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Journey to Rural America

Issue 282

I've learned a lot from visiting my family in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Amba Guerguerian Sep 22, 2023

“So, callers, let me know what you think, are we gonna have a civil war?” a radio talk-show host asked as I was driving in Brooklyn the other day. My mind traveled to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. 

Flying over New York City in an airplane, you see blocks of gray and snaking cement with small moving dots speeding along; a sea of lights, barges coming into ports of trade. Flying over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you see a vast land of green speckled with the blue of lakes. Or, in the winter, all white.

My mother grew up in this forgotten corner of America, and I return in the summers, as I did as a child, to visit my extended family of Yoopers (as the people of the Upper Peninsula call themselves). They live in Iron River, a town of 3,000 that embodies both the joys and the frustrations of life in rural America. 

BOOM AND BUST

Iron River was a mining town settled in the late 19th century by poor European immigrants like my great-grandparents, who were recruited from Italy to come and toil in the mines. The work was hard and dangerous. 

My mother grew up in this forgotten corner of America, and I return in the summers, as I did as a child, to visit my extended family of Yoopers

The iron ore the men pulled out of the earth was melted into pellets, shipped to factories and used to build America — “from its railroad tracks to its skyscrapers,” says Deborah Davis, an Iron County Historical Museum volunteer. “There is very much a sense of pride and respect for how much work these individuals did.”

Those achievements didn’t come without losses. Injuries were frequent in the mines, and death wasn’t uncommon. For most of the year, miners never saw the light of day, and they often went to the bars after shifts. Both domestic and labor abuses were common in mining towns.

Workers in the Upper Peninsula “were restive over company paternalism in their lives,” writes historian Russell Magnaghi. Company bosses often doubled as township officials, and the company provided the links to many basic necessities.

“I remember that it was always hard because they were always striking,” a longtime family friend, Eve, told me. “They wanted more money for the dangerous job they had. I remember my dad coming home injured; a big hunk of rock fell on his back. It was worrisome.”

Her husband John’s father, who worked the overnight shift, came home with bandages sometimes. One night, he left work early because he lost a finger. “He was in the other room, and I could hear him moaning and groaning because of the pain,” remembers Jim. “I would have nightmares sometimes about him … I always worried about him not coming home.”

The mining companies never came back after they left Iron River in the 1960s — a source of collective pain the older generations refer to often — and the town fell on hard times that continue to this day. 

“How did the mines pulling out affect the community?” says Kathlene Long, director of the Iron County Museum. “It was financial death.”

Nearby towns eventually consolidated because they were so underfunded. There’s now one stoplight in the whole county. Crumbling houses are up for auction. 

When we drive around, my mother and aunts commemorate their old gathering places. They point to what was the community center, what was a town hall, what was the ice-skating rink, to the empty lot where they grew up (on top of my grandfather’s gas station, which burned down).

While I was a child, the bowling alley I used to go to with my friends burned down. When I was a teenager, the movie theater closed. Then, the store where you could buy new clothes closed. And most recently, the local family grocery store, Angeli’s, turned into a Super One. 

“When we lost our mom-and-pop stores, it was a huge change that rattled the community,” my mom recalls.

“You have to leave Iron River to buy a pair of jeans or a pair of tennis shoes,” says my Uncle Vinny.

‘WE DIDN’T HAVE A LOT OF MONEY, BUT WE HAD A LOT OF KIDS’

The author’s grandfather made a two-room houseboat that the family of ten lived on during the summer using empty oil barrels from his gas station.

While Iron River’s older residents have lost a lot, they still have their memories — of a bustling downtown where working-class people spent their money at local shops, and of an active childhood spent mostly outdoors.

“When we got home from school,” my Uncle Vinny remembers, “the first thing you did was take off your school clothes, and then you did your homework, then you grabbed a quick meal and it was out the door.”

“At night, all us kids would spend hours at the community center ice rink. We had so much fun,” Eve recounted. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of kids, and there were a lot of people, and there were a lot of things that the community did.”

“We would stay outside until dark, or past dark, in the wintertime — until the siren went off and Bimbo [the town police officer] would make sure we all got home,” added my mom, who moved away after high school. “Why would we want to be inside? It was crowded, and we hardly had any toys.

STAY OR GO?

When I ask my cousins and their friends why they left Iron River, or why they plan to, and when I ask the older generation why they stayed, the responses never change. 

Young people leave for greater opportunities. According to my cousin Brett, “There’s no work, and there’s nothing to do.” 

 “There’s no big nightlife. There’s not people from all different cultures. It’s kind of a bubble,” adds my cousin Mickey. 

On the West Iron County Chamber of Commerce website, there are many job postings, and I did notice “help wanted” signs during my recent visit, but, “a lot of the kids that I grew up with went to college to get the education to do a certain type of job, and maybe they don’t have that job here,” says Mickey. “Not everyone wants to work construction. Not everyone wants to work in the logging industry. Not everyone wants to work in the welding trades.”

For those who stay in Iron River, a connection to nature and community keeps them there. They have a deep relationship with the land. People hunt, fish, raise livestock, pickle, can, make wine and tinctures, and trade with their neighbors. In the winter, they sled, ski, ice skate, and make ice sculptures. In the warm season, they swim in the numerous lakes, raise gardens, and search for mushrooms in the woods and crawfish in the creeks.

My cousin Tommy has spent so much time in the woods that it’s like he’s part of them. And you get to feel that too when you go in there with him.

Because the Upper Peninsula is so far off the beaten path, I feel an exhilarating sense of freedom there. Even the people who leave tend to come back regularly or move back when they retire. The place has an addicting quality. 

“The bright side — if you can call it that — of this area and the recession that happened, and the depression after the mines pulled out, is that it’s barely changed,” said my mom. “There’s hardly any new houses. There’s no new roads. You know, it’s gotten more depressed, people have gotten poorer in some ways; the houses are kind of falling down. But in terms of the strength of what your childhood was, your relationship to the land — that’s the same. And that’s a beautiful gift.

It’s easy to lose yourself in nature in Michigan’s UP.
Amba Guerguerian

TRUMPISM

Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930s, Iron County voted reliably Democratic, including for Barack Obama in 2008. However, that flipped in Donald Trump’s two presidential runs, when the descendents of union miners came out in droves to vote for a gaudy Manhattan billionaire who would garner 62% of the vote in both races.

Why did this happen? Nostalgia for when local industry was thriving and downtown was bustling? Is it because Trump gives voice to a nativist impulse that sees today’s desperate immigrants as different from those of the past? Or because Trump simply bothered to act as if he cared about people in places like Iron River — something no Democrat has done in a generation.

One Iron River local suggests that support for Trump is due in part to a deep-seated distrust toward government that goes back to the immigrant laborers who “left places where the government was very invasive and very controlling.” 

Many say it’s about guns. “These are people who live and die by their guns. They’ve always been hunters, and they’re so worried the Democrats might take their guns away, even though it’s never been done and nobody’s ever tried,” says my Aunt Giulia.

The kids there now, many of whom support Trump, still resemble their fellow Gen Zers. They’re on TikTok; they don’t go outside as much. I asked my 16-year-old cousin, Bow, what his first reason for liking Trump is, and he said guns. He doesn’t express animosity toward gay or trans people or people of color in the same way older right-wingers do. One of his cousins is gay and another is trans. That’s just a part of life, he says.

But, Bow likes the country kids. “You’re either country or you’re emo,” he says. That is also a political divide, though the pot smokers linger somewhere in between. 

They are our counterparts; they make up 18% of the country we live in, and I think we should try harder to understand them.

When I asked him what he and his friends thought of the economy and unions, he said, “As long as we have some money in our pockets, we’re happy,” which is funny to me, because it seems like the most pressing issues in Iron River are economy-based.

Obviously, I have different opinions than some of my family. But what are we supposed to do? Disown everyone we disagree with?

While Iron River is isolated, it represents something much greater — rural life in America after the decline of so many small towns across the country where mines and manufacturing dried up or went overseas, and much of local business was decimated.

What I’ve been reminded from researching this piece is that we’re all products of our environments, and that Donald Trump’s messaging really resonates with many people in rural America. Most are complex, decent people whose struggles are caused by the same ills that cause our urban struggle. They are our counterparts; they make up 18% of the country we live in, and I think we should try harder to understand them. I think it would be better if we all could notice that we have a common enemy — greedy corporate elites — than start a civil war with each other. 

NEWCOMERS

“I’ve moved all over the country my whole life, and this is one of the coolest places I’ve ever lived,” says local Museum Director Kathlene Long. “I think one of the biggest things I would advise anybody that wanted to come here and start a business would be, figure out how to live here, how to get through a full winter, spring, summer, fall; figure out how to understand what the community wants.”

Since 2020, there has been an uptick in new homeowners in Iron County. It seems to mostly be Boomers that grew up there returning to retire. There are also young families moving in that left urban areas during the pandemic and people from warm parts of the country buying summer homes to escape the heat. 

“You don’t know anybody anymore,” says Aunt Giulia’s friend, Rose, bemoaning the fact that she no longer recognizes nearly everybody when she goes out. 

“You wouldn’t believe how many Texas and Florida license plates I see up here,” says Aunt Giulia.

In the coming decades, the Great Lakes region, with its temperate weather and abundant supplies of freshwater, may become a destination for a lot more people as climate changes intensifies. 

“To tell you the truth, I think things are gonna look up for Iron River, basically because they are killing our planet,” Aunt Giulia says. 

“It’s not good,” she adds, referencing recent droughts, “because normally our peak fall colors used to be the first two weeks of October, then it switched to the last two weeks of September — now it’s the first two weeks of September. And all of our apples are dropping on the ground before they’re ripe.”

Names of family members and friends have been changed.

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