Thursday, Aug. 22, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Five miles north of the hamlet of White Pine, we’re parked on the shoulder of Michigan 64 with the Porcupine Mountains at our rear.
The whitecaps roll in off magnificent Lake Superior. The water assumes an amber tint at the surf. Beyond that it’s a deep, brooding blue all the way to the horizon, beyond which lies Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Having a kid, particularly at the advanced age of 44, has left me fixated on time. I know Max won’t be digging in the sand forever. Too soon he’ll be too cool for such frivolity. So after watching him play for a few minutes, I climbed down the rocky slope to the beach and enlist in the castle-building brigade.
Because time, she’s a heartless crone.
Last night we slept at a rest area in Ironwood, Mich., just over the state line from Wisconsin. Ironwood, if it does say so itself, is home to Hiawatha, the “World’s Tallest Indian,” a 52-foot-tall tribute to tourist kitsch. Unfortunately, I only just found out about the Ironwood colossus.
With the moon hanging fat in the northern sky last night, Becky drove from International Falls, through Duluth and Superior, Wis., and on into the western outreaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The geography up here is a confusing tangle.
We went from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Michigan in two hours.
If Becky had her way, we’d already be back in Wisconsin, which lies across the Montreal River from Ironwood.
She’s doing her best to thwart my wandering tendencies and herd us in the direction of Pennsylvania.
The day arrived with a refreshing coolness. The light of day did nothing to shake my desire to make a whimsical dash to Lake Superior. Heading north at this point made no sense, except in the sense that it will be a long time before we’ll be near the big lake again.
The Superior detour carried us a good 80 miles off course, but it turned out to be a good diversion indeed.
While Becky and Max slept, I followed U.S. 2 to Michigan 28 and then up 64. As I drove, I wondered how much this northbound detour would add to our already swollen, broken budget.
Inside an hour, I turned off Michigan 64 at White Pine, a curvilinear jumble of ranch houses and ramblers. If it looks nothing like a dead mining town, it certainly looks dead enough.
I saw nothing but homes and a couple pedestrians. I did see a car parked outside Nonesuch Post 462 of the American Legion. I drove past once, took a minute to gather some courage and drove back.
I’m not much for religion or metaphysics, but I admit to feeling at times as if I am guided by unseen forces.
This was one of those times. With the call of home beginning to sound like a shriek, I knew there was no time to linger in towns and wait for stories to reveal themselves.
I knew I must act.
I parked the Behemoth in the post’s gravel lot opposite the tank in the front yard. After a short walk I knocked on a screen door that opened to a small vestibule. I knocked again.
No answer. I hemmed. I hawed.
After a few uncomfortable moments, I opened the screen door with customary reticence. I nearly bumped into Marty Pintar, who just then emerged from the bar door on his way out for a smoke. He’s the finance officer of the Nonesuch Post, a Vietnam vet and a retired copper miner.
I said hi and said I was looking for someone to tell me something about White Pine. Without skipping a beat or stopping to ask who the hell I was, Marty Pintar began to tell me about White Pine.
He came here in 1971, soon after his return from Southeast Asia.
He hired on at the mine and worked his way up to electrician. He stayed until 1995, when the employee owners voted to sell out to Mattel Gesellschaft, a German firm which turned around and shut down mining operations.
Then he drove 20 miles up the road to Octonagon and worked for 12 years at the Smurfit-Stone paper mill until it closed its shop in 2010.
Up here on the UP, where copper once reigned and jobs were easy to come by, the economy has ground to a disturbing halt.
Marty Pintar grew up about 60 miles northeast of White Pine in Painesdale on the Keenaw Peninsula. Painesdale is an old company town named for Boston money mogul William Paine.
His grandfather, Antone Pintar, worked underground in the bowels of Painesdale’s copper mines. He worked himself into an early grave.
“My grandfather, who I never know, he died years before I was born,” Marty said. “He died of silicosis. They never had ventilation years ago in those underground mines.”
His grandfather emigrated from Croatia in the early years of the 20th century. He met and married and worked as a miner for as long as his breath held out.
“My dad was only 16 years old when he died,” Marty said. “My dad he was the oldest in the family. He had one brother and four sisters. He had to quit school and go to work.”
Having seen his own father fall prey to an ugly death, the younger Antone Pintar got the hell out of the mine as fast as he could.
“He started in shaft maintenance, and then he got on the surface with the construction and maintenance crews,” Marty said. “He wanted to get out of the underground part of it. And he never really was what you’d call a miner.”
How did he react to his son going underground?
“He knew things had changed a lot,” Marty said. “Matter of fact, he was big in the union movement in his day. He was big in organizing. By the time I started safety was a major concern. But there was a lot of fatalities over there at this mine. I’d say over the years of its operation, there were more than 30 deaths.”
The heyday of copper in Painesdale was long over by the time Copper Range expanded its operations to White Pine. If mining operations were late to start here, they were quick to end.
“The Nonesuch ore body supposedly runs all around here,” Pintar said. “There were some scattered mines in the area way back into the 1860s. There were some little small pits Native Americans had mined. The main mining at White Pine started in 1952.”
All that’s left now, besides the winding streets and tidy houses and the Nonesuch Post, is a rotting strip mall and an idle smelter stack.
There was a small refining operation here until quite recently.
“They just shut that down a year and a half or two ago,” he said. “They were bringing in copper from Canada and refining it here. That was the last actual copper operation left here. The mine itself shut down at the end of 1995.”
Marty Pintar is a graduate of Michigan State. I asked him how he ended up in the mines. He looked down at his feet, shrugged his shoulders and delivered a simple answer.
“Because they were hiring,” he said. “When I hired in there was 20 of us that hired in the same day. And within about four years there was about two of us left. Real big turnover. A lot of people didn’t like that mine, working underground. It didn’t bother me. Then I took some courses and I became an electrician. So I got a skill out of it anyway. The last 15-17 years I worked as an electrician.”
As for the future of White Pine, Marty Pintar couldn’t see much beyond a gradual, inexorable fade to black.
“It’s really struggling,” he said. “There’s no large employer anymore. The mill was the last one. Probably half this town, I would say, is retired. At least that. Maybe more than that. A lot of them are longtime residents. They just never left. And then there’s people who came here because houses are so cheap. They come in here and bargain houses.
“But it’s become mostly a retirement village more than anything.”
Satisfied I had my story, I thanked Marty and returned to the Behemoth. On the way out of town, seeking to rejoin 64 north to the lake shore, we instead turned into the world’s saddest strip mall. There was a pizza joint and something called the Konteka Black Bear Resort. There was also a shoebox library, operated by White Carp Township. Just our luck, it was open today.
That’s how I met Rocky Windsor.
Rocky graduated from White Pine High School in 1981, which means we are the same vintage. They shut down the school in 2002. There were 47 kids in the Class of ’81, just nine in ’02.
The future written on the shaft timbers, Rocky got out of town and got a sociology degree from Michigan.
He worked in Reno and downstate in Pontiac for a while, but he didn’t like the pace or quality of city life. So he came home to work in the mine.
He smiled wanly.
“They told me I’d have a job for life,” he said. “I got 13 years.”
From 1988-95, he was golden. The employees owned the mine, and he was making $40-45 grand a year. He worked in security, which meant he only had to go underground occasionally to make deliveries or act as a first-responder in case of an injury.
Then the employees got an offer from Mattel Gesellschaft. The vote was a landslide. Rocky voted with the minority, but the mine was sold.
“They wanted the easy-money payoff, that $120,000 in their hands,” he said. “That’s just three years’ salary.”
Mattel turned around and stripped the mines of their machinery and shipped it all off to Africa, China and Brazil.
Rocky hung on for another six years. He was one of the last employees.
As for the old mine, he said there’s some activity going on even now. There’s a Korean chopsticks factory. And the state grows marijuana and mushrooms for medicinal use.
Back here at the Mineral River Plaza, Rocky nobly pushes back against the prevailing tide of decay. The pavement outside is cracking. Business is ebbing. The stores, they’ve mostly closed.
“The hardware store shut down two years ago,” he said. “The library is open for three days a week. We had to fight like hell to keep it here.”
That’s just the story of White Pine.
“If you don’t have your own business, you can’t make it here,” he said. “If you have your own business, you’ll be OK.”
Rocky asks if we’ve seen much wildlife. He suggests we take Max next door to the Konteka. He said we’d be sure to see bears, since they feed them.
I considered the prospect of passing a pleasant afternoon drinking beer and watching black bears and wolves wandering in and out at feeding time. I couldn’t help but think what our friends in the park service would say to that.
That, however, is none of my business.
Knowing I was turned around, I asked Rocky how we might get to Lake Superior. He said it couldn’t be easier.
I said he didn’t know us. Then I shook his hand and thanked him for his time, and we said our goodbyes.