Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Harvesting the Fruit of the Upper Peninsula Has Become A Way of Life and Every Tree and Every Bush Must Share its Sweetness

An old photograph added to a museum sign caught my eye my first hour in Hancock, Michigan. The children and mothers picking berries began my habit of searching photographs for familiar faces. The group picking berries are camping near a town, Heinola, that even Google can't find now. Google found a Heinola Road near Atlantic Mine, a small town outside of Houghton that once had a station on the now defunct Copper Range Railroad. The rail bed has become an all purpose trail the brings ATV and snowmobile traffic to the towns once served by the Copper Range trains. Another Heinola just more than eighty miles outside of Helsinki thrives in Finland. Many of the young people in this picture probably found employment as skilled tradespeople in the automotive factories of Ford's and Chrysler's. Their mothers undoubtedly sent them home with fruit preserves when leaving the Copper Country after summer visits.

My father's family lived in the mining town of South Range, between the towns of Atlantic Mine and Trimountain and near where the party picked their berries. Guessing and calculating, my grandmother Aino had celebrated her fifteenth birthday the year of this photograph. Estimation required by the word circa, meaning "about". A high school composite shows her graduating in 1923, wearing serious glasses with round lenses and a collar of handwoven lace. She hung lace in all the windows of her home where she welcomed me as a grandson. 

The census of 1930 shows her living at home in South Range will her father Willy and her mother Katherine, 24 years of age. Her father might have baked those hand picked berries into pies at his bakery. The fact of my father's birth places her in Highland Park in 1938, her husband Edward a skilled tradesperson for Walter Chrysler. The census of 1940 finds Willy alone, a widower, with a daughter and his son-in-law living in the house, all the household involved in running a soda bottling plant, making under license a soda called Mission Orange. Willy mentioned the bakery to the census taker. 

I had hoped the South Range Bottling Works facility had been taken over by the brewing of Keweenaw Brewing Company​ and a visit to South Range crushed these hopes. The bottle works building stands adjacent to the Kaleva Temple and has begun collapsing under the weight of snows. A rusty Mission Orange sign gone rusty remained on the front wall. 

I remembered standing in front of that building, my father's male kin talking for longer than I could stand. I'm glad they ignored my impatience. I wish I had listened, standing there fifty years later mourning every single one of the men. I search for facts now they had said aloud during an evening's conversation. Like the dumb stones of the Kaleva Temple, I had no mental record. I included the temple in a play I sent off to Grand Rapids Saturday. In my imagination, father musses my hair and expresses pleasure that I have kept up my writing. I wanted it performed in the theater inside the temple, said to contain two hundred seats. 

The picking of berries has shown up as a Upper Peninsula theme. My first night in South Range, I had pie and coffee at the counter of Tina's Katalina restaurant and hotel on Trimountain Road. The waitress couldn't bring me the blackberry pie because she had sold the last slice. She brought me instead a tri-berry pie with blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. Tina, who had bought the restaurant from Katalina, had gathered the berries herself. I took my time with the slice, trying to eat as slowly as she had gathered the berries. No matter how fast one plucks, filling a pail can take time. Visiting the past and  hoping for understanding takes even longer as the berries on the bushes of history are lean for families of ordinary lives.

Remembered conversation have to be harvested by personal visits. She spoke dreamily about a hill above town that glowed in October, the hardwoods ablaze with red and oranges. I noticed that hill the first time I visited, the woods a week past peak and I knew that had to be the hill. All the online maps hardly help, suggesting South Range Hill or Tolonen Hill has names for the hill we experienced in colors. The maps haven't the power to tell me what she called that hill.

A fellow I knew in High School lived in the town of Byron and my family lived in the farm land. I didn't know him well as he belonged to the "townies" and we only went their for school or maybe a meal at what small restaurant had dared to open in the farm town brownstones. I knew he had gone north to study criminal justice at Suomi College. Then I heard nothing about him for years, thirty six at least. My writing about my Copper Country experiences had attracted the attention of the Byronites, and someone reached out to him, wondering what I was up to in the UP. My guess it was Len Crawford, one of the most talented baseball players of our small town little leagues.

Thus Vic Betterly​ messaged me, and we agreed to meet for a beer at Keweenaw Brewing Company the next day. I looked at Vic's pictures, and he had gathered a bushel of plums in the waning days of harvest. More, he had become a trusted painter and building contractor of the Holy Transfiguration Skete. The brothers of this monastery on Lake Superior in Eagle Harbor make and sell about 1 million dollars of jam every season. A few businesses nearby also pick the wild berries for jam making, meaning that every bush and vine in the Copper Country had to produce.

On my arrival to Baraga, I saw the entrance to the shrine honoring the Catholic saint who had visited the Native Americans of the Keweenaw, making his way on snowshoes. Baraga often slept on the snow as he made his rounds. I wanted to visit because I once had many conversations with a woman who had traveled by snowshoe to the shrine on a pilgrimage organized by her Catholic Church. The story surfaced out of our text message banter, a year's worth of text message banter that resulted in not a single date.

She had texted me from a concert in Grand Rapids, "Gaga". I texted back "Baraga". I pulled up in the parking lot, no snow shoes required. After visiting the 100 hundred foot high statue of Baraga in copper, I met a couple picking apples off the trees near the statue. He was pulling the apples off the tree with a basket on a long pole. She was holding the pail. The two had picked all of the trees clean for several seasons, making apple pies with the fruit, hundreds of pies. I wondered if the two sold the pies to support the shrine, and I declined to ask. They had to sell them. How could two people and their extended family eat hundreds of pies?

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