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Big Trip 2011 - Day 13: The Back Side of Water

We decided that before we left Niagara Falls, we really had to spend a bit more time viewing the falls. So, we opted to go on the “Journey Behind the Falls,” a self-guided tour through some of the tunnels that were built behind the Canadian falls. After a short wait, obligatory tourist photo with cheesy background inserted, and the acquisition of a very thin plastic rain poncho (think Saran Wrap), we descended 144 feet in an elevator to the tunnels and were left to our own devices. We saw the falls from behind in a couple of places, got sprayed, and read some signs about the erosion of the falls, the power generated by them, the people that have gone over them, etc. It was good touristy fun.

Then it was off to Rochester, New York via the Rainbow Bridge. Actually, first up was a drive by the Goodyear factory where Brad worked way back when and his old apartment in North Tonawanda. The part of the factory where he worked is completely gone now, but the apartment building is still there! After our little walk down memory lane, we had lunch at Ted’s Hot Dogs, where they grill your red hot (or sausage) right in front of you to your liking, followed by frozen custard (no, we will never tire of it’s delicious creaminess!) at Anderson’s to fortify us for the long journey all the way to Rochester!

Big Trip 2011 - Day 12: Across (a Bit of) Canada

Back on the road today, but just for a short day of driving this time. We drove up through Detroit to Port Huron, where we crossed the St. Clair River into Canada. As I got to thinking, I realized I’d never seen Lake Huron before today. Cool. Our drive through Ontario was blissfully uneventful. We stopped in London for lunch at a place called Archie’s. The sign said it was a seafood place, which it was, but they also serve breakfast all day, so we all had our second breakfast of the day. Delicious.

We drove on to Niagara Falls and got to our hotel mid-afternoon. The walk down to the falls took us through the supremely tacky Clifton Hill area, which put us all in a bad mood. It didn’t help that rudeness is rampant among Niagara Falls visitors. We made it down to the falls, oooh and aaahed a bit, and headed back up the hill to look for some dinner. We managed to find a pretty good wood-fired pizza place (Antica Pizza) somewhat removed from the craziness up on Victoria Ave. It was crowded and loud, but the pizza was excellent.

After dinner, the boys got in some swimming before settling in to watch some videos on the iPad. Our room doesn’t have a view of the falls and the fireworks, but we managed to see a bit of the fireworks from the window at the end of the hall.

Big Trip 2011 - Day 11: Dearborn

Another thoroughly exhausting day today, but in a good way. We visited the The Henry Ford Museum and Dearborn Village.

It was a whirlwind tour; we could have spent days in each place, but we had only one day for both. The Henry Ford Museum has huge collections of cars, trains, farm equipment, early industrial machines such as generators and steam engines, and more. They even have a Dymaxion House, designed by Buckminster Fuller (he of the geodesic dome); theirs is the only one to have ever been lived in. After touring it, we could see why. It was cool (especially the automated rotating storage shelves) but not as a place to live. Unless living in a drafty metal can is your thing.

The boys loved all of this stuff, but particular highlights were the combine harvester they got to sit in and pretend to drive and the Model T exhibit. There was a pretend assembly line where they got to build their own Model T toys. Better yet, there was a real Model T that they got to help build (they attached the gas tank!). Every day, the museum allows visitors to help build a Model T. By mid-afternoon, it’s ready to drive. At the end of the day, they disassemble it and start the whole process over the next day. The main auto exhibit at the museum was closed for a major renovation, which meant that about a third of the museum was closed. There was plenty to see anyway, but we’ll have to come back again when the renovation is done.

After an all-too-short morning at the museum, we headed over to Greenfield Village, the historic area next to the museum. Here, Henry Ford collected many historic buildings from all over the country (the Wright brothers’ home and bicycle shop; Edison’s workshops and offices; and many others).  It’s a little like Colonial Williamsburg, but for a different era. Our first order of business was a late lunch at the Eagle Tavern. We had a delicious meal of 1850s tavern food: pork patties, chicken pot pie, and lemonade served with a pasta noodle straw (much to Charlie’s delight.) And yes, he did eat part of his straw.

Unfortunately, the village closes at 5pm, so we really had to cram things in. We managed to ride the carousel, ride a Model T with a delightful driver who let Henry steer for a bit, ride a steam train, eat frozen custard, watch part of the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball (no gloves! no sliding! no cussing! no spitting!), check out Edison’s work shop, and get very sweaty.

A swim at the hotel’s outdoor pool (with a real deep end: 12 feet!) was in order when we returned exhausted and sticky. We squeaked in about 30 minutes in the water before a real midwest thunderstorm came barreling through, wind gusting, lightning flashing, rain pouring. We barely made it back to the Oliver Walcott house before the skies opened up. The kids were seriously impressed. We don’t have storms like that in Seattle.

Big Trip 2011 - Day 10: Dearborn Bound

Today we bid goodbye to Chicago with more than a bit of sadness. We loved our stay there and all four of us are anxious to go back again soon. I think a week-long Chicago trip might be in order sometime soon (maybe over spring break?). Though we were sad to go, it’s good to get back on the road again, too. We had a little detour on our way out of Chicago when Kathy missed the ramp onto 90 East. It gave us a chance to see a different side of Chicago than we’d seen during our stay.

Our original plan had been to zip right across Michigan to the Detroit area. A few weeks before the start of our trip, I found out which cemetery in Grand Rapids my great grandparents are buried in, so we took a slightly longer route up through Grand Rapids. It was a nice enough drive and the weather was gorgeous, but unfortunately we arrived at the cemetery fifteen minutes after the office closed for the day. It’s not a huge cemetery, but it was much too big for us to search through late on a Friday afternoon. We took a few minutes to make a cursory search of one small section before the futility of our search fully sank in. Ah, well, at least I know they’re there somewhere.

We arrived in Dearborn a little after 8pm and checked into our hotel. Before we even went in, I had a bad feeling about the place. Not that it was particularly dirty or unsafe, just a little run down. When we went in, the smell of stale smoke hit us. Ugh. Though we had booked (and received) a non-smoking room, the smell was pervasive. These days the smoke issue barely crosses my mind when making reservations as so many places are smoke-free. It didn’t help matters that the room was also small, cramped, and dated or that the faux colonial look came across as tacky. For a single quick night we could probably make do (we’ve certainly stayed in far worse), but the thought of coming back to that room after a tiring day at The Henry Ford Museum tomorrow was… unpleasant. I got out my computer and made a reservation at the historic Dearborn Inn a couple miles away. I’d passed it over originally because of the price, but booking at the last minute fetched me a great price–only a few bucks more than the first place. We checked back out, went to dinner, and headed to our new hotel.

The Dearborn Inn is a classic. It was designed by Albert Kahn to Henry Ford’s exacting standards and opened in 1931. Later in the 30s, several colonial homes were constructed behind the main building, replicas of the homes of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Patrick Henry and others. The whole place has been lovingly renovated and restored more than once over the years and looks gorgeous. When we finally checked in after ten, they upgraded us to a suite in one of the colonial homes. Score! I’m so glad we didn’t settle for the stinky smoke pit. For a few bucks more, we were in a huge suite in a beautiful replica of Oliver Walcott’s house. (Kathy says it smells, too, but more like her grandmother’s attic. Nostalgic rather than repellant.)

There was more to the day, of course, but not much of note: our third Culver’s visit and a couple stops at Starbucks. I wonder if they do any data mining on Starbucks Card usage. I’m sure my usage pattern must be interesting: months with no usage at all followed by periods with multiple visits per day, all out-of-town.

Big Trip 2011 - Day 9: Chicago Museums

Our last day in Chicago. There’s so much we know we won’t be able to do on this trip, but we managed to do a few things on our list today. We started off with another ‘L’ ride, this time south from the hotel to the Roosevelt station.

From there it was about a half mile walk to the Field Museum. On the way, we passed through the south end of Grant Park and wandered through another bit of public art: Agora by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. It’s a group of about 100 ten-foot-tall rusty iron legs milling about. The boys both loved it. As we walked among the legs, Kathy pointed out that this must be what it’s like to be a little kid: the whole world is just a bunch of legs ascending up out of view.

The Field Museum was another hit. It feels like the canonical museum to me (though I grew up with the Smithsonian). Maybe it’s because it seems like the museum in Curious George. We didn’t have any hope of seeing everything, but we did take our time in a handful of exhibits: one on ancient Egypt, another on Pacific Island culture, geography, and geology, yet another on gems and minerals. There was also a very sad moment at lunchtime: for the first time on this trip, we ate at a McDonalds. I call it a sad moment only in the general loathing-of-McDonalds sense; we actually had a fine time and the boys loved their Happy Meals.

After the Field, we walked past the Shedd Aquarium to the Adler Planetarium. We got there just in time to make it to the monthly sky talk in the fancy digital planetarium (not the big main planetarium). It was a huge disappointment to me, just as every planetarium presentation I’ve seen has been for last few years (with the notable exception of the one Henry and I saw at the UW Astronomy Department). The presentation at the Adler was wandering and disjointed and the projected stars were fuzzy and dim. The whole point of a planetarium is the almost magical experience of having day turned to night and the ceiling ripped from the building to see the stars in all their splendor. A good planetarium really looks like the sky on a dark night in the country; this one looked like the projection it was. On the bright side, Charlie loved it, so it wasn’t a total waste. The rest of the museum at the Adler was pretty good, too. We could have spent another couple hours there if we weren’t all completely exhausted.

Oh, one other thing at the Adler Planetarium. We missed out on experiencing the Atwood Sphere. It’s the oldest planetarium in Chicago: a simple metal sphere with tiny holes poked in it to let light from outside shine through as stars. A small platform ascends up into the sphere on a sloped track, from which you can experience the stars first hand. For me, it was the coolest thing I saw all day and I was thoroughly disappointed that we didn’t have time to experience it. Maybe next time.

After a long and tiring day, we just had a quick dinner at Chipotle near the hotel. Again, we slept well.

Big Trip 2011 - Day 8: ChicaGo Go Go

Back in the car today, but no long-distance driving. We started the day with a drive north to one of Chicago’s most beautiful cemeteries. Graceland was opened in 1860, when this area was well north of the city limits. Almost from the start, Graceland was Chicago’s “upper crust” cemetery. Among its headstones and mausoleums are a who’s who of Chicago society: Marshall Field, George Pullman, Philip Armour, mayors, governors, senators, and more than a few notable architects (Burnham and Root, Adler and Sullivan, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Netsch). Among the well-to-do are a few less august people, like a grocer and his wife, and a piano finisher. They’re the ones I’m interested in. The grocer was Jacob Oestmann, an immigrant from Germany who opened his store a year after he arrived in Chicago and ran it until his death 60 years later. Jacob was my great great grandfather.

The piano finisher was another great great grandfather of mine. Johann Knuth was a German immigrant, too, from the town of Swinemünde on the Baltic Sea (now in Poland). His son Charles married Jacob’s daughter Anna.

When we visited Chicago back in 1994 or so, I didn’t know nearly as much as I do now about my family history. I had only started working on my genealogy a couple years before and at that point almost everything I knew was based on research by others. Nonetheless, I knew Jacob and Fenne Oestmann were buried in Graceland Cemetery. We found their graves thanks in part to some very kind people at the cemetery office. At the time, though, I didn’t have a camera with me (can you believe it?). This time I did:

Since then, I’ve unearthed a lot more information about my Chicago ancestors, including a death certificate for Johann Knuth, who died “From Asthma” in 1887 at the ripe old age of 59. Death certificates back then didn’t include burial information, but the word “Graceland” was written at an angle across the right side of the document. So I asked at the cemetery office today and there is indeed a “John Knuth” with the right death date buried in Graceland. Unfortunately, he’s buried in one of the older sections of the cemetery with small flat stones, many of which are heavily weathered or overgrown. Map in hand, Henry and I headed out on our search and almost immediately found him! The stone was indeed heavily weathered, but it was easy to make out “Johann Knuth” and the death date.

Kathy thought of a trick we saw used in Denmark on the Jelling Stones: we doused the stone in water. It was immediately easier to read, but at just the right angle, it was even easier. Cool.

With that success under our belt, we headed off to Lincolnshire, Illinois, home of the mighty Par-King Skill Golf. When we were planning this trip, we asked Charlie what he wanted to do and his answer was “play mini-golf.” So we read a variety of “best mini-golf” lists and compiled our own list of places somewhat near our route. One that showed up on almost every list was Par-King. I’m pretty sure that on some level, Charlie thinks this whole trip is about going to Par-King. Anyway, we finally made it and all those lists are right: it’s a great mini-golf place. There are actually two separate courses (we did the red course). The holes aren’t particularly difficult or wacky, they’re just very well designed and creative classic mini-golf holes. I’m not sure I’d drive half an hour north of Chicago just for Par-King, but for Charlie’s sake it was worth it.

Another place we’d heard about before our trip was Superdawg Drive-In, a Chicago institution that has been serving Chicago-style hot dogs since the 1940s. We planned to go to the original Superdawg in Chicago proper, but on our way back from Par-King, we stumbled upon their second location in Wheeling. We took full advantage of the “Drive-In” part of Superdawg and stayed in our car for carhop service. The Superdawg is indeed a Super Dog.

On the way back into Chicago, we had to take a detour because of construction on one of the highway ramps. The detour took us past another Chicago cemetery with some ancestors of interest, so we stopped by Mount Olive Cemetery. This is another one we’d been to before and I had no trouble finding the graves of Heinrich and Ane Marie Mohr, my great great grandparents. Unfortunately, we had no luck finding another grave that’s supposed to be there. The section it’s in has a lot of missing and weathered stones, so I’m not surprised.

Update: Coincidentally, the same day we were out at Mount Olive Cemetery, I received an email from a distant cousin (another of Heinrich and Ane Marie’s descendants) with a photograph of a painting Heinrich made. I responded that I never knew he painted artistically (Henry was primarily the craftsman sort of painter, not the artistic kind). My cousin told me, “[Henry] was supposed to have painted the ballroom of The Palmer House and a large Santa mural on the Ward’s department store at State and Adams.” It’s funny… A few years back I heard from another cousin that Henry had supposedly come to Chicago to work on the gilt work at the Great Columbian Exposition. Each branch of the family carries forward a different piece of the story.

Back at the hotel, we had just enough time for the boys to go swimming before we had to leave for Wrigley Field. We took the Red Line ‘L’, which was very convenient. There’s a station just across from the hotel and another next to Wrigley Field. Along the way, we got to experience one of the delights of city life: a slightly-crazy street preacher in our subway car. I’m still not quite sure what Charlie made of the guy, but I was quite amused by his pronunciation of “Jesus,” which sounded almost exactly like “cheeses.” Yes! Yes, I do have love for cheeses in my heart!

Wrigley Field! The Cubbies! What an experience. I’ve always heard about the unique and different feel of the old classic ballparks like Wrigley and Fenway, but couldn’t really relate until today. Wrigley feels less like a behemoth megasportsplex and more like a few simple grandstands on steroids. Sure the concourses are crowded and the walk up the ramps to the top level (where our seats were) is long, but the place feels like it’s all about baseball. No jumbotron, no annoying announcements or trivia contests, no dancing grounds crew; just baseball, pure and simple. Despite being way up high, our seats felt improbably close to the field. And for whatever reason, Charlie was able to stay in his seat and watch a good six innings of baseball (three or four more than he can usually handle at Safeco). It’s not all wine and roses, though. For one thing, there are far too few bathrooms for a full stadium. And if you want to eat or drink at the ballpark, your choices are pretty limited. On the whole, though, I could live with the limitations if I could see the M’s play in a field like Wrigley every game.

The ‘L’ ride back to the hotel was quick and painless, especially given the crowds packing the platform and train. I suppose it helped that the Cubs won. Still, it makes me anxious for the day Seattle’s light rail and trolley lines extend close enough to our house to be useful.

We slept well.

Big Trip 2011 - Day 7: The Windy City

Our first day in the Windy City. We had a huge late breakfast at a place called Eggsperience (Charlie particularly enjoyed this pun). As expected, it was eggsellent (no eggzaggeration!). The day was in the low 80s, dry and breezy, about as good as it gets in August in Chicago. We headed energetically down the Magnificent Mile, with the plan to stop briefly at Millenium Park to see “The Bean” before going to the Art Institute. Our plans were hijacked by Millenium Park itself. There was a huge tent set up with all sorts of kids activities as part of a Family Fun Festival we stumbled upon. Then Henry was enthralled by the orchestra practicing at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. And The Bean (aka Cloud Gate), don’t forget that!

Finally, as we were leaving the park (or so we thought), we stopped at the Crown Fountain. A hot, dry day and a fountain begging to be played in… hmm. After some hesitation from Charlie, the boys both had a blast splashing and getting wet. Did I say wet? I mean soaked. So much so that we were worried we’d get kicked out of the Art Institute. We wrung out their shirts and did our best to get them dry before finally heading to the Art Institute.

Kathy and I had been to the Art Institute back when Mary & Dean lived in Chicago. It must have been a pretty quick visit, though, because I don’t remember much of it. With two kids in tow, we figured this visit would be pretty quick, too. How wrong we were! They were both really into it. From the Arms & Armor exhibits of medieval armament to the great collection of Impressionist art (Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is there among many others) to the Egyptian Art, it was a big hit. How could this be? Has Charlie turned a corner? Who knows… we’ll take what we can get. On the walk back to the hotel, we wandered through the Lurie Garden in Millenium Park and stopped by Intelligentisa Coffee for some delicious espresso drinks.

The boys unwound with a long swim in the hotel pool. It’s a great pool: up on the 17th floor with sweeping views of the city. Of course, our room is directly below the pool on the 16th floor, which is a little unnerving.

After their swim, we walked a few blocks north to Giordano’s for dinner. I understand the battle lines are drawn over Chicago Pizza superiority: Giordano’s, Gino’s East, Uno/Due, and Lou Malnati’s all have their supporters. We couldn’t try them all, but Giordano’s was great.

They have a pretty cool system, too. Their stuffed pizza takes a long time to cook, so to help speed things up, you place your pizza order before your table is ready. In our case, we had about an hour wait for a table. Fifteen minutes into the wait, we ordered our pizza. Once we were seated, our pizza was ready right away. Smart.