In the fifties, the family vacation consisted of packing up the kids, the dog and the bug spray into a station wagon and traveling to a predetermined spot to relax. For an entire week, the family, perhaps with some added cousins, aunts and uncles, would live in a rustic cottage, with log cabin exterior, near a lake. There they wold share poison ivy, sunburn and major roles in Uncle Louie's annual "How We Spent Our Summer Vacation" home movies.
Times have changed. The sixties brought travel trailers, the seventies land cruisers and the eighties airfare bargains and package trips. Kids today rarely are satisfied with putt-putt courses. They want 16-acre theme parks, killer roller coasters, Star Wars amusement centers and faraway places.
But, ah, nestled along the banks of Lake Huron in eastern Michigan is a small community that brings back the family vacation cira 1958. Oscoda, population 2,200, is to Palm Beach as Crazy Joe's Reptile farm is to Disney World's Epcot. It's a place that even the Cleavers might have visited.
Simple as this town is -- the main shopping district is a mere three blocks long -- it is part of the major migration route of southern Michiganders to the clean air and wilderness of the north. For many years a strange phenomena has occurred: On Friday nights in the summer and autumn, it is as if a city-wide 5 o'clock whistle blows and Detroi's suburanites head for the north country.
They don't come for the exciting night life; in fact, Oscoda is the No. 1 retirement community in the state, according to the local Chamber of Commerce. People come up simply to breathe cool, clear air and show their children places that were special when they were young. Places like Dinosaur Gardens with actual life-size replicas of prehistorical animals! In an age when Gozilla and Megalon ruled the movie theaters, dinosaurs Big as Life were downright spooky. Who can forget those ridiculous snapshots of everyone posed under a flying pterodactyl?
Also near Oscoda is the Paul Bunyan Look-Out Tower with Larger Than Life figures of Paul and Babe, the Blue Ox. Never mind that Paul's head is completely out of proportion to his body or that the tape playing in his cement tummy has gotten slightly slurred over time. In the fifties, this was major-league make-believe, and when you were only 3 feet tall, something even bigger than Dad was mighty impressive.
Oscoda was and still is attractive to those migrating city folk because of the accessibility to the simpler outdoor activities, like canoeing, cycling and walking along its "sugar sand" beaches. For anyone who has never set eyes on Lake Huron, the first time will be spent in disbelief. Here is a lake with sand, sea gulls, waves and huge tankers on the horizon, miles from an ocean. Except for the fact that a late June afternoon is apt to produce zero percent humidity, you might well be on the Virginia shore.
The crowd that comes to Oscoda to feed the sea gulls and watch the trees change colors is not a fast one. Summer cottages have names like "Do It Tomorrow" or "Lazy Acres." The handmade signposts have symbols of Ford, Chrysler or General Motors worked into the designs, showing pride in their different backgrounds like retired military officers.
The family tourist accommodations haven't changed much over the years either. Some now call themselves condors and have cable television, but many stil have the deer and duck yard ornaments, playgrounds and barbecue grills near the water's edge. Somehow they are slightly reminiscent of the tourist camp cabins that Clark Gable sneaked into in "It Happened One Night."
Family fun in the fifties didn't mean the children went off to play video games while Mom and Dad went to the health spas. It meant doing things en masse and people still do that in Oscoda. They still play putt-putt on fairyland miniature golf courses, that have those mini-trampolines. Remember these belly-flops?
There is a movie theater in Oscoda. Just one, mind you. But you immediately get the feeling that it is the place to be seen. There is only one show a night, so everyone will be there. Teen-agers hoping to "run" into someone come dressed just in case it's their lucky night. Fortunately the featured movie changes every few nights, so if you are visiting for long enough, there is a chance they will show a movie you haven't seen.
But don't get the wrong idea. This isn't a Norman Rockwell town filled with lovely Victorian homes and white porches with American flags waving. There have been three fires in the last 100 years, and they have erased the old saloons, general stores and other symbols of the town's lumbering heydays. It has its strip of McDonald's-Pizza, Hut-Kentucky Fried Chicken, but it also has some surviving family style restaurants. The types of places with typed menus and six-inch-high lemon meringue pie.
For example, Charbonneaus Family Restaurant (don't let the French name fool you) is strictly an all-you-can-eat extravaganza that makes you feel chubby just standing in line. With its piles of freshly caught whitefish, pounds of fried oysters and shrimp, nostalgia turns into little pangs of guilt. For a second or two.
Traveling north to Oscoda from the Detroit area, takes about four hours nonstop today. But years ago, a four-hour trip was a day's adventure. Oreo cookies and license plate bingo cards were among the energy supplies, and every glove compartment had a box of Wet 'n" Dri's. There weren't many rest areas back then, so stops were made at tourist attractions.
On this northbound route, there popped up several havens from the hot station wagon. Frankenmuth, Michigan's answer to South of the Border, is one of the biggest. This German-flavored tourist spot has Bavarian houses, a glockenspiel tower, a wodden covered bridge and one of the most popular chicken dinners in eastern Michigan.
Further north in Pinconning, there is Wilson's Cheese Store, heralded as Michigan's oldest, sporting a huge cheese-eating mouse outside and hundreds of cheeses inside. One of them, named for the town in which it originated, can always be found in the cooler of any southbound vehicle. For coming home without a chunch of Pinconning cheese would be as inadequate as not having sandy seashells after a trip to the shore.
Finally, not far from the giant mouse in Pinconning, is another example of an old-style tourist attraction -- Mother Goose Fantasyland. "See favorire, life-size Mother Goose characters, illustrated with live animals," says the brochure.
These places came alive when highways began to bring strangers to these small towns. The Rock Caverns, Crazy Houses and Pecan Shacks were born when people began to see the United States in a Chevrolet and look for those Golden Arches in the sunset. Many of the tourist camps and attractions have been overtaken by weeds, as highways were abandoned for interstates and Mother Goose Lands replaced by Disney Worlds.
But some are alive and well, on the roads to Oscoda.
For information: The Oscoda-Au Sable Chamber of Commerce, 100 W. Michigan Ave., Oscoda, Mich. 48750; the Michigan Travel Bureau, Dept. RFS, P.O. Box 30226, Lansing, Mich. 48909.