President Truman sighed as the pink petals of the great magnolia tree fell on the evenly cut blades of the White House lawn. He pushed the frame of his oval glasses back up the bridge of his nose and placed his hand next to Mrs. Truman’s.
Bess smiled and squeezed his hand. Curls of golden hair shone in the sun.
“Yes, Port Huron.”
The couple never forgot their magical honeymoon in Port Huron, Michigan, where the mighty Lake Huron empties under the twin spans of the Blue Water Bridge into the St. Clair River, which separates Michigan from Canada.
Once you’ve been, you’ll never forget, either. The rich character and undying spirit of the city speaks directly to your soul.
After all, it was here along the turgid blue waters that proud men once made cream separators, car parts, and socks in massive tan brick factories. Billowing smokestacks, like steeple spires, dotted the shore, puffing the toxic grey smoke of interminable progress. Great big freighters calmly sailed on, while a chugging locomotive transported goods beneath the river through the St. Clair Tunnel.
Prosperity was in the air, and you could see it, hear it, and taste it.
Up and down Military Street and Huron Street, merchants plied their wares under long, striped awnings. People streamed in and out of the trains at the depot on 320 State Street, including a young Thomas Edison. The streetcars were packed with riders; they clung to the sides and poked out the windows. Businesses like Ballantine Dry Goods and Diana’s Sweet Shoppe weren’t only stores but cultural institutions, common points of reference for citizens and visitors alike.
An incredulous old man with hair growing out the sides of his stared at me.
“Well, have you been downtown? There’s nothing left. I remember, we used to do all our shopping down there. They built that mall [Birchwood] for the Canadians and that was it!”
Ballantine Dry Goods and Diana’s Sweet Shoppe? Gone, just like Howard’s Furniture and Ortenburger Luggage and Leather Goods.
To make matters worse, in the mid-1970s a whole block of historic buildings was demolished to make room for the new Port Huron Times Herald headquarters, a beige concrete building that looks about as exciting as a cardboard box. All that history, permanently erased.
And then, about a decade later, part of Water Street was literally removed for a cookie-cutter condo development. To think, Birchwood Mall didn’t even open until 1990!
— — —
On the corner of Quay and Michigan, Roche Bar and Cavis Grill sit uneasily together, like distant relatives at a poorly planned family reunion.
Roche Bar is over 100 years old, a sturdy red brick two-story building with an American flag hanging from it. Inside it’s dim, and goofy sayings are tacked on the walls, from a classic Don’t Tread On Me admonishment to an dreadfully ominous Weird Shit, 24/7 warning. The drinks are dirt cheap, the banter wittier with each sip. A digital jukebox cranks out Kid Rock tunes and other Michigan hits.
Cavis Grill, meanwhile, is only 50 years old, with bright white siding and a cheery blue roof. There’s no alcohol on the premises. The Googie-inspired sign outside and photos of boats conjure up a wholesome, family-friendly vibe, and it’s not false advertising. The food is surprisingly fresh – the egg “croissanwich” I ordered had a clear, essential taste to it, classic American diner food done right. For milkshakes, they still use an original 1960s-era terra cotta Hamilton Beach Milkshake Machine, chipped paint and all.
However, Roche Bar and Cavis Grill do share one essential: a strong sense of community.
“Hey, look guys, there’s Bob right over there.”
“Don’t mind me guys. I’m just coming in to use the bathroom.”
“Alright – but you know only paying customers get to use the sink!”
“Ok, I won’t touch the sinks.”
Customers actually know each other by name and take an active interest in the lives of their neighbors. Guests are treated like regulars. I have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure I’m not dreaming.
In our increasingly disconnected modern world, Port Huron is a godsend, a bastion of small town charm.
Old ways die hard in Port Huron. Take Thomas Edison, founder of General Electric. He only lived in the city for 12 years (from age 7 to 19), but you’d think he never left. There’s a Thomas Edison statue, a Thomas Edison museum, a Thomas Edison Inn, an Edison Parkway, and a Thomas Edison memorial boulder all within the city boundaries. It’s almost creepy.
Edison moved on, but Port Huron hasn’t. Maybe, just maybe, that’s a good thing?
Industry, too, remains the backbone of the local economy. SEMCO Energy is the top employer, and Mueller Industries and Domtar run operations in the city that predate the 1920s, the last decade Port Huron experienced any serious population growth.
— — —
Whenever I’m in Port Huron, I like to end my day at The Raven Café. Housed in an old Civil War era building that was lovingly restored by a retired lawyer over the course of 9 years – yes, 9 years – every nook and cranny contains a veritable treasure trove of small wonders. Sturdy wooden shelves overflow with books; classic posters of Americana clutter the walls; Victorian metalwork and gold paint add a touch of romance. The mise-en-scène is transporting.
One day, while sipping a Chai Bomb at the café – an irresistible, sweet-tasting combination of black tea, espresso, honey, ginger, milk, whipped cream, and spices – I overheard a confident 19- or 20-year-old girl explain the meaning of life.
You know what? As dumb as it sounds, she might’ve just nailed it.
“Like today, I was meditating in the shower, and I all of sudden just realized that like everything in life basically comes down to this one thing: if you give love, or if you take love – like, if you’re going into a situation with the intention of giving energy or taking energy. And I was like, oh my God, that’s like… what life really is about.”