Regardless of high gasoline prices, motorists by the thousands will converge on the plains of southern Montana this summer to commemorate the 125th 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 7th Cavalry were fatally crushed by an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians.
Having already visited the grassy slopes along the Little Big Horn River and sensing the chilling magnitude of what happened there, rather than revisit where Custer died, this spring my daughter, Katy, and I headed to historic Monroe, 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 the battle, veteran Indian fighter John Ryan, who once served under Custer, minced no words when he wrote: "I am a Custer man from beginning to end and don't give a damn who likes it."
Though hardly fashionable these days to admit it, for as long as I can remember I've thrilled to accounts of Custer's Civil War exploits, admired old photographs reflecting his flamboyant style, tapped my feet to "Garryowen," his regimental song, and was absolutely captivated by Errol Flynn's portrayal of the gallant cavalier in the 1941 movie "They Died With Their Boots On," so I guess that makes me a "Custer man," too.
It's sometimes difficult for boosters of this picturesque city of 23,000 on the western shore of Lake Erie to know exactly how to embrace the controversial general when his popularity often hinges on the political whims of each generation. In his own day, and for many years after, Custer was a hometown hero, but more recently he has become what is believed by many to be the embodiment of all crimes committed against the Indians from Christopher Columbus to the present--which is puzzling considering which side prevailed at the Little Big Horn.
No one can expect to gain a full appreciation of Custer's Monroe without devoting at least an hour to the marvelous exhibit dedicated to the general and his family at the Monroe County Historical Museum. Located on the second floor of the building that was once Monroe's post office, the gallery presents the Custers in the context of their time--not ours--and certainly without apology.
In chronological displays of photographs, relics and text we learned that Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, in 1839 and moved to Monroe when he was 10 to take advantage of better educational opportunities and where an older sister 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 Daniel Bacon, grief-stricken after the death of his wife, vacated the family home and enrolled his only child, 12-year-old Elizabeth, (affectionately known as Libbie), in a nearby boarding school. Custer was off to school as well, to the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Early in the Civil War, while the budding general was establishing his reputation as the commander of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, the beautiful Libbie was developing into Monroe's most sought-after belle.
A brief introduction sparked an intense courtship and, overcoming the initial objections of her father, Libbie and her Boy General were married in Monroe in 1864, a love affair that lasted the entirety of their lives.
Gazing at the portraits and photographs of this legendary couple and examining up-close such personal items as their own baby clothes and family Bible, they no longer seemed so remote and instead became real people who happened to have lived extraordinary lives.
The collection, most of which was donated to the City of Monroe by Libbie and other family members, traces Custer's military career from West Point to the western plains.
No one ever accused the general of modesty, and he clearly liked to save things. Among his trophies and other memorabilia we saw uniforms, a sword, a Remington Creedmore target rifle (complete with his scorecard) locks of his hair, his writing desk and a pair of binoculars.
Custer reveled in his image of a plainsman and also in the collection is one of his trademark buckskin jackets decorated with porcupine quills and the buffalo hide coat he wore during the Battle of the Washita.
With so many mementos recalling his adventuresome life, we nearly forgot that Custer was most noted for his spectacular death. In an almost haunting scene replicating the Montana battlefield are the original stone tablets which, for years, marked the locations where Custer, two of his brothers, his nephew and brother-in-law were slain.
"We've had Indians visit here who are respectful and seem to take what we'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 worse than any other military figure."
We first became friendly with Steve and Sandy Alexander a couple of summers ago at a historical re-enactment in Wisconsin. During the week, Steve works for Monroe County and Sandy as a health-care administrator, but on their off time, the couple travels to commemorative events throughout the United States as Gen. and Mrs. G.A. Custer. More than lookalikes, their splendid portrayals have been featured by documentary film makers (A&E and the History Channel) and recognized by the legislatures of both Michigan and Ohio, which have proclaimed Steve the "Foremost Custer Living Historian."
Not content just playing the Custers, the Alexanders have practically lived as the general and his wife since purchasing and restoring the former Bacon home at 703 Cass St. Originally located on the site now occupied by the museum, it was in this house that Libbie was born, where she was courted by her "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 of their home.
A free brochure distributed by the museum makes it quite easy for visitors to Monroe to take in some two dozen other Custer-related sites. Though a few are just vacant lots, a good number of significant buildings remain, but most aren't open to the public.
Accompanied by the Alexanders, we visited the pristine First Presbyterian Church, where the Custers were married and, a few blocks away, the home of his father, Emanuel. A couple of miles outside of town we paused at the Nevin Custer farm where, in partnership with his brother, the general considered breeding race stock in his retirement. In later years Buffalo Bill Cody, a family friend, visited here and, in a nearby orchard is buried Dandy, Custer's favorite horse.
Back in town we spent a few minutes at the Custer family plot in Woodland Cemetery. The general and Libbie are buried at West Point, but resting in a fenced enclosure are his parents and other family members, most notably his brother Boston and nephew Harry Reed, who both perished beside him at the Little Big Horn. Libbie's parents, Judge and Mrs. Daniel Bacon, are buried close by.
In the Errol Flynn movie, Cadet Custer, boasting of his aspirations to become a cavalryman, noted prophetically that, "There's a lot more statues for soldiers than there are civilians."
In 1910, in a dedication attended by his widow, President William Howard Taft and some 25,000 other celebrants--including surviving members of his old brigade--a heroic-sized bronze of Custer atop his gallant steed was unveiled in Loranger Square, just across the street from the church where he married Libbie nearly half a century before. During a period when Custer's luster was not so bright, the statue was moved to an obscure plot along the River Raisin and mostly forgotten. The slight was corrected in the 1950s when the magnificent sculpture was restored to prominence when it was relocated to a small park of its own at the busy intersection of Elm and Monroe Streets.
George Armstrong Custer once wrote that his ambition was, ". . . not to be wealthy, not to be learned, but to be great." He is . . . at least in his hometown 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 east to 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 miles north of Toledo at Exit 11 (LaPlaisance Rd.)
The Michigan Lake to Lake Bed & Breakfast Association lists only one B&B in Monroe, The Lotus (324 Washington St., Monroe, MI 48161; 734-384-9914). The elegantly restored 1870s mansion suited the purpose of our trip perfectly. It is situated in a neighborhood the Custers would still recognize today: The marvelous gothic house across the street was once the home of William Boyd who, with his brother, Erasmus, helped to found Boyd's Seminary, where Libbie attended school.
Our quarters, ($95 for one night, plus tax) an attractive and comfortable suite consisting of a bedroom, a sitting room with a pullout sofa sleeper, a kitchenette and a private bath, were first rate. What we weren't accustomed to, however, was the in-your-room, do-it-yourself continental breakfast of juice, coffee, tea, fresh fruit and dry cereal. To be fair, this had been explained to us at the time we made our reservation, so, being light breakfast eaters 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 quick stop at Ruby Tuesday's, just outside of town at 2017 Telegraph Rd. Similar to the Bennigan's chain, the restaurant was not especially noteworthy except for a commemorative display of Custer photographs just inside the entrance. (No historic relics here, but worth a gander anyway.) Fueling up on the salad bar and baked potatoes with all the toppings--and washed down with iced tea--we were 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 and Sandy Alexander (re-enactors noted for their portrayals of Gen. and Mrs. George Armstrong Custer), we asked Sandy to recommend Monroe's finest eating place for Saturday night's dinner.
"We've been looking for an excuse to go to Quatro's," she said. "Wonderful food, nice decor and most suitable for any special occasion. . . . But I must be 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 late for our 6:30 reservation, I thought perhaps we'd wind up back at Ruby Tuesday's. Fortunately, our hostess had held our table and we were seated immediately.
Quatro's menu featured mainly Italian fare, such specialties as Tenderloin Portabella, Chicken Frangelico and a dozen varieties of pasta. While my daughter, Katy, and the Alexanders selected Mediterranean dishes, I opted for the 9-ounce filet mignon--as excellent as any I've had anywhere. Our half of the check came to $51.09, including tax and tip. Not bad--even on military pay.
Quatro's is at 1295 Stewart Rd., Monroe; 734-242-6788,
The best place to familiarize one's self with historic Monroe and the Custer sites is the Monroe County Historical Museum (126 S. Monroe St.; 734-240-7780). In addition to the splendid Custer exhibits are selections devoted to Indians once native to the region, miscellaneous relics pertaining to Michigan's early French settlers and an impressive collection of Victorian furniture, clothing and decorative arts. During the warm weather months (May 1-Sept. 30), the museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week; the rest of the year, it is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children 7-17 (under 7, free) in June, July and August; there is no admission charge at other times.
The River Raisin Center for the Arts at 114 S. Monroe St. (one door south of the museum) is a vintage movie house converted into a venue for touring performers. Recent entertainment has included Rich Little, Mickey Rooney, the Guy Lombardo Orchestra and cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey. For a schedule 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 of the bloodiest engagements of that war. Of the 934 Americans who fought the British and their Indian allies near this place, only 33 escaped death or capture.
Our abbreviated visit did not allow us to take in many of Monroe County's other attractions, such as the reconstructed early 1800s Navarre-Anderson Trading Post, the hiking trails of Sterling State Park or the massive Cabela's outfitters store, which hosts as many as 750,000 visitors per month. The area also boasts being the "Walleye Capital of the World," and on Lake Erie, just 3 miles east of downtown Monroe, are marinas, bait shops and a several charter boat services. With more than 30 well-groomed courses to choose from, the region is also a popular golf center.
For a complete information package on the Monroe area, including dining and lodging, contact the Monroe County Tourism Bureau, 106 W. Front St., Box 1094, Monroe, MI 48161; 800-252-3011; www.monroeinfo.com.