Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Small Taste of Michigan

©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard
Monday September 2 – Fredonia, NY-Meronci, MI
For the first time in my journey, I have nothing to say about my drive from one location to another. With a few exceptions, such is freeway driving in the United States. Instead, I settle in to listen to an eBook, Infamous, a novel by Ace Atkins. It is a wry, gritty crime drama set in the 1930s featuring George “Machine Gun” Kelly. The time and the miles fly by.
I actually didn’t know I was going to Meronci, MI. In fact, it doesn’t even appear on Google Maps unless you search for it – which I didn’t. It seems there isn’t much in Southern Michigan, except for Toledo, OH. Look at a map.
When choosing a destination I look for a place within about 300 miles with nearby camping. My preference is a city, county, state or national park/recreation area, etc. The problem in Southern Michigan, at least according to Google Maps, is that the nearest campground to any town or city – other than Toledo – is about 45 miles away. I look beyond my normal driving distance and find the Lake Hudson State Recreation Area, about 20 miles from the City of Adrian, MI. It is well over 300 miles from Fredonia, NY and a five-hour drive, all freeways. I am resigned.
To my surprise and relief, the little town of Meronci is only eight miles from the campground. Even better, on this Labor Day, everyone is leaving camp. When I awake in the morning my only neighbor is a little yellow and black bird in a nearby tree. Otherwise I have the campground to myself and, just for the hell of it, throw off my clothing and romp buck-naked for a while. What a great feeling! Trooper looks embarrassed.

Tuesday September 3 – Meronci, MI

Meronci is barely in Michigan. Its southern border is the Ohio state line. Downtown is just three blocks long. There is one gas station, a traffic light, a small locally owned grocery store, and two, count ‘em, two pizza parlors. On this Tuesday the streets are all but empty.
Founded in 1838, Morenci and environs is primarily agricultural, mostly corn. Palm Plastics was a large (for this area) manufacturing plant here but, thanks to the recession, closed down late last year throwing more than 200 people out of work.
Forty-nine year old Bill Foster was the maintenance man in that factory. “I saw the handwriting on the wall and got out early. It had a ripple affect throughout the town here.”
Ripple affect, indeed. In 2011 the median income in Morenci was about $35,000, more than $10,000 below the state median. Home sales dropped from just under 40 in 2011 to about 20 in 2012. There were just two new home building permits in 2012.
In a way, Bill Foster was lucky; he immediately found work with a former employer and now drives RVs and construction trailers all over the country and into Canada delivering them to customers. But, while the salary is the same as it was at Palm Plastics, it really isn’t.
“My job is now in Indiana and I have to drive 80 miles to get there,” he says, “but at least I’m working. The problem is, I’m away from home a lot more.”
Ironically, the recession drove him out of this job in the first place. “After Hurricane Katrina and then with the recession, sales of these trailers went way down, a lot of manufacturers closed and so I left for the job at Palm. Funny how things work out.”
Fifty-seven year old William Rezoski has held the same job for thirty-five years but the recession still wormed its way into his life.
“I’m a machinist at a factory in Fayette, OH (just south of the state line from Morenci). We make parts for Ford Trucks. Truck sales suffered during the recession and we cut way back; we lost more than a hundred people, more than half the workforce. My job wasn’t threatened per se, but my hours got cut way back. Where I was once making tons of overtime, I was lucky if I got 40 hours a week. We had to cut way back at home.”
Many of the stores on Main Street are in historic old buildings. Sixty-five year old Pearl Phelps owns one of the two pizza places in town, Pearl’s Pizza Palace. She says she saw business drop off a bit since last year, “but not as badly as some of the other businesses in town. I don’t know why.” She says she is starting to see things bounce back “just a bit.”
I find it most interesting that the owner of the largest farm in the area, State Line Farms, declines an interview. That’s happened maybe six or seven times in almost 7,000 miles.
As I’ve noted before, many large family-owned farms across the country pretty much held their own, if not prospered, during the recession. As I drive by State Line Farms on my way to camp, I slow to see what I can see. Besides the very large twin grain silos, the big yard next to the barn is filled with what appears to be several brand new shiny tractors and other equipment. 
Perhaps the owner declined to speak with me because he feels the embarrassment of riches. This is only speculation on my part but it is an educated guess.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Friday August 30 – Cooperstown, NY-Fredonia, NY
I wish I could stay in Cooperstown longer. My half-day at the Baseball Hall of Fame was merely a tease but there’s more to this place than just the HOF. First of all, it is simply a beautiful village in a magical forest setting.
The people in this tourist town are very friendly and it seems more sincere than a plastic “buy my stuff” kind of friendly. Then there is the history. Judge William Cooper founded the village in 1786. His sixth child, James Fenimore Cooper, is generally considered America’s first great novelist. He is best known for the classic Last of the Mohicans. Finally, there is the Stagecoach Coffee House and Roastery. A small, family-run business, it is by far one of the best coffee houses I’ve visited in more than 6,000 miles (so far).
Alas, I must leave to focus on my primary mission and so I hit the road for my next stop, Fredonia, NY. Before leaving Cooperstown, however, I drop a resume off at the Hall of Fame. What the hell, one can always dream.
My tight budget changes my itinerary; I really can’t afford to meander on U.S. Routes, state and county roads as much as I did on the eastward leg and so I will be driving more Interstates. For my interviews, I will still stick to the small towns and cities off that heavily beaten path. Moreover, I originally planned to take a southern route home; the economies and the cultures are so different. Now, I must drive straight and true across the top of America. Still, I will visit at least 19 states and interview hundreds of people
I take N.Y. Route 28 back to I-90/NY State Thruway. Knowing a 200 mile high speed, scenery blurring drive lies ahead, I savor the rolling, twisting route through mostly farmland and the occasional small town. On the bright side, there are service areas on the thruway every 40-miles or so, each with restrooms for my 66-year old prostate, its own 24-hour Starbucks and a convenient patch of grass for Trooper’s micro-bladder.
Aside from its geographic convenience I chose Fredonia, NY with half a mind to compare it to Fredonia, KS. In truth, there is no comparison. While both Fredonia’s are in the heart of farm country, it ends there. Driving into this village I immediately feel the energy of a place that might not be thriving post-recession but is certainly alive and well. The New York version is not only near I-90 and several other main highways it is also home to the State University of New York’s Fredonia campus and its 5,500 students. Fredonia, KS is off the main transportation routes and is dying off the vine.
As an added bonus, my campground in Lake Erie State Park is right on the southern shore of that Great Lake. The downside is that this state park is not nearly as remote or quiet as my “home” near Cooperstown. The campground is large with land yachts this Labor Day Weekend packed in like sardines and my tiny tent is dwarfed between two of the behemoths.
Saturday August 31 – Fredonia, NY
New York State has what I think is a unique jurisdictional system. Each county is basically divided into towns and cities, except New York City, which swallows up five counties or boroughs. The towns in this case can be very large and made up of several incorporated villages. Such is the case with Fredonia in rural Chautauqua County. It has a population of 11,400 according to the 2011 Census. Fredonia, NY would hardly be considered a “village” in other parts of the country.
Short Sidebar: Fredonia’s Got Gas
Here is an interesting historical side note. According to Wikipedia:
“In 1821, William Hart dug the first well specifically to produce natural gas in the United States in the Village of Fredonia on the banks of Canadaway Creek in Chautauqua County, New York. It was 27 feet deep, excavated with shovels by hand, and its gas pipeline was hollowed out logs sealed with tar and rags. It supplied enough natural gas for lights in two stores, two shops and a grist mill (currently the village's Fire Station) by 1825. Expanding on Hart's work, the Fredonia Gas Light Company was eventually formed in 1858, becoming the first American natural gas company. The site of the first gas well is marked by a stone monument in downtown Fredonia.”
And, now I also know why there are so many Fredonia’s around America:
“The Village of Fredonia was incorporated in 1829. The original name for the area was Canadaway (from the Indian word Ganadawao, meaning among the hemlocks). Senator Samuel Latham Mitchill coined the name ‘Fredonia” by coupling the English word "freedom" with a Latin ending. He proposed it as a replacement name for the United States. It failed in that regard, but became the name of many towns and cities.”
Saturday morning is Farmer’s Market time on a blocked off street just beyond Barker’s Commons, Fredonia’s large village green. Complete with an old freshly painted white gazebo at one end and a large fountain at its center, The Commons two-square blocks of grass are shaded by large, ancient oaks and hemlocks with many benches set within for quiet contemplation. 

No contemplating here, I want to talk to a farmer about the area’s agriculture. I know New York’s Finger Lakes Region north of Corning in the middle of the state is Wine Country but I’ve seen many vineyards in this area and I am curious; Fredonia is 170 miles from Corning.
I find my perfect source. He is a tall white-haired man in the first stall I see. Sixty-eight year old Richard Feinen is the third generation to farm his family’s land two miles outside of Fredonia. I quickly learn that the Concord Grape is The King here.
“Western New York is where the fruit juice business started,” he explains. “Grapes want to ferment and it’s hard to stop it. In 1869 Dr. Thomas Welch (from nearby Watertown, NY) invented a pasteurization process to prevent grapes from fermenting. He did it for religious purposes; many people did not want to drink wine for communion.
By the way, if that last name sounds familiar, you’re right; Dr. Welch, along with son Charles, ultimately founded the Welch’s Grape Juice Company in 1890. Today, Western New York grows 68% of the state’s total processing grape crop. It is by far the largest legal cash crop in Chautauqua County.
As for the recession, Feinen says it helped him in a way. “More and more people want to buy local, knowing what they’re eating. In part it’s because of the recession but folks also want to know where their food is coming from what with salmonella in melons and the like.” Feinen says local markets and a produce stand at his farm kept things stable during the recession.
Manufacturing has drifted away from this area over the past few decades and it shows in the data; educational services, accommodations and food services provide nearly 40 percent of the employment in Fredonia. The Great recession still found its marks here. As in many small towns across America, empty storefronts pepper the downtown streets.
Twenty-five year old Jeffrey LeTrey works part time at the Cortland Extension Service in nearby Portland, NY. They do research on the management of grape production. Ironically, he earned his degree in Environmental Science at the University of Oregon, south of another Portland.
As a University of Washington Husky fan, I will spare you my hatred for the Oregon Ducks other than to say, “What kind of nickname is that for sports teams, The Ducks?” As usual, I digress.
LeTrey moved back here in 2011 and it took him almost a year to find his part time, low paying job, the major consequence being that he had to move back in with his folks. Can you say Boomerang Generation?
Forty five year old Brian Davis describes himself as a stay at home dad. He used to own a combined small cafĂ©, arts and crafts store in Fredonia. Timing as they say, is everything; he opened his business in 2007, right before the recession became “official.”
Luckily his 44-year old wife Adrian McCormick is a tenured professor at SUNY Fredonia. While Adrian’s position saved the couple, the recession still crept its way into their lives. “We used a quarter of my pension, $25,000, as collateral for loans to finance the start Brian’s business.”
“We started off okay,” says Brian, “but as the recession deepened, it slowly killed the business. We had to really tighten our belts and restructure everything”
Adrian adds, “Even after the business closed the loans didn’t go away. On top of that we still had student loan debt sitting out there. It got pretty ugly. For a year or two we were just paying minimums and for a while we couldn’t pay at all on one of the business loans. Now, we’ll owe on it until I retire.”
“I’m still going through it,” Brian says. “I learned all my business skills and techniques in a different world. Everything is different – things like funding and revenue, how you structure it, the risks you’re willing to take. I have to relearn everything.”
Thirty-one year old Erin is a “domestic engineer,” running the family finances and caring for her two children. Her husband works for a non-profit community development and housing service. “When the recession hit,” she says, “he was working on his Masters Degree. It took him more than a year to find a job. We were living in Massachusetts but had to move here when my husband found his job. Things got very tight for a while and we had to dip into our savings. Luckily we had some savings left when he found work.”
I wonder to myself, “How many American lives did The Great Recession change forever?”