The best time to visit Hillsdale, Michigan, is anytime you have a bad cold. All food tastes pretty much the same when you have a cold, and all food tastes pretty much the same in Hillsdale, so you might as well kill two birds with one stuffy nose.
Aside from being the home of the most politically incorrect college in America, Hillsdale is also the county seat of a mostly rural, self-contained little segment of southern Michigan. With a population of 8,710, it's the biggest small town in a county of very small towns. It has a few neighborhoods with very nice-looking old houses and a courthouse, but beyond that, boy oh boy is there nothing for an out of towner to do.
As a place to live, Hillsdale seems very comfortable. Houses are pretty inexpensive, yards big and people friendly. Kids actually wave to unfamiliar adults on the sidewalk. Several good employers are in town, including a major manufacturer of playground equipment. The JCPenney store in the downtown area is about the size of a White Hen Pantry, but Wal-Mart is just four miles north of town. It's another 30 miles to the nearest movie theater, in Jackson, but there's always cable.
Some towns just don't have any need to cater to outsiders, because they don't get many. Can't blame them, but Hillsdale has several hundred college students in residence year-round, not to mention frequent drop-ins by dozens of conservative activists and people who come to hear them.
Where do they all go to have fun?
"Home," says Ron Trowbridge, who runs the college's think-tank programs. While in town, most adults who come for Hillsdale's lecture series stay in the Dow Center, the conference facility that includes hotel rooms and access to the student dining hall for any meal that isn't catered or prepared at the home of a college official.
Students go to parties in some of the fraternity and sorority houses that dot the hill leading from downtown Hillsdale to the campus, or they make the trip to Jackson for a movie. Otherwise, "the social life is definitely not anybody's favorite aspect of Hillsdale," says Wes Kelley, a senior.
There's one spot in town that has that college-town aura: The Wedge, 77 N. Howell (517-437-7555), a tidy, sunny coffeehouse shoehorned into two stories of a narrow downtown building. Good coffees, steamed milk and all that, accompanied by croissants, frozen yogurt, and light sandwiches.
A block away is the Palace Cafe, 38 N. Howell (517-437-4611), where Andy and Opie would have eaten when Aunt Bee was away in Mount Pilot. The counter is lined with swivel stools, the booths are painted pale gray and pink, and the upper reaches of the walls, beneath the tin ceiling, are painted with homey scenes of rural life, carriages, and old lanterns. The waitresses are so nice that at first I wondered if this was the new shtick, marketed to displace the nasty-waitress infestation that Ed Debevic's let loose upon the continent. But the cynicism can't last in the face of repeated doses of "How's your lunch, sweetie?" and "Need some more lemonade, dear?"
The Palace Cafe also keeps the flame burning for Hillsdale's most famous native son, Will Carleton. A poet and Hillsdale College alumnus, Carleton became recognized nationally in 1872 for a poem he published in Harper's Illustrated Weekly called "Over the Hill to the Poorhouse." It was based on his habit of spending Sunday mornings at the local poorhouse talking with people who'd been victims of injustice or bad luck.
Carleton's portrait is prominent among the paintings on the Palace Cafe's walls, and the Will Carleton Poorhouse Sandwich leads the menu. It's grilled ham and cheese on French bread with lettuce, tomato, and blue cheese dressing, all for $4.15 ($5.30 if you want french fries and coleslaw). Having eaten one memorial to Carleton, I went to see another: the former poorhouse on the east side of town. It's a great symmetrical stone house on a hill next to the local Bob Evans distribution facility. You can't go in, but there's a plaque outside noting the building's connection to Carleton. Total elapsed time for the entire Will Carleton tour, including using the men's room at the Palace Cafe: 40 minutes.
Imagine my shock later that very day when I learned that the legacy of the apparently great Will Carleton recently had been trashed by the Michigan legislature. The state school code had included Carle-ton's birthday, October 21, as a day to remember Carleton in Michigan schools, but state legislators had voted to eliminate Will Carleton Day from the school calendar. That leaves only a sandwich, a painting, a street, and a big, locked-up house to remind us of this great man, whoever he was.
After the Wedge and the Palace Cafe, the dining adventure in Hillsdale drops off to nothing special. Not bad food, just food that you'd hardly notice if it weren't on a fork in front of your face. Sammy's, 350 N. Hillsdale (517-437-2414), a funky-looking cinder-block place just north of the campus in a residential neighborhood, claims to have "Hillsdale's finest Mexican food." That claim apparently doesn't extend to the really bland and gooey bean-and-cheese burritos I had. The House of Flavors, 75 W. Carleton (517-437-3470), has easy-to-swallow biscuits and eggs for breakfast.
Accommodations are also a little sparse in Hillsdale, but again, it's not as if the town does a big business in honeymoons. The two best places to stay are Shadowlawn Manor and the Dow Center. Shadowlawn Manor, 84 Union (517-437-2367), is a bed-and-breakfast in a 130-year-old Victorian house trimmed with lots of gingerbread and a big screened porch. The cheery ten-room house five blocks from the college has four air-conditioned rooms for rent, each decorated in a different theme--Victorian, white wicker, rattan, and 20s. The Dow Leadership Development Center, 22 E. Galloway (517-437-3311), the college's own answer to the lack of hotels and restaurants in town, is a clean, plain, redbrick block with 36 hotel rooms. Just south of the city limits on Michigan Highway 99 are two other motels, both ordinary but clean: Bavarian Inn Motel (517-437-3367) and Hillsdale Motel (517-437-3389).
One great way to spend a few hours away from the campus is to wander the streets of Hillsdale south of its downtown (the campus is north of downtown). Long rows of really charming old houses sit behind big front yards, a postcard of small-town life. Dads mowing lawns have kids and dogs nipping at their heels. Moms sit on front porches sharing stories and tea. When the sun is shining and the breeze is sweet, it feels like morning in America all over again.