March 27, 2021

FTV: Boom or Bust?


     Are you an optimist or a pessimist?  Do you see the glass as half empty or half full?  Even the most ‘pie-in-the-sky, the sun is always shining somewhere’ people (think REM’s Shiny Happy People or Katrina and The Waves I’m Walking On Sunshine) certainly have days when things don’t look so rosy.  I won’t profess to being one of those perpetually happy ‘pie people’, but I will admit to leaning farther to the ‘half full’ side of the ledger.  Certainly there are days when things can trend toward ‘gloom and doom’, but the spin doctor in me will always try to find the shiny side of the coin.  Now that you have been bombarded with every cliche I can think of, let me ask you the questions that inspired this FTV:  How do you see our fair county right now?  Where are we headed now?  We have seen our share of ‘boom and bust’ episodes throughout the history of Ontonagon County, but is our half a glass getting fuller or slowly draining toward empty?  Okay, we are still trying to wrap our collective minds around the elephant in the room – otherwise known as the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are still writing that particular chapter into the history books.  COVID is a pretty big bump in the road, but at this point in time, ‘Mr. Half-full’ will leave that chapter unfinished and bookmarked for another day.

     If one has read any of the fine histories of Ontonagon County by Knox Jamison, Bruce Johanson, Earl Doyle, or the host of other writers who have added to the list of available references, one can not escape the facts.  When it comes to ‘boom or bust’, our local history has had as many ‘BoB’ cycles, maybe even more, than some areas of our country.  

     For our purposes, we will start with ‘BoB number one’.  When one examines the rugged hills from the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula to the western most peaks of the Porcupine Mountains (not to mention Isle Royale), one can see ample evidence of the economic boom centered on copper.  The thousands of ancient miner’s pits that dot the landscape mystified the Native pioneers and the first European settlers who came to inhabit the western Upper Peninsula.  Some think this ancient mining was done by the Native peoples who were here before the Europeans arrived, but the lack of any mention (of mining activity) in their oral histories belies this idea.  When the first European explorers asked about the pits, the local Natives simply said, “They were here when we got here.”  Copper was a valued commodity for Native groups, but they utilized the pieces of float copper they found scattered about;  they did not actively mine it.  It was viewed as ‘gift’ from the Creator and the Native People attached much mystical significance to their copper finds.  The famed Ontonagon Boulder’s status as a talisman is well documented by the previously mentioned historians.  The economic importance for the Native peoples came later as they bartered copper for useful items offered by the new kids on the block.

     Some scholars of North American history either do not see or will not admit that the copper mining boom that took place in ancient times was the work of earlier visitors.  We won’t call them pioneers because when their tenure here ended, mining pits and artifacts of their endeavors were all that they left behind.  I always liked the way the late Fred Rydholm summarized this copper mystery in his presentations:  “All across Europe there are tons of Bronze Age artifacts.  They had the tin resources to make this alloy, but they did not have the amount of copper necessary to make this volume of artifacts.  Here in the Copper Country, we have evidence of thousands upon thousands of tons of copper being mined, but we scratch our heads and wonder where it went.  If one took all of the copper artifacts housed in every museum in North America today, it wouldn’t add up to the amount of copper found in one of the massive chunks of float copper that have been uncovered.  Even if only 10 percent of the native copper was removed, that is still a massive amount of copper.  It didn’t just disappear.  The Bronze Age in Europe was driven by Copper Country copper!” 

      Fred took a lot of heat for his theories and he spent his lifetime researching this very subject.  It is hard to ignore the fact that Upper Peninsula copper was traded throughout the ancient world; from Bronze Age Europe to the east, China in the west, and to Central and South America.   When discussing the copper history of our area with my students, I used a little less eloquent description:  “At one time, the western U.P. was the Walmart or Menards of copper trading.”  Yes, there was a copper boom in ancient days and then something changed.  The ancient miner’s tools were left strewn about and for reasons we still don’t fully understand, they never returned to continue mining.  Some miner’s pits still contained large copper slabs supported on wooden cribbing the ancient miners were in the process of removing, but again, they never came back to finish the job.  This mining boom may have been interrupted by climate, sociological, or political changes in the world, but the bottom line is simply this:  The ancient copper industry went bust long before Columbus reached North America.

     The second European influenced economic boom to hit the upper Great Lakes began with the first wave of explorers (or invaders, depending on your point of view) who arrived after the continent was rediscovered by Columbus et al.  When the voyagers began dotting the Lake Superior shoreline with trading posts, the era of fur trading began.  This was the first modern ‘boom’ cycle.  The fur trade flourished until the number of pelts available for harvest began to decline.  The trade survived as new lands were opened in the west, but it could not survive changes in fashion.  The collapse of the fur trade wasn’t expected, but it seems to be part of human nature:  enjoy the boom and don’t worry about the bust that is sure to follow.  Like it or not, ‘Boom and Bust’ is a cycle that we have seen repeated enough throughout history and it should never be a big surprise when it happens.  In this regard, human behavior is maddenly consistent.

     The copper industry began a new chapter in the 1800s with all the optimism of all the previous mineral rushes that have taken place.  People usually think of gold and silver when talk turns to discoveries that prompted people to head for the hills to make their fortunes.  Though iron and copper are rarely connected to these types of mineral discoveries, the truth of the matter is somewhat astounding.  All of the big silver and gold rushes that have occured in North America have produced a fraction of the wealth that iron and copper mining in the Upper Peninsula have racked up.  To get a much more detailed account of the various ‘BoB’ copper mining cycles, I encourage you to see Bruce Johanson’s book This Land, the Ontonagon (Firesteel Publications – 1984).  Driven by various human conflicts and inventions, the copper industry alone has seen more ups and downs than a yo-yo.  As the first modern copper boom ended, there was a new boom centered on the vast virgin pinery in this area, but that is another long story we shall save for another day.  The only copper ‘BoB’ cycle I will discuss in more detail here is the one I am most familiar with:  the one I experienced first hand.

     When yours truly arrived in Ontonagon as a 21 year old, fresh out of college JH teacher in 1975, the White Pine Mine was thriving.  These were the peak years of the most recent copper boom.  The town of White Pine was booming and the Ontonagon Area Schools boasted five schools (three elementary, one junior high, and one high school) that served the needs of more than 1700 students.  During my first four years teaching here, there were some indications that things were going to change.  The labor force at the mine was reduced and our school population began showing some signs of shrinkage.  When I received a pink slip near the end of my fourth year, it was hard to ignore the hints;  we were beginning an economic downturn.  I was eventually offered a position for the next year, but decided to take a voluntary leave of absence without pay to finish my Master’s of Arts degree at Northern Michigan University.  The administration agreed and indicated if the school numbers looked better the next year, I would be able to come back to my original position teaching JH Geography-Earth Science.  

     The 1979-80 school year saw a small upturn in the area’s economic fortunes.  When it was announced there was a shipyard coming to the mouth of the Ontonagon River, it was hailed as great news.  We were told at a staff meeting that this was going to be a big change.   During his welcome back to school message, the superintendent said, “When this new business gets rolling, we would see a class of people coming into the area unlike what we are used to seeing in Ontonagon County.”  The influx of students in the school certainly caused a mini-boom for the district.  Without going into all the wranglings, let me just say there were things going on in the company that would make the shipyard’s stay and their role in the local economy a short one.  This isn’t to say that everyone at the shipyard was crooked because there were some very good people involved with the company.  

     It is a shame the actions of a few, ahem, ‘business men’ scuttled the shiphyard’s long term economic impact prematurely.  When the indictments were handed down, I thought about that ‘class of people’ we were told about earlier.  Lakeshore has now taken over the facility and the workforce is a small but welcome addition to the local economy.  The big shed at the end of River Street is no longer just a hulking reminder of what can happen when people put their own gains above those of the community that welcomed them with open arms.  We will consider this a positive ‘mini-BoB’ element embedded in the larger ‘BoB’ picture currently playing out.

     As the end of the 20th century loomed, the Ontonagon County economic base began a nose-dive that signalled another ‘bust’ was coming our way like a runaway locomotive.  The mine at White Pine eventually closed taking the once thriving White Pine Schools with it.  The Subterra underground (plant) growing facility took over part of the abandoned mine.  The water plant was retained as the regional water facility for White Pine and Ontonagon while some smaller businesses were recruited for the industrial park that now occupies the old mine mill site.  Large scale employment was replaced by operations running with a much smaller labor force.  The Smurfit – Stone paper mill in Ontonagon was unceremoniously closed and razed even though it was a profitable,  environmentally sound plant.  As with many of the county’s past economic skids, the decision to close the mill was made in a distant corporate board room for reasons that can only be filed under ‘just business’.  Unfortunately, this case of ‘just business’ also cost Ontonagon the rail spur from Rockland that had serviced the paper mill for decades (as well as the shipyard for a short period of time).  Pulling up the rail lines added an exclamation point to the latest economic bust.  Ontonagon was, as the medical folks say when a patient is doing poorly, circling the drain.  The work force began to trickle out of town, the school districts lost students (and income), and it seemed that the communities in the county were on the verge of pulling up the sidewalks and blowing away.  

     Every year, the Ontonagon County Historical Society remembers the Great Fire of 1896.  It is a story of tragedy and triumph.  The little village by the big lake literally rose like a Phoenix from the ashes.  As I once told a reporter for the defunct Marquette Monthly paper, “Ontonagon is a lot like a cockroach – we have gotten stepped on a lot, but are hard to kill.”  The pessimists out there tend to refer to Ontonagon in the past tense like it is ‘game over’.  Optimists (remember, I am one of the latter not the former) are seeing signs that it is too soon to start shoveling dirt on us.  Perhaps we are still circling the drain to some degree, but recent events indicate that we are at least circling and holding our own, not just heading down the drain.  The plan for the Syncel project slated for the old paper mill site is moving along slower than most would like, but it is still in the hopper.  The new copper lodes being explored in the western end of the county haven’t been developed yet, but the minerals aren’t going anywhere, are they?  Lakeshore’s use of the old shipyard has increased to the point where they would like to partner with the Ontonagon Area Schools to help train welders.  Tourism may not carry the whole burden, but it certainly isn’t harming the economy.

     The old saw goes something like this:  “You have to hit rock bottom before you can start climbing out of the pit.”  It seems like Ontonagon County has, more than once, managed to hit rock bottom and then dig in a little deeper.  Do we have reason to be optimistic about the future of Ontonagon County?  I, for one, would like to think so.  How about you?  Is our glass half full or half empty?  The COVID 19 pandemic is far from a done deal, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Ontonagon County has thrived, struggled, and thrived again in the past.  We thought we were already past rock bottom before COVID 19 hit, but we are used to these ups and downs by now.  Are we beginning to see past this latest bust?  I remain optimistic about the future.

     One last note on the subject.  As this article was being written, my old high school classmate, Willie Peterson, announced that he and his wife were going to cease publishing The Munising News, a paper they have owned for the past twenty three years.  Seeing yet another newspaper end a century plus run is sad, but there are a number of factors that led to the decision.  We are more than lucky to still have our hometown newspaper (which is also a century plus old) and it is up to all of us to support The Ontonagon Herald anyway we can.  ‘Shop local’ can not be a catch phrase in a small town economy.  It has to be a habit.  Support your local businesses now more than ever, including our hometown newspaper.  As the unhappy people in Munising have just found out, when it is gone, it is gone for good.


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