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.

 

 

Crossing Texas

Goose Island was without doubt a beautiful park and breathtaking location, but after four days of mostly rain, I was pretty glad to shove off. Before we left, we met the fellow who would be taking our site. He was from San Antonio and a frequent visitor. I asked him if it was ever sunny and he replied, “Almost always.” Oh, well. After a week of rain, our luck was sure to change with another geographical location.

Our plan was to cross Texas as quickly as possible. Due to the state-wide spring break, we had been stymied in getting reservations at the parks where we wanted them and we had decided to head for New Mexico. We would return to Texas once everyone was back in school.

Of course, with a state as big as Texas “crossing quickly” is a relative term. We headed south to Corpus Christi.  As we crossed over the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge and sped west we could see the tall buildings of downtown to our left and the enormous port and beginnings of a long string of refineries to our right.

The refineries stretched quite a distance to the west of the city and then ceased as the wide open land reclaimed precedence. At first we were on four lane highways and the fields we passed extended to the horizon and were verdant with tall grasses and dotted with cattle grazing across them. Decorative iron ranch gates interrupted the vast land.

They announced the name of each landholder’s property and were often decorated with appropriate figures or animals. As we got further and further west, the landscape became dotted with mesquite and cattle. Cattle was definitely the one constant.

The roads in Texas are often designated as either a county road with a numerical designation (e.g. CR 599) or Farm to Market Road with a numerical designation (e.g. FM1466). This all seemed kind of strange to us when we first hit Texas, but we had become accustomed to it. I am just not sure how one remembers the numbers better than a proper name. Some of the FM or CR roads, do have secondary names and I guess that is why.

About two thirds of the way through our trip, we turned off Highway 59 on to a 68 mile stretch of FM 468. This was a two lane highway which undulated like a baby roller coaster. Up and down we went for mile after mile. This was tough driving made only a little easier by our chosen soundtrack: the Garth Brooks channel on SXM. To each side all we saw was mesquite and cattle and an occasional ranch gate.

Soon oil derricks joined the mix as did signs offering fracking water for sale. Everything of value was being extracted from this land. As the frequency of oil derricks increased, so did the appearance of small encampments. These were worker’s quarters. Sometimes they were mobile homes, sometimes a sort of generic white rv and sometimes simply a glorified container. Alex lived in a container when he was deployed so I guess it isn’t as bad as it might sound. Signs hawked two bedrooms and full kitchens, but it all looked pretty basic.

Our goal for the night was the Triple R RV Park in Crystal City. We were out in the middle of nowhere and feeling a little anxious about where we were headed. We pulled in to what turned out to be a very large park. There were rows and rows of pull-through sites sitting on gravel with patches of dusty grass. A row of the generic white rv’s sat to the left along with some Fifth Wheels and Class B’s which had clearly been in place for a long time. We pulled up to a cute little house which was the office and met Rashell, the park manager.

At this point we had seen the front of the park.  Rashell explained that the park extended for a mile along the Nueces River and was actually part of a working ranch. She directed us to drive back to our section of the park along the river to its far end. This seemed to be the end of the park designated for transient guests. A small lake wound around the end of the park and situated in front of it was a fairly large pavilion.

Our site was quite lovely. Beyond the lake we could see cattle grazing. In the  pavilion were spotless showers, a laundry facility and a big recreation area with a wide screen tv. It was all very nicely done, completely peaceful and lovely. We did laundry, ate a simple dinner and hit the hay after a long day of driving.

The next morning we were sorry to leave the oasis of Triple R and tempted to stay, but the road called to us. We had somewhere to go and our next stop in the big hop scotch across Texas was Fort Stockton.