Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Copper Country

Memorial Day weekend found the VOR and I in the Keweenaw peninsula of Upper Michigan, aka da Yoopee. I can count on one hand the Memorial weekends with good weather since I was a kid and this was one of them. The weather was perfect for mountain biking, hiking, and of course, sea kayaking on the big lake. Temps were in the high 50's-low 60's and, much more importantly, the bugs are still hibernating. Even though much outdoor activity was accomplished, we also found time to bum around and dig into a bit of the history and culture of thisskinny finger that juts out into Lake Superior.

Anishnabe (Ojibway) Indians mined copper in the area and that's what brought the eastern entrepaneurs and the miners from Cornwall, Finland, Italy, and Eastern Europe to the area to extract the copper. Things like indoor plumbing and electricity fueled the demand for copper pipe and wire and by the turn of the last century things were rockin'. Many of the wonderful stone buildings, mansions, and the simple yet very strong New England Colonial era saltbox homes were built then. With any 'one pony show' however, when the lone industry tanks, things go very bad very quickly. The Great Depression in the 1930's put as many as 75% of the Keweenaw are workforce out of work and on relief. President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, the WPA, was literally a life saver in this area. Roosevelt believed that people would rather work than accept charity. Whether that holds true to day would seem to be a topic for serious debate but we do know that many of the projects completed in the 30's still survive and have survived well in the Keewenaw.

One of the oddest projects was the veterans memorial, a very appropriate stop on Memorial Day, in Kearsarge, MI, one of the small copper mining towns in the area. This memorial of stone, concrete, and pipe commemorates the three USS Kearsarge warships from 1862 to present as well as area veterans of all wars. Down the road in Larium, the towns favorite son gets his own memorial. Notre Dame's first All American, George Gipp, 'the Gipper', played by our own Ronnie Reagan in "Knute Rockne, All American. More utilitatian projects are Highway M-26 and Brockway Mountain Drive. The drive is a rocky spine at the very top of the Keewenaw and on a clear day Isle Royale can be seen. Last but not least is the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, a golf course and spectacular lodge and cabin complex that it now run by Keweenaw County. I tend to avoid golf the way I avoid cliche's....like the plague. It's also the trailhead for many mountain bike trails and cross country ski trails in the winter though, as well as a very nice restaurant with a couple Keweenaw Brewing products on tap.

We've enjoyed most of these public works projects on every trip we've made to the area. They've 'got legs' as they say, public projects that fulfilled both their short term goal of putting people to work and the long term goal of serving the public good. One can only hope that the infrastructure projects and government investments in the current down turn have the same legacy 75 years from now as these WPA projects. We can also hope that Roosevelts assertion that people would rather work than accept charity is at the core of the decisions on how the bucks are doled out. Cynic that I am, I fear that is not the case but time will tell. Meanwhile, the Keweenaw is a great place for outdoor activity, historical and geological exploring, and to step back in time a bit to the pre-chain business era in this country. I would have to guess that the kids and grandkids of the folks that made the WPA work are the same ones that own the motels, restaurants, bookstores, and outfitters that dominate the local scene. I think this may need to be added to the official list of annual events.

1 comment:

Nan said...

Once again, green with envy.