Fire is no stranger to Marion. It remade the look of our town a couple of times and has selectively changed every neighborhood at some time in our history. The fire whistle struck fear in the hearts of Marionites as long as we had one.
Today, fire rarely rears its hot head within the village, but on Sunday evening, August 28, flames broke out in the building housing Smitty’s Diner and Rootz Salon on South Mill Street. On Monday morning folks were surveying the fire damage and shaking their heads over the loss of the popular eatery.
Several generations of Marionites don’t remember our town without a restaurant just south of the gas station on the banks of the Middle Branch. It has gone by several names. First, and for a long time, it was known as the River Inn, a most appropriate choice. As owners changed so did the name over the door, many forgotten now; out of sight, out of mind. Most recently it has been an Italian restaurant, the popular Lunch Box, and currently Marion mainstay, Smitty’s Diner since 2017.
But of course, this site and building have a much longer history, in fact as long as Marion itself, but we won’t go back that far. Mid century is a good place to start. So, briefly and in a nutshell, we’ll fill you in. The site where Smitty’s and Rootz are now located was the long-time site of Marion blacksmith John Alberts Sr.’s shop and forge. In 1950 it was owned and operated as a smithy by his son, the well remembered John “Johnny” Alberts.
By 1965 Johnny was ready to sell and moved the forge to his property north of town. He sold to Cart and Alice Morton and they, together with Dr. Douglas Youngman, built a new business structure, back from the highway and closer to the river; creating a parking lot and room for another building or two, should that need appear.
That same year the Morton’s sold their large, old building on Main Street to Maxine Jenema Cariano. This gave her a much larger space for her Gamble’s franchise. In the mid 1970’s this building went up in smoke.
Leaving the hardware behind, the Morton’s moved into their new building, opening the Village Shoppe just before Christmas. The new shop exclusively featured fine gifts, home wares, jewelry and a smattering of antiques. Within two years the Michigan Secretary of State opened a branch office in the Village Shoppe. This was a big thing for Marion, Michigan. A customer could buy the perfect birthday gift and renew a driver’s license all in one visit.
By 1970 Dr. Youngman built another building adjacent the Village Shoppe and he and Dr. Frank Blossom, DDS, moved their offices there. This space remained a medical office until the death of Dr. Vomastek only a few years ago. The space is home to Rootz Salon today.
The Morton’s closed the Village Shoppe by the mid 1980’s. Not long after, it became the River Inn and began its restaurant story. We have not heard what’s next for Smitty’s.
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Don’t forget the annual Clark Day fest at the Marion Area Historical Museum. Noon to 3pm, rain or shine. Unfortunately, the forecast isn’t great, but the food will be. Please plan to stop by, have a hot bowl of hobo stew and take a tour of Marion’s ‘attic’. You won’t regret it and you might just meet some new folks too. This event is, as always, by donation and all are most welcome.
The photo this week is of the new Village Shoppe at Christmas, 1965. What has become a dining room with a river view began as a screened porch.