Gail and Don Mills enjoy life along the Kankakee River. | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 14, 2014 6:07AM
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
— Norman Maclean, from his book “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.”
For nearly 40 years, Don and Gail Mills have lived along Ramsey Road on the southern bank of the Kankakee River. They have a Hebron mailing address yet live in Jasper County. You see, at one time, before their time, the land where their house is was Porter County. But that was before man altered the course of the river.
Don, 61, and Gail, 59, grew up in Griffith. They have raised four adult children: Wendy, Andy, Jamie and Alex. All four graduated from Kankakee Valley High School.
Don is a member of Steelworkers Local 1014 at U.S. Steel in Gary, and Gail cleans houses.
When did you two start going steady?
Gail: “We met each other in April of ’69. We’ve been together ever since. I was almost 15.”
Don: “I’d ride my Sting-Ray bicycle to her house. Plus, she worked at Stan’s grocery store at the intersection of Colfax and Miller and I’d see her there, too.”
Don probably was the star athlete and you the ever-smiling bouncy cheerleader at Griffith High.
Gail: “No, we were nerds.”
What did your fathers do for a living?
Don: “My dad worked at Keen Foundries for 33 years and Gail’s dad worked at American Maize. They’re both deceased now. Our mothers were recently put in the same old folks home within a day or so of each other. We’re hoping they can share the same room.”
This place on Ramsey Road?
Don: “I was spending my weekends here by the time I was 8. I can remember my dad driving here all the way from Griffith and not passing a car. True story. We’d take Broadway to (U.S. Highway) 231. (Interstate) 65 wasn’t built yet.”
Gail: “We moved here when Wendy was 6 months old back in the spring of ’76. I’ve always been an outdoor person. Before we were married, we’d come down here. Don’s uncle owned this little summer shack. It had a motorcycle in it and Playboy magazines. That was it. But it did have a real cool fireplace. I always wanted a fireplace and I always wanted to live on water. We moved in.”
Don: “Gail used to put butter dishes on the ceiling to catch the rain. It had a flat, leaky roof.”
Gail: “I used to make toast in the living room. There was only one outlet. It was pretty bare-bones for a long time. It took a month to get a phone. It was kind of scary out here at first. My dad bought us a dog.”
Don: “When Gail did get a phone, there were other people on it.”
I remember party lines.
Gail: “There used to be a store by Marti’s Place, and a little camp area, too.”
Don: “They’d put your boat in with a big lift. We used to go tubing a lot. We’d take a plastic barrel, wrap an inner tube around it, and put a keg of beer inside it. The keg would float along with us. All you had to do was hit the tapper and pour yourself a beer while tubing in the river.”
A few of the colorful characters living on Ramsey Road through the years?
Don: “Vestie built the two shacks upstream from us. They were never meant to be lived in year-around.”
Don: Vestie Reder. His real name was Sylvester. My dad and uncles had places here before Vestie. Tex and Maury lived in the trailer on the very end. Maury, the husband, was something. I don’t know if anybody has ever done this, but he built a snowmobile track on the back of a Mercury outboard so he could get to the bar at Baum’s Bridge through the bayou when the water level was real low. Tex was a good old gal. They’re both dead now. Maury went first.”
Gail: “Jamie was born during the flood of ’82. She was about 3 days old when we brought her home from the hospital. We had to park at Doc Johnson’s near the four corners, put her and the other two kids in a boat, and then row another half-mile up Ramsey Road to our home.”
Don: “That was the worst flood since we’ve been here. The river broke out at 231.”
Gail: “But that’s how we really got to know our neighbors. We sandbagged together. Everybody helped each other out.”
Don: “Marti’s would stay open all the time during a flood. You could go in there and have a beer and a sandwich.”
Let’s fast forward. Your yard is landscaped beautifully. You both really keep the place nice.
Don: “We’ve put a lot of work into the place. Gail would be right in there with us mixing concrete when we poured the stairs to the river.”
Gail: “It has been a longtime labor of love.”
Final thoughts about life on the Kankakee?
Don: “I think it was a lot better for our kids growing up on the river than in town or in a city. I don’t know that I would’ve wanted to live anywhere else but here. It’s like we’re camping every day. We have a fire every night. You can relax. It’s like you’re vacationing every day.”
Gail: “People have to pay to do what we do every day. We can watch our TV out here, play darts on summer nights under the stars, go for pontoon rides or just watch the river flow. It’s so peaceful. I never take it for granted. It’s always good to come home. It makes me want to cry. ... ”
Being as I live about 100 feet upstream from the Mills, in one of the shacks Vestie Reder built, I’ve sat in on more than a few of their campfires.
As far as the interview goes, all I did was record their riparian and hauntingly beautiful tale. The words are theirs.
And, yes, all things do eventually merge into one.
And for Don and Gail Mills, the Kankakee River runs through it.