Down the Indian Trails
By Jeff Kenney, Editor of the Culver Citizen
I remember an episode of the TV series “The Wonder Years” in which the youthful main characters learned that a small but beloved patch of woodland in their area would be bulldozed in favor of a parking lot. Rather than chaining themselves to the trees as they had contemplated, they spontaneously found themselves playing tag one last time, after dark, in the woods, the episode ending with the usual nostalgia-inducing, wistful music and commentary.
The Indian trails between the town park and Culver Academies don’t have quite that much nostalgic pull for me, but each time I walk the trails — which I’ve been doing since before I could walk — I think I ought to pay tribute to all the hours of fun they provided me, and for that matter, my own children, through the years.
I wish I knew exactly how the “Indian trails” came to be called by that moniker, except that a reprint of an earlier map I stumbled upon a few years ago shows a line marked “Indian trail” winding around most of the lake, and I think it’s safe to say that the tiny patch of woods we have today is probably the remnant of that actual “Indian trail.”
What we do know is that Plymouth newspaper man Daniel McDonald and his fishing/hunting buddies built a substantial clubhouse there (the Lakeview Club) in the 1870s when it was pretty wild and wooly, before selling the land to the Vandalia railroad, which ran its rail line just north of the club and redubbed the structure the Lakeview Hotel, which it stayed through the heyday of Culver’s tourist years. By the late 1920s, the Culver family had purchased the land and the then-empty Lakeview, which promptly burned in 1929.
When I was little, my mom told me there had been functional “lower” trails in her childhood, which I have since learned were actually the paths leading to the Lakeview’s (and the adjacent hotel, the Jungle’s) steamboat piers.
One of the great thrills of my young life was my sister leading the two of us on an expedition to explore the “lower” trails, which weren’t quite as washed out and hazardous as they are today, but close. Part of that journey — which I’ve since taken with my own daughter — was “Indiana Jones”-esque!
Some of my earliest memories are of my poor dad hauling my sister and I, in our red wagon, through the Indian trails and across part of the Academy campus, even before I was able to walk. I remember — walking age by then but still darn small — hearing them talk about finding a giant puff-ball mushroom in that woods, and somehow burned into my memory was a self-generated image of a mushroom much taller than my dad. I honestly was expecting to see it around the next bend as we wandered off the beaten (and paved) path northwards. It never turned up.
I recall, as many do, the old railroad track that still existed in my youth, but was overgrown. My mom, in fact, entertained us with tales of the time, in the 1970s during her tenure as town clerk, a wayward train found itself on our long-defunct Vandalia line and made it as far as the Indian trails woods, where it ran into a near-solid wall of undergrowth and brush. It traveled back to Rochester or somewhere in reverse!
But, by the time I was 9 or 10, enough of that old track had been cleared that my sister, mom, and myself were able to walk it even across Academy road to the next leg of track. Of course today the space is a beautifully cleared walking trail.
Back in the days when it wasn’t uncommon to let a 10- or 11-year-old loose in Culver on his bike (is that safe now?), I biked to the Indian trails and wandered about, always fascinated by the weird gullies that ran from the high bluffs down toward the lake. I followed one down to a sort of earthen platform with a spring bubbling out of it, complete with pipe to channel it, indicating some human, of course, put it all into place.
It was a great, peaceful little spot, since then having been largely washed away. I’ve found it in the past year, and the nifty platform — almost isolated from view elsewhere when I was a kid — is no more, the water from the spring running into the lake from the dilapidated remnants of that pipe. But I have good memories of hanging out there.
In my 20s, when I started hiking pretty much daily through the trails, I imagined the Potawatomi walking the same path, enjoying the same views, and so forth. Of course, once I learned the story of the Lakeview hotel, I noticed most of the trees were actually “new” growth and wouldn’t have been around, of course, when the Indians were...the place had changed over the years.
But the Indian trails have provided so much to so many people. To area kids — myself included and I think my own children, even today — the little woods provides a kind of contained, “safe” place to encounter nature and even occasional wildlife, all adjacent to the town park and lake: a place to ex explore and encounter a little piece of forest.
And that’s worth having...much more than a parking lot (cue nostalgic music and grainy, 8mm film reels from childhood here)...
Jeff Kenney is a Pilot News Group staff writer.