Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 18, 2005 Rockford, Michigan.

It was on the morning when I finally made my way out of Indianapolis for good that I blew a coolant hose and overheated my engine. That put something of a crimp in my plans, and I suppose should have made me question my luck as well. I got towed to a great VW repair place in Kalamazoo. I mentioned to Eric, who was working on my van, that I was on my way to a Vanagon event in Grand Rapids. Well, it turned out he was on his way there too, so I was sure Matilda was in good hands. But after Eric replaced my blown hose, it quickly became clear that the engine was shot as well. Thatís when I began to wonder whether I was really meant to keep traveling in my van.

But I reminded myself that the last time Iíd had this conversation with myself, Iíd decided that if I had to replace my engine, I would. So the only question was how to go about it. My friend Budd from Minneapolis was supposed to be en route to Grand Rapids with an RV that could tow a van, so my first call was to him. Turned out he was still on the east coast, and wouldnít be coming to Grand Rapids after all. Which was a bummer, because quite aside from thinking I could get towed there, Iíd really been looking forward to seeing him. The next call was to Brien Dews, who organizes the event in Grand Rapids and had been pretty helpful to me before.

Well, that was the charm. Brien said if I could get myself to Grand Rapids, I could stay in the little apartment above his shop, he could tow Matilda to Buses

by the Beach, and he and his friend Billy would install my new engine if I needed one. So prompted by a helpful woman on the phone at AAA, I told them that Spring Valley Motors couldnít possibly solve my problem, and I needed another emergency tow at their expense.

Iíve been in Rockford ever since Ė a week and a half now. Itís an interesting place to be stuck. Rockford is a small town north of Grand Rapids, still only slightly plagued with suburban sprawl. Brienís shop - he repairs clocks for a living - is just off Main Street, and he lives a few blocks away on North Main. A block west of Main Street is the Rogue River. Alongside it, a ninety-mile rail trail runs almost all the way into Grand Rapids. The post office is across Main Street and down the block from the shop. Next to it is a place that roasts coffee, and sells good bagels and candies and fancy kitchen utensils. Down on the corner is an ice cream place that always has a long line outside, teen-aged couples, girls on roller blades, families with small children, whole soccer teams having a snack after practice. Rockford City Hall is a one-story building a couple of blocks from the shop.

Rockford was founded, according to town history on the web, in 1839. The river provided transportation for timber from the vast pine and hardwood forests that spread across Michigan back then, so a few entrepreneurs picked the site as a good place for a sawmill. One of the key people in getting that business going was Squire Lapham, and for some thirty years the town was called Laphamville. Lapham was the postmaster, and although he was not allocated a mailbag by the US Post Office, the historians tell us that ďthe mail was so voluminous that he had no difficulty in carrying it in the pocket of his coat once a week from PlainfieldÖ.Ē

Rockfordís economic development headed in a new direction at the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, G.A. Krause, a shoe wholesaler from Grand Rapids, brought electricity to the town. Two years later he opened a shoe factory, and in 1908 he and his sons opened a tannery along the Rogue River. Their Hirth-Krause Company Ė now Wolverine Worldwide - concentrated on horsehides, which were easily available when cars were still a novelty. In the 1940s, as horses disappeared from the landscape, they developed methods to tan pigskins instead, using them to produce gloves and soft suede shoes. Their original tannery on the Rogue River is still in operation, much upgraded, I

hope. It still smells pretty nasty from the rail trail behind it, though.

The town has grown slowly since Wolverine opened. The 1939 centennial history of Rockford gives the population as 1800; the 2000 census put it at 4626. I didnít count the businesses; lots more than seventeen, though! The mills are gone, as Michigan is no longer a land of vast forests, but Arnies Restaurant is in a building labeled ďthe old mill.Ē A huge Meijer store Ė an upper-midwest version of Target or Walmart Ė stands a few miles out of town, no

doubt drawing a lot of business away from Main Street. Brienís wife Sara said they knew that Meijerís would hurt town businesses, but everyone is still delighted to have it there, because it sells almost everything they need, and is much cheaper than the independent stores in town. The more modest D & W grocer, a western Michigan chain, is on the other side of town. The town center has become a minor tourist destination, with a handful of gift shops, a few restaurants, two cafes, and three ice cream places. Some of the buildings date from the 19th century, but the businesses they house are definitely 21st century.

The community is certainly different from other places Iíve been. Iíve hardly seen a non-white person since I got here, and virtually all of the children are blonde. There are a number of churches in Rockford, but I havenít seen a synagogue, mosque, or Hindu temple. Central Jersey, this is not! The townís website gives these statistics:

Races: white non-Hispanic (95.4%), Hispanic (1.5%), two or more races (1.3%), American Indian (0.8%), other race (0.6%), and black (0.6%)

Ancestries: German (23.9%), Dutch (18.2%), English (13.4%), Irish (13.2%), Polish (12.3%), and French (5.5%).

German and Dutch? Not like any place Iíve ever lived! Sara said there are actually a lot of Hispanics there, though I didnít see any in town. She thought they were mainly migrant farm workers, so they arenít visible in town, and surely donít complete census questionnaires.

People in Rockford know each other, too. One morning I stopped at the bagel shop for breakfast. As I was sitting outside at a sidewalk table, a woman came by with her daughter and an eager Labrador puppy on a leash. To her dismay, the daughter was left outside to mind the puppy, so I chatted and scratched the dogís ears while they waited. A few minutes later, Sara pulled up with her daughter Elly, who enthusiastically greeted first the puppy and then the girl, Hannah. Turns out Elly and Hannah are in school together, and they are neighbors of Sara and Brien. This morning I settled in at the local coffeehouse to write. Brienís friend Todd stopped by to let me know that he had dropped off coolant for Matilda. After talking to me, he introduced me to the group of women sitting to my right. Sara and I went to the supermarket together, where we ran into Toddís wife, all of us stocking up on supplies for the Buses by the Beach campout. Small world.

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