By Kurt J. Kolka
Many people refer to certain people as a rock in their life, but for Clarence “Curly” LaMotte, his rock might literally be a stone! A Petoskey stone.
For decades, he has collected and made various crafts from the famous fossil.
A Grayling native, Curly says the small town located in the heart of Northern Michigan has been the only town he’s known as home and the only one he cares to.
“I have always enjoyed my jobs here. It’s a nice place. And there’s good people.”
“It all started about sixty-some years ago. My brother Jerry was out gathering Petoskey stones. He didn’t do much with them. And I thought that might be fun. So, he told me where to find them. I started looking at an old gravel pit south of Grayling. Picked up some there. And it seems wherever I went, a lake gravel pit or anywhere, I started looking for stones.”
He soon learned a man he worked with, Walt Layman, also worked on stones and had some used equipment he wanted to sell. So, Curly bought the equipment and set it up in his barn-style garage.
He started learning how to do the equipment and seeing what could be done with it. His goal was to create craft items for family members. The problem was he enjoyed it so much, he ran out of family to give his work to.
At the time, he was a real estate agent and the owner of Grayling’s popular restaurant, Curly’s Drive-in (from 1958 to 1971and occasionally thereafter). Making use of what was available to him, he began selling items out of a glass showcase next to the cash register in the restaurant.
Curly’s Drive-in was well known for its selection of pizza, burgers and ice cream.
Diane Speaker, a former employee of the drive-in now living in Phoenix, Ariz., remembers those days well.
“I worked at Curly’s Drive-In for two summers, 1968 and 1969, in the dining room,” says Diane.
“Tips were very little back then; a five-dollar day was a good one! One family never tipped and ate there almost daily. We used to alternate getting ‘stuck’ with them! Curly and Lorna were great bosses! I also remember that I ate my first pizza there!”
“Once, just after closing, after midnight, we had a carful of Detroit Pistons players climb out of a small car and beg Curly for food. We reopened!” says Catherine Ellen McLeod of East Lansing, another former employee.
“Another time, one of the employees recognized an actor from Spanky and Our Gang sitting at the counter wearing a National Guard uniform. He heard us whispering and acknowledged that it was him. He was still cute!”
The beloved restaurant proved to be the perfect showcase for his hobby. When he sold the restaurant, he started selling his crafts at craft shows.
“The only one we did for a long time was the one in Grayling at the canoe race,” notes Curly. “My wife made knitted stuff and she’d use half the table and I’d use the other half. About all we had back then was bracelets and necklaces. Now, [my work] covers lots of tables.”
Eventually, Beth Hubbard asked Curly to become part of the Farmer’s Market in Grayling and he also became part of the market in Gaylord. He still does some traveling to nearby craft shows.
“If it is a two or three day one, I want to be able to drive home at night and sleep in my own bed.”
To Curly, the best part of being in craft shows is the people. Not only does he meet new people, but he has often run across people he has not seen in 30 to 45 years. One old friend who visited his table he hadn’t seen in 60 years.
Curly continues to experiment with uses for Petoskey stones. His display includes everything from jewelry to knick-knacks to wine-stoppers to night lights.
The largest Petoskey stone he has found weighed 50 pounds.
“One time my wife found a four-pound stone. I told her to find another one and I’d make her a pair of earrings. She told me to go somewhere. I don’t remember where.”
Retirement for Curly is not even on his radar. While his own son has retired, he cannot see the use of it — not while there are new crafts to create and friends, new and old, to meet.
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