Author: Emily Riippa

Flashback Friday: Reasons to Smile

This week has been a challenging one for many of us. It hardly seems necessary to remind our readers of the tumult, uncertainty, and anxiety that is even more common in the community as what we’re fighting against. With that in mind, Flashback Friday is going to take a different form this week. We’ve pulled some photographs from our Copper Country Historical Images (CCHI) database that give us a reason to smile–and a reason for hope.

Man in multicolored hat at graduation podiumIn time, we’ll be back to having Michigan Tech commencements featuring speakers in funny hats.

Group of boys playing hockey on a snowy residential street

In time, we’ll once again have pick-up hockey on the street with the neighbors.

Woman in white playing a piano with a dog resting his front paws on her bench

In time, our dogs will help us play the piano at real parties.

Group of people gathered around a long picnic table with a white cloth

In time, we’ll gather our extended families for picnics and bask in the sunshine.

Group of people of various ages, and their dog, on the porch of a house

In time, we’ll be out on the porch with our friends. Summer is coming.

Sun shining on the waves of Lake Superior

Lake Superior will still be breathtakingly beautiful on the other side of this.

Kittens and little kids are as adorable as ever, especially together.

The mines closed, Houghton County battled for years the state’s highest rate of tuberculosis, and a flood took a life, damaged our homes, and destroyed our roads. The Keweenaw is still standing because we’re Copper Country Strong. We’ll get through this.

While the reading room is closed at the Michigan Tech Archives and we’re assisting patrons only remotely, CCHI remains available for you to peruse from the comfort of your easy chair at any time of day. Photographs on that website may be used as you see fit and free of charge, so long as the watermark remains unaltered. If you have any questions, our staff can still be reached via e-mail at copper@mtu.edu or via voicemail at (906) 487-2505.


Flashback Friday: Splish Splash, I Was Taking a Bath

There’s nothing like a long soak in the tub at the end of a long day. Run the water hot, turn the lights down, and settle in among the bubbles with a good book to wash away stress and frustration. While this pleasure might seem a simple one today, for many Copper Country residents a hundred years ago, the luxury of a long bath at home was precisely that: a luxury. Mine managers, prosperous business owners, bankers, or other members of the upper crust might have a bathroom with hot running water for themselves and even their household servants. The family of the average trammer or surface laborer, on the other hand, hauled a washtub into the kitchen on Saturday nights, boiling water on the stove, and pouring it into the larger vessel for a scrub. 

Floorplan of large house
Floor plan of Calumet & Hecla General Manager James MacNaughton’s home, showing bathrooms with bathtubs.

The typical Calumet & Hecla company house in the early 1900s did not include a bath on initial construction. Upon written request, the company would be willing to install a flush toilet in the basement if the house were located on a street connected to the local sanitary sewer; if the homeowner had built his own house on land leased from the company, he had to purchase the fixture himself and pay for installation. By 1912, historian Alison K. Hoagland noted in her book Mine Towns, half of C&H company houses already featured this indoor convenience, and the company was responding to requests for more. The question of a full bath–and an installed bathtub–was another matter entirely. Large families and boarders who provided needed supplemental income strained the size of working-class company houses; residents needed all the square footage provided by bedrooms, kitchens, pantries, and common areas. Giving up sleeping spots for bathing room was simply impractical, and constructing an addition to make a space was beyond the financial means of a common laborer. 

Aerial view of workers’ houses in the Swedetown neighborhood of Calumet.

Yet while C&H was unwilling to provide the fixtures or the room necessary for its average employee to bathe conveniently at home, it did offer a compromise that represented, perhaps, one of its most enjoyable benefits. The company instead installed communal baths in a central location. At first, this was the basement of the C&H library building, a fine stone structure erected at the corner of Mine Street and Red Jacket Road. Bath patrons descended the western staircase of the building to a landing that separated them into male and female quarters. On the men’s side, showers proved more popular than baths. In the women’s facilities, tubs won out. While friends and family members browsed the vast selection of company-approved books a floor or two above, downstairs their bodies could be scrubbed clean of dirt, germs, and worry.

The new C&H bathhouse, opened in 1911.

The baths proved so popular–unsurprisingly–that C&H soon found a need to expand the facility, a move that also opened up more room at the library. Employees and family members looking to bathe didn’t have to go far to find the new place, however. In 1911, the redesigned and expanded bathhouse opened in a single-story structure just around the corner on Depot Street. Possibly to offset the $45,000 price tag and to subsidize operations, C&H imposed a small fee for male users: three cents for grown men with a half-cent discount for adolescents. Women, girls, and very young boys still enjoyed the bathhouse for free. Showers and tubs remained, but the improved building offered an extra treat: a swimming pool. Initially, swimming time, like the bath facilities, was strictly segregated by gender. Why? Unlike today, few people purchased special bathing suits. Swimming took place au naturel!

Bathers at the C&H swimming pool–thankfully after the introduction of swimsuits.

As the workforce shrank and C&H became increasingly disengaged from providing benefits like the bathhouse, homeowners found it more practical and more affordable than before to add bathrooms with bathtubs to the house. The former bathhouse still stands in Calumet, however, and scars of the original shower stalls in the basement of the company library can be seen today by visitors to the Keweenaw National Historical Park archives. One wonders if maybe a stray rubber duck from a miner’s bath long ago might one day be found tucked away in an office corner. 


Flashback Friday: The Man Behind the Camera

Underground in a Calumet & Hecla drift with two miners. Photograph by Adolph Isler.

The Michigan Tech Archives has been blessed with photographic good fortune. Ever since Joseph Nicéphore Niépce set a rudimentary camera up to his window at Le Gras, France, in the late 1820s and captured his first successful still image, people have been drawn to photographing their families, their homes, their neighbors, their pets, events of their communities–anything that catches the eye and seems to cry out for seeming immortality on film. As the Copper Country industrialized and grew in the late 1800s, and as cameras became available to more than just scientists and inventors, the Keweenaw Peninsula came into focus through the lens. Many of the images that resulted, whether taken by trained photographers or hobbyists, have made their way into our archives. They capture scenes of simple family life, booming industry, and bustling towns that have faded away.

Plowing snow with a Mineral Range Railroad train at Lake Linden. Photograph by Adolph Isler.

Among the prolific photographers of the Copper Country–including peers like J.W. Nara and J.T. Reeder–Adolph (or Adolf) F. Isler made his mark in a particularly profound way. At the time of his death, the Daily Mining Gazette wrote that he “probably had a wider acquaintance among the pioneers of the whole Lake Superior region than any other man in northern Michigan.” A true Renaissance man, Isler devoted himself intensely to a wide range of interests, each of which came to mark and shape his character and career. 

Isler was born on December 20, 1848, according to his death certificate. Most sources indicate that he was a native of Switzerland; the Isler family moved from Adolph’s birthplace in the mid-1850s and came to North America. Around 1860, the family settled in Hancock, where Adolph’s father, Henry, set up practice as a physician. There, Adolph grew up alongside the burgeoning mining community. No wonder “the building up of the great mining industry of the Lake Superior copper region,” as his obituary described it, fascinated him for the rest of his life.

A view of Eagle River on a breezy day, circa 1890. Photograph by Adolph Isler.

The Islers led a traveling life. In his youth, Adolph apparently carried the mail extensively throughout the Copper Country, bearing sacks by foot, by dog sled, and by horse cart from Hancock north to Eagle Harbor. By 1870, he and his father had relocated to Marquette, where the younger Isler labored as a store clerk. Subsequently, he established his own apothecary at L’Anse. Someone who has fallen in love with the heart of the Copper Country cannot stay away for long, however, and the Islers moved back to Red Jacket. Romance blossomed there between Adolph and a young English widow, Anna Rowe Retallack; the two married on March 7, 1878. Isler’s fatherly love–a trait reflected in his frequent choice of children as photographic subjects–knew no end, and Anna’s little girl Winifred (“Winnie”) from her first union became his daughter, too. Ten months after the wedding, Lena Isler was born. The happy young family settled down on First Street in Red Jacket, where the census taker found them in 1880. 

Although Isler seemed poised to embark on a medical career, following in the footsteps of his father, his vast range of interests soon led him elsewhere. By day, he worked as a pharmacist at Calumet & Hecla; outside of work, he increasingly focused on photography and journalism. In part, his decision seems to have been driven by a natural inclination to the news: he sought and received roles as correspondent for a number of publications, including the Mining Journal out of Marquette. Collections of Isler’s photographers now in the Michigan Tech Archives also show a dramatic uptick in production in the late 1880s into the 1890s, coinciding with Isler’s decision to invest himself more completely in the art. One cannot help but wonder, too, if there was a sentimental side to his increased interest. The years between 1880 and 1900 proved to be times of great personal loss for Adolph and Anna Isler, despite the birth of son Harry Fred in 1886. In 1883, little Winnie, described as “bright beyond her years” and endowed with “gentle manners [that] endeared herself to teachers and playmates,” died following a brief illness in 1883. She was a little shy of ten years old. By 1900, the Islers had welcomed–and buried–four more children. In 1888, Dr. Henry Isler passed away at the home of his son and daughter-in-law. Adolph’s brother, Arnold, died young, and the Islers took in his daughter, Marialotte. Perhaps, with such painful evidence of how tenuous one’s hold on life could be, Isler felt drawn to do something that would offer an enduring reminder of people and places slipping away. 

Lena and Harry Isler at home. Photograph by their father, Adolph Isler.

Isler’s photographic style soon developed a distinct flair. Children scampering down the sidewalk or playing in the family home often came into focus. In streetscapes captured during the height of a Copper Country winter, Isler propped a pair of snowshoes somewhere in the scene. Whenever he could, he scaled a tower, a smokestack, a building to take in the most expansive view possible of the town or mine unfolding beneath him. Keweenaw characters who enjoy panoramic photos owe much to Isler’s intrepid character–and fearlessness where heights were concerned. 

Panoramic view of Red Jacket (Calumet), Isler’s home of many years, taken by Isler.

Although Isler had left his job at C&H in favor of the Calumet News, the Hancock Evening Journal, and amassing one of the most impressive mineral collections to be found in the region, the company nevertheless relied on his expertise when it decided to assemble a certain exhibit of its own. As C&H opened its own library, it called upon Isler to select “a very complete collection of photographs of the region” that should become part of the new holdings. The vivacious Isler complied with great enthusiasm and even continued to add to the project until shortly before his death.

Workers and spectators at the deadly Osceola No. 3 mine fire on September 7, 1895. Photograph by Adolph Isler.

In about 1911, Isler’s health took a downturn. Physicians diagnosed bladder cancer. In January 1912, on the recommendation of his doctors, Adolph and Anna went south to Ann Arbor, there to seek treatment from the medical staff associated with the University of Michigan. The operation itself was a success, removing the malignancy, but Isler’s weakened body could not endure the infection that followed. He contracted pneumonia and rapidly took a turn for the worse. Early in the morning of January 23, Adolph Isler died in the hospital. “Mr. Isler’s figure, with its flowing, iron gray whiskers, his camera or fold of magazines and papers, and his little brown dog” would tramp the streets of Calumet, climb a smokestack at the mill in Lake Linden, or wander the shores near Eagle River no more. 

Hancock’s Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church after being struck by lightning in 1896. Photograph by Adolph Isler.

Surviving Isler were his wife Anna, his daughter Lena, and his son Harry. His body was laid to rest in Calumet’s Lakeview Cemetery. His photographs found new homes around the Copper Country before many arrived in the Michigan Tech Archives, where generations continue to discover scenes of Keweenaw past. 


Flashback Friday: “There Have Been No Perfect Days Without You”

Envelope and exterior of the above card, sent from Tom to Lily on her own stationery, Box 3, Folder 1
Envelope and exterior of the above card, sent from Tom to Lily on her own stationery, Box 3, Folder 1

“Ten o’clock on Tuesday night, back in the Soo. And in case you can’t imagine what I am wanting at this hour, it is the sight of a golden haired lady with an unfailing smile. Believe it or not–I do, I always have, and I always must–love you.”  –December 30, 1941

Thomas Rowe Ford and Lily Orvokki Siren probably met in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she was working as a registered nurse at the University of Michigan Hospital and he was studying for his bachelor’s degree in education. Lily was the daughter of Finnish immigrants who had settled near Mass City; “Tom” was born in Illinois. Lily found herself besotted with the tall, serious man in his mid-twenties. Tom considered Lily the sweetest and most remarkable woman he had ever met. The two married in Ann Arbor on October 6, 1934.

Image #MTU Neg 00141--Mass City from Depot.
Image #MTU Neg 00141–Mass City from Depot.

For several years, the newlyweds resided together in Ann Arbor. Lily’s nursing career thrived. Although Tom earned a master’s degree in 1935, the Great Depression stymied his attempts to succeed as a teacher and writer. In late 1940 or early 1941, faced with the grim reality of bills, Tom took a job with Michigan’s State Tax Commission and was assigned to the Upper Peninsula. Lily remained at work in Ann Arbor, far from her road-weary husband, through the following summer. The two kept in contact by writing each other nearly daily.

“I stayed awake until four o’clock this morning, thinking and worrying about your pleurisy and your cough. Do you know what I thought about most? It was about a room at 204 Forest, with a magic door without a lock, which by tacit house-consent shut the place into a firm retreat.” –February 20, 1942

The letters the couple exchanged during their time apart are the heart of MS-427, Thomas R. and Lily S. Ford Correspondence, at the Michigan Tech Archives. Some handwritten on hotel stationery, others typed on State Tax Commission letterhead, Tom’s letters–the bulk of the collection–document the difficulties created by their separation, their ongoing struggles to have a child, their desire to relocate to a wooded retreat, dubbed Metsala, near Mass City. Through the countless obstacles endured Tom and Lily’s deep love and respect for each other, emotions that played out intensely and sometimes teasingly in their correspondence.

World War II tested the Fords further. In June 1943, the United States Army discovered a need for Tom; his service, which included fighting in Germany, concluded in October 1945. Any letters he and Lily–who returned to the University of Michigan to further her knowledge of public health in 1944–exchanged during this war have not come down to us.

“One thing about the time in Ann Arbor I shall always I appreciate. It may not have given us–or me–very much of a push toward fame, but whatever else it did or didn’t do, it kept me within five minutes walk of the dearest lady in the world. And I made that walk several hundred times, always with the deepest satisfaction any man can know–the satisfaction of going home to the one he loves.” –March 12, 1941

After demobilization, Tom and Lily Ford found the world suddenly full of possibilities. Tom received a job offer from what would become Michigan State University and joined its faculty as a teacher of English. He also became deeply involved in improving the curricula of junior colleges, particularly what is now Gogebic Community College. Lily took a position as a public health nurse in Lansing that found her offering continuing education to fellow professionals. Finally, the couple that had longed to be together for so long resided under the same roof, bringing a touch of the “firm retreat” of their Ann Arbor youth to the maturity of their marriage. The sweet reunion would be sadly brief.

On May 22, 1953, Lily stood at the front of a room in Grand Rapids, preparing to deliver a lecture to a gathering of doctors and nurses. Suddenly, she collapsed. While those present hurried to her aid and rushed her to the nearest hospital, it was too late. Lily Siren Ford was only forty-five years old.

There have been no perfect days without you, and the end of every day is dull and savourless. I love you, dear lady. I need you.” –February 6, 1942

Eventually, Tom Ford remarried. His new wife was Mabel Cosby, a teacher and native of Kentucky. Tom’s last years, however, were consumed by poor health, which forced him to leave his long-sought teaching position in Lansing. Illness eventually claimed his life on October 15, 1961. He, like Lily, was cremated and buried in Ontonagon County. But both Fords–and their hopes, sorrows, and dreams–remain forever alive in their letters, freely open for research at the Michigan Tech Archives.

“And always–whatever–my dear, you will be respected, and loved, and–my God–wanted.” –June 12, 1941

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our blog in February 2017.


Flashback Friday: Winona? Why Not?

View of houses and mine buildings
A panoramic view of Winona from the mill stack, circa 1910.

Some ghost towns refuse to give up the ghost. Central Mine is one of them. Winona is another. 

In September 1974, the Daily Mining Gazette wrote that “the motorist moving between Houghton and Ontonagon seldom turns to the right to see what is left of the community.” This has not changed in forty-five years: most passing down M-26 have appointments to keep or recreational plans that do not include visiting this modest hamlet, whose population, at the last semi-official update, was nineteen people. Yet Winona has received its share of attention in recent years, far more than most copper mining towns that have depopulated since the decline of copper mining. In December 2019, its tiny school landed in the pages of the Detroit Free Press as part of that publication’s Tales from the Rural North series. A few years earlier, Michigan filmmaker Michael Loukinen spotlighted Winona in one of his documentaries. The film even enjoyed a premiere at the Copper Country’s most elegant venue, the Calumet Theatre. 

What can be said about this place? 

Winona had its roots in the prehistoric copper mining of the local native peoples. Evidence of their pit workings attracted the attention of prospectors and investors as the Keweenaw Peninsula began to industrialize, and the Winona Mining Company was organized in April 1864. Later that year, proprietor Jay A. Hubbell wrote in a prospectus that they had already made significant strides toward making the new mine a going concern, including “the opening of promising cupriferous [copper-bearing] deposits, the erection of several dwellings and other buildings, and the acquisition of a further general knowledge of the value of the whole territory.” A vein of amygdaloid trap rock most captured their attention, and they noted the presence of ancient pits along the way. From that vein, the prospectus noted, workers had already detected ample copper and even some “fine specimens of native silver.” Hubbell argued that the Winona had already proven its worth: “of the value of these indications the most skeptical must be satisfied… the value of its mineral deposits having been fully and satisfactorily proven.” Those interested in purchasing stock were most welcome to do so, and they could have “a full confidence in its immediate and prospective value as an investment.” 

Jay Hubbell was an early proponent of the Winona Mine.

The mine went nowhere.

At least, it went nowhere at first. Those 1860s efforts petered out as rapidly as they had begun, being worked only sporadically over the following decades. Mining along the range south of Houghton, however, experienced something of a renaissance in the 1890s. Winona would share in this good fortune. In 1898, the mine reorganized under a new name, Winona Copper Company, and began diamond drilling explorations at the western end of the property. These investigations over the first few years provided reason for cautious optimism, and the company built a new store, meat market, and icehouse. By March 1902, although the directors thought it premature to construct a stamp mill at Winona, they discussed seriously the possibility of leasing unused stamps from the Atlantic mill and ultimately did so in December. Miners and other laborers began to descend on Winona to stope out various levels of the promising shafts, and the company authorized the construction of two duplexes for families in 1903. 

As the decade wore on, the management–connected as they were to the successful Copper Range Company–decided to step up their efforts at Winona and attempt regular production. In 1906, they constructed a track to link up with the Copper Range Railroad track a little to the east. “A new modern steel shaft and rock house” was built at the No. 3 shaft; the annual report described it glowingly as “at least equal to any in the Lake Superior region so far as convenience and economy of operation are concerned.” Most notably, the Winona Copper Company acquired land from its neighbor, the King Philip Copper Company, which had been formed around the same time as the first Winona; the new property arrangement allowed “each Company… [to] mine out more economically its ground” between the No. 1 at King Philip and the new No. 4 that Winona sank that year. 

Most importantly for the town that would become Winona, the company planned to build “twenty or thirty new dwelling houses for miners” in 1907. It did, describing the structures as “twenty six-room single houses, each 20 feet by 26 feet with… pantry and vestibule” and “two seven-room single houses, each 24 feet by 30 feet,” with similar pantry at the rear. It continued to construct these kinds of dwellings for its employees over the following years, as well as larger homes for the mine captain, physician, and stamp mill superintendent. Winona was finally building its own stamp mill. The town was growing, too, with a new large schoolhouse rising near the heart of the settlement. Unlike the old log building where children had received their education previously, the two-story school would house twelve grades. In the 1930s, a WPA project added an auxiliary building with a gym floor to accommodate the school’s successful basketball team. Winona residents were sportly folk and also enjoyed America’s pastime, fielding a summer baseball team. 

Image of three large houses before a clearing
Examples of company houses built in Winona, circa 1910.

As long as the company was expanding, it decided to go one step further and merge with the King Philip. In March 1911, the new stamp mill processed its first shipment of rock; later that year, the Winona Copper Company acquired all of the King Philip’s stock and began hiring new employees to increase their output. “Good men have been coming slowly,” the annual report for that year opined, and 1912 saw an almost critical shortage of trammers, but the future seemed bright. 

Unfortunately, predicting the days ahead for a copper mine is never an easy task. The following July, the Western Federation of Miners strike began. “From all information attainable,” wrote mine superintendent Rex R. Seeber, “it appears that very few of our men joined the federation until after the strike was called. Order was preserved on the location and no arrests were necessary on account of the strike.” Union fervor seems truly to have been less–or need for money–greater in Winona than in some other parts of the Copper Country: a full shift of men returned to work at the Winona Mine by October. The mine weathered the strike and hustled through the heightened demand for copper induced by World War I. When the market crashed after peace, however, Winona’s hope of profit went with it. Directors decided to suspend operations temporarily at the end of January 1919; the hiatus persisted until August, but the reopening brought little hope. The mine needed to be expanded, but “the working force is depleted,” and a few explorations around one of the closed King Philip shafts led to nothing. There was some possibility of the mill, judged to be one of the finest of its type in the region, continuing to operate, but this, too, proved fruitless.  The mine shut down for good in May 1920. 

Group of men standing in a timbered mine level
Underground, most likely at Winona or King Philip.

The 1916-1917 Polk Directory for Houghton County listed the population of Winona at 1,200. It had a Finnish temperance society–reflecting the background of many of its residents–a park association, and a social club. When the mine closed, the town began to disappear. Some turned to moonshining to stay afloat. The Pampa Company, a lumber business, tried to fill the place of copper mining by opening a mill in Winona in 1921. It burned the next year, was rebuilt, and closed when the Depression came on. Other sawmills and logging companies, including the Riippa Brothers from the 1940s on, later employed some of the people who remained in Winona. For the most part, however, the residents began to leave to seek work elsewhere. As the mine goes, so does the town. In the 1950s and 1960s, Winona consisted of a few dozen residents. High schoolers now had to ride the bus to Painesdale rather than walk up the gravel road for classes. But the elementary school stayed, even as Winona lost its barbershop, its post office, and now all but a handful of its people. Like the ruins of the stamp mill or the little Lutheran church on the highway, it testifies to a time and a place that have faded into memory. 


Flashback Friday: The Church in the Wildwood

Image of church with cars parked out front
The Central Mine Methodist Church at the 1914 annual reunion.

“The lands of the Central Mining Company… are bounded on the north by the Copper Falls location, on the east and south by the North Western, and on the west by the Winthrop location, and are four and one half miles from Eagle Harbor… These lands are well timbered with pine and sugar-maple, and have a soil well suited to the wants of a mine, and mine force.”

Optimism overflowed in the opening words of the first annual report of the Central Mining Company, the corporate body responsible for the eponymous Central Mine. Such hope was well-founded. Initial explorations at the mine in 1853 had suggested that copper deposits on the property would be particularly rich, and, just one year after commencing operations, dreams turned to boasting. “The Directors will state that the Central is the first mine yet opened in the Lake Superior district, which produced and sold copper enough, during the first year of its operations, to more than pay all expenses of the Company; and further, no other one has produced so much copper the first year of working.” Central had done the virtually impossible: turned a profit right from the start. In an environment and at a time when the average copper mine would best be described as a failure, Central was remarkable. It always would be. The reasons simply changed.

Image of tall building with others in the background.
The Central #2 shafthouse after the mine ceased operations.

A mine needed workers. Men arriving on their own–either bachelors or those living apart from their families–constituted the bulk of initial employees. Since mining was marked by unpredictability, and it seemed unfair to drag a wife and children unnecessarily from pillar to post on a frontier, men drifted in, stayed for a while, and moved on to greener pastures when the exploration faltered. Accommodations for the workforce at most mines were sparse: some rough boarding houses or bunkhouses, which could be repurposed when operations wound down, typified an early mine location. At first, Central was no different. The annual report for 1855 described surface improvements as “light.” Along with shafthouses and horse whims, only three houses had been built, thanks, in part, to the struggles of the neighboring Winthrop and Northwestern operations. These rentals would “give accommodation to our force, and render the erection of houses for families… unnecessary” for the time being. 

It became apparent quite quickly, however, that Central was not bound to go the way of its neighbors. In 1855, owing to the success but yet the infancy of the mine, “twenty-six miners and twenty surface men” constituted the entirety of the workforce. By 1860, Central began to outgrow the stamping facilities it had rented, was starving for men to keep up with its production, and had to boost wages. Workers responded favorably, and, in the annual report for 1862, the board of directors described the construction of twenty houses “for the accommodation of our mining force,” with an imminent need for homes to be built for “three or four times the present laboring force.” At the end of 1868, an estimated 845 workers and families, largely Cornish, resided at Central; the following year, their number swelled to over 900. Central had become a real town. 

As Central transformed from frontier outpost to mining village, its people sought to bring the comforts and soul of nineteenth-century life to their new home. John Wesley’s Methodist teachings had spread like wildfire across Cornwall, wooing skilled miners and their families away from the Church of England through simple doctrine and revival preaching. The emigrants who crossed the ocean from Kernow to the Keweenaw brought with them a deep faith that wove through every aspect of their lives, and they devoted themselves to establishing a Methodist presence in Central. A small schoolhouse near the Central Mine-Northwestern Mine boundary held early services and Sunday Schools, but, as the mine and town flourished, the congregation’s attention turned to the construction of a proper church. The time came in 1868. “Divine services continue to be regularly held, and some progress has been made toward the erection of a church,” wrote the agent of the Central Mining Company that year. As he penned his report, a wood-frame chapel was rising near the heart of Central. Like most Methodist churches, especially in rural communities, its builders sought simplicity and durability in construction.

Image of church on a sunny day.
Central Mine Methodist Church, built 1868. Note the distinctive crenelation.

A poor-rock foundation was the logical choice. Long pieces of narrow wooden siding gave the outside an appearance of crisp uniformity. Six tall, plate-glass windows–three on the north side of the building and three on the south–cast patterns of sunlight across rows of pine pews. Their high, straight backs discouraged cat naps during Sunday sermons. Cleanly whitewashed walls provided cheer without adornment and a marked contrast to the preacher’s black suit as he stood before his parishioners to exhort them in virtue and faith. Alongside him on a platform spanning the width of the church sat the choir, a pride of Central Mine. These men and women, nestled in spindle-backed chairs, came from a proud Cornish tradition of singing; rich voices soared through the mines of Cornwall, carrying the melodies of beloved hymns, and now they did the same in the Copper Country. On Sundays, a bell in the church tower called the people of Central to worship. The crenelation topping the belfry was the congregation’s great concession to elegance: its sawtooth appearance hearkened back to English castles and made a wilderness more like home. 

“A church has been erected at the mine (with the aid of the company), in which services are regularly held,” read the 1869 annual report. It was true that the mining company played a role in constructing the Central Mine Methodist Episcopal Church, but credit for building its vibrant community and its life rested on the shoulders of the people. In the basement, they gathered for Sunday School classes or to peruse the circulating library that its people carefully compiled. Before the new Central school was built, scholars who had overflowed the old schoolhouse studied in the basement, as well. To celebrate Independence Day, the Sunday School–whose attendees regularly numbered over 200 in the 1880s–threw picnics with candy and the enthusiastic Central Cornet band as entertainment. The Saturday before Christmas, Santa Claus visited to distribute “mittens, suspenders, pocket knives, mouth organs, knitted hoods, scarfs [sic]… straight brass horns, circular brass horns, jumping-jacks, dolls, jack-in-the-box… china dolls, sailor dolls, rag-baby dolls… that squeaked, cried, and laughed,” as long-time Central resident Alfred Nicholls remembered. After Christmas carols from the choir, the children were let loose to enjoy their gifts. “From every quarter of the little church,” Nicholls said, one heard “the baa of the sheep, the squeak of the doll,” the “full and active operation” of slide trombones and “fluttering fingers on tin whistles.” The Central church was a place of joy, at Christmas and throughout the year. 

Many buildings spreading out on a hillside
Central Mine industrial and residential buildings near the peak of Central’s population.

Yet the heyday of Central Mine, brilliant as it was, faded too soon. The mine sat upon an uncommonly good deposit of copper, but practicality, accessibility, and profitability eventually dictated that the mine would have to close. After fits and starts, it did so for good in 1898, having produced almost 52 million pounds of copper. “In like fashion,” wrote Central historian Charles Stetter, “did the Central Mine Church close its doors, presumably for good.” But the sense of belonging to Central persisted in the hearts of its people, now scattered to Calumet, Hancock, or Painesdale; the memories of those Christmases, Sunday worship, or Fourth of July picnics did not fade. When, in 1907, the Keweenaw Central Railroad built track that ran as far north as Mandan, Alfred Nicholls saw an opportunity. Why not use the new ease of transport to bring people home to Central? They could gather in the old church for a “Sunday service… strictly religious in character” and conforming “as nearly as possible to the order of worship as was observed in former years,” in the words of Stetter. On July 21, 1907, the first Central Mine reunion was held at a church packed to bursting. Throughout the day, visitors sipped coffee and tea, chatted with friends, and walked down paths they had trod so often in Central’s earlier life.

Time passed. The old residents of Central passed, too, and the buildings at the old mine fell into increasing disrepair. Dozens of houses that had formed the neighborhoods of Central collapsed or were torn down. Heavy snows claimed the roofs of the powderhouse, the engine house. Trees crept back onto the deforested hillside. Yet the church remained, its bell tower still proudly proclaiming Central’s Cornish heritage, and the children and grandchildren returned on the last Sunday in July, year after year. Even as war raged in Europe–not once but twice–and as the country plunged into the throes of the Great Depression, even as the greatest mines of the Copper Country fell silent, for good, Central’s people came back. The records of the church note no interruptions from 1907 on.

Image of plain church interior with central aisle and pump organ.
Inside the Central church, undated. The appearance has not changed much since this photograph was taken.

The character of the service changed, growing more ecumenical, and responsibility for leading worship was laid in the hands of a series of ministers. One man, however, left his mark on the church in the wildwood more than any other preacher. In 1984, and then annually from 1990 to 2018, the Rev. Dr. Daniel “Dan” Rosemergy’s boisterous laughter and contagious enthusiasm flooded Central. Like the men who had played Santa Claus at Central Christmases, he distributed gifts to children in the form of Cornish flags and currant cookies; he sang in a quartet of Cornish voices in the midst of each service and beamed as the congregation burst into “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” the Diadem setting. His messages encouraged fellowship, compassion, kindness, and joy. Every attendee at the reunions left richer for having met him. And when Dan Rosemergy went to join his Central ancestors in 2019, he left behind a deep conviction in their hearts that the reunions would continue. July 26, 2020 will be the 114th year

What brings people back to Central? What makes them feel that they belong to this place, even if they have never lived there, and their last family member moved away a century or more ago? Is it the stillness that one feels on a winter afternoon, standing in the doorway of the powderhouse? Is it the view that spreads out from the front porch of an old red house? Is it the peace that settles on a person, looking north from the poor rock pile? Is it the rustle of leaves on a summer day, the wind whispering through them like it has a secret to tell? Is it the music of the old pump organ and the Cornish voices raised in song on those July mornings, the chime of the bell calling all into the church? Is it the sense that the gap between today and yesteryear is much narrower on the dusty streets of Central? Perhaps what defines Central cannot, itself, be defined. Perhaps it can simply be lived.

Come to the church in the wildwood,

oh, come to the church in the dale;

no spot is so dear to my childhood,

as the little brown church in the vale.

–William S. Pitts


Flashback Friday: Michigan’s Highwayman

Mugshot of man with small mustace
Reimund Holzhey’s mug shot, 1889. Photograph from the Archives of Michigan.

“Donate,” Reimund Holzhey said. “I’m collecting.” He raised a revolver in each hand and cocked them at the stagecoach. It was late August in Gogebic County, and although the coach had been traveling along the road from Lake Gogebic, cool breezes were hardly guaranteed. If the four stagecoach passengers had not already been sweating, they certainly were now. On their journey to Gogebic Station–a stop along the Milwaukee, Lake Shore, and Western Railroad twelve miles east of Marenisco–they had crossed paths with the type of criminal more common to the Wild West than the western Upper Peninsula. Holzhey, a young man in his twenties, had made his move boldly and confidently, like someone with experience in theft. 

Image of stagecoach being pulled by horses
Stagecoaches were common in mining districts like Gogebic County, as this photograph from Arizona shows. Image from www.tucson.com.

One man, however, kept a cool head. The would-be victims were mostly Chicago residents; violence marked that city more than most American towns. Unfortunately, his hand was not as steady as his head. “All right,” he said. “Here’s mine.” He drew his own revolver and squeezed off a round, which flew wide of Holzhey. That was enough for the stagecoach robber, who emptied his guns in the direction of the men. Two more reports from the first passenger’s revolver missed Holzhey, though he stood just five feet away. One of the others aboard, however, took bullets to his face and his leg, wounds that the Ontonagon Miner described as “not necessarily fatal.” Adolph Gustavus Fleischbein was not as lucky. The bullets that hit him in the left thigh traveled upward, entering his bowels. Fleischbein fell from the stagecoach, landing in the dirt. Spooked by the shooting and by the driver’s belated attempts to hurry them away, the horses hitched to the coach bolted, wildly dragging the vehicle down the wooded path. As they faded into the distance, Holzhey crept over to the gravely-injured Fleischbein, seized his pocketbook and jewelry, and left him to die in the road. 

Two long hours later, help returned for Fleischbein. The rescuers took him to the hospital at Bessemer, where his wounds were cleaned and dressed. It was clear to everyone, however, that he had lost far too much blood to have any hope of survival. “He cannot recover,” as the Miner put it. Telegrams flashed over the wires to Belleville, Illinois, notifying Mrs. Fleischbein of her husband’s imminent demise. Meanwhile, County Attorney Howell took Fleischbein’s sworn statement about the robber and his actions on the road from Lake Gogebic. Fleischbein said that, as the stagecoach disappeared from view, Holzhey had come up and held a gun to Fleischbein’s face, threatening to kill him then and there. Fleischbein, no doubt thinking of his wife and teenage daughter, “pleaded hard for mercy,” according to a summary of his testimony published in the Chicago Tribune. The robber agreed to spare his life–a gesture rendered moot by the fact that his bullets had already ensured Fleischbein’s death. At six o’clock the next morning, “Dolph” Fleischbein–a Civil War drummer boy, former public servant, and enthusiast of hunting and fishing–died. 

With Fleischbein’s death, the manhunt for Holzhey went from a search for a thief to a search for a murderer. Deputies had already been posted along roads and at train stations in Gogebic County, their eyes peeled for a man “small in stature, with a dark, curling mustache, of medium height, slight build, and dressed in light clothes.” The description Fleischbein and the others on the stagecoach gave confirmed the lawmen’s grim suspicions: the robber, whose true identity me remained unknown at the time, was “Black Bart.” Black Bart had bedeviled Wisconsin highways and railways for months, brazenly making his criminal forays under the noses of lawmen. Two months before he ventured into Gogebic County, the Wood County Reporter of Wisconsin reported that the highwayman had robbed three stage coaches, a Milwaukee and Northern passenger train, the sleepy general store of Bonduel, and a man traveling by buggy back to the reservation where he lived. He also had the nerve to rob the home of a judge. Despite the promise of a $500 reward offered by the Milwaukee & Northern general manager, the posse that pursued him through Shawano County had no success. After the Gogebic robbery and Fleischbein’s murder, the railroad offered a new reward of one thousand dollars, along with contributions from Gogebic County and Fleischbein’s home county. 

Members of the manhunt tracked Holzhey that night for six miles from the stagecoach road to a stream, where they lost the trail. Two bloodhounds and a local Ojibwa man with tracking skills joined the search the following day. It was clear that Holzhey had headed north from Gogebic Station, but his whereabouts grew murkier after that. In fact, Holzhey had turned east, heading for the iron mines of Marquette County. 

Image of newspaper headline: "HOLZHAY IN 'HOC'"
Headline from the Ashland Weekly News proclaiming the arrest of Reimund Holzhay [sic].
 

On August 31, a Mr. Glode, City Marshal for the town of Republic, and Justice of the Peace E.E. Weiser left their homes early, strolling in the direction of the railroad depot. As they walked past the building, “a man dressed roughly and apparently anxious to escape attention” caught Glode’s eye. As a lawman, he had been apprised of the hunt for Holzhey and of the thief’s appearance. The stranger in town was short, slightly built, and possessed of a dark, curling mustache–Glode knew immediately that he needed to be approached. The Ashland Weekly News reported that he blocked the other man’s path, saying, “I want you.” Down went the stranger’s hand for the gun that he wore. Marshal Glode was faster, though, and he struck the smaller man with his billy club. Glode and Weiser carried the suspect to the Republic jail. 

As the stranger came to, Glode searched his pockets. He removed “three revolvers, three gold watches, four pocket books, and other articles” of value. Holzhey’s name was etched on one of the pocket books; Fleischbein’s was there, as well. Clearly, Glode and Weiser had found their man. Holzhey strongly resisted their questioning at first, but he gradually began to crack. Yes, his name was Reimund Holzhey. Yes, he had been the man who robbed the Gogebic stage and one in Wisconsin. Eventually, he conceded obliquely that those crimes had probably been carried out by the same man responsible for the others attributed to Black Bart. In the presence of the sheriff and marshal, he prepared a statement outlining his lawbreaking past. 

Even while Holzhey was being escorted back to Bessemer to face the music, newspapers treated him as something like a celebrity. At least one published a detailed and literary biography, describing his prosperous farmer father back in Germany, Reimund’s desire to make his own fortune, and his interest in the lumber mill where he had worked upon arriving in America. He was said to be a man of few words, little proclivity for alcohol, and a general aversion to trouble–unless someone crossed him. The writer placed blame for Holzhey’s descent into lawlessness on reading too many stories about criminals like Jesse James. He had been so fascinated with tales ripped from the headlines that he was determined to become one himself.

In a fall 1889 trial, the Archives of Michigan reports, a jury convicted Reimund Holzhey of murder. Holzhey served the first part of his sentence in the Marquette branch prison, where he was a disorderly inmate. The American Citizen of Ironwood wrote that he seized a knife from the prison shoe factory and took a guard hostage, demanding his release in exchange for the guard’s life. “In an unguarded moment, Holzhay [sic] dropped his right hand, still holding the knife, on his leg only to have every finger shot off with a bullet from the warden’s gun. This settled the matter for that time and reduced Holzhay’s ability to harm by one hand.” 

Image of stone prison structure
Reimund Holzhey was taken to Marquette Branch Prison to serve his life sentence. Photograph from University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.

After nearly four years of increasing difficulty, Holzhey was taken under strong guard to Ionia, home of “the asylum for criminal insane.” There, he underwent some sort of procedure that left him transformed. He came back to Marquette stable, responsible, and eager to work. According to a piece by the Archives of Michigan, he became the official prison photographer, librarian, and newspaper editor before his life sentence was commuted in 1910. Discharged in 1913, Holzhey loped back into the woods that were familiar with him, working at resorts. He headed west to Yellowstone to continue his photography career, then moved to Florida. He died there in 1952 by his own hand, bringing the story of Michigan’s last stagecoach robber to an abrupt conclusion. 


Flashback Friday: Bygone Burial Grounds

Image of tree-shaded cemetery
Walking among the trees in an old Hancock cemetery.

Many Copper Country visitors whose ancestors once called the Keweenaw Peninsula home hope to see where these family members have been laid to rest. Standing by the grave of someone who died decades or more than a century ago provides an opportunity to reflect on his life–or on one’s own–and to pay respects. 

It’s an easy enough activity for many: cemeteries in Calumet, Lake Linden, Houghton, Hancock, and throughout the rest of the Copper Country offer grassy lanes for strolling and looking for headstones. Records held at the Michigan Tech Archives, with government offices, and at the cemeteries themselves can help to narrow down exactly where in the burial ground one should search for relatives. Yet the Copper Country also has a number of cemeteries lost to the sands of time and to changes in how communities decided to use their land. This week’s Flashback Friday profiles just two of the cemeteries that are no longer with us. 

Early in the history of Hancock, two strains of Christian congregations–Catholic and Protestant–established distinct cemeteries at the western edge of town. Faithful from St. Patrick’s or St. Joseph’s Catholic churches would be buried in their own hallowed ground; members of the town’s numerous Lutheran churches, its Congregational organizations, and other Protestant denominations found their places of rest in an adjacent park slightly further west. Sales of lots at the Protestant cemetery, according to research compiled by John M. Blom, have been documented as far back as 1866; the Catholic (St. Joseph) cemetery was almost certainly established at about the same time. 

For decades, families and friends made the sad journey from funeral parlors, private homes, and places of worship to lay their loved ones to rest in the two distinct cemeteries. In 1896, however, a new municipal cemetery was incorporated. Lakeside Cemetery sat perched on a bluff, promising cool breezes off the Portage Canal and, as a carpet of trees grew around it, shade and quiet away from the bustle of the city. Here, Catholics and Protestants would be buried side-by-side, although the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet reserved a section for their faithful members. As residents of Hancock increasingly embraced Lakeside for a burial ground, the deterioration of the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries accelerated. By the middle of the 20th century, many years had passed since anyone had been laid to rest in either of the old sectarian burial grounds. 

At the same time, the congregations that had once supported these cemeteries found themselves at a crossroads. Like many mining towns, Hancock’s Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran churches had been founded on ethnic lines, with German families or Finns joining others of their background for Sunday worship in their native tongues. In the 1960s, clergymen had largely abandoned preaching in Finnish or German; English was the lingua franca now. Houghton County’s population had also fallen into decline as one mine after another closed. Consolidation in a new Lutheran building and a new Catholic parish made sense. Amidst great controversy, the congregations selected the old burial grounds for the new construction. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church would be erected on the space occupied by the Protestant cemetery; the aptly-named Church of the Resurrection would take the place of the Catholic burial ground. 

Image of cemetery surrounded by town buildings
The Catholic (St. Joseph) cemetery shortly before it became the Church of the Resurrection.

Surviving relatives of those who had been buried in the cemeteries were apparently given the opportunity to claim their family members and have them reinterred at Lakeside. For many of the deceased, however, there were no claimants: few had surviving family members, let alone ones who remembered that a great-grandfather or a distant great-aunt had been buried in a now-overgrown cemetery in the 1870s. Headstones that remained were removed–some to Lakeside, with the individuals they described, and some to a memorial that the Church of the Resurrection hoped to create on its grounds. Repeated vandalism stymied that effort and, by the late 1980s, the church conceded defeat. Today, at both Gloria Dei and Resurrection, plaques mark the location of the old cemeteries. Adjacent to the Lutheran church sits a small park where visitors can honor the dead who still rest there, their presence persistent if invisible.


Flashback Friday: On Top of the World

Image of log cabin building with many signs
The Skytop Inn advertising its attractions, circa 1940s.

A few weeks ago, Flashback Friday took readers to Copper Harbor’s Brockway Mountain to visit with Bill Mattila, who lived in a modest home perched atop the scenic spot for many decades. This week, we return to Brockway for a look at another staple of the mountain that has since vanished: the Skytop Inn. 

Travelers who cruise Brockway Mountain Drive almost invariably make a stop at the summit. Here, they can take in expansive views of crystalline Lake Superior, breathtaking sunsets and sunrises that paint all surfaces with gold, and, for the persistent, the Milky Way unfolding overhead and making one feel small and insignificant. Indeed, the appeal of the peak and its potential to promote automobile tourism during the Great Depression helped to secure federal funding for the construction of Brockway Mountain Drive. Numerous local men who had lost their jobs found new ones helping to clear space for the new, winding road and lay down gravel, later to be replaced with pavement. Now, motorists from the Copper Country and tourists from points beyond could cruise in their Packards and Plymouths smoothly up to the peak.

Clyde H. Wescoat–better known as Harold–saw an opportunity. A hotelier and liquor store owner in Copper Harbor, according to the 1940 federal census, he claimed Pennsylvania as his birthplace but fell in love with Michigan native Serene Ferrien, then with the Upper Peninsula. The Wescoats moved from Detroit to Escanaba sometime between 1920 and 1930, then to Houghton, and finally to Keweenaw County. Enterprising Harold seized upon the chance to buy 320 acres at the crest of Brockway Mountain. There, he built a small log cabin to serve as a gift shop. From the wraparound porch created by its support platform, or through the picture windows in the cabin itself, visitors could take in the stunning views that had prompted Harold to call his store the Skytop Inn. 

Two men working inside the frame of a log cabin
C. Harold Wescoat and a companion building the original Skytop Inn.

Visitors came by the dozens to enjoy the vista and to browse the Skytop. An early photograph of the building captured the varied offerings at the little gift shop: ice cold Coca-Cola, candy, tobacco, and souvenirs reflecting local flavor. Copper cards seemed to be popular choices for tourists, who could also secure directions and recommendations from the knowledgeable employees. 

Harold Wescoat died in Copper Harbor in July 1946, a decade after constructing the Skytop at the crest of Brockway. In the 1960s, the original log cabin came down, finding its replacement in a more modest, blue structure. The million-dollar view remained, however, and the Skytop lived on for almost fifty years longer.

Old structures of significance often meet their ends through sad ways: they fall into disrepair and disintegrate, or fire claims them, or they are wiped away to build something shiny and new. The Skytop Inn’s demise was for, perhaps, kinder reasons. The heirs of the Wescoat family wanted to ensure that the community could continue to enjoy the summit of Brockway unimpeded and that the environment would remain protected. They worked in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, Eagle Harbor Township, Keweenaw Land Trust, and other nature- and community-minded organizations to broker a deal for the purchase and protect the peak from subdivision by developers. Countless individuals mailed donations to assist the township in the purchase, which became official in 2013. Not long after, the Skytop building came down, leaving a small, open field in its place. When the wind rustles the grass as you look down on Lake Superior, you wonder how many thousands of people have stood in your place at the peak of the mountain, ready to touch the sky.

Image of blue-painted wooden building on Brockway Mountain
The last Skytop Inn after it ceased operations. Photograph by the author, 2013.


Flashback Friday: Solitary but Not Alone

Man in plaid standing in front of cabin.
William “Bill” Mattila, who resided on Brockway Mountain for over thirty years, in front of his cabin.

The press called Maggie and Bill recluses and hermits, not people. 

At different times, in different parts of Keweenaw County, Maggie Harrington and Bill Mattila chose lives of solitude. Maggie kept her home in Central Mine as that community faded and her neighbors moved away. Nearly thirty years later, Bill climbed Brockway Mountain to build his dwelling. Outsiders fixed them with curious stares and peppered them with questions about their lives, their choices. Some, Maggie and Bill answered; others, they left as mysteries. Both died in the remote places they had called home just the way they lived–alone but not necessarily unhappy.

There’s much about the lives of these two people–who attracted so much fascination for their unorthodox decisions–that remains unknown. Stories swirled in their wake, built on what the two had decided to share and on the inventions of others. Bill, for one, often told reporters and visitors what they wanted to hear, not necessarily the truth of his life. But what can we say about these two people to give their legends some roots? 

Maggie Harrington was not famous in life and remains so in death, but everyone who clung to life in Central after the mine closed would have known her. Census records tell us that young Margaret Harrington and her mother of the same name, both immigrants from Ireland, had established themselves in Keweenaw County by 1870. At that time, their residence was near the Pennsylvania Mine, an area that today’s visitors would call Delaware. By 1880, they had moved down to the more prosperous Central Mine, settling on the east edge of town. Maggie was sixteen at the time. As at Delaware, she and her mother lived alone; another group of Harringtons resided a few doors down, but Maggie and Margaret formed their own household. Whether the older Margaret Harrington had ever been married or had other children is not clear. Maggie’s obituary alluded to a sister, name not given, who had wed a Mr. Michael Powers. A miner by that name did reside at Central as of 1863, when he was registered for the Civil War draft, and a peddler named Michael Powers died in Eagle Harbor in January 1871, but whether either was connected with the Harringtons remains a mystery. 

Image of town on a harbor.
Eagle Harbor in its early days. Maggie walked there often.

In September 1896, the older Margaret Harrington died at Central Mine. The town itself was fading, too. People whom Maggie would have known since childhood moved away, seeking work in the mines of Calumet, Hancock, or points farther west. A few people who had always called Central home remained, and Maggie was determined not to leave. With her mother gone, she spent much of her time alone with her thoughts. Daily, she walked the forested paths of Keweenaw County, journeying down the steep hill that led to Eagle Harbor or cutting across the woods to Eagle River. The weather did not deter a woman who had known so many Copper Country winters. When it snowed, she wrapped herself more tightly in her coat and scarf and tucked her feet firmly into her boots. Anyone who would live by herself in a town as quiet as Central had to have courage. 

And yes, people peered at Maggie, asked questions about her, whispered stories about her behind their hands. When they saw her walking along the road, motorists pulled over and offered her a ride. Sometimes, no doubt, it was out of courtesy; sometimes, it had to be curiosity. The Daily Mining Gazette said that she always immediately refused unless she knew the person; when she did accept, she seemed reluctant to agree and even more reluctant to carry on a conversation. She chose to keep her own company and to go her own way. When she died, these decisions became the cornerstone of her obituary. 

Photograph of old buildings on the hillside with fall colors.
Central Mine as a ghost town in the autumn.

One of Maggie’s long walks became her last walk in 1926. Others who normally saw her journeying about the woods or tromping past their windows noticed that the familiar figure hadn’t appeared for some days. A man who had stayed on at Central as a caretaker for the mine buildings organized a search party that eventually found Maggie’s body in a snowbank. She had apparently taken her normal long walk down to Eagle Harbor and detoured through Phoenix on her way home. For reasons unknown, as she approached Central, she changed her mind and began to walk back toward Phoenix. She passed away along the route. Later, her neighbors bore her down the state highway she had so often traversed and laid her to rest in a Catholic service. 

Maggie Harrington preceded Bill Mattila in a life of solitude in Keweenaw County, but his story overshadowed hers ever after. Unlike Maggie, Bill was willing to talk to outsiders about his retirement to Brockway Mountain–especially if they brought a package of beer to loosen his tongue. Those who came to visit often expected, wrote one journalist, “gnarled, knobby-handled walking sticks” and animal-skin robes. They thought they would greet Bill in a cave and marvel at the scraggly length of his beard. But Bill Mattila, like Maggie, was just a person who made his own untraditional choices, albeit in a spectacularly beautiful place. 

William F. Mattila was born near Baltic, Michigan, to Finnish immigrants John and Hilda (Karppinen) Mattila on July 18. The year of his birth ranges from 1914 to 1916, depending on the source consulted. In a stark contrast with the Harringtons, the Mattila family was a large one: the 1930 census said that young William had nine brothers and sisters, from oldest brother Oscar down to baby brother Sam. In subsequent interviews, the number of children grew to fourteen or more. Like so many other Finns south of Houghton, John Mattila had chosen to pursue work at the Copper Range Company and spent at least a decade in their employ. Hilda died of dysentery and kidney failure in 1930, when William was just a teenager, and not long after another son had been lost to the same illness. 

Image of mine structures with active smokestacks
Baltic, Michigan, likely near the time that Bill Mattila was born.

It seems that life became more challenging from then on: John lost his job at Copper Range during the Great Depression and took a WPA job. As adolescent William grew into adult Bill, he became a lumberjack, working the woods around Adams Township for a lumber company. And, with war on the horizon, Bill joined many young men in registering for the draft. At twenty-five, according to his draft card, he stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall. Long days in the woods had tanned his skin. He had hazel eyes and brown hair; he was wiry but strong at 155 pounds. He had attended school through the eighth grade. Six months later, Bill Mattila was an enlisted man, joining up in March 1941. In June 1942, the military discharged him. 

Bill later said that he worked in Detroit for a time before giving it up. He wanted “to live off the land as his grandfather had done in Finland years ago,” explained Mac Frimodig, who wrote a long tribute to Mattila in his book Keweenaw Character. His quest for simple, rugged living took him back across the Straits of Mackinac and nearly to the edge of the Keweenaw Peninsula, where he bought forty acres of land atop Brockway Mountain from the Department of Natural Resources. The simple cabin he constructed on a bare ridge of the property became his lifelong home–and a magnet for others. 

The story of “the Hermit of Brockway Mountain” became one of the most widely circulated in the Copper Country. Tourists watched in fascination as Bill came down the mountain each month to pick up his mail and spend his modest military pension on cat food, batteries for his radio, and the few other necessities he couldn’t catch or grow. Curiosity-seekers who came to gawk sometimes found a terse reception unless they presented Bill with a pack of Stroh’s. For them, and for the occasional journalist, he launched into a colorful description of his life–featuring both honest depictions of an unconventional man and a little exaggeration that gave them some juicy copy to write. Bill’s devotion to his long line of dogs, whom he named Bark, and his cats, whom he dubbed Meow, remained constant, as did his passion for skiing the ridges and valleys of Brockway. His reliance on his radio for entertainment and his own two hands for crafting skis, furniture, and other tools also never changed. Almost without fail, he expressed deep satisfaction with the life he had chosen and the sound of the “four winds,” not human voices, that threaded through the walls of his cabin at night. He cherished the vista and the fresh air, the sky that opened above him and his rudimentary telescope at night. Brockway Mountain was not his place of seclusion; it was a retreat that unlocked the door to a world he loved.

Image of road leading up to forested hill
Looking toward the west bluff of Brockway Mountain. Bill Mattila roamed these hills happily for decades.

Bill Mattila, like Maggie Harrington, died as he lived. He went down to Copper Harbor for a final resupply and returned to his cabin. The day that the townspeople anticipated seeing him again came and went, and those who went in search of him found that he had passed away in the home he built. With the date of his passing unknown, the official record designated it as January 1, 1985, about thirty-one years after Bill’s first summit of the mountain. His story remains deeply woven into the fabric of Keweenaw County, and the imprint he left on Brockway Mountain will always remain.