Summer Vacations from Yesteryear: Getting There Was Half the Story

Young Peter Butler holds his brother Dan, alongside brothers John and Jim (far right) while on family vacation in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, c. 1962. (Photo courtesy of Peter Butler)

Originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2021 Gazette
By Peter Butler

If you are a baby boomer who grew up in Winnetka in the 1950s or 1960s, the family vacation may have been easier to fit into the summer plans than is the case today with heavily scheduled lifestyles. Whether you had a small family or large one like mine (one of seven kids), those quick weekend trips or longer vacations were the staple of many family

Some vacationers headed east, west, or south. Some stayed more locally, such as camping at Starved Rock State Park or spending a weekend at fun-filled Wagon Wheel Resort near Rockford. But many of us headed north to a cabin of our own or someone else’s. Perhaps it was an all-inclusive place that had common dining (my mom’s favorite—no cooking) and rustic cabins on a lake such as Little Sister Resort in Door County or Dairymen’s Country Club in northern Wisconsin. Many headed to Michigan: Saugatuck, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Traverse City and even Mackinac Island.

Reaching the final destination was half the vacation story because so much happened on the way. First there was the CAR. The one I remember my family had in the 1950s was a Volkswagen bus. It wasn’t very comfortable. It had a four-speed stick shift, and we would chant, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” going up hills because it had no power.
In the 1960s, the SUV of the day was the station wagon with a rear-facing back seat. Kids could look out the window while passing trucks and encourage them to honk by pumping a fist up and down. The rear-facing back seat removed us from family chaos, but was a disaster for those prone to car sickness.

The Butler family bought its station wagon at Chieftain Pontiac dealership in Hubbard Woods, c. 1970. (WHS archives)

My sister remembers what she says was the result of an “overdose” of Dramamine where she slept the entire trip on car floor near the front seat. She obviously wasn’t wearing a seat belt, but then again, there were none! Then I remember a little triangle window up front that my dad opened to keep his cigarette smoke flowing out. By the way, we were a Pontiac station wagon family, usually a Bonneville or Catalina, largely because Chieftain Pontiac was the car dealership in Hubbard Woods only blocks from our house. And I almost forgot – a station wagon held a lot of people, but also could handle our Sunfish on the top and another on a trailer.

Then there was car ENTERTAINMENT. Everyone remembers it differently, but family dynamics played out in a small space. Our parents didn’t care whose fault a fight was – they just wanted peace, which meant no touching and no hitting. No technologies were around to pass the time, so we sang “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” competed to find the alphabet on billboards, and played “20 questions.” Beyond that, competition for a radio station was fierce, but our parents overruled our choices of WLS and WCFL, which played pop music. We found common ground listening to a
Cubs game on WGN.

As for FOOD, I only remember eating black bananas and plenty of candy from gas station vending machines. Some of my siblings wanted candy bars, such as Snickers or Three Musketeers. I preferred Dots (not the green ones), Milk Duds, Necco Wafers, and especially Hot Tamales. For drinks, I remember a time when gas stations gave free wooden cases of coke with returnable glass bottles (no plastic or cans existed) when you filled up your tank. When cans were first available, they had the pop tops which we made into rings if we didn’t first cut our fingers on the sharp edges.

And finally, there were TWO BASIC STYLES TO ARRIVE AT YOUR DESTINATION, and both were decided by my father. There were those families with dads who just wanted to get there, meaning leave before sunrise, take no stops along the way (pee jar), and only eat food packed in the car. Then there was my dad. Once we took four days to get to Florida. Another time, we drove back from Door County on a blisteringly hot day with no air conditioning, so we stopped four times to swim in Lake Michigan. Making the trip still a little longer, we ate at local diners. We made memories along the way, not all of which were warm and fuzzy, but when we got home sweet home and back in our own beds, we slept well and long. Today, revisionist storytelling always adds a touch of humor and reminds us of what relationships and families mean in our lives.

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