Millston

The sign reads “Black River Falls” and I know we are close. Interstate 94 East seems to get smaller now, closed in by the encroaching tree line and dense foliage. In the fall the leaves on the trees turn as blazing orange as the hunters’ vests in the winter. The highway winds downhill, easing us toward the green metal road sign: “Millston.” Underneath, where the population is usually printed, it says: “Unincorporated.”

After exiting the highway, we first spot the post office, a lone structure that looks like a small house, white, with yellowed lace curtains on the windows and where my letters addressed to “Gram Dot, Millston, WI” would always find her.

Next we cross the railroad tracks. As kids we used to walk on these tracks for miles, heel-to-toe, as if they were balance beams, jumping off once we felt the vibration under our feet, and counting aloud from the sound of horn until we saw the first car of the train rounding the bend. Arms outstretched, heads tilted and arched backs as the train cars roared past, streaming tears into our whipping hair.

Straight ahead is the old 400 club on the right and the former gas station/country store/Grandma Smrekar’s Restaurant on the left. Grandma Smrekar’s is where Gram Dot worked as a waitress into her 70s. She had nicknames for all her regular customers, either by appearance, “Nine Hair” or food order, “Big Bologna Sandwich.” Grandma Smrekar’s served up noshes like hot beef sandwiches on white bread sopped in juices, topped with a heaping mound of gravy-drenched beef, a splat of mashed potatoes, and doused with more gravy. And the pie, oh the pie, with its signature flakey crust barely able to contain the bursting juices of fresh berries.

In the winter the restaurant was a mob of famished hunters and snowmobilers; the floors slick with melted snow, the air-filled with laughter and tall tales. In the summer it filled with kids perched at the counter, swirling on the stools, flip-flopped feet dangling, licking ice cream cones as big as their heads and slurping fountain sodas.

We head toward the lake, past the decrepit “Bates Motel” and the old brick school-house where my dad and his sister and brothers went to elementary school. Years later we rented out the basement of the school for family reunions. As we pass Gram’s old house we drive slowly, savoring the sight. The expansive yard, the great white house set far back from the street, the welcoming screened-in porch with dark green shutters. And the side patio where my dad and his little sister Sue used to sit and play with old bags of flour in the summer and is a solid sheet of ice all winter. Adjacent, there’s the vacant lot where my dad’s imaginary friends lived.

My smile intensifies as we near Lake Lee, the centerpiece of the town and the site of endless hours of summer fun. The lake is red from the tannic acid in the pine needles; we would emerge rust colored after a swim, which only added to the fun and excitement. In the sweltering heat of the summer Lake Lee’s beach, with its creamy, flour-like sand, would be teeming with kids, adults, teens, and animals. But today the beach is as abandoned as the restaurant, the general store, the motel, and the school.

Now, as my uncle Darcy says, the median age in Millston is “deceased.”

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3 Comments

  1. I was in Millston with you once, and right when you mentioned the post office I could picture it. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Darcy

     /  August 27, 2013

    Just past the school house on the right is a house that was once owned by Stub Clark. I almost burned it down fucking around with matches when I was eight years old….never sure how he got the name Stub!

    Reply
  3. Debra Ross

     /  November 22, 2015

    Father in law built his cabin there. Now we make memories in honor of him. Thank you Mom And Dad for the chance to make many more. Many summers of them too come. Love it there

    Reply

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