Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Keweenaw Puzzle: Busting Myths, Revealing the Truth, and Uncovering the Facts of Keweenaw Stories and Legends by Richard Buchko

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 44 pages
• Publisher: CreateSpace (May 6, 2009)
• Price: $9.99
• ISBN-10: 1441421483
• ISBN-13: 978-144142148

On one of my many trips to the Keweenaw, where I once lived and intend to live again, I had buried myself in the northern woods for a week to work on a novel inspired by my surroundings. I have been traveling to the Keweenaw Peninsula, a peninsula off a peninsula, the larger one being the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, since I was a little girl. I lived in Calumet in the early 1990s, left regretfully for greener financial pastures, but am now seeking my pathway back for my pending retirement years. My heart lives in the Keweenaw.

Anyone who has ever been there knows that the physical geography of the area is one of the most beautiful in the United States, perhaps anywhere. It is stunning. Rocky shores of Lake Superior, deep woods, mountains, lakes and rolling rivers, quiet streams, rich with wildlife. Nothing like it. But there is another aspect of the Keweenaw that tugs on me, too—its history.

Traveling through, I noted little of it. The little mining houses, all alike in structure, seemed, well, a tad ugly and plain. It was only when I lived in Calumet myself that I truly began to appreciate the story behind those houses, the legends that wove around that beautiful wilderness. I am not necessarily a history buff, but when I walked Calumet streets in early mornings and late evenings, after the work day was done, I could swear I felt the ghosts of centuries around me. I was told the apartment in which I lived on Fifth Street, the main street of the village of Calumet (population, approx. 1,000), was haunted, as were most of the buildings there, many built in the late 1800s. I sensed that spirit, and more than once, saw its passing shadow, heard its light step.

On those many walks, and in many conversations with those who had lived in the area all of their lifetimes, perhaps over several generations, I heard the legends. I heard the rumors and the myths. Before long, I found myself ransacking the Houghton library history shelves. I read them all, all the local publications, and when I got a job working at The Daily Mining Gazette, the Keweenaw newspaper, I always had my eye open for local history. A favorite part of my job at the paper was writing up a short piece on “This Day in History…” That brought me to the archives, and I spent many fascinating hours paging through yellowed, crackly newspapers.

Only natural that I would notice Richard Buchko’s slender book in Einerli, a little boutique in Chassell, another tiny town at the foot of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The store owner told me she had put it on the shelf just that day. Serendipity, I thought, to find a history on the area I had not yet read. I bought it.

In the introduction, the author tells us he is not a native “Yooper,” U.P. resident, but is now an adopted one, having moved to Calumet but a year prior. “I’m a troll—or I used to be, depending on how you look at it. A troll is someone who lives (or lived, or was born) under the bridge. Depending on your age and where you were brought up, that either means someone who lived below the Mackinac Bridge in the lower peninsula of Michigan, or for some it means living south of the lift bridge over Portage Lake. I moved here a little over a year ago, fulfilling a desire I’d had for almost three decades. What fueled that dream I couldn’t say, but I always felt that this was where I belonged…”

Gee, can I ever identify. Apparently, this author had felt the burn, too, and was equally, or more so, drawn to the local history as well. I settled in for the read. Fun facts dotted the pages, such as: “Keweenaw Fact: Lake Superior contains 10 percent of all the fresh surface water on Earth, and contains more water than the other Great Lakes combined.”

The book then takes up one popular myth after another, either validating or debunking each one. The first one up was about Calumet nearly becoming the capitol of Michigan. Yup, I’d heard that one many times. Debunked. Next myth: Portage Lake Pioneers, the Keweenaw ice hockey team—had they been the 1904 winners of the Stanley Cup? Debunked, but not without a terrific consolation prize. Hockey fans take note—the Keweenaw is indeed the birthplace of professional ice hockey, and the Portage Lake Pioneers were the first U. S. champions in the sport.

And so the author takes on one wonderful story after another, carefully citing his sources and aligning his evidence to support his claim, one way or the other. A few photographs entice with faces and buildings of long ago, many of the latter still standing. Had Houdini really performed at the Calumet Theater? Was there really a wall of pure silver in one of the many mines? Who was Big Annie, that 6 feet 2 inch tall woman whose smiling face appears in old Calumet photographs? What do we really know about the mysterious mound builders of Isle Royale? Was George Gipp (“win one for the Gipper”), star football player, really from Laurium? And what do we really know about the Italian Hall disaster on Christmas Eve 1913, resulting in the death of 73 people, burned to death—only the doorway arch remains, standing as a monument where the building had once stood? So many times, I had walked through that arch, back and forth, pressing my palm to the stone to feel the warmth, and wondered at the long ago tragic night.

What a delight is this little book for anyone smitten with U.P. history and beauty. I am pleased to have it. Based on the author’s recommendation, I plan to pick up a copy of Steve Lehto’s Death’s Door, to learn more about the Italian Hall Christmas Eve disaster. History gives us ground to stand on, deeper understanding, and great stories, true, and legends for the imagination.

Addendum: When searching the author on the Internet, one comes across some pretty ghastly and questionable stuff. One hopes Mr. Buchko will be as good about debunking myths about his own character as well as those in Keweenaw legend.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

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