We Remember 1964: “And Then there was the Suburbanette” – in Pine River Plaza

An early artist’s sketch of the proposed Suburbanette in Pine River Plaza, circa late 1963. The Suburbanette was the vision of Bert Elsley of St. Louis, who owned the St. Louis IGA.

Mrs. Bert Elsley cuts the ribbon for the opening of the new Suburbanette in Pine River Plaza. The first three days brought in large crowds, and sold enough five cent hot dogs and Cokes to feed 5,000 customers.

The February 6, 1964 advertisement for a contest to name the new store. Who was the winner? St. Louis City Clerk-Treasurer Kenneth Barnum. He won $25 for the winning name.

As new entertainment flowed into Pine River Plaza in the early 1960s, a fourth building appeared. Bert Elsley had an idea. Elsely, the owner of Elsley’s IGA in St. Louis, decided to try to place a store next to Gratiot Lanes bowling alley and Leonard’s Outdoor gas station.

It was not a very big location for a store. The building, which Elsely leased, sat sixty feet off the road with a forty feet of store front. Inside, it had only 3,000 square feet of floor space. The Donald A. Wineland Company from Kawkawlin did the construction Still, Elsley said that the parking lot could hold at least 25 cars, and he envisioned having an outdoor summer market. When he first opened,  when  he needed more room because of all of the customers that came. Elsley’s store stayed open until 11:00 pm each evening, including Sundays. Soon, he operated from 7:30 am to 11:30 pm, seven days a week.

In February 1964, Elsely held a contest to name the location and the person with the best suggestion received $25. People in  St. Louis laughed when Elsley announced that the winner was Kenneth Barnum, who was the city clerk and manager. Barnum’s proposal was to name the new store “The Suburbanette.”

When the official opening of the Surbanette took place, Mrs. Elsley cut the ribbon. To encourage business in the first three days, Elsley had 27 door prizes to give to the first customers, including a portable TV set. Customers also indulged in five cent hot dogs and Cokes – to the tune of 5,000 people, according to Elsley.

Unfortunately, Bert Elsley suffered serious health problems in the next year and he was forced to sell the Suburbanette. A couple from Lakeview, Fred and Kathryn Harkens, bought the store and had operating hours of 10:00 am to 10:00 pm daily.

In mid-December 1970, the business changed hands again. This time, Gordon and Audrey Mackenzie bought the store and took it over that month. At the  grand opening, Gordon and other community leaders all wore Scottish kilts. Steve and Clark Mackenzie operated the store until February 2021 when Jameson and Sara Evitts bought Mackenzies.

Although the location that was known as the Suburbanette and later Mackenzies, it remains the second oldest operating business that originated in Pine River Plaza since the early 1960s. Not bad for the smallest store at the corner.

Copyright 2023 James M Goodspeed

We Remember 1968: The Travelodge Comes to Pine River Plaza

A late November 1967 drawing of the anticipated Travelodge in Alma. The hotel would sit on the northeast corner of Pine River Plaza.

The newly constructed Alma Travelodge as it appeared at its appeared in July 1968.

With new bowling alleys, an outdoor center, and new places to eat, the Pine River Plaza at M-46 and Luce Road only lacked one thing – a new motel. In November 1967, newspapers reported that a Travelodge Motel would be constructed east of the Big Boy restaurant.

At the time, this Travelodge was one of 350 motels of that franchise in the United States and Canada. The Pine River Motel Company, owners of the Travelodge, included President Donald Wakely, Secretary  Roy Roach, and Treasurer Leon McNeill, Jr. Other board members included  Al Fortino, Alfonso Fortino, and Doctors Sylvio and Mario Fortino.

The motel aimed for a summer 1968 opening and would long be recognized for its large A-Frame on the west end. Inside, it had 50 units, with conference rooms and a large banquet hall that could feed 150 people or hold 500 for a meeting. The Travelodge also had a health club and a large indoor year-round pool, along with rooms that had wheelchair units and both single and double rooms. Lila L. Baldwin became the new resident manager after previously owning a ten-unit motel in Holt, Michigan.

In June 1968, the Travelodge officially opened and quickly became a well-known location for swimming, banquets, and meetings. Events ranged from attending one of the first presentations in the area about how to operate a microwave oven or listening to Vice President Gerald Ford talk to members of the Gratiot County Republican Party via telephone conference.

As time passed, the Travelodge represented a place to stay on the southeast corner of the Pine River Plaza. Following the construction of two bowling alleys, a Michigan Outdoors Center, a Suburbanette, and a restaurant, the Travelodge was the last piece of the Pine River Plaza.

Copyright 2023 James M Goodspeed

We Remember 1963: Big Boy Arrives in Pine River Plaza

An early March 1964 advertisement for the opening of the Alma Big Boy Restaurant in Pine River Plaza.

Contractor Harold Carter of Greenville shows new manager Jack Robbins of Alma around the Big Boy building site. It was June 1963.

The Big Boy himself greeted travelers for decades at the Pine River Plaza. Here he gets a cleaning and repair in July 1979.

On January 3, 1963, news came that the Pine River Plaza would soon have a new restaurant at the corners. This Big Boy Restaurant, one of 45 Elias Brothers restaurants in the United States, was owned by private operators who hoped to open for business that spring.

Harold Carter of Greenville built the Big Boy, which was constructed of brick and stone and had 3,500 square feet. It seated 120 people and had a drive-in with up to 60 Teletype phones for ordering. In addition to the drive-in, a banquet room inside held 40 people.

The Big Boy officially debuted on August 23, 1963, to coincide with the opening of Leonard’s Service Station. Newspapers also announced that the owners planned a golf driving range and miniature golf course east of the restaurant.

The hours of operation (6 am-1 am Sunday through Thursday, 6 am-3 am Friday-Saturday) gave customers a wide range of times to eat. By 1971, the Big Boy stayed open 24 hours a day.

Sometimes unusual things happened, such as when high winds blew the Big Boy off his perch during a wind and snow storm. In another instance, someone stole the Big Boy from his stand.

However, the Alma Big Boy in Pine River Township was a frequent stop to eat for decades for items like the Big Boy sandwich and Hot Fudge Ice Cream cake.

Copyright 2023 James M Goodspeed

We Remember 1963: When Michigan Outdoors Came to Gratiot County

Above: A shot of Leonard’s Michigan Outdoors Center in 1964. The center sat on the southeast corner of Pine River Plaza, north of what is today Mackenzie’s Party Store.

John Wood was the first manager of the Michigan Outdoors Center; Dick Shaver worked as the station manager.

Station attendant Doris Parks helps a driver in 1967. Drivers could stop at Michigan Outdoors Center for coffee, directions, maps and just a break.

Mort Neff was the host of the “Michigan Out Doors” television program that started in the 1950s. Leonard’s Refineries became the show’s leading sponsor in 1956 and Neff made several appearances in Gratiot County during the program’s run.

In the early 1960s, Leonard’s Refineries of Alma had plans for a “Michigan Outdoors” Sales and Service Station. This station was located on the Pine River Plaza’s southeast corner at the corner of Alger Road and M-46.

 Leonard’s Michigan Outdoors station was constructed with a large paved parking lot and a display room that could be seen from the road. A gas station and car maintenance center sat next door. When drivers traveling along US-27 needed a break or directions, they could pull into the parking lot to be greeted by a hostess who offered free coffee, directions, and maps. John Wood became Leonard’s first manager, and the station opened on November 1, 1963.

The idea of a Michigan Outdoors station had roots in the 1950s. In 1956, Leonard’s Refineries initiated sponsorship of Mort Neff’s “Michigan Outdoors” television program. Mort Neff was one of Michigan’s leading ecologists and produced one of the largest outdoor shows in Michigan. Eight television stations carried the program on Thursday nights, encouraging Michigan outdoorsmen to think about the upcoming weekend, regardless of the season. One of the show’s highlights was a large Michigan map with a light on the back. If Neff told viewers, “The perch are biting off of the pier at Ludington,” the light would move across the state and rest on that location. The same could be said about hunting pheasants and other outdoor events in Michigan.

Mort Neff knew how to draw people, and it was said that when the map and light came on, another fifty fishermen or hunters from downstate Michigan would appear in the area to hunt or fish – all because of Mort Neff’s program. 

When it came to Mid-Michigan, Neff loved to fly his plane into nearby Maple Rapids to hunt or fish. He was also the featured speaker at local high schools. He once appeared for a fundraiser for the Gratiot County Humane Society. Mort packed them in that night, and the fundraiser was a sellout.

Leonard’s gas station is long gone today, but there once was a Michigan Outdoors Center in Pine River Plaza.

Copyright 2023 James M Goodspeed

We Remember 1962: When Bowling Came to Pine River Plaza

One of the first photographs of the completed 300 Bowl on the northwest corner of Pine River Plaza. It was late August 1962.

Above: Opening night, September 4, 1962. Everyone in the 300 Bowl stood for the National Anthem, then a bowler on each lane launched their ball down their respective alley – all at the same time.

Margarette Mettert from Alma cuts the ribbon at Gratiot Lanes on September 24, 1962. Mettert was the secretary of the Central Michigan Women’s Bowling Association. The event marked the beginning of 16-team “Assorted Sixteen” league.

One very happy bowler. Mercer Cook of Alma throws the first 300 Game at Gratiot Lanes on a Saturday afternoon in 1963. Owner Ken Luneack awarded Cook with $100 and 100 free games at Gratiot Lanes.

It was known as the great bowling alley race.

In the spring of 1962, two new bowling alleys were among the first places to be built at the intersection of Alger Road and M-46. This new location, a product of the changes that brought the new US-27 Highway to Gratiot County, first held the 300 Bowl.

The 300 Bowl broke ground on April 26, 1962, and planned to have its alley up and operational by late July. Paul Cameron, the owner of the 300, said the new alley had 34 lanes and would be located on the northwest corner of the intersection.

Strahan Construction Company built the building, measuring 140×160 feet on 7 acres, with five features: a meeting room, tap room, snack bar, pro shop, and playroom for children. This bowling alley also featured Brunswick pinsetters and products. The cost for the 300 would be $600,000, and the lanes turned out to be the longest ever produced by Unit Structures, Incorporated of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The lanes were so long that a special permit had to be obtained from the Highway Division to deliver them to Alma.

It took 8,000 nails to put each lane together, and each lane bed consisted of 3,200 linear feet of select Pine and Maple, fit tongue and groove, and nailed on each end. The individual lanes sat on a 2×4, 2×10 framework. Each end also had Maple to handle the ball’s impact and the pins. Pine wood with open grain made up the lanes’ middle and held each ball’s spin. Brunswick crews put together all of the lumber.

On September 1, 1962, the 300 Bowl opened. Manager Don Hall and well know bowlers Larry Graham and Rex Nelson also were present. A little over a week later, the action officially started when Alma Products and Alma Businessmen League opened league play. On that night at 7:00 pm, everyone in the alley stopped and stood for the National Anthem. A row of 24 men then threw their balls down their alley to initiate the 300 Bowl.

The public officially used the 300 on October 19, 1962. The alley opened at 10:00 am and remained open until the last person left that night.

However, another bowling alley soon opened across the intersection in the Pine River Plaza on the southeast side. Kenneth R. Luneack announced in April 1962 that he planned to open a 16-lane bowling alley,  Gratiot Lanes, which he did on September 13, 1962. Luneack also owned Riviera Lanes on Michigan Avenue in St. Louis.

At Gratiot Lanes, Luneack promoted using AMF lanes, equipment, and sales. He was also the first to offer the AMF Spare maker in his alley. When Gratiot Lanes opened on September 13, 1962, it offered the public three days of open bowling. About two weeks later, Gratiot Lanes officially opened, and Margarette Mettert, secretary of Central Michigan Women’s Bowling Association, cut the ribbon. The “Assorted 16” women’s league was the first league to use the alley.

Gratiot Lanes entered the news in January 1963, when Mercer Cook threw the first 300 game. On that day, everyone in the alley stopped to watch Cook as he moved frame by frame toward finishing his game on his way to a perfect 300. As a result, owner Kenneth Luneack awarded Cook $100 and 100 free games. Cook’s feat was said to be only the second recorded 300 game bowled on an area alley at that time!

As time passed, Alma’s 300 Bowl and Gratiot Lanes were home to many young and old bowlers who participated in league play or just went out for recreation at the alleys.

Copyright 2023 James M Goodspeed