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Doors closed at Hansen’s  

Doors closed at Hansen’s, longest-running single-owner business in Culver

Wednesday, 12 August 2009
By Jeff Kenney Citizen editor

A Culver fixture for more than 50 years has closed its doors and not — as some have assumed — due to the present economic situation around the state and country. Hansen’s sport and bait shop and restaurant actually closed its doors in 2008, though the appearance of a “for sale” sign in the now-vacant window may have seemed a sign of the fiscal times to some passersby, one more to add to similar signs on businesses and homes around Culver and Marshall County.

No, says longtime owner and operator Clara Hansen, the underlying reason for the demise of what’s likely Culver’s longest-operating eatery was her health. “It was my health problems,” she said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have closed it. I miss it; I miss the people.”Hansen says she originally planned to return to the restaurant after health problems forced her into the hospital and then to take it easy at home but it was not to be, and she placed the building up for sale this spring.

Born and raised in Plymouth, the former Clara White and her husband Winfred came to town to stay in April, 1957, though she was a stranger neither to Culver nor its people by then, Clara having worked in several Plymouth businesses, including JC Penny’s, and become familiar with a number of Culverites there. The late Winfred was an avid fisherman, so Culver visits were nothing new to the couple. “It was just like coming home,” recalls Clara, “I don’t think there was anybody in Culver I didn’t know.

We spent about every weekend in the summer on the lake anyway.”In spite of that, initially Clara was reticent to leave Plymouth, though she adds, “You couldn’t get me out of (Culver) now!”Originally, Hansen’s — at 614 Lake Shore Drive — was a bait and sportsman’s shop, but Clara’s regular cooking there for her family led to customers suggesting she make enough they all could have some, so, she says, “we expanded” to include serving food.

Hansen recalls an empty building for the past dozen years before the couple first bought it, the previous owners having planned a lumber shop there but abandoning the project for health reasons. In years past, she says, a restaurant occupied the space called the Hollywood Café, which featured horseshoe shaped bars and began to decline when it was modernized and the management “only wanted dressed-up people – that got rid of a lot of business.”

Clara Hansen recalls sharing a Lake Shore Drive business district which included the Lake View tavern (still next door, part of the Edgewater Grille operation today), the large bowling alley and coffee shop east of that – which burned down in a spectacular fire in 1978, eventually replaced by the Edgewater Grille), and the Lakeside grocery store owned by Pete and Pearl Onesti in the building to the east, empty for the past several years and now home to Rideon Bicycle Rentals. Bill Washburn, she recalls, operated the downstairs portion of Culver’s beach lodge, where the fireplace crackled for marshmallow roasting and hot chocolate in the winter after the fire department sprayed down the ice at the beach for skating. Nearby Liberty Street was blocked off during the same season for safe sledding down “Liberty Hill.”The Maxinkuckee tour boat, operated by the Amond family, was a staple of the area, she recalls, and its captain, Frank Amond, “would gather us all; I’d make sandwiches and we’d go out to the middle of the lake and sit out there drifting on a hot summer night and have a wonderful time!”

Over the years, Hansen says, the sporting goods and hardware side of the store’s business — including sales of bait and fishing and hunting licenses — was slowly phased out, the restaurant end of things taking over after the death of her husband in 1998.

Hansen’s, or “Clara’s,” as it was known to many Culverites in recent years, was open for breakfast and lunch (“I had my afternoon bunch and my breakfast bunch,” says Hansen of her customer base), its familiar west wall lined with coffee mugs, images of various facets of Culver’s past, and awards and articles about the business and Clara herself. Among them: a watercolor painting of the place by well-known local artist Barbara Meeker, which was given to Hansen for Christmas in 1992 and a colorful “folk art” painting by the late, former Culver fire chief Dave Burns of the historic, long-gone station master’s home, iconic for the trees on each side of it and brick street on Lake Shore Drive.

Another wall item was a 1962 check which apparently lodged itself behind the drop box at Culver’s NIPSCO office for 38 years. Workers demolishing the building, at the corner of Washington and Main Streets, for the expansion of the Culver Public Library in the early 2000s found the check and returned it to Clara Hansen, all those years later. The incident made the newspaper and was eventually syndicated nationally, she says, which led to past customers, acquaintances, and friends clipping the piece and sending it to her. “I got letters from all over the country,” she says, still in smiling disbelief. “From Texas and California — they sent me the clipping and I couldn’t believe it! Someone said, ‘You’re famous!’ It was nice to get something like that instead of all bad news.”

Another framed photo on the wall showed Clara among those signing the part of the lands making up today’s town park over to the town of Culver in the early 1980s, the result of hard-fought community efforts to purchase the tract of land still owned by the railroad to add to the surrounding park lands. Hansen, very active for years with Culver’s Lions Club, was especially helpful in fund raising. In fact, for many years, requests to rent the Lions-owned Culver depot across the street were directed to Hansen’s.

The photos and awards along the wall went on: Clara Hansen honored in 1991 as Culver Lake Fest parade marshal (she helped found the festival, in fact, in 1983), a 1977 award from the Lions Club, awards from the Maxinkuckee Internation Order of Odd Fellows (the “Good Citizenship” award) and the now-defunct Culver Eagle’s lodge, and one of the highest awards Lions Club International bestows, the WP Woods Fellow, in September, 2005.

She also catered: everything from east shore cottage parties to Lions Club meetings for years, to the VFW senior citizens’ and wild game dinners; in fact, she only stopped catering a few years ago.She was active in the Lions (as she is still today) for more than four decades, spearheading its regular flea markets and ‘jail-a-thons,’ among other efforts. “I guess I don’t know the word ‘no,’” she smiles.

At the restaurant, Clara Hansen was not in it for the money, she says, though she liked to “make enough to pay the bills.” Instead, she’s always enjoyed the people, her faith in her customers paying off as they found their way in from Culver, of course, but also from out of town, some from South Bend, Chicago, and “all over.” Customers have come and gone, and Hansen muses about “all the people that used to come in here that are gone.

People used to tell me, ‘You lose one customer and you gain another somewhere else,’ and it was true. I (would have) people here back for vacation, and they would always stop in. It was so nice to hear from them. That’s what makes the world go around.”Hansen was in the restaurant business since the sixth grade, all told, she says, recalling being let out of school early in the afternoons in high school to work in a Plymouth restaurant. “I always said I wouldn’t get in the restaurant business, but I did. I thought I had all of it that I wanted. But I loved it (at Hansen’s).

I outlasted a lot of the businesses around here.“We’ve got some great people in Culver,” she adds reflectively. “One thing that draws people to Culver is the small town atmosphere here. People are friendlier. In big cities they don’t even know their neighbor. You get in trouble (in Culver), they’re there to help you.”

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