the 4th grade and moved away at the beginning of my senior year. My Dad (Gene Bethuram) owned Klinger Lake Body Shop for a number of years and after we sold it, moved to 502 W Murray Ave. and lived there until we moved to Tulsa in late 1982. I was just there this past weekend, my sister Patrice Bethuram passed away on 8/22/19, for a memorial service and took time to drive around WP and I always drive by the body shop and the Murray Ave house. So I have a lot of fond memories of WP and in many ways wished I'd graduated from WP, but didn't. Either way, I always wax nostalgic when I come up to visit family and friends and even though I was born in Three Rivers, I always say I'm from WP. Tulsa is home for me now and I love it here, but alway enjoy going back to WP/Michigan! I'd love to know who wrote the just says Adrian. ???

    1. Hi! Thanks for sharing your memories. You're welcome to look me up over at Facebook.

  6. Do we know who the writer of this article is? I'm thinking he's close to the same age as I am. Graduating class of 1991....

    1. Class of 1989.

      I'm amazed and humbled by the reaction to this post! I think more people have viewed it than live in White Pigeon!

  7. I really enjoyed your article and musings about our little towns, it was well put together and thought out. I enjoy our local history immensely. Come see us at, "Bob's Local History Club" on Facebook. We talk a lot about the local history in our area. Best wishes. Robert