Skip to main content

Geoffrey’s Journal: Local Color

Geoffrey’s Journal: Local Color

Lake Geneva Mail Jumpers
Mail jumpers Molly McEneany and Nathan Gibson smile for the camera in between leaping onto docks in Lake Geneva in August 2018. Photos by Geoffrey Baer

One of the best things about this project was discovering that even today when almost every highway exit everywhere ends in a strip of the same chain hotels and fast food restaurants, local character is still alive and well. And we found plenty of character - and characters - in our eight months of travel.

Molly McEneany leaps onto residential docks to deliver the mail in Lake Geneva in August 2018
Molly McEneany leaps onto residential docks to deliver the mail in Lake Geneva in August 2018. Photo by Geoffrey Baer
Carriage Driver
Mackinac Island carriage driver Faith Champine-Rousse with (clockwise from Faith), Producer Eddie Griffin, Tom Sheffler of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, Director of Photography Tim Boyd, Associate Producer Erica Gunderson, and host/writer Geoffrey Baer. Photo by Geoffrey Baer

Here are a few of my favorites:

While other teenagers suffer through boring summer jobs at McDonald's, these young people get paid to jump off a moving boat onto the docks lining Geneva Lake to deliver bundles of mail and even FedEx packages. The trick is to deposit their deliveries and hustle back to the end of the dock in time to jump back aboard the boat (which never stops) instead of landing in the water. This tradition dates from the time when roads were so poor that the easiest way to deliver the mail to summer residents was by boat. Today, of course, it's a tourist attraction, and the young hotshots narrate the tours between deliveries. The jumpers we photographed obliged us by adding some flair to their work, such as turning cartwheels on the docks.

Our carriage driver on Mackinac Island turned out to be another incredibly poised teenager. Of course, cars are not allowed on the island. And many of the carriage drivers are the sort of roughnecks you might expect to wrangle draft horses weighing as much as small cars. But 16-year-old Faith Champine-Rousse commands the respect of those beasts with the slightest whisper (and if they don't obey, a gentle tap of the buggy whip). Faith is one of a small handful of year-round residents on Mackinac Island and affectionately tends the horses assigned to her in addition to giving wonderful tours.

In Silver Lake, Michigan, we took a hair-raising ride through the dunes made possible by Malcolm "Mac" Wood, who essentially invented the dune buggy, or, as he called it, the "dune scooter." According to a biography written by his wife, Mac came to Silver Lake as a teenage homesteader. When the sandy soil proved unsuitable for farming, he built some cottages and opened a rustic resort with a view of the dunes. His first dune scooters were modified Model A Fords that constantly got stuck in the sand. But he kept tinkering until he came up with a design with 10 slightly under-inflated tires that flew up and down the dunes like the world's longest roller coaster. Mac died in 1984. But his grandchildren continue the business using SUVs mounted on airplane tires. Our driver Bob Collins, who is not a family member but has been driving dune scooters for decades, peppered his "tour" with the corny jokes Mac cooked up years ago, including a trip over the wobbly "Termite Bridge" and a drive past some legs sticking out of the sand that supposedly belonged to a former driver who got ejected during a tour.

Geoffrey Baer takes a selfie in a dune buggy in Silver Lake, Michigan
A group of children shrieks with excitement as the buggy drives over a dune
The Chicago on Vacation crew
Left to right: Geoffrey Baer takes a selfie in a dune buggy in Silver Lake, Michigan, with Bob Collins behind the wheel. A group of children shrieks with excitement as the buggy drives over a dune. And the Chicago on Vacation crew (Associate Producer Erica Gunderson, Producer Eddie Griffin, host/writer Geoffrey Baer, and Director of Photography Tim Boyd) stops for a group shot. Photos by Geoffrey Baer and Bob Collins
Eliason decendants and Geoffrey take a selfie
Left to Right: Carl Eliason's grandchildren (Jona Eliason and John Eliason, Jr.), his son John Eliason, Sr., and Geoffrey Baer next to the world's first snowmobile, invented by Carl Eliason, at the Vilas County Historical Society Museum in Sayner, Wisconsin. Photo by Geoffrey Baer
Legs Inn in Harbor Springs, Michigan
Legs Inn in Harbor Springs, Michigan. Photo by Erica Gunderson

And while we're talking about vehicles that encourage motorized mayhem through the peaceful landscape, we visited the "snowmobile capital of the world" in the Wisconsin Northwoods. In addition to getting a full immersion in snowmobile culture, we saw the world's first snowmobile and met the son and grandchildren of its inventor, Carl Eliason (pronounced EE-li-son). Carl called his contraption a "motor toboggan." It's lovingly preserved and displayed at Eliason's Lumber in the town of Sayner along with other early motor toboggans. Carl's granddaughter Jona told me Eliason had a deformed foot and couldn't go snowshoeing, which was one of the few things to battle the boredom of the long Northwoods winter. So he improvised a motorized sled from bicycle gears and chains, a modified outboard boat motor, one fourth of a Model T radiator, and some snow skis. Carl lived to see his invention become the phenomenon it is today and was proud of it, but according to Jona he was always heartbroken when someone got hurt snowmobiling. Although I'm no fan of snowmobiles, the warmth and pride of this family really moved me.

At the north end of the "Tunnel of Trees" north of Petoskey, Michigan is a restaurant called Legs Inn that defies description, but I'll try. Polish immigrant Stanley Smolak spent his life building it from scavenged tree branches, rocks, and assorted cast-off items like the hundreds of stove legs lining the roof (hence the restaurant's name). He was assisted in his lifelong project by local Native Americans who made him an honorary chief. Stanley also fancied himself an artist. His odd sculptures made from twisted branches and other wood scraps adorn the interior. Out in back, diners have a breathtaking waterfront view. Stanley's descendants still run the place and continue to serve stick-to-your-ribs Polish cuisine.

Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant in the Door County town of Sister Bay, Wisconsin is not as exotic. Until you look at the roof. It's made of sod, and yes, those are goats up there tending the grass. The enterprising Al Johnson figured it was a way to stop passersby dead in their tracks. And these aren't just any goats. They're "fainting goats," so named because they swoon when frightened. Doesn't seem like the best character trait for goats that live on a roof, but apparently none have ever fallen off due to blacking out.

Goats graze atop Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant
Geoffrey snaps a selfie with the goats that graze atop Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant
Geoffrey feeds the goats that graze atop Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant
Goats graze atop Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, Wisconsin. Photos by Geoffrey Baer

Finally, in Saugatuck, Michigan is an art school called Ox-Bow with a "campus" surrounding a rundown former hotel that feels like a hippie country retreat. As it happened, the students were away on break when we visited, so the place had an almost mystical, ghostly quality. Mostly these pictures speak for themselves. In a ritual at the end of each term, the students bury a time capsule in the form of a grave marker. I spotted them dating back to "Here Lies 1933." We can only imagine the artifacts each class has buried. None of the "graves" has ever been exhumed.

Lanterns in an outdoor shelter at the Ox-Bow School of Art & Artists
A time-capsule marker at the Ox-Bow School of Art & Artists' Residency
Old hotel turned into living quarters at the Ox-Bow School of Art & Artists' Residency
Lanterns in an outdoor shelter (left), a time-capsule marker (center), and an old hotel turned into living quarters (right) at the Ox-Bow School of Art & Artists' Residency in Saugatuck, Michigan. Photos by Geoffrey Baer