By Mike Michaelson
Daily Herald Correspondent
Posted Saturday, J uly 23, 2005
When darkness overtakes the tiny community of Culver in northern Indiana, visitors might be surprised to discover that Culver Pro Hardware on Main Street continues displaying its wares on the sidewalk. Ready for purchase are hanging baskets of bright geraniums and flats of colorf ul double marigolds and begonias.
The store doesn't keep late hours. It simply trusts that the stock will still be there when it reopens the next morning.
Usually, it is. Such is the trusting nature of life in a small town and the trustworthiness of its citizens and visitors - even in these uncertain times.
Culver , though, is an anomaly among small towns. Diminutive it certainly is, with a pop ulation of only about 1,500. But it also happens to be a small town with big-city sophistication.
Nestled on the shores of 1,864-acre Lake Maxinkuckee (Potawatomi for "clear deep blue water"), the second-largest natural lake in Indiana, Culver has been a summer resort since the mid-1800s. It owes much of its prosperity to Culver Academies, one of America's premier college-prep boarding schools. Culver is endowed with million-dollar lakeshore homes and top restaurants, such as Corndance Café, whose chef/owner, George Pesek, was an executive chef at Tuscany restaurant on Chicago's famous Taylor Street. He also catered Hillary Clinton's 50th birthday party. Diners in Culver will find truffles and tilapia almost as readily as pork tenderloins and fried perch.
Strolling Culver 's quiet streets, you might encounter a famous academy alumnus or two. They include New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (class of '48), NHL all-star Gary Suter ('82), auto racing's Roger Penske ('50), actor Hal Holbrook ('42) and U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh ('69), plus an elite cadre of business movers and shakers.
Founded in 1894 as a military academy, Culver Academies continues to entertain parents and visitors with parades and pageantry, including equestrian perform-ances by its famous Black Horse Troop, hailed as the largest mounted cavalry unit in the United States. Participation in this year's presidential inaugural parade marked the 14th appearance of the boys' unit and the fifth trip for the girls' unit, the Equestriennes.
On Sundays in fall and spring at 12:30 p.m., the academy stages a parade, complete with military cadences and the drums and brass of a marching band. The Corps of Cadets, 450-strong, marches past the reviewing line, snapping smartly to an "Eyes, right!" and gripping sho uldered rifles with sparkling white gloves. In inclement weather, the parade moves indoors to a spacious riding arena. Culver Academies provides a four-year college prep school for grades nine through 12 and has a girls' school founded in 1971. Guided tours, available by appointment, introduce visitors to an international-flavored campus where annual enrollment of more than 750 students might be drawn from as many as 38 states and 25 countries.
Tucked amid the Indiana cornfields, Culver 's serene, 1,800-acre leafy campus might come as a surprise to Midwest travelers. It exudes New England charm, reminiscent, perhaps, of Andover. Culver 's red-brick Memorial Chapel, located amid towering oaks and beautif ul maples overlooking Lake Maxinkuckee, is built in Tudor Gothic style with interlacing arches and flying buttresses. It features a monumental stained-glass window designed and executed in Exeter, England. A 51-bell carillon in the tower plays recitals year-round. Its labyrinths are replicas of the Chartres Labyrinth, laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220.
Idyllically dotted with sails, Lake Maxinkuckee offers a public beach and good fishing for walleye, bass, crappie and perch. Field & Stream magazine named it one of the Midwest's prime walleye fishing lakes.
On Main Street, visit The Painter and The Poet Gallery, where a charming retired couple creates watercolor paintings and books of poetry. At the easel is Esther Miller, whose work depicts many of the well-known sights around Culver , including the Black Horse Troop. Husband Ward Miller handles the prose, usually created as verse to accompany Esther's paintings (although sometimes his poetry inspires her to paint a picture to illustrate his words).
If you're into nostalgia, you might want to stop at The Original Root Beer Stand, across from the public beach, purveyor of Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beef and homemade root beer. After, maybe, you can take in a movie at a drive-in theater that shows double features on three large screens. Culver has about a dozen restaurants, including popular Edgewater Grille. It is a fun dining spot that also has good food, such as dry-aged steaks (blackened on request or prepared with a blue-cheese crust), barbecued ribs, lump-meat crab cakes and coconut tempura shrimp. Try a bottle of Maxinkuckee Mist, custom-brewed to include water from the lake and advertised as "the ale you may have sailed on." Décor runs to knotty pine and vintage watercraft; patrons include a sprinkling of international travelers.
The latter also find their way to Corndance Café, where the décor features bare bricks and rough-hewn wood with plenty of earth tones and white-and-maroon napery. Seafood is flown in three times a week, steaks are prime dry-aged and pizza is baked on a wood-fired hearth.
House specialties include bluegill, lightly battered and fried to a golden brown, twin pork chops, fried chicken and sushimi tuna. For a simple luncheon, try a lean bison burger, crab cake burger or black angus burger.
Lodging options in and around Culver include bed-and-breakfasts and rental cottages along the lake. The Culver Cove Resort offers accommodations in one- or two-bedroom condominium units with kitchens, living rooms, fireplaces and lake views.
Another option - especially for golfers - is a stay at Swan Lake Resort, just north of Plymouth. This full-service resort offers 92 guest rooms, two 18-hole golf courses and, for those wishing to sharpen their game, instruction at the adjacent United States Golf Academy. A spa offers massage therapy, including hot-stone massages.
Food and beverages are available at the resort at Sam Snead's Tavern & Grill, which displays memorabilia related to its namesake pro (including a listing of Slamin' Sam's tour earnings, which seem modest when compared with the mega-bucks earned by contemporary stars such as Tiger Woods). Entrées include barbecued baby back pork ribs, black angus steaks, double-cut pork chop and half-pound burgers.
Mileage: Culver is about 100 miles southeast of Chicago.
Mike Michaelson is a travel writer based in Chicago and the
author of the guidebook "Chicago's Best-Kept Secrets."