Digging Deep

The Michigan Iron Ore Museum dovetailed nicely with our previous local museum visits throughout the UP. The themes of life in the UP and Marquette were all intertwined. Shipping across the Great Lakes, the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the increasingly huge freighters carrying taconite iron ore pellets, the great ore docks which still dominate the Marquette harbor, and the discovery by Burt of iron ore in the UP and the struggle to settle this harsh, but breathtaking wilderness and tame it—these themes all converged in the story this museum had to tell.

This museum was created and is run by the DNR as an ode to the iron resources which dominated the economy of the UP for a century from the mid-1800’s to after WWII. There is still some mining going on today, but only two mines remain active.

The museum features exhibits on the now familiar story of William A. Burt and Douglass Houghton’s discovery of the huge mountain of iron just west of Marquette on the shores of Teal Lake. This was the backbreaking four-day trek through woods so dense they had to leave their horses and pack their supplies on their backs as they slogged their way on foot. Suddenly their compasses went haywire and Burt enjoined his men to look around…what they found charted the course of history for the region.

 

We got to see Burt’s Solar Compass, invented to compensate for the iron ore’s magnetic field disrupting their ability to survey and which proved to be the most accurate surveying tool.

We learned about the Landlookers. These were men who were tasked with backpacking out in search of new iron ore deposits. Struggling through the dense brush and fighting the mosquitoes and black flies so thick they literally could and did drive men insane, the landlookers wrapped their faces in bandanas and flailed with handsfulls of brush to switch the voracious insects away.

 

The museum also gave a stark accounting of the hardships of mining the iron ore. Six days a week, twelve hours a day, the men hauled ore. At first it was all surface mining and the equipment was primitive and the work absolutely backbreaking.

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Later, as the easily reached iron ore gave out, pit mining brought its own set of dangers and hardships. One of my favorite photos was of a miner enjoying his mid-day pastie.

 

 

 

The building of the first locks at Sault Ste Marie to allow iron ore and cargo to be ferried through the dangerous, but beautiful rapids.

And once the locks existed, they needed to build bigger locks which could accommodate larger and larger freighters carrying ever greater cargoes to the insatiable iron ore smelters way down state.

They dug deeper and deeper into the earth to continue to mine the iron ore.

It was a compelling history of the economic imperative to exploit these rich resources and the toll it took on thousands of men over decades to do the backbreaking work which made extraction possible. The miners, the sailors, the men who built the locks and worked the docks, the landlookers who scouted new ore deposits, and the merchants who supplied the goods and food necessary to fuel so much activity–they all had a role to play in this terribly dramatic story.

The museum finished up with a mock mining tunnel. My short walk through the dark and grimy tunnel made me ever so glad not to have been a miner!

 

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Of Ships and Tales of Yore

Wednesday was Staple Removal Day! In the hospital my surgeon had been brusque and distant. He would sweep into my room with his entourage, fire off a few questions and sweep back out again. One on one, he was charming and funny and ready to answer any and all questions. He really did use a staple remover of sorts. I was so beguiled I left my purse in the examining room and had to circle back hours later when I finally noticed it missing.

The Marquette Maritime Museum is housed in the former water works building. The full tour includes the Marquette Harbor Light Station as well. Until fairly recently the Coast Guard was responsible for the water works and the light station. In 2016, the 150th anniversary of the light house, the Coast Guard formally deeded the light station to the museum.

Our tour led us across a parking area to the lighthouse. On our way we passed the former coast guard barracks house and a second house constructed in the 1940’s when the former coast guard commandant could stand bunking with his men no more.

The lighthouse is perched on a hill with a commanding view of harbors on both sides. To the right is the Marquette harbor and the town. To the left in the distance is Presque Isle and closer in a beach with intrepid surfers enjoying the rough waters.

The light house is still an active light house, but, of course, no one lives there anymore. It does, however, have its own ghost—during renovation an overnight visitor left her small footprints on a newly painted floor. There were no recorded deaths of a young girl in the structure, but subsequent visitors report seeing the apparition of a young girl staring out a second floor window.

That’s not the only local ghost story. A woman was staying in the Coast Guard Quarters as a guest. She woke up from a nap and as she lay there she became aware of a man standing next to her bed. He was dressed oddly and sternly ordered her to “lock the door” and disappeared. Still half asleep, but terrified the woman stumbled to the front door and threw the lock. Some time later there was a huge banging at the front door and someone tried to break it in. The police came and took a deranged derelict from town into custody. As the shaken woman told her story, she happened to see an old photo of a former Coast Guard Commander hanging on the wall. “That’s the man! That’s the man who told me to lock the door!”

In 1983 the Coast Guard decided to demolish the fog signal building at the tip of the lighthouse. They blew that fog signal building to smithereens, without a permit, and bricks rained down as far as main street in town. Broken fragments of bricks are still strewn around the grounds. Understandably, the town was pretty upset and a settlement was brokered between the Coast Guard and the town. The initiators of the explosive incident were shipped off to parts unknown.

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Explosive is an adjective which works equally well in describing the color of the light house. At one point it was a softer red and one brick is left in the former color. This new red certainly is a zippy color and the light house is visible for miles because of it.

 

 

The museum has an excellent collection of shipwreck information and memorabilia.

This includes our old friend, the Edmund Fitzgerald. One new scrap of information was the intimation that perhaps the Edmund Fitzgerald was doomed from the start. Named for the president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, owner of the ship, apparently it took three tries for Mrs. Fitzgerald to break the champagne bottle on its bow during the launch. Subsequently, the ship made such a racket sliding into the water that one bystander had a heart attack and died. Forbidding omens indeed.

The museum has several Fresnel lenses from lighthouses on display. The most famous and largest of the lenses came from the Stannard Rock Light House. This light house was known as the loneliest spot on earth as the closest shore was 24 miles away. Perched high on blocks of stone, it was a formidable structure. Boats were raised or lowered from the rough seas on to the light house foundation, a dangerous exercise on its own. The light house keepers were in residence from March to December during shipping season and woe to anyone falling ill or in need of supplies. It could be weeks until a boat could reach them.

It wasn’t until after WWII that the lighthouse was electrified. Several years later a huge explosion of propane and gas destroyed much of the structure killing one man and stranding three others for days until rescue. In 1962 the Coast Guard dis-assembled the huge 2nd order, 12 bulls-eyed Fresnel lens and automated the light. The lens was packed away in six crates, mis-labeled and disappeared for thirty years until it was finally discovered in New London, CT at a Coast Guard warehouse. It now sits in all its glory at the Marquette Maritime Museum.

Building a New World

Jim was fascinated by a building in town with a bright and shiny cupola. This proved to be the Marquette Regional History Center. This was yet another sweet, well-curated museum laying out the natural and human history of the area on a chronological timeline. The museum may have been “sweet,” but it laid bare the inescapable fact that life in this resource rich land was very tough. It was a harsh land which fought being tamed and exploited.

First up was the natural life of the area with a fine display of beaver life. Beavers were abundant in the UP. They did not mind the 15 feet of snow in the winter and reveled in the marshy tundra. They may indeed have been the first inhabitants. It was fascinating to learn that some hutches have been inhabited by generations of beavers over hundreds of years!

Not to be shortchanged was the area’s dominant feature, Lake Superior. The largest of the great lakes it is also the largest body of freshwater on earth and at points it is more than 1,000 feet in depth. The lake rules the land. The lake effect determines the weather in all seasons. It is the primary conduit for moving iron ore, timber and all the goods needed by those living on its shores, but it does not make it easy. The same breezes which can make the summers cool whip up enormous storms and generate upwards of 146 inches of annual snowfall.

We encountered our friend, William A. Burt, once again with dioramas detailing his surveying forays across northern Michigan and the UP. This was not an easy life. He spent decades battling the wilderness. Indeed, when he made the huge and history-altering discovery of a mountain of iron ore just down the road from where we were staying near Teal Lake and what would become Negaunee, Beginning in Marquette, they had been forced to abandon their horses and spend four days without rations cutting their way through the unforgiving wilderness to reach that iron mountain. Iron ore drove his invention of the solar compass as their magnetic compasses were useless once they found the iron ore.

The living habits of the local Ojibwe were also illustrated and contrasted with the homes of the early white settlers. It is notable that the museum gave equal time and focus to the indigenous people who had been living in this demanding wilderness for thousands of years. Their wigwams were well adapted to the climate. In the winter they stayed warm and cozy with interior fires. In the summer the Ojibwe changed out the walls of their wigwams to allow for air circulation. The first white settlers were hard-pressed to bring civilization to this tough region. Creature comforts were shipped in at great expense and treasured as bulwarks against the harsh environment. Of course, the indigenous Ojibwe and the white settlers would not live in peaceful harmony. As elsewhere, the Ojibwe were pushed out of their lands as the white settlers asserted dominance.

Despite the physical challenges, the potential for wealth and commerce drove development. The second half of the nineteenth century was an all consuming drive to tame the land and extract its riches. Marquette developed as a major port. Constant inventions and improvements expanded the shipping of iron ore. Freighters became gargantuan in size and as the iron ore transited to southern Michigan for processing, ships returned bringing needed goods to the growing city.

One of my favorite parts of the museum was covered both in the permanent exhibit and in a special exhibit of recently executed examples of the indigenous and imported local crafts. The influence of both Finnish and German immigrants was apparent in exhibits of paper cutting and needlework. Beading and embroidery with moose hair and quills were indigenous. The dress below with the red bodice was actually made recently and combines beading techniques of the Ojibwe with embroidery stitches brought to the area by Finnish settlers.

As rich as this area was in natural resources, they were not to be had for the taking.  Bringing civilization to this land and extracting the invaluable natural resources was a harsh and demanding enterprise. This museum succeeded in capturing the compelling struggle and ultimate triumph of man asserting control over and taming this most challenging of environments.

 

Making It in Marquette

So we had a great place to stay and we had a plan. We would remain in Marquette while I convalesced. My staples were set to be removed the next week and there were lots of things to see and do in this city. We would build my strength up while we enjoyed all the town had to offer. We made a list and planned to do one item per day.

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Marquette is the largest city on the UP and is known as “the Queen City.” It is a major port city, mostly iron ore, and has been since the mid-1800’s. It has just over 20,000 inhabitants and is also home to Northern Michigan University. It is the third snowiest location in the continuous states. Snow begins in October and does not leave until May.

The town grew up after William A. Burt’s discovery of what would become the Marquette Iron Range just west of the future town’s location. William Burt is the same Burt for whom Burt Lake was named. He was quite a man. He invented the precursor to the typewriter, an equatorial sextant and the solar compass which he used in his own surveying expeditions. He is credited with surveying the Upper Peninsula as well as much of the northern portion of the Mitten.

Marquettians are sports crazy. They engage in all summer and winter sports and the town reflects this. Running all along the lake front are paths and trails. There are numerous signs pointing to yet more trails. Hunting is huge here as is snowmobiling, cross country skiing and snowshoeing. Swimming, boating, fishing, hiking and biking consume the warmer months.

The town is quite pretty. The lake front is a key feature as is the now-defunct, but historically important iron ore packet dock which graces the harbor in town. There are lots and lots of restaurants, wine bars and fun places to congregate. With the university on hand, the culture is young and vibrant.

First up was the Lakenenland Sculpture Garden. We had heard about this from several different people as an absolute must see. Tom Lakenen, an iron worker, started the park about twenty years ago when his wife told him to quit drinking. Instead he began bringing scrap iron home from his jobs and creating fanciful sculptures in his garage.

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Eventually, he had a backyard crammed with sculptures. He bought some land and began this amazing place. Gathered along a ½ mile track are his creations. They range from whimsical to social or political commentary. Visitors are heartily welcomed when they arrive at the sculpture garden and can choose to drive or walk the road. In the winter, Tom welcomes snowmobilers with a bonfire and hot coco. While once Tom had a rocky relationship with the local town council, now all is smiles as his sculpture garden has become a major tourist attraction.

After visiting a sculpture garden, one needs sustenance and we knew exactly what to do. Jilbert’s Dairy has been operating since 1937. Marquettians seem to love ice cream and this place is hopping even on a somewhat cool and cloudy day.

The ice cream was excellent and somehow I knew we would be returning again and again before we left Marquette.

We had done a credible job of touristing for our first day, but there was one more stop we just had to make. Along M-41 were posted signs for Da Yoopers Tourist Trap and Gift Shop featuring free batrooms! This demanded immediate inspection.

The gift shop was filled with unspeakable schtick and we poked around, but the best part of the whole thing (besides the free batrooms) was the yard outside filled with crazy things to see.

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And one small item did accompany us home–just perfect for our front stoop at Bear Hill.

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And now it was time for a little campfire and some knitting. An excellent first day of sightseeing had come to a close.

 

 

The Tunnel of Trees

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Photo by Connor Gray + Rachel Haggerty

From Indian River to Mackinaw City is a pretty straight shot across the top of the mitten. But adventure beckoned and, at Jim’s urging, we decided to detour and experience what some have called “the most beautiful drive in Michigan.”

Beginning at Harbor Springs and running 20 miles to the Wilderness State Park, M-119 is known as “the tunnel of trees.” Hugging the Lake Michigan coast and riding the top of the bluffs, this is a very narrow and twisty-turny highway with jaw-dropping vistas on one side, our left as we were heading north, and wooded domiciles on the right. These spanned various styles with a smattering of log cabins, cottages, a few impressive homes and some that were definitely less impressive. All along the woods to the right were signs marking forest areas belonging to families. They were taking care of their wooded lands.

There are no pictures with this post because both my hands were busy gripping various parts of the truck. Jim drove with great confidence and easily negotiated the hairpin turns, dips and swoops of the road. One particularly tight hairpin turn is known as the Devil’s Elbow. We had to wonder how many of the oncoming cars wondered what possessed those people in the blue truck towing an Airstream to take the drive.

We probably added a good hour and a half to the trip, but it was definitely not something to miss. And, despite bouts of terror, I am so glad we did it.

Revisiting Childhood Memories

We were sad to leave Brighton and our family, but excited to begin our northward journey through Michigan. Next stop would be Interlochen State Park. This was the closest we could get to the Crystal Lake and Leelanau Peninsula.

Interlochen is actually Michigan’s first and oldest state park. It is located adjacent to the Interlochen Arts Camp. Because it is an older campground, the sites are fairly small and close. Large trees shade the campground providing an extra challenge when backing into a campsite. The park was our launching pad for discovery and, as such, it worked just fine.

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Our first day, we headed west to see Crystal Lake. Some of my oldest and fondest memories are of family vacations at the Blue Anchor in Crystal Lake. We stayed in cabins and swam in the lake. We had sailing lessons and, for a big treat headed in to Frankfort for olive burgers and root beer floats at the local A&W.

In fifty years or more, much has changed at Crystal Lake, but it remains a beautiful lake. The Blue Anchor must be long gone replaced by vacation homes, but the A&W is still there and they don’t seem to have changed a thing! Sitting outside at a picnic table, we had a delicious lunch of Lake Michigan-caught white fish at the Port City Smokehouse.

Afterwards we intended to take a walk in a dog-friendly part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore but ended up on a long drive around the area including a stop at Point Betsie Light House. We would have to leave Sleeping Bear for another day, but took a walk on a rail to trail in Sutton’s Bay.

Leelanau Cheese Shop was recommended to us by Renee and we followed that with a stop at the Sutton’s Bay Ciderie for a tasting.

It was a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day with more adventures sure to come.

Birds of a Feather

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It is a given that our Airstream was always a bit of a lone ranger at the state parks and RV resorts we stayed in. Dwarfed by Class A’s and Fifth Wheels, our Silver Bullet gleamed in the sun and was a bird without a flock.

IMG_2288When we met Susan and Bob at the picnic area back in east Texas, they had asked if we had ever stayed in an Airstream-only park. The idea had floated in the backs of our minds, but their question turned the thought into action.

 

So, here we were traveling along the narrow highways of western Virginia. The pronounced hills and valleys lifted, twisted and dropped the road we were traveling. We knew Airstreams had mastered this obstacle course before us, but it was still a bit of a nail biter.

The Virginia Highland Haven Airstream Park sits atop one of the most gorgeous hills in the landscape. Pulling into the park is to enter another world. Spread out in all directions are views across other valleys and mountains. The wind blows through the trees and across the grass. Every sunset is different and as equally breathtaking as the last.

Like other Airsteam-only parks, Highland Haven is a cooperative. There are 46 campsites in the park and 46 shareholders. The park is open from May 1-October 15. The shareholders can stay the entire season or just drop in for a week or two. In any case, shareholders share the workload of park maintenance and all are expected to pitch in. When shareholders are not on site, guests can stay on the empty sites providing a revenue stream.

We pulled into the park and up to the Camp Host’s site. Robert was on duty this week—shareholders must act as host at least one week each season. Robert was very friendly and directed us to our site. A line of beautiful Airstreams extended the length of the road along the hilltop. The Airstreams—of all vintages—gleamed in the sun.

The sites were gravel and quite narrow. Having long since abandoned the feeling of performance anxiety at a state park or RV resort, it returned now. Somehow we felt a little intimidated at being in this society of fellow Airstreamers. Nevertheless, Jim negotiated the narrow site skillfully and we got ourselves set up.

The wind was blowing steadily and the sun was warm. We walked down to the clubhouse to poke around a bit. The club house was formerly a home and offered communal living areas, a very nice enclosed front porch, the kitchen and a laundry area. It was all comfortably worn and very neat and tidy. We talked with one of the shareholders who was preparing homemade ice cream for the evenings ice cream and brownie get together. He urged us to join them. This was a welcoming community.

Back at our site, we settled into our chairs and looked out across the landscape of mountains and valleys. We weren’t quite ready for the brownie social, but each passerby waved and we returned the greeting. We watched the sun set in a brilliant fire that burned the edges of the clouds and reflected off the shiny aluminum shells of the Airstreams standing in a row.

Somehow beyond staying in a park full of Airstreams, we had no agenda or itinerary for what we would do the three nights and two days at Highland Haven. The ice cream chef had mentioned Floyd as a possible destination. I was also very interested in retracing our steps to Christiansburg where I had seen an antiques store which called to me.

We set off across the roller coaster roads to Floyd. Floyd may have a one syllable name and only one traffic light, but it was a delightful surprise. Here in the middle of rural Virginia was a little hotbed of artisans, music and culture. We parked and wandered around the shops.

The hardware store was both picturesque and bursting with anything one might possibly need. We wandered along poking into stores which seemed intriguing. The yarn shop was closed which was probably just as well. There were multiple establishments offering live music. The community park was under renovation and looked like it would be a lovely garden spot when done.

The old railroad depot had been transformed to host the weekly farmer’s market. Hanging from the raftered ceiling were banners from local establishments and craftsmen. Jim’s eye was caught by one for the Five Mile Mountain Distillery. My Google app said it was only 1.1 miles down the road.

The Five Mile Mountain Distillery perched itself over the road leading south out of town. The steep drive led to a small gravel parking lot. The building itself was a quirky blend of mill and factory. We stepped across the wooden porch and entered to be greeted by a very great Great Dane. A young man with an impressive red curly beard greeted us. He was co-owner of the distillery.

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Our host reflected in mirror

We never did get our host’s name (a holdover from the illicit past?), but we enjoyed his passionate history of the distillery and how he came to be a purveyor of moonshine whiskey. He grew up locally and the hills around Floyd were filled with stills. He learned from the old masters who had kept the country fueled during Prohibition. After years in construction, he had cast about for a next career. By chance he heard of someone else planning to open a distillery in Floyd and, figuring the town wasn’t big enough for the both of them, they joined forces. A spirit of cooperation sadly often lacking.

The tasting room was an attractive meld of wood and copper dominated by the bar and on the far wall, display shelves which featured a trio of old stills. The building had formerly been part of the water works for the town before it was abandoned. Our host related the process of renovation from a dilapidated home for black snakes to the attractive venue we were now in.

We tasted thimblefuls of the moonshine on offer. The Vanilla Plum had a warmth of plum followed by a touch of the vanilla. The Elderberry was a gorgeous deep color and much more astringent than I had expected. The Sweet Mountain Moonshine was 100 proof and exploded with warmth in our mouths. I was unable to finish even the thimbleful I had been given of the 100 proof.

One of the old stills on display had been given to our host by an old moonshiner now 93. He had walked the fields with him one day. The old guy would come to a gate, kick around in the dirt a bit and come up with a jar. After a sip, he would replace the jar and they would continue. At the next gate the ritual was repeated. During Prohibition this old fellow ran moonshine up to the mines in West Virginia. He would sell his load and head over to the company-owned store. They would load him up with sugar out the back door and he would head back to distill another load of clear thunder.

After a long and enjoyable conversation, we learned that the Tasting Room wasn’t even open that day. Our host was just so passionate, he was happy to share his enthusiasm. They were there distilling moonshine and building their business. We left with some of their inventory in hand.

The drive to Christiansburg was another half hour away. Back up and down the hills, twisting through the valleys. It was a heck of a lot easier without a trailer in tow, but tiring for Jim nonetheless. I left him dozing in the truck while I headed in to the antiques shop. I never go to antiques stores, but something about this shop called to me.

It was a large, labyrinthine affair crammed to the ceiling with antiques. I was on a special, secret mission about which I cannot write. I can only report I was very successful and left two happy proprietors in my wake.

We returned to the Haven. It was very windy and the temperature was dipping down to the 40’s. We hung out in the trailer and watched downloaded episodes of NCIS.

Our second and last full day was much warmer and the wind had dropped. We decided to test the laundry facilities. While the loads were drying we walked along the country road past the fields of timothy hay. They had just cut one of the fields and it smelled sweet in the warm air.

After lunch we headed back to Floyd. Ostensibly, we were after some groceries and diesel, but there was most likely an ulterior motive as well. A couple of shops had been closed the day before and we were interested in checking them out. Jim scored a devilishly handsome hat and I found some birthday presents for both Ellie and Peter. For once we were avoiding the monotony of the big box stores which seem to dominate our urban areas. These little shops supported local artisans. Our list of five items including groceries and diesel was soon checked off and we headed back to Highland Haven.

That evening two shareholders were hosting a chili and cornbread dinner. We had signed up before heading to town. Just before six, couples began heading down the park road to the club house and we joined them. Everyone was most welcoming. After a brief grace, Robert, the week’s host, asked the guests to introduce themselves. There were six couples visiting from Quebec, South Carolina, Texas, Massachusetts and, of course, Connecticut.

The chili and cornbread were good accompanied by a tossed salad and happy chatter. By chance (I swear), I had worn my USMC t-shirt and we ended up seated with our next door neighbor, a retired Marine who fought in Viet Nam. Always happy to talk about Alex and the Marines, dinner was enjoyable. The highlight was Banana Pudding. Everyone was most amazed that these two Yankees had never had banana pudding. I will definitely add it to my new repertoire of southern cooking. I asked after the recipe and it was, of course, from that doyenne of southern cooking, Paula Deen.

That night featured another brilliant sunset. We sat under our awning, wine in hand and watched a completely different show put on by the setting sun. The bittersweet realization that we were now in our last week of the trip was tempered by the beauty of the evening.