Coming Soon! True Tales – The Forgotten History of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

I have just finished the rough version of my new book. It is off to the publisher awaiting publication. Whew! It always feels like a long haul when you finish a book. Though I feel all of my books are worth a read, this one is special. If you are a fan of this website, then this book is for you.

In this book the romance is gone. It tries to show many of the true hardships and facets  of trying to settle a frontier that was sandwiched between three Great Lakes. There are stories from across the Peninsula from first hand accounts to revelations from the news of the time. As always there are heroes and villains. There are feats of great good and dirty deeds of the worst kind. There are adventures of the most extraordinary men as they struggle for the riches of the U.P. well before gold was discovered in California. There are accomplishments of those that braved the wrath of the Great Lakes in leaking ships and frozen waters. The intensity of storms killed thousands on land and lakes. Over 200 died in one season just between Marquette and Whitefish Point. Often the Edmund Fitzgerald is memorialized, but few remember the hundreds of wrecks before it. You will find some here.

These pages are populated by Native Americans, miners, loggers and mariners that consisted of Germans, Italians, Finns, Swedes, French and English. People came from everywhere looking for their personal promised land. Some to raise families, some to avoid the law or to start a new life. Some to get rich no matter what it took. The Upper Peninsula frontier called to all.

This book is the first installment in what will be a larger work that chronicles the rare and forgotten stories that make the history of the U.P. what it is. Through research and investigation I hope to bring back many of the tales that time and historians forgot.

The U.P. of today was created by individuals that rose up to meet challenges that broke lesser folks. Their mental and physical stamina was that of finely honed athletes accomplishing feats unheard of in the modern world. They hacked homes out of a dense wilderness and raised families with danger at every turn. Many of these feats have gone unsung throughout history and through this book many come to light.

It is my hope that the stories contained within this book not only celebrates the struggles of the individuals that first braved this formidable and raw land , but honestly portrays their efforts to overcome the incredible obstacles that stood in the way of the beloved peninsula we now know. It was once a very different place.

 

Lake Superior Tales – 2020 Upper Peninsula Notable Book – Now on audiobook!

Lake Superior Tales Audiobook

At last it’s here, the audiobook version of Lake Superior Tales. Read brilliantly by Rory Young, he captures the essence of these adventure stories. Hearing these tales adds another dimension to the short stories I created surrounding the unique history of Upper Michigan and the Great Lakes.

Here there are stories of pirates and lost treasure, humor and satire, and a look into the life that once was a part of the Lake Superior frontier. As a Michigan historian I’ve researched most aspects of Michigan History and that research has led me into many directions. I’m mostly known for my non-fiction. Sometimes that research inspires something fictional and a story is born. That is what makes up the pages of Lake Superior Tales, stories inspired by my wanderings and research.

For instance, “Cave of Gold,” the last story in the book, was written in a cabin in the Porcupine Mountains. It was raining and I was surrounded by a lot of mud. Hiking was out. So, I started thinking about hiking, the story starts out with a guy hiking in the woods in the 1800s. Then I thought, what if there was a dead man leaning against a tree? After that it wrote itself. Eventually the rain stopped and I went about hiking but the story was written.

My favorite story of the collection is called the “Wreck of the Marie Jenny.” ( an excert can be heard below). I had written a story called “Bullets Shine Silver in the Moonlight,” (Also in Lake Superior Tales) which focuses around a story about a pile of hidden gold  bars from an old shipwreck called the Marie Jenny. I began wondering, how did the shipwreck get there in the first place? I was in the Keweenaw Peninsula in Calumet having a beer at Shutey’s Bar. There were two old guys talking and one was a ship’s captain. He kept saying over and over, “I gotta confess to ya,” and that was how the story was born.

 

Lake Superior Tales is very close to my heart and to hear it this way as an audiobook is a real treat for me. I hope everyone will enjoy it. Take a trip with me through my collection of short stories, Lake Superior Tales.

To get the audiobook go here: Lake Superior Tales

 

Reviews of Lake Superior Tales:

“It’s clear that Mikel B. Classen knows and loves the Lake Superior area of Michigan and brings it to life in a delightful way. If you want frequent laughs, unusual characters who jump off the page, and the fruit of a highly creative mind, you’ve got to read this little book.” (Bob Rich, author, Looking Through Water)

“Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a unique place in this world, and Mikel’s lovely little book, “Tales,” makes that clear. Mikel has long been recognized as a leading proponent of all the wonderful attributes of the Upper Peninsula, and currently he serves as the Managing Editor of the UP Reader. So, seeing him tackle this project does not surprise me. But what I did find exciting is the electricity he captures on every page, and the energy he uses to express it. My father was a lumberjack, moonshiner and “gunslinger” in the UP a century ago,” (Michael Carrier from Modern History Press)

How Christmas, Michigan Got Its Name

It’s always Christmas in Christmas. A true tale of the U.P.

The old Christmas sign. It was removed a couple of years ago.

            Christmas belongs to the Upper Peninsula. It’s all ours. Not the holiday.. the town… Christmas, Michigan. It’s been ours for eighty years and it always will be. Christmas (the town) is where Christmas (the holiday) is on display  all year ’round and all the trappings of the season are never all taken down, because, in Christmas (the town), Christmas (the holiday), brings visitors there all year to investigate the place that is named for the most celebrated holiday in the world.

            If one were setting out to name a town after this particular holiday, there is no better location for it. Christmas looks the part… not only from a man-made aspect, but from a geographical standpoint as well.

            Upon entering Christmas, especially during the winter, it looks like a vision of the North Pole. Christmas is three miles west of Munising in the middle of a snow belt. Since it is also on the Lake Superior shoreline, winter weather conditions can get very severe. Although it isn’t really the North Pole, it certainly could be an outpost.

            In the center of town there are reproductions of Santa and Mrs. Claus with a large north pole post beside them. Businesses reflect the spirit of the communities name and follow along with the theme- such as Mrs.. Klaus’ cabins and Foggy’s Bar that features the “Reindeer Room”.

            Christmas is a quiet place but there is still plenty to do. There is a Cross-country ski trail and snowmobile trail for winter activities as well as two nightspots and a casino. There are several motels and resorts that offer cabins for visitors. In the warmer seasons, there is everything to do that can be found in a lakeshore town including a nice park and Bay Furnace campgrounds. A newer business is the Paddler’s Village, a camping/ yurt experience on Lake Superior for paddler’s. Tourism is a staple income for the area and Christmas is no exception. It is an excellent destination point with a novel theme.

            Before Christmas was Christmas, it was known as the Bay Furnace and designated the town of Onota. Beginning in 1869, there were immense furnace structures along the shore of Lake Superior where they would smelt iron from the Ishpeming iron range. There was a1400 foot dock for the ships to moor to as the came and went with the smelted iron. Over 50 kilns would be in operation at Bay Furnace’s peak. Thousands of tons of Pig iron were smelted in these furnaces.

Bay Furnace today restored in the Bay Furnace campground

            In 1870 the town received a post office, designated “Onota.” The town would see a population of 500 by the time it peaked in 1877. It was during that summer, when a dry spell made the surrounding woods volatile. A fire began that burned for several days and at one point it swept down on Onota destroying it and all of the kilns. It was the end of Onota, or so it seemed, the name was moved 15 miles to the west to Onota township. Bay Furnace remained all but forgotten. The Bay Furnace company had been going bankrupt before the fire and the demise of the Bay Furnace operations seems to be a blessing in disquise.

               Christmas (the town) came into being a little over eighty years ago in 1939 when a local individual decided to start a Christmas product oriented factory and call it “Christmas Industries.” Julius Thorson, a retired state conservation officer, bought the land and had the property registered under his business name of Christmas at the Alger County Records Office. The section always appeared in the plat books under the name of “Christmas” so the area simply retained the name.

            The industry was short lived and burned down the next year and was never rebuilt, but the name stayed on the plat maps. From there the name stuck with the small community. Thorson had originally planned to establish an elaborate tourist complex on the land he had purchased, but the factory was the only part of the plan that materialized.

            At the same time, a beaver farmer named Walter Giedrojc had a profitable farming venture going on. During prohibition, he augmented his furry occupation by bootlegging bathtub booze on the side, selling it out of the back door of his home. When prohibition ended, he went legitimate and converted his home into a tavern and named it “Beaver Park.” the building still functions as a tavern (and restaurant) now known as Foggy’s.

            Development of Christmas (the town) as a resort area was brought about by a John Borbot and his sister Evelyn when they dismantled a nightclub in Dollarville in 1939 and reconstructed it at Christmas (the town). and called it the Knotty Klub. It was officially the first business in town and was followed by motels, gift shops, two grocery stores, restaurant, and another bar.

            For tourists, the town of Christmas became another destination point just down the road from Pictured Rocks. The Christmas (the holiday) name and theme has drawn people to it time and time again, to enjoy the ambiance the little town offered that reminded visitors that every day could be Christmas (the holiday). The idea has worked well throughout the past 80 years, although it had its ups and downs.                                      

In July of 1966, Christmas (the town) received a postal substation which officially designated it as a town. When the substation opened on July 8, there was a rush from stamp collectors from all over the world to get first-day cancellations on stamps from Christmas. That November, when the postal service issued its five-cent Christmas (the holiday) stamp, there was a big ceremony with local politicians attending and an official dedication of the post office was held. The Christmas (the holiday) stamp with the Christmas (the town) cancellation was quite a collectors item.

            When it was determined that Christmas would actually become a town, a controversy arose over who had actually named the area. Was it actually Julius Thorson, or was it George Mitchell, the man who was also behind Christmas Industries? George Mitchell was involved with Thorson in the ill-fated project. His actual role in the business has been obscured by time, but it has been determined that he was either the money behind the project or the man Thorson hired to run it. Different accounts state different opinions.

            When the Christmas stamp was issued with the first Christmas cancellation, Mitchell, who was a stamp collector and dealer in Homestead, Florida, perpetuated the rumor by claiming, in Florida, that he had named the town “Christmas.” He told his story to one of the Florida newspapers and word filtered north of his claims. It started a debate between local Alger county individuals and historians over who actually registered the name to the Christmas plat.

            Finally, in a letter sent by Mitchell, he conceded that the name had been registered by Thorson and the controversy died down. To this day, though, the first stamp issued in Christmas is quite a collectors item and the publicity that Mitchell received and his dealership surely didn’t hurt his sales in Florida.

            Getting a letter or card cancelled in the town of Christmas at this time of year has become a big tradition and every year, thousands of people receive mail containing one of these stamps. Even local businesses offer personalized letters from Santa with, of course, the now famous Christmas seal of authenticity

            The people who live in Christmas (the town) celebrate the holiday Christmas, just like anyone else-with their family and friends, but the holiday is never far from their thoughts. It is a tradition that is capitalized on all year, and that isn’t at all bad. Many people try to keep the spirit of Christmas alive all year long and the people of Christmas certainly have a head start.

            With their statues, businesses, street names (like Santa Claus Lane etc.), and their sense of fun, it’s always Christmas in Christmas and it’s right here in the U.P. It is a small charismatic little place that, even if you don’t stop, leaves you with a smile and some thoughts about this special holiday, no matter what time of year you visit or pass through there. In Christmas the town, it’s Christmas the holiday, all year long.

Christmas, Michigan Lighthouse.