Regardless of high gasoline prices, motorists by the thousands willconverge on the plains of southern Montana this summer to commemorate the125th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn where, on June 25,1876, Gen. George Armstrong Custer and every man of five companies of the 7thCavalry were fatally crushed by an overwhelming force of Sioux and CheyenneIndians.
Having already visited the grassy slopes along the Little Big Horn Riverand sensing the chilling magnitude of what happened there, rather than revisitwhere Custer died, this spring my daughter, Katy, and I headed to historicMonroe, where--between his far-flung military postings--Custer, since boyhood,had lived.
In a letter to one of the general's critics written decades after thebattle, veteran Indian fighter John Ryan, who once served under Custer, mincedno words when he wrote: "I am a Custer man from beginning to end and don'tgive a damn who likes it."
Though hardly fashionable these days to admit it, for as long as I canremember I've thrilled to accounts of Custer's Civil War exploits, admired oldphotographs reflecting his flamboyant style, tapped my feet to "Garryowen,"his regimental song, and was absolutely captivated by Errol Flynn's portrayalof the gallant cavalier in the 1941 movie "They Died With Their Boots On," soI guess that makes me a "Custer man," too.
It's sometimes difficult for boosters of this picturesque city of 23,000 onthe western shore of Lake Erie to know exactly how to embrace thecontroversial general when his popularity often hinges on the political whimsof each generation. In his own day, and for many years after, Custer was ahometown hero, but more recently he has become what is believed by many to bethe embodiment of all crimes committed against the Indians from ChristopherColumbus to the present--which is puzzling considering which side prevailed atthe Little Big Horn.
No one can expect to gain a full appreciation of Custer's Monroe withoutdevoting at least an hour to the marvelous exhibit dedicated to the generaland his family at the Monroe County Historical Museum. Located on the secondfloor of the building that was once Monroe's post office, the gallery presentsthe Custers in the context of their time--not ours--and certainly withoutapology.
In chronological displays of photographs, relics and text we learned thatCuster was born in New Rumley, Ohio, in 1839 and moved to Monroe when he was10 to take advantage of better educational opportunities and where an oldersister was already living. Eventually, the entire family relocated here and,while never socially prominent, they were well known for being close-knit.
A parallel story is that of the more respected Bacon family. Judge DanielBacon, grief-stricken after the death of his wife, vacated the family home andenrolled his only child, 12-year-old Elizabeth, (affectionately known asLibbie), in a nearby boarding school. Custer was off to school as well, to theUnited States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Early in the Civil War,while the budding general was establishing his reputation as the commander ofthe Michigan Cavalry Brigade, the beautiful Libbie was developing intoMonroe's most sought-after belle.
A brief introduction sparked an intense courtship and, overcoming theinitial objections of her father, Libbie and her Boy General were married inMonroe in 1864, a love affair that lasted the entirety of their lives.
Gazing at the portraits and photographs of this legendary couple andexamining up-close such personal items as their own baby clothes and familyBible, they no longer seemed so remote and instead became real people whohappened to have lived extraordinary lives.
The collection, most of which was donated to the City of Monroe by Libbieand other family members, traces Custer's military career from West Point tothe western plains.
No one ever accused the general of modesty, and he clearly liked to savethings. Among his trophies and other memorabilia we saw uniforms, a sword, aRemington Creedmore target rifle (complete with his scorecard) locks of hishair, his writing desk and a pair of binoculars.
Custer reveled in his image of a plainsman and also in the collection isone of his trademark buckskin jackets decorated with porcupine quills and thebuffalo hide coat he wore during the Battle of the Washita.
With so many mementos recalling his adventuresome life, we nearly forgotthat Custer was most noted for his spectacular death. In an almost hauntingscene replicating the Montana battlefield are the original stone tabletswhich, for years, marked the locations where Custer, two of his brothers, hisnephew and brother-in-law were slain.
"We've had Indians visit here who are respectful and seem to take whatwe've done here in stride," said assistant museum director Ralph Naveaux."While they certainly are not Custer fans, they seem to think he was no worsethan any other military figure."
We first became friendly with Steve and Sandy Alexander a couple of summersago at a historical re-enactment in Wisconsin. During the week, Steve worksfor Monroe County and Sandy as a health-care administrator, but on their offtime, the couple travels to commemorative events throughout the United Statesas Gen. and Mrs. G.A. Custer. More than lookalikes, their splendid portrayalshave been featured by documentary film makers (A&E and the History Channel)and recognized by the legislatures of both Michigan and Ohio, which haveproclaimed Steve the "Foremost Custer Living Historian."
Not content just playing the Custers, the Alexanders have practically livedas the general and his wife since purchasing and restoring the former Baconhome at 703 Cass St. Originally located on the site now occupied by themuseum, it was in this house that Libbie was born, where she was courted byher "Custer boy" and where they retreated while on furlough from the army.It's still a private residence, so we were honored when "George and Libbie"invited us inside to admire the renovations and savor the rich heritage oftheir home.
A free brochure distributed by the museum makes it quite easy for visitorsto Monroe to take in some two dozen other Custer-related sites. Though a feware just vacant lots, a good number of significant buildings remain, but mostaren't open to the public.
Accompanied by the Alexanders, we visited the pristine First PresbyterianChurch, where the Custers were married and, a few blocks away, the home of hisfather, Emanuel. A couple of miles outside of town we paused at the NevinCuster farm where, in partnership with his brother, the general consideredbreeding race stock in his retirement. In later years Buffalo Bill Cody, afamily friend, visited here and, in a nearby orchard is buried Dandy, Custer'sfavorite horse.
Back in town we spent a few minutes at the Custer family plot in WoodlandCemetery. The general and Libbie are buried at West Point, but resting in afenced enclosure are his parents and other family members, most notably hisbrother Boston and nephew Harry Reed, who both perished beside him at theLittle Big Horn. Libbie's parents, Judge and Mrs. Daniel Bacon, are buriedclose by.
In the Errol Flynn movie, Cadet Custer, boasting of his aspirations tobecome a cavalryman, noted prophetically that, "There's a lot more statues forsoldiers than there are civilians."
In 1910, in a dedication attended by his widow, President William HowardTaft and some 25,000 other celebrants--including surviving members of his oldbrigade--a heroic-sized bronze of Custer atop his gallant steed was unveiledin Loranger Square, just across the street from the church where he marriedLibbie nearly half a century before. During a period when Custer's luster wasnot so bright, the statue was moved to an obscure plot along the River Raisinand mostly forgotten. The slight was corrected in the 1950s when themagnificent sculpture was restored to prominence when it was relocated to asmall park of its own at the busy intersection of Elm and Monroe Streets.
George Armstrong Custer once wrote that his ambition was, ". . . not to bewealthy, not to be learned, but to be great." He is . . . at least in hishometown of Monroe.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Weekend expenses for two, taxes included:
Lodging (one night) ... $100
Meals .................. $77
Gasoline ............... $51
Tolls .................. $18
Total ................. $246
IF YOU GO
Monroe is about 270 miles from Chicago. Take Interstate Highway 90/94 eastto the Chicago Skyway (I-90) then east to I-80/90. Continue east on I-80/90(to Toledo) and merge into Interstate Highway 75 north. Monroe is 20 milesnorth of Toledo at Exit 11 (LaPlaisance Rd.)
The Michigan Lake to Lake Bed & Breakfast Association lists only one B&B inMonroe, The Lotus (324 Washington St., Monroe, MI 48161; 734-384-9914). Theelegantly restored 1870s mansion suited the purpose of our trip perfectly. Itis situated in a neighborhood the Custers would still recognize today: Themarvelous gothic house across the street was once the home of William Boydwho, with his brother, Erasmus, helped to found Boyd's Seminary, where Libbieattended school.
Our quarters, ($95 for one night, plus tax) an attractive and comfortablesuite consisting of a bedroom, a sitting room with a pullout sofa sleeper, akitchenette and a private bath, were first rate. What we weren't accustomedto, however, was the in-your-room, do-it-yourself continental breakfast ofjuice, coffee, tea, fresh fruit and dry cereal. To be fair, this had beenexplained to us at the time we made our reservation, so, being light breakfasteaters anyway, we really didn't mind and appreciated the convenience.
In addition to The Lotus, lodging in Monroe includes the AmeriHost Inn,Comfort Inn, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express.
After our 4 1/2-drive from Chicago, we were famished, so we made a quickstop at Ruby Tuesday's, just outside of town at 2017 Telegraph Rd. Similar tothe Bennigan's chain, the restaurant was not especially noteworthy except fora commemorative display of Custer photographs just inside the entrance. (Nohistoric relics here, but worth a gander anyway.) Fueling up on the salad barand baked potatoes with all the toppings--and washed down with iced tea--wewere eager to get on with our exploring so we didn't linger.
Since our weekend was going to include a reunion with our friends Steve andSandy Alexander (re-enactors noted for their portrayals of Gen. and Mrs.George Armstrong Custer), we asked Sandy to recommend Monroe's finest eatingplace for Saturday night's dinner.
"We've been looking for an excuse to go to Quatro's," she said. "Wonderfulfood, nice decor and most suitable for any special occasion. . . . But I mustbe truthful, we'll have to go Dutch as we Custers live on military pay."
Mostly, she was right. The restaurant was packed and, being 15 minutes latefor our 6:30 reservation, I thought perhaps we'd wind up back at RubyTuesday's. Fortunately, our hostess had held our table and we were seatedimmediately.
Quatro's menu featured mainly Italian fare, such specialties as TenderloinPortabella, Chicken Frangelico and a dozen varieties of pasta. While mydaughter, Katy, and the Alexanders selected Mediterranean dishes, I opted forthe 9-ounce filet mignon--as excellent as any I've had anywhere. Our half ofthe check came to $51.09, including tax and tip. Not bad--even on militarypay.
Quatro's is at 1295 Stewart Rd., Monroe; 734-242-6788,
The best place to familiarize one's self with historic Monroe and theCuster sites is the Monroe County Historical Museum (126 S. Monroe St.;734-240-7780). In addition to the splendid Custer exhibits are selectionsdevoted to Indians once native to the region, miscellaneous relics pertainingto Michigan's early French settlers and an impressive collection of Victorianfurniture, clothing and decorative arts. During the warm weather months (May1-Sept. 30), the museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week; the rest ofthe year, it is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admissionis $2 for adults and $1 for children 7-17 (under 7, free) in June, July andAugust; there is no admission charge at other times.
The River Raisin Center for the Arts at 114 S. Monroe St. (one door southof the museum) is a vintage movie house converted into a venue for touringperformers. Recent entertainment has included Rich Little, Mickey Rooney, theGuy Lombardo Orchestra and cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey. For aschedule of future events call 734-242-7722.
The River Raisin Battlefield Visitor Center (1403 E. Elm St.; 734-243-7136)offers travelers interested in the War of 1812 interpretive exhibits on one ofthe bloodiest engagements of that war. Of the 934 Americans who fought theBritish and their Indian allies near this place, only 33 escaped death orcapture.
Our abbreviated visit did not allow us to take in many of Monroe County'sother attractions, such as the reconstructed early 1800s Navarre-AndersonTrading Post, the hiking trails of Sterling State Park or the massive Cabela'soutfitters store, which hosts as many as 750,000 visitors per month. The areaalso boasts being the "Walleye Capital of the World," and on Lake Erie, just 3miles east of downtown Monroe, are marinas, bait shops and a several charterboat services. With more than 30 well-groomed courses to choose from, theregion is also a popular golf center.
For a complete information package on the Monroe area, including dining andlodging, contact the Monroe County Tourism Bureau, 106 W. Front St., Box 1094,Monroe, MI 48161; 800-252-3011; www.monroeinfo.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun