"Small-town Living"
By Capt. Fred Davis
Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I wrote this column after reading the great Labor Day special section featuring families from around the Thumb. I wonder how those families will be impacted by future tax structures and government powers beyond local control. Many of the changes that occurred in the small town I live in came about due to state and federal actions and directives that often had to be paid for and maintained with local tax dollars.

As I see it, all of Michigan’s small villages are being pulled into the state’s problems. Even though small towns have elected boards to govern them, their leaders’ hands are tied. The percentage of tax dollars small communities once received has shrunk and those elected as their representatives seem to ignore them. The smaller the towns (and votes) the less consideration they get.

Those of us living in small towns are expected to pay taxes and support leaders and their objectives and ideas financially, yet our needs and wants are often overlooked. A past example of government imposition is evident along Main Street in Port Austin. At one time as you approached the village, after traveling north through many small towns lined by farmland, you found yourself in a tunnel of trees that reached overhead from curb to curb. It was a sight like no other in the Thumb. As you passed through the tree-lined tunnel, the blue waters of Lake Huron appeared. Passing along the two blocks of Main Street you came to a flashing yellow traffic light.

The two blocks of M-53 leading to the lake had a variety of family owned and operated businesses. They all seemed to fair well; owners’ kids helped at the stores during busy summer seasons. When they got a few dollars together and had a little time off, they had choices of where to spend their hard-earned money. There was a theater with a soda fountain two doors away; Putt-Putt was kitty-corner from the show; and the roller rink was just past the main intersection of town.

When they were broke, there was always the beautiful, sandy beach and plenty of fish to be caught. It was an ideal small town life for many, especially youngsters.

There were summer residents from down state who could not wait to get to what was considered “way up north.” There was an old saying in many of our Thumb towns about the visitors: “If you shot a BB gun down Main Street on Memorial Day, you might kill several dozen people. Fire a canon down the street after Labor Day and no one would notice.”

I was a summer resident in Port Austin in the 1950s before I moved here in the 1960s. It was a flourishing town. During summer months it was busy around the clock with traffic so heavy most people preferred walking. They would stroll over to Sturm’s Scenic Dairy for a jumbo ice cream cone then walk to the harbor and watch the sunset. Kids would flock to the roller rink, one of the largest meeting places in the county for young summer visitors. A large county campground sat a block from the stoplight where families came to spend a few days or the entire summer. Campsites were also located west of town at Gallup Park.

I mentioned lots of traffic. It often backed up all the way to the school (which provided a great education for the town’s youngsters). There was more traffic on one weekend in the past than we see in an entire summer now. To serve all the vehicles, Port Austin had five gas stations within a mile of the downtown area. Cabins and cottages for rent were full all summer long.

Progress and the government also came to Port Austin. It was decided the main street had to be widened so all the beautiful trees that lined the avenue were cut down. It’s still hard to understand. Trees were removed to widen an area of highway one-mile long, serving only two lanes of traffic at each end. I may have the order of change a little mixed up, but another government decision was to close the county trailer park. It was explained there were no taxes being collected from the people who lived there all summer long. The area became an empty park area – and no tax dollars were paid plus a lot fewer dollars were spent in town because the people who lived in the park went elsewhere. The area described needed a good amount of upkeep at the village’s expense. Recently, grant funding plus a portion being matched by village funds, has provided a beautiful waterfront park. An on-going grant-funding project will result in total restoration of the harbor area. The campsites at Gallup Park were also eliminated and that park was developed into a ballpark complex and the existing tennis court was enlarged and rebuilt along with a covered pavilion. Some grants were obtained for that area also, but much of the development depended upon local funding.

At some time, the state changed the flashing light at the main intersection in Port Austin to a regular traffic light and just recently upgraded it, at a cost of thousands of dollars, into a traffic control with flashing walk signs. This past month, four-way stop signs were installed and the traffic light will soon be removed. How much can it cost to maintain a traffic light, especially one only working during summer months?

Our roller rink burned down and the property sat empty for years until a condominium complex was built overlooking the harbor. The theater was purchased by a very industrious group, PACP, which has for 25 years constantly upgraded and improved the building. Broadway shows and other community activities are hosted there year-round.

Putt-Putt golf celebrated 50 years of entertaining young and old this past summer. The five fuel stops have been reduced to one, and the school closed due to consolidation and the building was sold to a thrift business.

Small towns in the Thumb are losing their quaintness. Our children may hardly know what small town life is like if the government continues to dictate how they exist. Huron County is made up of 26 small towns and three cities. They all work together, hosting community events to demonstrate and accentuate the enjoyment of living in a rural, small town environment. Each individually does a great job. If the state and federal government would leave them alone and simply give them their fair share of the taxes collected, they would continue doing so.



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