What a Doll:
People who know me know that I'm not much of a pack-rat. I keep as little as possible and what I do keep is, most often, not what it appears to be.
Anybody who knows anything about the history of Conneaut Lake can tell you something about the Oakland Hotel. The one everyone remembers was a huge, frosted cake of a building constructed in the mid-19-teens on the high shoreline of the northern portion of the East Side whereupon had sat a much smaller, plain-Jane affair that had succumbed to fire.
Oakland Hotel and "Boat" late 1930s
About two decades after the main hotel was put up, an extremely distinctive and very large boat-like structure was built, jutting from the front of the hotel, out and over the edge of the bluff. It held a bar and dance-floor and definitely changed the "look and feel" of the place. Opinions of the "boat" were mixed. Today it seems to engender a universal "wow, how cool is that?!" But my dad viewed it with nothing less than disdain, deeming it "the ruination of the place" partly because it changed the Oakland from a place of family to one of partying.
I was never inside the boat, though I do have strong memories of wandering on it in the spring and fall: Throwing handfuls of maple-seed "helicopters" over the deck railing, watching them spin their way to the ground far below. Such activities were, of course, forbidden, but then, so were lots of other things. I don't recall much
about the Oakland Hotel that you see in the postcards, either. I remember being
in its huge lobby exactly twice. Once when it was in operation and once
as it was being dismantled.
My dad, his brother, and some of us kids walked up the shoreline path from Midway and visited as the hotel was being pulled down in the mid-1960s. It was a cold, gray day. The adults told stories of the Oakland's glory days. How the native-stone hearth held logs that were six feet long. How, in its day, the place was a wonder to behold. How the loss of the hotel marked the end of an era. All of it was lost on us kids, mostly because we'd heard the stories a million times before and sheesh, blah-blah-blah, okay we know, can we go home now? It's cold!
I wasn't there when what remained of the Oakland was burned. A few of us kids rode our bikes up the next day. Smoldering piles of charred lumber, air thick with the smell of fire. Everything was eventually bulldozed into much smaller pieces. The land was contoured. That was that. My parents told us to stay away from the place. It was dangerous, with torn metal and broken glass. There was wood with rusty nails. We might step on one and die from lock-jaw (whatever the heck that was).
But the pull was irresistible. Riding our bikes up the old access road in the rear. Staying mostly near a grove of big oak trees, out of site from adults who may drive by. Jim, Mark, Willie, and I; we visited over and over. Poking through what was left. Looking for treasures. Mark found a gold coin. A small ten-dollar, I think. Jim found a rusty nail on a board that pierced both the bottom of his tennis shoe and his foot. When I told him we had to tell his parents, he considered me crazy. "I'm not supposed to be here. I'd rather get lock-jaw and die than tell my mom and dad!" His parents were never told. Jim survived. Lock-jaw never struck.
As for me, I found a dirt-filled and badly scorched body of a small, bisque doll. No hair, no clothes, no arms, no legs. She had somehow made it through the destruction, fire, and churn of the dozers. The guys teased me about keeping her, but she was lost and forlorn and very much in need of a friend. After what she'd experienced I couldn't very well leave her be or toss her in the Lake or bust her in half. Into my pocket she went. Once home, a good scrubbing found her marked 620 10 Made in Germany.
That tiny and fragile doll became proof to me that survival was always possible, though you might be damaged and unrecognizable. She went whenever I moved. First to college. Then to various towns and states and apartments and houses of my own. Tucked away in my sock drawer she was, where I saw her first thing every morning as a reminder of what was possible.
Three Inches of Survival
I decided one day, about twenty years ago, that it was time to get her fixed up pretty. The first two "doll doctors" we visited were discouraging. "Nothing special," said one. "Not worth the money to fix," said another. When the third one smiled and said "what a sad and pretty girl," I knew I'd found who I was looking for. I told the lady the story of finding the doll. We chose the early 1900s for the make-over. I was told to return in a few weeks.
I don't remember what it cost to have her rebuilt. It doesn't matter. It was certainly not that much, especially considering there were limbs and clothing and hair and badly needed makeup involved. I couldn't believe the transformation. I was astonished by how pretty she looked. I still didn't–and still don't–know her name. Though, somehow, I had always known she was a red-head.
Her home is, at present, a cabinet near where I sit and write. I smile each and every time I look at her. A small reminder, now, that not only can you survive the tribulations of life, but that you can look good while doing it.
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