"How did you come about owning the gas station?"
I am often asked that question along with:
"Is this your family's place?"
"Did you know this place used to be called 'Poncie's'??"
"Were you related to Poncie?"
"Do you vacation all winter long?"
"So...is your name really Susan Freeman Bay??"
(Yes, I am asked this question regularly)
I never tire of telling our story, so I thought I would post the extended version of it here for our followers that don't know how it all began!
So sit back and relax....you're getting the LONG story-we're going WAY back into time!
My family has been spending their summers on Lake Freeman since the 1930s (that is when my great-grandparents purchased a cottage and surrounding land). In the late 1940s they built a second cottage and in later years, once the great-grandparents stopped coming to the lake, they left one cottage to my great-aunt and her family and the other cottage was left to my grandmother and her family.
In 1982, at just a week or so old, my mom brought me to Lake Freeman and I'm convinced that it was love at first sight! From that day forward, I was fortunate enough to spend my summers growing up alongside my cousins at the lake. I then spent every winter talking incessantly about summer and about going back to the lake (we even have pictures of me when I was five or six wearing my bathing suit around the house in the dead of winter-Lake Freeman was ALWAYS on my mind).
When it comes to the lake, few things are more ingrained in my memory than our trips to "Poncie's." Whether we were picking out candy and pop or a new pair of skis, Poncie's was the place to be!! My mom says that when I was little I used to ask if she would leave me at Poncie's so I could just stay and work there all day. While I'm sure the candy helped spark my obsession with being there, Poncie's always held my attention and admiration.
There are several events from all my summers that are a blur, but I'll never forget pulling up to Poncie's one summer and seeing it all boarded up. Our hearts sank and I'm pretty sure there were tears. How could they have gone out of business? "Did we not buy enough treats?," we all wondered. How could they have let us down?
Poncie's sat empty for a summer (maybe two) before it was bought and renamed "Freeman Bay Trading Post." Oh, HAPPY DAY! We were so glad to have our "old friend" back on the lake. When I got my boater's license at 13 (it was the 90s, rules were a little looser back then), the first place I took my cousins was, of course, Poncie's (we never stopped calling it by its beloved name).
It was only natural that in June of 2000, after my senior year of high school, I asked to live at the lake and work at Poncie's. I feared that if I got a job at home in Chesterton, I would have no time at the lake (oh the torture)! By this time, Poncie's had a new owner and was called, simply, "Freeman Bay." I was hired as an "extra" and was told I may only get a few hours of work a week. My first day here by myself was nerve wracking!! I had received no training beyond "this is how you turn the gas pump on" and was left with a notebook to refer to if I needed help. Around mid-day my boss called to tell me the girl that was coming in to relieve me had quit and I would need to stay all day...and could I possibly take whatever hours she had been scheduled to work that week? I nervously accepted and so began my life at Freeman Bay. Who could've guessed that one girl quitting her job would change the rest of my life?
That first summer went by very quickly. I had taken on a lot of responsibilities in a short period of time and I had met so many amazing people (many of YOU and your wonderful families). By the end of the summer, I felt like we were all one big Lake Freeman family and I couldn't wait to come back the following summer to see everyone.
Over the next few summers, I really stepped up at Freeman Bay. I began charting information and keeping records that I thought my boss would find helpful (I'm sure they ended up in the garbage) and was in charge of hiring and training any of our help. During the school year at IU, I took a few business classes to learn the basics. Late in the summer of 2003, my boss shared the unsettling news that he wanted to get rid of Freeman Bay and that most of the people interested in buying the place were older retired couples that wanted to run it themselves and not hire help. My head was spinning-I was devastated. I had spent every waking moment of the past four summers working at Freeman Bay. I had given up time with my family and friends and dedicated myself to the people of Lake Freeman. I had gotten to know our customers, was taking care of them on a regular basis and was quite attached to all of them. I was convinced that an old retired couple wouldn't be able to keep up with the physically demanding aspect of running Freeman Bay and eventually give up and shut down. All I could think about was that summer Poncie's had closed and left me and all my cousins completely heart broken. The thought of doing that to our young customers broke my heart all over again. I couldn't let them down!
I quickly began devising a plan to convince any future buyers of the business that they would NEED me, that their future customers NEEDED me, and that they wouldn't be able to run Freeman Bay without me. My boss knew how attached I was to Freeman Bay and simply said, "why don't you just buy it?" The thought had never crossed my mind, I was a broke college kid! So that's when I came up with a different plan...
For years, we had wanted my dad to take a step back from the family business and let my brothers run it (the man was on his feet at that business 11 and 12 hours a day for nearly 30 years). Now that he had been diagnosed with cancer, we really wanted him to slow it down, but knew he could never be still. So I got it in my head that he could buy Freeman Bay and tinker around on fixing it up, but he could hire me to run the station for him. Of course, I never believed any of this plan would work, it was just a way to distract me from the idea of letting down our customers.
Without me knowing, my dad had gathered information from my boss and had everything lined up. He then handed me the phone number for the SBA (Small Business Association) and told me "after you've written your business plan this is the best place to present it so you can get a loan to buy your business." Had he misheard my master plan?? MY business? Was he NUTS?? And before I knew it, in October of 2003, I had bought Freeman Bay.
In Bloomington, I took courses at the local SBA center. It was there that I learned how to do taxes and payroll and they even helped me apply for all the certificates I would need. I spent my senior year at IU working towards a minor in business. I used Freeman Bay for all my projects so I could soak up as much information as possible about running the business.
Before long, summer of 2004 had arrived. Business carried on the same as it had in previous summers. I painted the inside of the store to liven it up a little bit and painted a few things outside as well. We hung up a banner that simply read "Under New Management" (the previous owner had driven away a few customers over the years). I told my dad that I was considering painting words on our dock awning- I wanted to write things like "Gas," "Snacks," "Ice Cream," etc... Shortly after that my dad showed up with HUGE signs for me to hang on the awning. They contained all the words I had requested. He then surprised me with a new Freeman Bay sign (the old one that stood above the building was pretty worn down). I screamed when I saw the sign-he had put "Susan's" above "Freeman Bay." I was embarrassed...I didn't want our customers to know that I had bought the business. I thought people would think differently of me. All I wanted our customers to know was that someone new had taken over, but that I was still working there and I would take care of them. My dad saw it differently-he was proud of what I had done and wanted the whole planet (or at least all of Lake Freeman) to know. My dad spent many days that summer "tinkering" around the gas station. I never knew when I might see an extension chord roll down our stairs and be followed by my dad carrying a bunch of power tools. I looked forward to every project we attempted (and sometimes completed) at Freeman Bay.
The summer after we lost my dad in 2005, I wanted to have an event in his honor. I wanted to give back to our customers that had already given me so much. Because of my dad's amazing generosity throughout his life, I knew the event should not only be a customer appreciation day, but also a fundraiser. It was then that we created our annual "Dogs for the Cause" event. Each year we give away free hot dogs, doughnuts and prizes in hopes of raising money for lesser known charities. I am proud to say that we have raised over $70,000 since our first event and it's all because the people I care so much about (all of you) care enough about us to show their appreciation.