When I want to play, I go home to Montague, Michigan.
I left home in 1992, to go to seminary. As a minister, working Sundays and living many hours away, getting home was hard to do. Most years, it happened only once. Now that I am retired, I am taking advantage of the gift of time. In 2015, I went home seven times.
Interesting bit of info: When I leave Indianapolis, I have to cross the White River to get to US 31, which I never get off until the Montague exit. After exiting, I have to cross—you guessed it—the White River to get to Montague.
My hometown sits on White Lake, one of the lakes which feeds into Lake Michigan. From town, it is a quick five mile drive to the big lake where, when I was a child, I asked what the big deal was about oceans when you have one of the great lakes to enjoy?
Founded in 1867 and named by its founder, Noah Ferry, for his father, William Montague Ferry, the city has retained its population of 2,300 as long as I’ve lived.
Despite its small size, Montague is large on history and activity. She boasts a Miss America, Nancy Ann Fleming, who wore the crown in 1961. Montague helped build the country with the area’s expansive white pine forests. A model of the lumbering schooner, Ella Ellenwood, tops the world’s largest working weathervane. When telling friends of it, I always add, “People even get married under it!”
Though he was never a major league star, our own Ira Flagstead played for the Detroit Tigers and other teams in the years between the two World Wars. He was no slouch, achieving a lifetime .290 average and hitting 40 homers in the era before Babe Ruth made chicks dig the long ball.
And, of course, there’s the water! Both White Lake and Lake Michigan long ago attracted vacationers, especially from Chicago. The summer population swells. Where one might whine about the increased traffic, I always loved the flurry of activity in the summer. I felt we were a special town, with folks wanting to drive many miles to be with us.
Every last Friday in July, the Cruz’in Classic Car show brings in hundreds of cars and even more spectators. To leave downtown for the residential neighborhoods, one must climb a hill. The Town Hill is as much Montague’s trademark as anything else, proven every October with the immensely popular pumpkin roll. Other events typical of small town America, including a marvelous summer-long farmer’s market, keep the townsfolk from scratching their heads for something to do.
In the 1980s, I recall the day ABC’s Peter Jennings spoke of us on the weeknight newscast. If you know of the Love Canal debacle of the 1970s, as Hooker Chemical Company had ruined that area in New York state after burying thousands of tons of toxic waste, Hooker also had a Montague plant and, yes, did similarly. Today, a huge, clay-lined vault stands west of town, with the guarantee of keeping the chemicals leeching until the distant future. Sometimes, one’s fame comes from infamy.
When my dad returned from World War II, he went to work for the Montague police force. Before long, he was chief of police and then city manager. Leaving that in 1964, he returned in the mid-1970s and remained city manager until he retired. When I was a teenager working at Todd Pharmacy, I had to make doubly sure I behaved. If only I had a pizza for every time a customer, whom I didn’t know, knew me. “You’re John Eilers’ boy.” Yes. I couldn’t deny it. I wouldn’t want to.
None of this is why I strive to visit Montague often. Two of my brothers still make their home there. My son and his family are right across the lake in Whitehall. Sister Sue is an exactly-one-hour drive away in Grand Rapids.
As I wrote recently, best friend Tim Todd plays host to me. He and Mom, Grace, never hesitate to take me in. They live in the heart of town, maybe a half-mile from the house in which I spent my youth. On the south side of town, where I remodeled a house and lived until heading to seminary, my childhood buddy and fellow Showboat deckhand, Mike Block, still lives in the old neighborhood. A visit to Mike is penciled into every trip.
I lost touch of many friends for my years of rare visiting and little time to see anyone but family. In 2015, I reconnected with several of them, with prospects of more this year. I can’t wait.
They say you can’t go home again. Sure, it’s not the same as when I lived there, but going home again and again and again will remain the best way to play that I know.