By Jeff Kenney, Culver Citizen editor and Pilot News Group staff writer
As alluded to in a previous column, Culver is headed full-bore into its “summer-ish” schedule, even if that time period really kicks off in late April, and that of course means warm weather. It goes without saying that Culver is a sort of outdoor paradise (or I hope it does), and while we could do a lot better about it, our family has always tried to take advantage of that — heck, it’s a big part of why we choose to live here!
A year or so ago, a reader was discussing with me some of the things she does with her grandkids, and we began to chat about some “regular” activities with my own children, some of which she was unaware existed. She suggested I put together a little list, sometime, in the paper, which is something I’ve been meaning to do, but like so many things haven’t gotten to. In her case, the discussion centered around easy “day trips” with younger children, though it only makes sense to start in Culver proper, for what I assume are obvious reasons.
I’d add that these are cheap or free things to do. Obviously you could instead grab a flight to Disneyworld, but not only do costs add up quickly, I’d like to suggest that most younger children are just as thrilled to hike in the woods as fly across the country. In other words, they haven’t yet had their natural delight in the small, simpler joys of life bred out of them as many of us have, and haven’t yet learned that they’re supposed to be bored unless something is flashing at them, making lots of noise at them, or made of shiny plastic. They will soon learn this lesson, never fear. In the meantime, take advantage of the fact that turning over a log in the forest may be just as fascinating to them as what’s on the Disney Channel. Maybe even more so.
Things to do with children around Culver — outdoor
Some of these are no-brainers, such as the town park and beach. We also spend a fair amount of time on the school playground (though not, of course, when school is in session).
We like to hike, so exploring the Indian trails, east of the town park proper, is always a hit. The more adventurous sort can attempt the “lower” trails along the lakeshore, which has always delighted our son and most other boys along for the ride. If you’re hiking towards the trails, by the way, detour by the fire station and give the kids a “boost” to look in the windows and see the trucks (see — it’s the little things!). If there’s a fireman around and he has time, I bet anything he’d even open the door and let your kids sit in the front seat.
The Culver Academies campus is one of the great treasures of northern Indiana, if not the Midwest, and it always amazes me how many people have lived around here for years but not set foot. If you’re polite and respect appropriate boundaries, the Academy welcomes people to walk along the lakeshore and even to check out some of the “public friendly” buildings. Your children need to do this! There are multiple opportunities for “fun” and also for some interesting learning about architecture, history, and other things.
If you haven’t seen the lake from the huge windows of the second floor of the Huffington Library, you need to. If your child hasn’t walked through the main floor of the Legion Memorial Building, which he or she will swear is a European castle (and it was modeled after one), they need to. The Memorial Chapel is another “must,” and if you come on a summer Saturday afternoon, attend one of John Gouwens’ carillon recitals and for Heaven’s sake, take your kids up the winding, circular stairs to his tour of the bell tower.
Stop by the Riding Hall and pet a horse (again, politely), and let them run around the parade field a while (and when they occur, take them to parades there).
Again, if you’re polite (and it’s not hunting season), hike the Bird Sanctuary. If it’s a summer Saturday evening, you must attend a Council Fire Indian dance there. Your children will love it.
I could ramble on about Culver outdoor sites longer, but moving on...
Things to do with children outside of Culver
I love my community, but when a free Saturday arises and we’ve saved our pennies enough weeks to buy a few gallons of gas (half-joking here), our family sometimes takes short “day” trips. I could write several columns on the subject in elaboration, but a quick tour of some...
Now, we’ve become connoisseurs of area playgrounds. Generally we’re not going to drive 20-40 minutes just to take our kids to a playground, but if you’re on the way anyway, some standouts include Rochester’s community-built Manitou Mountain, which may be our kids’ favorite in the area. Rochester also has a “rails-to-trails” bicycle trail which is excellent, and while in town, stop in at the public library there (my first public library job). You may even run into Culver’s own Jon Gaskill, but even if you don’t, it’s a nice library for kids and you can borrow items with your Culver Public Library Evergreen card and return them in Culver, for free.
Plymouth’s community-built playground at Centennial Park is also excellent, as is the entire park, including the nice walking paths down by the Yellow River, the sledding hill (which in warm weather is great for rolling down, no matter your age), and the older playground east of the main one. In more recent years, Plymouth’s great Riverwalk Trail has been a fantastic addition, and we’ve enjoyed hiking it a great deal.
Have you been to Magnetic Park in Plymouth? It’s a tiny, modest playground, but my kids were fascinated to learn a bit about the flowing well there, which has mineral elements such that people once drank the water for medicinal purposes (it was dubbed “magnetic” water, and hence the park’s name). I’d add that we’ve enjoyed some of the playgrounds, with the kids, of Plymouth’s elementary schools, especially Washington on the south side.
Here’s a weird one, but for adventurous kids, drive the 10 minutes or so southeast of Culver to Dead Man’s College, the late 19th century, one-room schoolhouse built alongside a family cemetery (and of course rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of the children) in Fulton County. Lots of history lessons, and almost every kid enjoys some spookiness!
Last Saturday we had to be near Winamac and took the children to its park, which has a grand, historic suspension bridge over the Tippecanoe River. Similar to Knox’s public park, Winamac’s is a bit of a playground history lesson, and I confess I get a kick out of saying things like, “Those spring-based riding animals — we used to have those in the Culver park. And those two merry-go-rounds are exactly like the kind at the Culver Elementary playground when I was a kid.” It’s all about the kid memories.
As does Knox, Winamac’s park has some very modern equipment, too, which is a hit, but the old stuff is just fun for nostalgic purposes. Near Winamac, of course, is the Tippecanoe State Forest, which includes the ever-popular fire tower, sure to make your palms sweat if you’re nervous of heights and deign to climb it.
Other day-trips include the Hoosier Valley Rail museum in North Judson. You can take a ride, on scheduled days, on a real train there, but even if you don’t, you’re able to wander through several train engines, cars, and cabooses. While you’re there, you can hike or bike the old railroad bed turned paved trail, all the way to Winamac.
Lots to do in LaPorte, but with kids, the Heston Steam Museum is great, complete with “mini” train you can ride (and trestle!), as well as a number of other steam-driven antiques, most of them outdoors. Lots of historic buildings and antique/junk shops to browse in LaPorte, too.
Argos has an excellent park/playground, with a very nice little hiking trail. Keep driving east and you can check out the Potawatomi Wildlife Park, which is another great hike, peppered with various types of landscapes and some historical niceties as well. And it’s free!
In the fall, there’s no place within such a short distance to compare to Yellow River Farms, with its free hay maze, hayride to the pumpkin patch, corn box, animals to see, and (for pay) giant tunnel slide, corn maze, and barrel train rides. That’s west on State Road 8 just 10 minutes or so from Culver.
A bit further is Logansport, but well worth it. One could easily spend a day hiking France Park, the old limestone quarry turned very deep swimming lake (with SCUBA diving, for a fee) and real, live, 70-foot cliffs, an unusual sight north of Indianapolis and sure to delight the kids. Look for the huge sturgeon fish just below the surface. There are miles of hiking trails including remnants of the old (largely immigrant-based) quarry camp, abandoned national canal project, and more.
If you’re in Logansport, it only makes sense to head downtown and take a spin on the 1890s carousel, trying for a chance to grab the brass ring for a free ride. Our kids are huge fans of Hap’s, just down the street, an old-fashioned ice cream soda shop with more than 100 flavors of sundaes, vintage style drinks like phosphates and sodas, and much more.
Most parents of young children in Culver likely already know about Bremen Bounce, a former factory populated with an array of inflatable “bouncing” toys — castles, slides, and more, among other offerings.
Heading west, you can’t go wrong with the Indiana Dunes, or just the one, huge (100 foot-plus) dune, Mount Baldy, near Michigan City. Not five minutes down the road from Baldy is Washington Zoo.
Speaking of zoos, Fort Wayne’s is one of the top-rated in the country for children. If you have kids at your disposal, they need to visit at least once in their lives. Obviously Ft. Wayne has a lot for kids, but other highlights include Johnny Appleseed’s grave — yes, that Johnny Appleseed, the real guy! Another kid highlight is the Science Central museum, as are the Botanical Gardens.
Speaking of gardens, stop while on the way to Ft. Wayne in Warsaw, where you can walk through the Biblical Gardens. Adjacent is a nifty park by the lake, and of course the Village at Winona is charming on many levels.
If you’re headed north, there are many options. We sometimes head to the River Walk in downtown Mishawaka. While in downtown Mishawaka, there’s the eclectic toy store, “Imagine That!” Besides selling interesting education-oriented toys and featuring a fun play room, there are multiple rooms full of dollhouses and the insane volume of paraphernalia produced to fill them. And looking at them, at least, isn’t just for girls (buying and at-home play is probably a different matter, though!). Most any child will be fascinated at the tiny worlds they’ve set up at that store.
Down Lincolnway to the east is not only a great outdoor “splash pad” free water park for the summer months, but if you drive a couple of miles, one of the oddest McDonald’s — in a good way — I’ve encountered. Decorated in a wood-based, rustic log cabin theme, the place has a nice-sized and well-kept Play Place for kids, should you run into rain while there and need some kid steam blown off.
Besides Potawatomi Zoo, another South Bend-area outdoor spot for us is actually Notre Dame. The whole campus is a great walk for kids, including the stunning architecture and artistry of the golden dome and the Sacred Heart Basilica church, which must be seen to be believed. The famous grotto and twin lakes (bring bread to feed the ducks and swans) are great for walking, and you can see the replica log cabin chapel under which is buried the French priest who died while accompanying Culver’s Potawatomi Indians on the Trail of Death. Take the elevator as high as you can at the N.D. library and check out the view of the whole city.
I could go on, from Fair Oaks Dairy to the sand hill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Park, to the Grissom Air Force museum near Peru, but I’m out of room.
I’ll end on a local note with a plug for our two local historical museums, one of which is 16 months or so from homelessness. I hope readers will consider attending this Saturday’s “town hall” meeting to discuss the future of that museum (the Center for Culver History), which is a hit with local children.
Jeff Kenney is a Pilot News Group staff writer.