Drive down M-41, lined on either side with dense forest, in the central part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and you’ll pass by the little town of Michigamme.
Michigamme is down the road from the campground we’re staying at during our recent trip to the U.P. We drive through it our first day looking for a grocery store. We don’t find one. There isn’t much left of the once thriving mining town except a post office, gift shop and some houses. Even the churches in town are closed.
Michigamme has two claims to fame. One: the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, starring Jimmy Stewart, was filmed there. Two: It was Ground Zero for the Moose Drop in the 1980s when they literally flew in Canadian Moose and dropped them in the Michigan wilderness to reestablish a local population in the U.P.
We look and look, but the only moose we see during our stay are on t-shirts and hats for sale.
The one other place in Michigamme is a small historical museum on Main Street. We notice it and an old restored log cabin behind it with a sign when we’re looking for the grocery store. We assume the cabin is part of the museum. Dave and I like old log cabins. We dream about living in one someday, so we decide to visit it later in the week.
We finally make it to the museum on the last day of our trip. It’s a metal building about the size of a two car garage, decorated with an old-fashioned facade, so that it fits in with the other 1880s buildings downtown.
The museum is filled with a lot of local memorabilia and some interesting antiques from Michigamme’s hay-day during the mining boom. Neat stuff that probably doesn’t mean a lot unless you’re from Michigamme or you’re a Michigan history buff. However, the best thing at the museum is the older gentleman who runs the place. It’s terrible, but we didn’t get his name. We didn’t plan on spending hours with him and never got around to the introductions.
This gentleman grew up in Michigamme, left to work for Ford in Detroit, then came back when he retired. It turns out he’s the one-man-band responsible for this museum. He almost single-handedly established the museum and now curates it. He collected, designed and erected most of the exhibits himself. He’s at the museum most days of the week during the summer, so it’s open if a few Trolls (People who live “under” the Mackinac Bridge) like us want to visit. He even heads up all the fundraising to keep the museum open.
He shows us around some of the exhibits. Then Dave asks him about the log cabin. He takes us over to it, and unlocks it for us. He says the residents of the tiny town worked together to raise up the money and manpower to move and restore the cabin that was about to crumble before they saved it.
The man tells us some more about the town’s history and the struggle to preserve what’s left of it. He’s very matter-of-fact, but it’s clear he’s passionate about Michigamme. I try to say something profound about how there’s so much history here no one knows about and it’s important work he’s doing to preserve it. He humbly shrugs it off. I’m not sure he realizes how incredible his actions seem to an outsider.
Then he says they need a bigger building, because they don’t have enough room in the museum for everything. One of the things not in the museum is the town’s old 1900 horse-drawn, steam-powered fire pump and a Model T Firetruck.
“Oh, hey,” he says, “You want to see them?”
So he walks us a couple blocks to the town’s fire station. He unlocks the door and take us past the turnout gear and two modern fire trucks to where the old apparatus is stored behind. It’s an almost mint condition American LaFrance fire pump. I used to work for a company that manufactures fire trucks, and I know this is a significant piece of fire service history. He tells us there’s only 400 left in the world, and little Michigamme has one of them.
He lets us look inside the Model T. Until now I’ve never heard of a Model T that was converted to a fire truck. He even lets the kids climb on it a little. That almost gives me a heart attack as I imagine them accidentally breaking off one of the historic side mirrors.
Then he tells us Michigamme sold both pieces to collectors in the 1960s for an insignificant amount. They tracked them down on the internet a few years ago. The town ended up buying back the pump for $150,000 from a guy in Colorado. They raised the money to buy it by holding a rummage sale in the community building. It was open EVERY DAY FOR THREE YEARS. They left a box out, and people paid for items on the honor system. He and his wife headed it up, sorting, pricing and sometimes fixing the donated sale items. He says they never made less than $100 a day at the sale. EVERY DAY FOR THREE YEARS.
Reluctantly, we finally say goodbye, because the boys are restless. But Dave and I could listen to this guy’s stories for a few more hours. I think it’s amazing what this man is doing for Michigamme.
We weren’t expecting a V.I.P. tour of the town when we went to see the log cabin. The friendliness and hospitality the man at the museum showed us was what we experienced from almost every local we encountered in the central U.P. Folks up there are open and don’t mind taking the time to talk you. In fact, they enjoy to telling you about how much they love this wild, rugged place they call home. It’s different up there, but in the best of ways.
The U.P. is so far away, we forget about it down here in the Lower Peninsula. I’m not sure a lot of rest of the country even knows it’s there. But it is a part of Michigan. And if you’re a Michigander, it’s a part of you. An important part. A beautiful part.
The U.P. moves me and changes me every time I visit. I’ve only been home a day, and already I’m trying to figure out when I can go back. I’m wondering if we bought a little cabin on the Peshekee River, could I survive the harsh winters with 130 inches of snow? I think shoveling all that snow might be worth it to call the man at the museum my neighbor. And maybe I’ll find out his name.
Go visit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Put in on your list. Get there. And be sure to stop by the historical museum in Michigamme. If you’re nice, you might get a V.I.P tour too.