Front Street runs through the town. At its east end, it’s the Niles-Buchanan Road, with Orchard Hills Country Club that my father’s parents helped to found. As you go west on the two-lane road, there’s a public golf course, and then Clark Equipment stretches off to the north, its factory buildings from the 1940s and 1950s now abandoned or re-purposed. Going down the steep hill into the downtown, you pass the American Legion building on the north. On Memorial Day, the high school band marched in its heavy wool uniforms (fine for football games on late fall nights) from there through town to the Oak Ridge Cemetery at the other end of Front Street where the town turned into wetlands and then farms – about a mile and a half. We stood in ranks at the cemetery while veterans saluted the flag, and then we played Taps before getting rides back to the American Legion for lemonade and hot dogs.
McCoy’s Creek traversed the downtown, buried under Front Street, but emerging next to Desenberg’s law firm (the only one in town), and a tavern. A block to the south stands Pears Mill, 100 years old when I was a kid, and the town’s largest employer soon after it was built in the 1850s. All of the town’s other mills, two dozen of them for sawmills and wheat, had burned down by the early 1920s. McCoy’s Creek was the reason for the town; its quick drop between the headwaters and the St. Joe River to the north of Clark Equipment powering the mills that made the town important during the 1800s.
Downtown was three blocks long, lined with the brick and stone buildings of the turn of the last century. In the past twenty years, it’s come back to life, with antique dealers from Chicago opening in the old storefronts for the weekend tourists who come over form the Lake Michigan beaches. The Union Bank where I had my savings account and Christmas Club book is a coffee shop featuring live music from around the area on weekends. Marzita’s Sweet Shop, which opened in 1948 – the year my family returned to town – still serves the best chocolate shakes anywhere. Kathleen Marzita said, twenty years ago, that she kept her prices low (about the same as in the 1950s) because she liked the company of the townspeople, and they were too cheap to pay more.
Going west up the hill, one passes the red brick Presbyterian Church, across from the Post Office with its WPA murals from the 1930s. Up from the church is the old library (the town’s second one; the third one is down by Pears Mill), now a thriving art center. Elegant brick turn-of- the-century homes, several restored at substantial expense line the next couple of blocks of Front Street, until you come to Swem’s Funeral Home at the corner of Clark and Front. My family has lived on Clark Street since the 1930s (my father’s parents moved to town in 1912 so that my grandfather could be one of Clark Equipment’s earliest metallurgists). On out to the cemetery, on the east side of Pot Road, with its gravestones dating back to the town’s earliest day in the 1820s. Across Post Road to the west is a few-acre stretch of marsh with a small lake that my father bought for my mother. On the land above the lake was my father’s factory where he built welders in the 1960s and early 1970s until he died suddenly of a stroke, worn out at the age of 64 from his seven kids, and his unending search for satisfaction in his life. We still own the house on Clark Street, and the swamp and lake – Buchanan, Michigan is our hometown still.
worn granite headstones
for my parents, grandparents
for my young sister