Category Archives: About the Archives

This category is used for posts that talk more about the people, services, and operation of the archives as a department.

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: The Milwaukee Road’s Ontonagon Station

Archive Image of the Milwaukee Road's Ontonagon Station
Exterior of the Ontonagon station.

Today’s Flashback Friday is a quick glimpse back to the Chicago Milwaukee St. Paul and Pacific railroad station in Ontonagon. Once the terminus of the line’s famed Chippewa passenger route, the depot has performed only freight service for several years. The Chippewa now terminates its Chicago-Milwaukee and northern Michigan service at Channing.

The first photograph is an exterior view of the station. The second photo shows the crew as they pause for a moment in the sun before the return journey, the next stop of which will be Rockland or Mass. From left, James Benish, conductor; H. M. Leeman, engineer; L. Lindeman, fireman; F. J. Bender, Ontonagon agent; W. Schaltz, brakeman, and Donald Carey, brakeman. All crewmen are from Channing. The agent resides in Ontonagon. These images ran in the Daily Mining Gazette on this day in 1958.

 

Archive Image of the Milwaukee Road's crew.
The crew pause for a moment in the sun, November 8, 1958.

Flashback Friday: Mining History at Copper Falls Mine

Break time underground. (MTU Neg 03074)

Happy Flashback Friday! We hope that you all had a howling good time at the Haunted Mine tour put on by students at Michigan Tech and hosted by the Quincy Mine Hoist Association! Undoubtedly, the deep, dark recesses of a mine like Quincy is the perfect backdrop for a fright fest and a great opportunity to get a sense of what life in the mines was like. Can you imagine what it was like to be a miner? What sights or sounds do you think you’d see an hear?

Anyone who has taken the tour up at Quincy has heard of Michigan Tech’s longstanding relationship with the mine, which once served as a learning facility for mining engineers, giving students hands on experience in what it was like to work underground. However, what you might not have heard is the true story about how some ambitious Tech students got a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually work like miners and resurrect a piece of Copper Country history in the process. Take a drive up the Keweenaw with us this Flashback Friday and learn more about how a bunch of Tech students raised a historic hoist from the depths of the Copper Falls Mine in 1954!

 

Headline from the Daily Mining Gazette, May 26, 1956.

The Copper Falls Mine was established near Owls Creek in Keweenaw County in the 1840s at the site of a prehistoric mining pit. The mine operated for over 40 years and produced, according to a Daily Mining Gazette article from 1956, “12,843 tons of ingot copper,” and employed “mostly Cornish, Finnish, and Irish” workers until its closure in 1901. The old hoist at the Copper Falls Mine was located by Michigan Tech geology student  Robert “Speed” Burns in the early 1950s and eventually he and Dr. Joseph P. Dobell, geology professor at Michigan Tech, proposed a project to remove the 11-ton steam hoist. The Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, which then owned the property on which the hoist resided, agreed to the project following a safety inspection. The company also supported the project through the donation of safety equipment such as hard hats and headlamps.

The adit entrance to the Copper Falls mine. (MTU Neg 03072)

Over the course of 8 months from October 1954 to spring 1955, students from the Sigma Rho Fraternity lived the life of miners working to remove the 19th century hoist from its placement eight and a half levels (nearly 900 feet) below the surface. According to a DMG article about the project, access was made through an “air ventilation adit that intersected the main Owls Creek shaft at the second level.” However, the students faced two big problems: no skip, and the need to lay 600 feet of track. Ingenious Tech students that they were, the Sigma Rho students constructed a skip with wheels out of scraps found at the site and laid the 600 feet of track themselves after backbreaking work that involved filling in washouts, erecting trestles, and replacing rotten ties.

 

Part of the hoist as it looked before being dismantled. (MTU Neg 03071)

Despite battling the mile and a half trudge from the highway through snow to reach the work site and eventually combating rising waters in the subterranean levels of the mine during the spring melt, the students had risen the ancient hoist above ground in its near entirety by spring. Miraculously, not a single person was injured throughout the project and only a few pieces of equipment were lost or damaged. What the students were left with, beyond the prize of the hoist itself, was an invaluable hands on experience of “mining out” the old hoist from the depths of a historic mine.

So what become of the hoist itself? The Daily Mining Gazette article from 1956 merely states that at that time the Sigma Rho Fraternity was waiting for an offer from the “college or any group interested in having it for display purposes.” Do you know what became of the hoist? Share your story here!


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: Say Cheese!

Wheel of Gorgonzola cheese from the Stella Cheese Company, undated

Just in queso didn’t know, some of the staff at the Michigan Tech Archives really love cheesy puns. So for this week’s Flashback Friday we couldn’t resist highlighting a piece of cheesy Copper Country history: the establishment of the Stella Cheese Company in Baltic, Michigan.

What would later be known as the Stella Cheese Company was initially established as a farming enterprise near Superior, Wisconsin in 1917. Within a short period of time the operation outgrew the size of the farm and the company was forced to expand to its first unit at Lake Nebagamon near what is now the Brule River State Forest and named Nebagamon Cheese Company. Unfortunately, correct pronunciation of the company’s name proved tricky for its Italian owners and the name was changed to Stella. According to an article printed in the Daily Mining Gazette in 1935, the new name was derived from the Italian word for star and a “special and popular cheese called stellarosa.” As far as we can tell, the stellarosa must have been nacho ordinary cheese among the Italian community.

Daily Mining Gazette, August 27, 1935.

Stella’s big cheese was Count Guilio Bolognesi, an Italian immigrant born in 1879 in Luzzara, Italy, who controlled operations from his posh Gold Coast home in Chicago. Bolognesi’s brother, Emilio, served as secretary. Attilio Castigliano served as production manager and vice president. Himself an Italian immigrant, Castiglioano started his American life in Calumet at the turn of the 20th Century. As the business continued to grow, additional units were developed in locations such as Mass City (1929), Baraga, Campbellsport and Perkins and by 1935 Stella had grown into an installation processing 40 million pounds of milk from 10,000 cows and cooperating with roughly 2,000 farmers.

The company’s crowning achievement was the installation of its premier unit in Baltic, Michigan in August of 1935. Bolognesi prophesied that they were placing “in the hands of this district one unit” that was “destined to be the largest in the United States in the particular kind of cheese made.” Stella’s president wasn’t wrong as over the next 18 years the plant in Baltic proved that there wasn’t another unit cheddar than it.

Daily Mining Gazette, August 27, 1935.

Managed by Joseph Basso and Jacob Onkalo, the Baltic unit employed as many as 110 men and women and at its height was processing “100,000 pounds of milk into 300 22-pound loaves of Parmesan and 200 25-pound loaves of Romano in a single day.” According to a retrospective article in the Daily Mining Gazette from 1981, “in a normal year, 15 70,000-pound shipments of Parmesan cheese alone left the Stella plant.” Additionally, “as Italian cheese must be aged for nine or 14 months, South Range and Baltic would normally have as much as $2 million of cheese in its four warehouses,” though the old Baltic School, Derby Hall and South Range wine cellars were also used for storage. Cheese produced at the plant were often sold under the Kraft and Chef Boyardee labels.

The Baltic operation thrived from 1935 until 1953. By 1950, new health regulations and industry standards forced companies such as Stella’s to purchase expensive new equipment, which proved a hardship for smaller operations that fed the Stella plant. Combined with milk supply competition from Copper Country cooperatives, many plants began to close. Baltic outlasted its sister plants in Mass City and Baraga with operations funneled to Baltic. Cheese was last produced in Baltic in February 1953, though warehousing of cheese continued until 1968. Stella was sold to L. D. Schreiber Co. of Green Bay, Wisconsin and in 1963 acquired by Universal Foods.

Stella Cheese workers at the Baltic plant, 1939. Daily Mining Gazette, July 16, 1992.

We hope that you enjoyed this look back at a piece of cheese industry in the Copper Country — we think its pretty grate. Have a Gouda weekend and Labor Day!

 


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. 


Employment Opportunity: Join Our Team!

The Michigan Technological University Van Pelt and Opie Library is pleased to announce that it is currently hiring for a Library Assistant 4 position within the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections.
This position supports the Archives with excellent customer service, patron support, collaboration, and creative problem solving. Outstanding communication, referral, and reference services are provided through face-to-face, electronic and telephone means to library patrons, staff, local partners, and community members. High school diploma or an equivalent combination of education and experience from which comparable knowledge and abilities can be acquired is required. Apply online at https://www.jobs.mtu.edu/postings/8351 . A comprehensive list of all open positions at Michigan Tech are available at https://www.jobs.mtu.edu/postings/search

Michigan Technological University is an Equal Opportunity Educational Institution/Equal Opportunity Employer, which includes providing equal opportunity for protected veterans and individuals with disabilities.


Summer Intern Farewell

A young woman sits at a desk with a newspaper.
Gabby is still working hard, even on her last day in the archives!

We say goodbye to our Summer Intern, Gabby, as today is her last day in the archives. Over the course of seven weeks she had a major impact on our customer services and assisted with a plethora of processing and backlog projects. She was a joyful presence this summer and we are sorry to see her go. Please take a moment to hear about Gabby’s take on the experience in her final blog update.


At the risk the risk of sounding like a broken record this week, I can’t believe that my time here at the Michigan Tech Archives is almost over and that fall and a return to classes is right around the corner. While I will definitely be a little sad to leave and miss all the autumn fun*, I consider myself lucky to be able to bring home so many lovely memories from this summer- from walks down by the canal and many shared baked goods to touring the Quincy Mine after handling so many of their and other mine’s records. I apologize in advance to my friends and family back home who will be subjected to looking at all the photos that I took as well as listening to my description of pasties and how cold mines are. 

Three women are pictured in a tram car with hard hats on, preparing to descend into the mine tour.
Our intern Gabby (left) was treated to a tour of Quincy Mine by archivists Emily (center) and Allison (right.)

I have truly enjoyed my time here and have learned so much from not only my colleagues, but also from our patrons. I am walking away far more knowledgeable about mining, genealogy, and Lake Superior than I would have ever expected (look out Jeopardy and all other assorted trivia activities!) Outside of helping patrons find the information they are looking for, one of my favorite parts of this internship has been the opportunity to handle so many interesting materials from the collection. While they are all fun in their own way, some of our sports photos are particular favorites of mine- who doesn’t love a good vintage hockey action shot and/or fight photo especially if the players have great 70s and 80s hair? 

All joking aside, I would like to thank everyone for making me feel so welcome here in the archives and the library as a whole. An additional thanks to our patrons who came by and were patient with someone who was new and learning the ‘archival ropes’ so to speak. This internship has been a great opportunity to gain more hands on archival experience and I can not wait to take what I have learned with me back to UCLA as I go into my second (and last!) year of my master’s program! 

*To preemptively answer: It’s inconclusive as to whether I will be as sad to miss seeing all the snow, although I may daydream about it in the midst of a late October heatwave