A couple weeks ago I traveled to Michigan's Upper Peninsula for research on my book about Victor Power. Power was born in Calumet, Michigan, and raised in Escanaba before moving to Hibbing, Minnesota, as a young man. He became a consequential figure here on the Mesabi Iron Range. More on that to come.
But the trip to Michigan also offered some new perspective and some ideas that I think could relate to us here in Minnesota.
First, my general theory has long been that traveling to the U.P. is a sort of flash forward on what could eventually happen here on the Iron Range.
Tourism and recreation seem to be the big industries, though there is enough logging and mining to keep some of the traditional economy going. The towns are old and worn; some seem mostly abandoned. But there remains a strong community spirit. The natural world that surrounds those towns is positively gorgeous, enough to make it worth it living there if you have work.
It's an Iron Range that's been baked in the sun for about 20 years longer.
Some key differences exist. Obviously the U.P.'s history includes copper and iron mining. Geographically, the Iron Range is quite small compared to the U.P. where towns are much farther apart. That's to the Range's advantage.
But the U.P. owns massive shorelines along two Great Lakes, not just one like Northern Minnesota. On Lake Superior, the Keweenaw seems tied to the same eastern ports as the Range. But on Lake Michigan, Escanaba is clearly tied to Chicago.
And it's further clear that Minnesota more successfully captured tax revenue from mining in its boom days. Michigan towns have some nice old schools and buildings, but nothing quite like the Hibbing High School.
But the notion that Michigan is a future version of the Range is important for another reason. They've also started doing things to better their situation that we could and should try here.
Houghton, the regional center of the Keweenaw Peninsula, provided great examples. I stayed in a relatively inexpensive room at the Super 8 down on the waterfront. When I woke up before sunrise, I walked out the door to a fantastic multi-use urban trail that took me through not only beautiful scenery, but a functional modern community.
For instance, leaders have been converting old infrastructure for entirely new purposes. The nonprofit Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation (MTEC) Smartzone now resides in an old powerhouse facility on Portage Lake in the heart of Houghton. This tech company incubator provides space and collaborative opportunities for entrepreneurs. It's a marvelous example of how we can rethink the use of old but "not quite historic" brick buildings in good locations.
The trail itself tells a story. The city's ice arena is right there on the trail and waterfront. Its history isn't just declared in its title, but explained in an interesting plaque. Professional hockey got its start right there in Houghton.
The lampposts each featured activities you could do in Houghton. One that declared "Shred Houghton,” sporting the picture of a figure on a skateboard, seemed as though it would confound people of the past and future. Nevertheless, it was inclusive of a new audience.
Artistic crosswalk paintings provide both form and function. When you're walking by the library, the lines are books. When you're passing by the marina, the lines are boats. It's whimsical and fun, and useful for knowing where you are.
North of Houghton, Calumet was especially fascinating to me. At one time this was one of the most prosperous towns in all of Michigan, hundreds of miles from Detroit and what was then considered "civilization." Multi-story brick buildings stand sentry over the downtown. And while the town's loss of population and economic strength was evident, its potential remained.
The Calumet Theatre, a remarkable historical site it its own right, is an active, working theater as well. In fact they were advertising a live radio variety show, the Red Jacket Jamboree, that seemed quite similar to what I do on the Great Northern Radio Show. So much for my dreams of playing there someday.
I left my time in the U.P. thinking that old Victor Power might well have been trying to recreate the boom cities of his youth in the North Woods of Minnesota. To an extent he succeeded. But the job isn't done yet. We can finish and even exceed that goal.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).