The Polish prince of Cannonsburg

November 10, 2008
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If Don Kurylowicz wanted to paint the town red in Cannonsburg, he could: He owns most of it.

Over the past 25 years, Kurylowicz has built a miniature retail and commercial real estate empire in this tiny Kent County crossroads just east of Cannonsburg Ski Area.

“All I wanted was a quiet little place in the country,” Kurylowicz said of his 1983 purchase of a run-down bar. “All I was going to do was the restaurant. I had no intention of the rest.”

Today the centerpiece of Kurylowicz’s domain is the Honey Creek Inn, once a “knock-down, brawling place” that he cleaned up with sweat equity and the help of crooner Pat Boone.

“This is stuff they don’t teach you in school,” said Kurylowicz, who is still “one or two” classes short of a master’s in business administration at Grand Valley State University.

“Pat Boone, the singer, he helped me get rid of the bikers. It was his song I put on the jukebox. So the bikers came in, and I would just put a whole bunch of quarters in, and all it was was ‘Love Letters in the Sand,’” Boone’s swooning hit from 1957.

“I had to clean house several times,” Kurylowicz added. “A couple of them got mad … and came back at 2 in the morning while I was cleaning up and blew out the windows — a 12-gauge shotgun.”

That was then. Now, Honey Creek Inn has a chef, an eclectic menu and is just as likely to draw local celebrities as blue-collar regulars, Kurylowicz said.

The grandson of Polish immigrants, Kurylowicz grew up on Grand Rapids’ West Side with three brothers. He and his twin, Dave, were just 10 when their mother died. Their grandmother lived next door and took on much of their care. She also taught them to cook.

“I was raised by the whole family,” Kurylowicz said. “Busia (Polish for grandmother) lived across the yard. Excuse me, this is the West Side. I went to school at St. Adalbert’s, seven blocks from home, OK? I could not walk from school to home without being in sight of family.”

Kurylowicz graduated from West Catholic High School and attended GVSU and Grand Rapids Junior College before landing at the University of Michigan. In Ann Arbor, he started in the architecture school before moving over to liberal arts.

“I had a ball,” he said. “I just took classes — ‘Oh, that looks interesting.’ If any foreign professor was there on sabbatical, I would take that class because it gave you a different perspective on the world. After two and half years, my counselor said, ‘You know, Don, you ain’t got no more money. You’re going to have to graduate.’ They put it all together and I ended up with a B.A. in sociology, a minor in urban planning and an associate’s in architecture.

“Now everybody in my family is laughing. It all fits.”

He traveled in the U.S. and Europe, then returned to Grand Rapids and became an activities director in the local mental health system. He studied for the not-quite-finished MBA at GVSU before deciding to re-create in Cannonsburg a pub like the ones he fell in love with in Europe.

Kurylowicz set about fixing up the place, which had been a watering hole since the Great Depression. Kurylowicz used heavy oak doors, four and a half feet wide and 20 feet tall, salvaged from Catholic Central High School, as wainscoting for the walls and the bar.

“I just took those doors and laid them on their side. They were instant walls,” he said.

He laid the tile on the kitchen floor. He finished the upstairs into an office area that replicates the home of his beloved Busia, complete with lace curtains and her lamps. For artwork, he displays hundreds of colorful tap handles from the various beers he’s served over the years.

“Half the work I did myself: hammered, painted, plastered. I wallpapered all this. I did all the refinishing, all the woodwork. This is all sweat equity,” Kurylowicz said.

“The day we opened up, I said, ‘This is going to be interesting.’ I’d never worked in a bar, never poured a drink, never worked a cash register. I’d never owned a restaurant, none of it. So this is one of those ‘both feet in.’”

Shortly afterward, Kurylowicz tussled in court over lot lines with Cannon Township, which owned the neighboring buildings. Despite the contentious start — Kurylowicz lost in court — he said his relationship with township officials is fine today.

In the early 1990s, neighboring property owners began approaching Kurylowicz about buying their properties, starting with an old, ramshackle building across the street where the grist mill had operated. He bought it to keep out competition and now runs a modern gas station there. He also built a new general store and lunch counter that looks similar to the old building. He named it — what else — The Grist Mill. There, he sells motor oil, locally grown fruits and vegetables, organic chicken and kielbasa made on the premises from Busia’s recipe.

“My whole intention over there was a little grocery store,” he said. “It was what was on the West Side before the big super stores came in. You had all the little grocery stores.”

The gasoline business proved to be a tougher learning curve, and he said it came to the brink of disaster before he finally figured it out.

He turned the market next to the restaurant into a wine and liquor shop. He owns several other properties, open land and houses, virtually all the Cannonburg Road commercial frontage other than Cannon Township’s property. He said his businesses average 1,000 to 1,200 transactions per day. The businesses are connected by a computer and telephone network, and wireless is provided. Kurylowicz employs 50 to 55 people, although fewer than 10 are full-time.

Kurylowicz still is an activities director of sorts. Working with the 250 or so residents who live within spitting distance of Cannonsburg, as counted in the 2000 census, he helps to organize, support and provide nourishment for community events that have put the spot on the map, Lake Wobegon-style.

One of the best-known Cannonsburg events is an old-fashioned Christmas celebration. The fun starts the day after Thanksgiving, when a dozen or so people gather for a pancake breakfast and then hang outdoor Christmas lights. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, starting around 6 p.m., locals gather, school children sing carols, Father Christmas arrives (played by a former cook at the Honey Creek Inn) in a costume handmade by a neighbor, and the lights are thrown on for the first time. Then everyone gathers in Kurylowicz’s restaurant, which is closed to paying customers for the evening, to have hot chocolate and cider and sweets made by the neighbors.

For Christmas Eve, Kurylowicz and his staff create ice luminaries and line the road with them.

Does all this help Kurylowicz sell turkeys, hams, kielbasa, Busia bread and gasoline? Probably, but the history buff with a knack for party-throwing said he’s after a different currency.

“I always loved history,” Kurylowicz said. “Not that I want to do things old-fashioned, but there’s certain traditions you should know about.  

“How do you take and transition the past and bring it in the future? There isn’t the anchor. Families move all over and they lose part of that. Grandma lives in Florida, Grandpa’s over there. There isn’t the tradition of things.

“You have to have something like this to create memories. In the restaurant business, you don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. You’ve got to have places that people can enjoy and have memories.”

To that end, Kurylowicz dots Cannonsburg’s calendar with summer picnics, horse-drawn carriage rides to the nearby Townsend Park, a Taste of Cannonsburg event (which consists, of course, only of his own businesses), and sundry other promotional and community events. He declares the birthday he shares with his brother as a local holiday. He celebrates Pulaski Days. He lends some land to Rockford Public Schools’ Cannonsburg Elementary for a garden.

He publishes the monthly “Cannonsburg Chronicle,” a newsletter that’s half-promotional, half-hokey and half tongue-in-cheek. It has a circulation of 4,000, almost double the 2,500 population of greater Cannonsburg.

When the federal government chose Grand Rapids this year as one of the first cities to introduce the new dollar coins, Kurylowicz provided one for each student and invited them down the street for a celebration complete with two representatives of the U.S. Mint.

Parties, it seems, are attracted to Kurylowicz. Co-owner of a remote cabin on a lake in Ontario, a few years ago he showed up there after Pulaski Days with a pan full of golembki — Polish cabbage rolls. More and more local residents and the 11 other cabin-owners joined him each year, until this year the event became a full-fledged Polish luau featuring a pig roast.

“Wherever I go, I have fun,” he said.

Last March, Kurylowicz decided to pull an April Fool’s Day joke and had a big sign made that proclaimed “Coming Soon, McDonald’s.” He displayed it across the street.

“That sign was only up for one day, and the next day I put a big banner across: ‘April Fools,’” Kurylowicz said. “But the thing is how many people called. There were some people almost in tears. That taught me a lot, that people really do appreciate this.”

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