Curiosity sparked by dad’s stories led several to road trips
By Karen Flaten
Growing up in Sauk Centre, Mike Bolz enjoyed listening to his father’s stories about a town in Kentucky where he had spent a couple years as a young man. Mike didn’t know much about it, only that his father had journeyed there from his hometown of Melrose, to find work. The specifics were hazy. Mike didn’t know where his father had worked, or what he had done. In fact, the only thing Mike remembered quite clearly about these stories was the mention of Covington, Kentucky, and that there was an amazing spaghetti place with a distinctive sign that read, “Chili, Chili Beans, Chili Spaghetti.” Mike’s father told him he had walked across a long bridge to Cincinnati, Ohio, in order to get to the spaghetti restaurant. Somehow, knowing about the sign and the town was enough for Mike to want to go there. So when he had the opportunity to purchase a Honda Silverwing in 2009, he he planned his first road trip to Covington, Kentucky.
This trip was the first of many. Mike’s trip following his father’s footsteps turned out to be the beginning of more than a decade of road trips to Covington and other destinations, especially in the southern and eastern U.S.
Covington, Kentucky, as Mike found out in that first trip, is an interesting and historic town. Established in 1815, it is home to museums, historic homes, beautiful churches, and several well-known historic districts. Covington is also home to the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge (formerly known as the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge), which spans the Ohio River between Cincinnati, Ohio and Covington, Kentucky. When it opened in 1866, the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, with a span of 1,057 feet. Roebling is even more famous for designing the Brooklyn Bridge, built in 1883, which then surpassed the length of the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge to become the world’s longest suspension bridge with a span of 1,595.5 feet. The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in Covington was reportedly the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Nowadays it’s an 11-hour drive,” said Mike. “I don’t do it in one day.” But, said Mike, “when Dad went to Covington, he didn’t stop for anything except gas – but he bought a quarter’s worth of bananas to eat!”
Mike has stopped in Covington for every one of the last 12 years, while adding other destinations to the trip.
“Every year,” said Mike, “I pick out some place I want to go.” One year, he traced parts of the Trail of Tears, which was part of a series of forced displacements of Native Americans by the United States government which took place between 1830 and 1850. Mike remembers a park near St. Louis, Missouri with a bridge crossing the Mississippi. A sign in the park stated that 200 people had died there as part of the ‘Indian Removal’ or Trail of Tears.
Another year, Mike went to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at 6,643 feet. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Mike then continued his journey to Cherokee, North Carolina. At the time, Mike said, he was trying to understand his supposed Indian ancestry.
“My grandpa told my father that his grandmother had been half French-Canadian and half Indian.” Mike and his siblings found out later that this was not the case. After sending off for a DNA test, they discovered they did not have any Native American ancestry in their DNA. “I don’t know why Grandpa would have said that,” said Mike.
The DNA test did give the family lots of information. They had believed they were mostly German and a little Polish, but the DNA test showed lots of Eastern European blood, as well as some Russian and some from the Balkans. They even found that they had a little Ashkenazy Jewish blood in them. That was a surprise for this German Catholic family. “We had some interesting discussions around that discovery,” said Mike.
Mike’s journeys have included the Andersonville Historic Site (Camp Sumter Prison) in Andersonville, Georgia, where 13,000 Union soldiers perished during the Civil War due to treacherous conditions.
“There were over 100 deaths per day in this camp due to malnutrition, etc.,” said Mike. “And the graves… they were buried so close together.”
Another year, Mike returned to Cherokee, North Carolina, where he watched the pageant, ‘Unto These Hills,’ which dramatizes the story of the Cherokee people from their first contact with Europeans through the Trail of Tears removal period.
In 2020, Mike and his sisters (who traveled separately by car) continued south from Covington, Kentucky to find Ark Encounter, a five-story museum replica of Noah’s Ark, based on the flood story in the Bible. Located in Williamstown, KY, It is operated by the same Young Earth Creationist group which operates the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
Continuing farther south on his own, Mike visited the Georgia Guidestones, a controversial granite monument erected in Elbert County, Georgia, in 1979. Some folks have called the monument ‘America’s Stonehenge.’ The monument is inscribed with messages regarding the conservation of mankind and future generations in 12 languages. The Guidestones are also an astronomical calendar -- Every day at noon the sun shines through a narrow hole in the structure and illuminates the day’s date on an engraving. Although they have become a tourist destination, the reasons for their installation are shrouded in mystery.
Mike and his siblings have also traced their roots by going to small-town graveyards in Wisconsin, which was the first stop for the family’s ancestors when they came to the U.S. In the town of Kiel, Wisconsin, west of Sheboygan, the siblings found their great-grandfather’s grave. They then found their great-grandmother’s grave in a nearby town called New Holstein. The Bolz siblings continued their search for their family history by traveling to Madison, Wisconsin, one year, in order to check out the records at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Mike’s father, William Bolz, died in 2005, at the age of 101. Born in 1904 in Elrosa, Minnesota, William worked as a farmhand in Melrose in the 1920s, but then moved to Kentucky to find work during the Depression. Sometime in the late 1930s, William Bolz moved back to Minnesota, getting a job “building tank parts,” according to Mike, at American Hoist and Derrick in St. Paul around the beginning of World War II. William met his wife, Ceil, Mike’s mother, in St. Paul, married and started a family. But after a few years working with cast iron, William began experiencing breathing problems from the dust. William left his job for health reasons, moved his family back to Central Minnesota, and bought a small farm in Sauk Centre in the late 1940s. He farmed and also worked for the State of Minnesota for a few years. Many of Mike’s memories are of his dad working on the farm when Mike was young.
“He didn’t talk that much,” said. Mike, “but what he did talk about were things he remembered from the past, things that were important to him.” Like those years during the 1930s when he lived in Covington, Kentucky, and used to walk across the bridge to the spaghetti place in Cincinnati.
“He never told me the name of the place,” said Mike. “I would have remembered that.” But Mike has stopped in to a few spaghetti and chili places in the Cincinnati area. He thinks he may have found the one his father used to go to. Talking with one of the employees, Mike found out that Skyline Chili used to be located across the bridge in Cincinnati, but has since moved to Covington (as well as establishing other locations in the Cincinnati area). At Skyline Chili, Mike tried their ‘signature dish’ – ‘steaming spaghetti covered with our original secret-recipe chili and topped with a mound of shredded cheddar cheese.’ But, said Mike, “it’s hard to know if it’s the right place, since ’chili spaghetti’ and that type of food seems to be very popular in the area.”
In early 2021, the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge was closed, and traffic re-routed for a nine-month renovation. But for all the years Mike has been riding to Covington, Kentucky, it has been possible to cross the historic suspension bridge between Covington and Cincinnati, checking out spaghetti and chili restaurants.
Mike and his siblings have learned much about their heritage, and have had some memorable times researching and traveling to find their roots. They owe it all to their dad, who told stories about a town in Kentucky where he had lived so many years ago.