summer day I might turn a corner and encounter the scent . . . a gust
of carp and gasoline on the breeze. Suddenly I'm eight years old, time
is infinite, the world is magical, and I am surrounded by people who
love me but have better things to do than watch me too closely.
one whiff of motorboat fuel over lake weeds and I'm on eternal vacation,
playing miniature golf as it's played at Winona Lake. Hit the parting
of the Red Sea, tunnel under Mount Sinai, dodge the pyramids as you
putt through the stories of the Old Testament.
spent my child's summers in northeastern Indiana, visiting my relatives
in a strange religious resort.
Lake was a benign cult headquarters. In its heyday it was the home
of evangelist Billy Sunday, famous for his tabernacles and sawdust
trails. His first cavernous hall stood at the center of Winona Lake.
Spreading out from there were the grounds of his kingdom: an outdoor
amphitheater, formal gardens and parklands . . . diversions to amuse
the visitors who stayed at the big white hotel.
was a kind of factory town of the Methodist spirit. In addition to
the Billy Sunday campus there was a seminary, a religious publishing
house, and lots of youth camps, including one of the original Boys'
religion that built Winona Lake had firm ideas about the sinfulness
of pleasure. Strong drink and dancing were definitely out. Music other
than hymn-singing was suspicious. But this was a resort town, after
all, and some rules could be bent a little. Even though the beach was
posted NO SWIMMING OR EATING ICE CREAM ON
SUNDAY, people probably did. Nearby they could skate at the
roller rink, a giant screened porch reaching out into the lake, and
play the biblical miniature golf course. In the 1920s Winona must have
been a festive place in its proper way.
1965 Winona Lake was still providing the same amusements. Empty but
not abandoned, it had the perpetual air of an amusement park closed
for repairs. I had the free run of it.
place was rich with the moldy smells of the past. We visited old people
there; they smelled of castile soap. My relatives congregated on summer
evenings at the musty lakeside cottage we called THE BRICK,
as opposed to the wood-sided house a mile inland where my grandparents
lived. The difference in the smell of those two houses is the difference
between wet and dry rot.
corner of THE BRICK was filled with my grandfather's scavenging.
I loved the library books he'd collected, discarded when too old for
circulation, strange Victorian girls' fiction. I was the only girl
among five brothers and cousins of similar age. My brothers' memories
of Winona Lake probably run to boy-pack boat and fish stories, scents
of bait and motors. Mine are of solitary girl games, and the smell
of damp old books.
past was more real than the present in that dream-time. I'd wake on
the screened porch in the humid Indiana morning, read dated stories
set in hospitals or ocean steamers, then wander off to amuse myself.
When I think of me I have to resist seeing myself in Victorian high-button
shoes and dress.
loved the Billy Sunday grounds, so different from the suburbs of the
rest of my year. There was a swan pond and a grotto. There were fountains
and statuary, to provide destinations for the paths that wound along
under the shade trees. All were over-grown, tumbled-down, dank.
paths were perfect for roller skating. The high path led from the hotel
along a ridge, where bungalows spread huge screen porches to the gardens
and the lake beyond. The houses had names instead of numbers. Shady
Side. Robins' Roost.
low path led into the garden, a compass rose of paths where a little
girl could hypnotize herself with the rhythmic sound of wheels bumping
from wedge to wedge, round and round the defunct central fountain.
Further paths led past the miniature golf course to the shuffle-board
court and horse-shoe pitch, where idle oldsters sat on park benchesgrown
bored with playing years before I came along.
high and low paths converged at the tabernacle. It must have covered
half an acre. It presented itself as three low courses: a brick half-wall
rose to the windows, a band of shutters that could be propped open
to breezes from the lake. Above that was the vaulted roof, some kind
of engineering miracle produced by Billy Sunday, terminating in broad
eves to shade the open windows beneath.
never saw the tabernacle in use but of course my mother remembers it
in action just as vividly as I remember its ghostly quiet. Her stories
conjured the sounds... exhortations of evangelists, pump organs accompanying
choirs. And the smell! She gave me the sawdust, used to pave
the floor inside. By her telling she planted in me that scent-memory,
salty sweat and sawdust, combining the dangerous excitement of the
circus with the glorious drama of Gawd.
were other, more secular pleasures to Winona Lake... pork tenderloin
sandwiches from the FLAGPOLE DRIVE IN, frozen custard sold from
a quonset hut. We who never dined out at home had lunch here almost
swam off the pier at THE BRICK for hours, bobbing in inner tubes,
rocked almost to sleep by the rhythmic waves from the motorboats.
don't know why we never learned to water-ski. Our alternative was to
ride in Uncle Tom's motor-boat in great lazy loops, inspecting the
shore. "Looks like the Edisons are adding a deck," he'd say. "Looks
like they're finally building something over at the Bible Camp." Hoosiers
never tire of commenting on their neighbors' activities.
the boat it was easy to inspect THE ISLAND, which was the oldest
part of town, across the canal from the main street and the Sunday
grounds. Here cottages so old they were made of logs were squeezed
by rich follies added later, castles and haciendas, and sprawling boarding
houses. Every summer our folks told the same stories about old Winona
Lake, as we trolled its shoreline, and we loved them like fairy tales.
a movie set, like Nuremberg, Winona Lake was a place built for great
gatherings of people, a backdrop for monumental, life-changing events.
Billy Sunday is a historical footnote today, but his energy lasted
for half a century, and I absorbed it. The cripples and the alcoholics,
stumbling up the sawdust trail to lay down their sins and be redeemed.
The young lovers meeting under the tall oaks by the swan pond. Sticky
summer heat unrelieved by ice cream or swimming, one day out of seven.
Billy Sunday's ghost resort.