Travel Time with Roger Tweed- Kalamazoo and the Corvair Convention

Roger TweedIn mid-July, my friend Jon and I traveled to Kalamazoo, MI to attend the CORSA (Corvair Society of America) National Convention and sell copies of “Lifemobile”, his novel about how a 1965 Corvair Corsa brought a father and son together, to reconnect with some acquaintances from past Corvair events, and to see some sights in West Michigan and Pennsylvania.  Jon describes his book in this You Tube video recorded on July 20:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffLI8jtKZ80

July 17 was Jon’s birthday, and I drove from Arlington, VA to his Charlottesville, VA apartment so we could get an early start the next morning.  I left my house a bit after 3 pm so I could use Interstate 66 before rush hour restrictions set in.  No big traffic problems on I 66 or US 29 all the way down, and I was in Charlottesville before 5 pm.  Since I wasn’t scheduled to arrive at Jon’s apartment until 7 pm, I stopped at the Walmart on US 29 to cool off, check prices, and walk around the store.  Just before 6 pm I called Jon and told him I’d be right over.  Street parking is tight around his building during the day, and there were no available spaces when I first drove past.  But a space opened up during my first trip around the block, and after I pulled in Jon came out to meet me.  His building was completed in 2010, and is in the north part of downtown, 2 blocks from the downtown mall. 

We walked to South Street Brewery (a little more than a block away) where I treated Jon to dinner for his birthday.  We started with a large soft pretzel appetizer, which was very good.  The Dijon dipping sauce complimented it well.  Jon said that his spicy shrimp were as advertised, and my grilled chicken Caesar salad was very nice.  After the walk back to the apartment and some catching up, we turned in early in anticipation of the early start and 11 hour drive that awaited us in the morning.

We were up before dawn on July 18 (my birthday), and quickly readied ourselves for the trip.  After loading up Jon’s car and putting my car in his garage spot, we were on our way at about 6:15 am with Jon doing the driving.  On I-64 a few miles out of town we stopped at a McDonald’s and ordered from the drive-thru breakfast value menu, and then were back on the interstate.  In what seemed like no time at all, we had made our way onto I-81 North, and were now heading past Strasburg, VA, where our friend Scott had lived for a few years.  In fact, we passed through Strasburg at about the same time that Scott passed away exactly one year before.

Food Dance restaurant, Kalamazoo, MI

Food Dance restaurant, Kalamazoo, MI

As we came to Winchester, VA we exited I-81 and took VA-37 to meet up with US 522 which would take us through Berkley Springs, WV and into Maryland where at Hancock we would take I-70 into Pennsylvania.  I hadn’t been in Berkley Springs since 1981, when I attended a management conference there.  Just north of town is the U.S. Silica complex where Oriskany sand is separated for use in glass making.  I mentioned to Jon that I recalled that the USS Oriskany had been the name of an aircraft carrier in the recent past.  Shortly thereafter we crossed the Potomac River and were in Maryland, and very soon we were heading north on I-70 into Pennsylvania.  I don’t think that I had traveled on the section of I-70 from Hancock, MD to Breezewood, PA (and the Pennsylvania Turnpike) in over 25 years.  The road looks much the same as it did when I would drive back and forth to school in Chicago in the 1970s, although some of the local motels in Breezewood are no longer in operation (at least one of them is a burnt-out shell), and the “Town of Motels” billboard that used to greet travelers as they approached the crossroads of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-70, and US 30 is gone.

We stopped at the Breezewood McDonald’s, which is now located at the west end of the Breezewood interchange.  In the 1970s and 1980s, McDonald’s occupied a more central location.  Here I took over the driving, and I got us onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading west.  Shortly after entering the turnpike, while Jon was taking a nap, I spotted a billboard for the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville.  I had never known where Shanksville was, and the thought came to me that if the memorial was close enough to the turnpike, we should try to stop there on the way back.  A little while later Jon woke up in time to see another Flight 93 Memorial billboard, and he had the same thought about visiting the memorial that I had.

Our trip westbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike was uneventful, with very few active work zones.  We did notice that the roads exiting from the turnpike in the Pittsburgh area were toll roads.  The toll from Breezewood to the western toll plaza was $13.75.  Unlike in the old days, the western toll plaza is 30 miles from the Ohio border.  This explains why all the roads exiting the western end of the turnpike are toll roads.

On the Ohio Turnpike, we would encounter several work zones, some more than 10 miles long with reductions of two of the four lanes.  Traffic still kept up a steady pace.  We stopped at the first service plaza for lunch, and ate at the Panera Bread in the food court.  It was the first time I had ever eaten at a Panera, and I was very favorably impressed with the quality of the food!  The gas prices at the Ohio Turnpike service plazas were much lower than those we would see in Michigan over the weekend, and we made a note to be sure that we would be able to get back into Ohio on the gas we had in the tank when we left Kalamazoo on Sunday morning.

1961 Monza convertible built for William Mitchell's daughter

1961 Monza convertible built for William Mitchell’s daughter

I continued driving after our stop.  As we passed the Chevrolet plant at Lordstown, I recalled how the portion of the plant visible from the turnpike had been built to produce the Chevrolet Vega in the early 1970s.  Lordstown is now the home of the Chevy Cruze, and there were a lot of new Cruzes and workers cars parked outside the plant on this Thursday afternoon.  We made good time despite the frequent work zones, and paid our $16.50 toll at the Indiana border.

Our time in Indiana was brief.  Just 13 miles to the I-69 (Angola) exit.  After paying the $0.80 toll, we were on I-69 northbound and very shortly thereafter, in Michigan.  And only a short time after that, we were on I-94 heading west toward Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.  Our GPS had us get off the interstate just to the east of Kalamazoo, and we drove through a warehouse and light industrial area before entering the city.  We caught the afternoon rush hour, and drove past a “plasma services” store front with several of its customers arrayed around its entrance.  This was across the street from the Transportation Center where Amtrak and interstate buses stop.  There was a passenger train at the station (maybe the “Wolverine”) when we passed by.  We eventually found our hotel, which was located on the west edge of downtown, in the midst of a few parks and many Victorian homes.

After settling into our hotel room, we decided to eat at a restaurant named Food Dance which is located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Kalamazoo.  Our hotel was on Westnedge Avenue, which is one way southbound, and the GPS directed us a few blocks south before having us make two left turns to head north on Park Street toward Michigan Avenue.  We parked on Michigan Avenue just before Pitcher Street, where the restaurant is located, and after a brief wait were seated.  This was Jon’s night to buy me dinner for my birthday, and I had a Caesar salad and roasted chicken in a cucumber coconut gazpacho.  The food was very good.

F-8J Crusader, Air Zoo, Portage, MI

F-8J Crusader, Air Zoo, Portage, MI

After dinner, we walked around the downtown area.  The former train station and freight building have been converted to offices for public service organizations.  The restoration of the old buildings seems very nicely done.  We also saw some Corvairs driving around downtown.  At the Kalamazoo Mall (formerly Burdick Street), we discovered that Kalamazoo was the first U.S. city to close a downtown street to vehicle traffic and create a pedestrian mall, when Burdick Street was closed for several blocks.  In 1957, one lane of southbound traffic was allowed on Kalamazoo Mall starting at Michigan Avenue.  This section of the mall is lined with shops and restaurants, along with historic markers.  One marker chronicled the Upjohn Brothers pill manufacturing business, which later became Upjohn Pharmaceuticals (and was eventually purchased by Pfizer).  Another highlighted the efforts of Dutch farmers to grow celery on the marshy banks of the Kalamazoo River.  One water fountain on the mall informed that the name “Kalamazoo” is derived from a Potawatomi phrase meaning “boiling pot”, and is believed to refer to a footrace conducted by local Native Americans where contestants would have to race to the river and back before a pot of water came to a boil.  We walked around the Bronson Hospital and past a large Pfizer complex and an equally large Zoetis facility.  These buildings had likely been Upjohn facilities before the Pfizer takeover.  Zoetis is an animal health company recently spun out of Pfizer.  Now that it was getting dark, we returned to the hotel, where Jon was disappointed with the WiFi, which was intermittent at best.

On July 19, we headed for the convention headquarters at the Four Points Sheraton early that morning.  Jon was to do a reading/signing later in the day, and we arrived early to see if we could start selling books before hand.  Several very helpful members of the local Corvair Owners clubs helped us set up a table in the lobby for book sales before Jon’s presentation that afternoon.  The local club folks could not have been nicer to us, both in helping us with sales and also in pointing out rare Corvairs that were parked outside the hotel.  The 1961 Monza convertible that William Mitchell, the Corvair’s designer, had specially made as a 16th birthday present for his daughter was parked under a tent, and I was given a guided tour pointing out all of its special features.  We did such a good job of selling books that morning and early afternoon that Jon’s presentation turned out to be an anticlimax.  He did sign some books, but attendance was sparse.

Only SR-71B Blackbird trainer in existence, Air Zoo, Portage, MI

Only SR-71B Blackbird trainer in existence, Air Zoo, Portage, MI

That night we attended the CORSA banquet which was held at the Air Zoo (www.airzoo.org) in nearby Portage, MI.  The museum houses the only SR-71B Blackbird trainer still in existence (see this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SPPXUT1BUM showing a NASA SR-71B at a 1997 air show, and note the two cockpits), and also contains the world’s largest indoor mural.  The aircraft from its collection that were on display that night included WWII aircraft like the B-25 Mitchell bomber, two P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, and the experimental XP-55 Ascender.  The banquet tables were arrayed inside the museum among the aircraft, which was exciting for someone like me who has been into airplanes since elementary school.  It seemed to be a hit with most of the attendees as well.  One of the aircraft on display this evening was a U.S. Navy F-8J Crusader that had “USS Oriskany” painted on its fuselage.  It didn’t take long to confirm my recollection that the USS Oriskany had been an aircraft carrier.  The Crusader was first made famous as the aircraft that a Marine pilot named John Glenn flew on the first transcontinental supersonic flight (Los Alamitos, CA to Floyd Bennett Field, NY in 3 hours, 23 min) in 1956.

At our table were Corvair enthusiasts from Colorado and Pennsylvania.  All the Corvair people had stories about breakdowns (the last one was made in 1969 after all) and receiving help from other Corvair owners over the years.  Jon managed to sell a few books while the banquet was in progress.  The food was good – and plentiful – and everyone seemed to have a very good time.

As we left the Air Zoo, we could see large purple clouds in the night sky moving in from the northwest.  As we drove back to the hotel the wind picked up and there were a few lightning flashes along the edge of the clouds.  We managed to get back to the hotel before the storm hit, but after we were in our room the thunder and lightning started in earnest.  Although there wasn’t a lot of rain associated with this weather front, the wind, and lightning were pronounced.  Power to our room went out on at least three occasions, but was restored very quickly.  Eventually, the storm passed and we went to sleep.

Corvairs on display, Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Creek, MI

Corvairs on display, Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Creek, MI

We awoke on July 20 and got ready to go to the final events of the CORSA Convention which were being held outdoors at the Gilmore Car Museum (www.gilmorecarmuseum.org) in nearby Hickory Creek, MI.  The Gilmore Car Museum is the outgrowth of the retirement “hobby” of Donald S. Gilmore.  Mr. Gilmore retired as President of The Upjohn Company in 1961, and his wife Genevieve gave him a 1920 Pierce Arrow in need of restoration as a birthday present in 1963.  Mr. Gilmore’s collection of restored classic automobiles quickly grew to 30, and he purchased 90 acres of nearby farm land and had several historic barns dismantled and moved to the site in order to house his collection.  Mrs. Gilmore then suggested that by turning the collection into a museum open to the public, the restored automobiles could be enjoyed by generations to come.  The collection was first opened to the public on July 31, 1966.  Today, the museum includes eight barns with 75 classic cars on display at any given time, a restored 1930s gas station, an authentic (and working) diner, and a restored London Transit double-decker bus.

We set off for the Family Dollar store on Westnedge Street to purchase some folding chairs for the day’s event.  We would need something to sit on in the outdoor setting.  Fortunately, a member of the Detroit Area Corvair Club had volunteered to let us use his folding table to display Jon’s book.  We found just what we were looking for-the lightweight tubular frame chairs with stretched fabric seats and backs folks take to little league games- marked down to $8.75.  After our purchases, we drove out to the Gilmore Museum.  On the way we noticed a lot of storm damage, with downed limbs piled along the side of the roads and some smaller trees completely blown over.  Fortunately the storm had passed completely and with it went the stifling heat.  The day would remain sunny, and the temperature would just barely reach the 80 degree mark.

We drove out to the museum on the M-43, and as we passed through the town of Richland we encountered a traffic jam caused by that town’s Saturday morning flea market.  Finally arriving at the museum, we carried books and chairs with us as we walked through the entry gates.  The ticket takers just said “Corvair Club” and let us in without having to relinquish our one day passes.  As we made our way past buildings housing the Ford and Franklin Motors collections we saw the barns off to our right with dozens of Corvairs parked in the open fields surrounding them.  Along the main paved road leading from the Pierce Arrow barn to the restored gas station, Corvairs were parked on both sides, with the 1959-1964 models parked on the right, and the 1965-1969 models (or “late models”) parked on the left.  Our friends from the Detroit Area Club had their 1960 Corvairs parked in a nicely shaded spot just beyond one of the barns, and we set up table and chairs in the gap between their two red cars.

Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, Lincoln Mk. II, and 1957 Chevrolet among vintage cars on display, Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Creek, MI

Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, Lincoln Mk. II, and 1957 Chevrolet among vintage cars on display, Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Creek, MI

We encountered many of the folks we had met at the convention hotel on Friday, and they told us that the hotel had had its power knocked out by the storm, that the power would not be restored before Monday, and that all the guests had to leave.  Thank goodness that we were staying somewhere else.  Our hotel may have had its shortcomings, but at least it had weathered the storm!

We sold a few books, had a few laughs, and talked with a lot of really friendly Corvair owners.  Never having owned a Corvair I am not a member of the “tribe,” but I have never attended a Corvair event with Jon where I wasn’t treated like family.  There were a lot of Corvairs all around us, and a walk through showed license plates from all over the country, but mostly from the mid west.  Some had been meticulously restored, some were obviously works in progress, and some were cars that are driven every day and were displayed “as is.”

One exhibit on display was the last Corvair body produced.  It was a garnet red Monza coupe built by Fisher Body in May of 1969 but not assigned a production number because it was not known at the time if an engine would be produced for it.  As it turns out, an engine was not produced and the body was left an orphan.  How a Corvair Club member came to own this body was not spelled out at the display.

At 2 pm, all the Corvair events had been completed, and the Corvairs started disappearing.  We folded up our borrowed table and thanked our benefactors as they prepared to go home.  Then we put the books and chairs back in Jon’s car and decided to have a look around the museum in the four hours it was scheduled to remain open.

The Gilmore Car Museum is quite an experience!  If you have any interest in vintage automobiles, or unusual cars, or motorcycles, or just Americana, you will find that a visit here is well worth your while.  We spent over 3-1/2 hours touring the barns and buildings examining the dozens of cars on display.  The barns are not air conditioned (the buildings are) so the loft levels get pretty warm during a summer afternoon.  There is an entire barn devoted to Cadillacs and LaSalles, and another houses a Tucker (along with displays telling the Tucker story and an audio of Preston Tucker describing his concept for the car), along with a DeSoto Suburban (the same car the Cunningham’s drove in the “Happy Days” TV series), Edsel Ford’s personal Lincoln Zephyr, and a display of wooden tires Mr. Upjohn had made and used during WWII on the ground floor.  Upstairs in this barn is a Chrysler Airflow, a Hudson roadster, several Ford V-8s from the 1930s, a 1935 Packard, and a 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.

"The Boulder", Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, PA

“The Boulder”, Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, PA

The main building starts off with a history of the Franklin Automobile Company- Franklins were luxury models produced in Syracuse, NY from 1902-1930, and every one produced had an air-cooled engine.  Walking through the building, you see a collection of automobiles produced in Kalamazoo, with the Checker Motor Company being most prominent.  Ed Cole, the “Father of the Corvair” was the President of the Checker Motor Company at the time of his death.  Further along in the main building, you will see a number of Corvettes, Packards, Hudsons, a 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, a Studebaker Avanti, one of the Chrysler Turbine cars, a 1956 Lincoln Mk II, and many other distinctive automobiles.  We were amazed at the number of beautiful Auburns, Lincolns, Cadillacs, and Packards on display.  The loft of one of the barns houses a beautiful 1936 Cord 810 with its hidden headlights and front wheel drive.  Did you know that the first cars used by the Indiana State Police were 1936 Auburns and Cords (they were built in Connersville, IN)?  We could easily have spent the full day looking through the collection.  The Gilmore Car Museum is a must-see if you are in West Michigan.

We finally left the museum just before closing, and after a brief stop at our hotel found our way south to an Olive Garden for dinner.  We had wanted to visit a restaurant near the convention headquarters hotel, but they did not answer their phone so we assumed that the restaurant was without power.  As we made our way to the Olive Garden we saw several businesses that were not open due to the power outage.  Back at our hotel, someone had a dog in the corridor and it didn’t stop barking until after we complained to the front desk.

And then on Sunday, July 21, our time in Kalamazoo was over and we headed back east.  We made our gas and Panera stop at an Ohio Turnpike rest area-this time a little closer to the Indiana Border.  I took over the driving at this point.  As we drove past the Lordstown assembly plant we noticed that there were no workers cars parked in the parking lot.  They weren’t making Chevy Cruzes on this Sunday.  Entering Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you first drive to the Warrendale Mainline Toll Plaza 30 miles into the state, where you pay a $5.25 toll and receive your ticket indicating what you will be paying when you exit the mainline of the Turnpike.  We stopped at the Oakmont Plum Service Plaza to see if we could get information about the Flight 93 Memorial (www.nps.gov/flni/index.htm), and attend to other issues.  While Jon was connecting his lap top to the plaza’s WiFi, I found a brochure on the Memorial.  Summer hours have the Memorial closing at 7 pm with last entry at 6:30 pm.  Jon took the wheel once again and we exited the Turnpike at Somerset and took PA-281 north to US 219 north to the US 30 east exit.  After 8.5 miles on the Lincoln Highway (and after passing a massive automobile salvage lot in Stoystown), you turn right at the National Park Service sign and drive about 1.5 miles to the parking area and visitor shelter.  The drive into the park is in the process of being landscaped, and it consists of parts of old roads from before 9/11, so your GPS might lose track of you for a bit.

Memorial Wall (Todd Beamer's name is on the second panel), Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, PA

Memorial Wall (Todd Beamer’s name is on the second panel), Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, PA

The Visitor Shelter area contains posters showing pictures of the victims, a graphic of the path of the doomed airliner in relation to the Memorial lay out, and pictures of rescue and investigation scenes.  I became choked up when I looked at the pictures of the victims, and my reaction was accentuated when I realized that a group was gathered in the Visitor Shelter and praying.  A walk lined with low tiled walls and some benches leads to the Memorial Wall which has the names of the victims inscribed on its panels.  The tiled walls also have slots where offerings and remembrances for the victims can be placed.   Out in the field to your left as you approach the wall is the large boulder that marks the end of the crater created as the airplane plowed into the earth.  You can also see the boulder and what was the crash site behind it through a viewing slot between the tiled wall and the Memorial wall.  This is a place of great reverence, much like the 9/11 Memorial in New York.  I think that Jon and I didn’t speak more than five words while we were at the Memorial.  Our visit was a very moving experience.

Then it was back onto US 30 east to Breezewood where we ate Italian sandwiches at the Sheetz service station.  Then we retraced our steps on I-70, US 522, VA-37, I-81, and I-64 and were back in Charlottesville just before 10 pm.  We put my car back on the street so Jon could park his car in his garage space.  After mulling over the idea of my driving back to Arlington that night, I decided to wait until the next morning.  And with that, our trip was over.

I was really glad to have had the chance to see Kalamazoo and its environs, and to have been able to visit the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville.  I found the people of West Michigan to be very friendly.  And the Flight 93 Memorial will be a moving and memorable experience for anyone who visits.

One of the great things about car travel is that no matter the route you have planned, you are bound to find something interesting along the way that you hadn’t expected.  Happy travels!