My Experiences Growing Up as a Copper Country Boy
“Rural Voices” shares cultural, educational, economic and artistic views of people who have lived and thrived in the Upper Peninsula. Each of our authors in Rural Voices may be living here in the U.P. or living someplace around the globe, but the U.P. is an important part of who they are and what their beliefs and values are today. Rural Voices wants to share the voices of our neighbors and friends about life and experiences in the UP.
I was born in the Keweenaw Peninsula. I am, loosely, a Copper Country boy.
I was raised in Chassell, which by some measures is right on the edge of the region considered to be the “Copper Country,” usually defined as the area from Houghton up to Copper Harbor. Its history is rich in copper mining with immigrants who came to the area through the 1800’s and 1900’s to work in the mines.
I was born in 1967. That’s right around the time that mining–the industry that sustained the Copper Country for well over 100 years–stopped. I’ll explain what that taught me later.
The Upper Peninsula, and in particular, the Keweenaw Peninsula, is filled with generations that embrace a rugged sense of individualism and self-reliance. For those of Finnish descent, such as myself, it’s called “SISU.”
SISU embodies an inherent sense of intestinal fortitude, or “guts,” to get through any situation or work through any task with no complaints and no need for handouts or assistance. The prevailing mindset is to get the job done and move on to the next.
I was an only child, raised by Finnish parents. My father was a first-generation Finnish American, and my mother was an immigrant from Finland. Our home was small and understated.
We were not affluent by any stretch of the word, but I was never really left wanting as a child. Growing up in a small home in a modest Finnish lifestyle showed me that happiness does not come from opulent and shiny things, but rather a close-knit and loving environment with those near to you.
One of the biggest blessings for me was that my parents spoke fluent Finnish, and I grew up learning to read, write and speak it at an early age. This gave me a deep sense of reverence for my family’s culture and heritage. I learned early on that it’s important to know where you come from.
My parents were also older than those of my friends. My father was 59 when I was born. I didn’t know it during my youth, but having older parents created a respect for our elders in me that I don’t believe many of my friends and classmates had.
As I watched my father slowly succumb to the natural deterioration of old age, it made me understand the challenges faced by our elderly population in today’s world. He passed away of natural causes at the age of 83. I was 24.
Losing an octogenarian parent is not something many experience in their early 20’s. It gave me perspective into mortality at a time when we are usually just starting our lives and feel invincible.
It also taught me that our elders are to be respected, valued and learned from.
My family did not come from a mining background. My father was a sign painter, artist, musician, a puppeteer and entertainer. My mother, prior to her coming to America, had worked for years as a bank teller.
They both appreciated music and fostered in me a strong sense of creativity. They encouraged my creative side. They purchased art supplies for me to draw and paint with. They supported my musical interests by getting me lessons and buying a piano and my first guitar. They made me see that success can come from “coloring outside of the lines.”
You didn’t always have to punch a clock and follow the status quo.
Growing up in the Keweenaw in the post-mining boom, I saw firsthand what happens to communities that did not evolve their thinking about what they were going to do to live on into the future.
Former mining boom towns were now derelict with several uninhabited buildings and people who were out of work. The mining companies got their loot and left. The people were stuck holding the bag, and it was empty.
The mines were gone, and with no new industry or career paths, there was nothing. I learned that to survive you need to adapt and change.
One thing that kept the region alive, and still does to this day, was Michigan Technological University in Houghton. It started as a college of mining technology, designed to increase the efficiency of the mines in the Copper Country, but it evolved into an internationally sought-out source of knowledge and learning about engineering, technology and the sciences.
Realizing MTU was the lifeblood of the Houghton and Hancock area at an early age gave me a deep sense of the importance of learning and education in not only sustaining oneself, but making you a better person. It showed me that lifelong learning is essential.
I graduated from Chassell High School in 1986 and enrolled at Northern Michigan University in Marquette that fall. I permanently moved to Marquette within the following year, and have made it my home ever since. Over the years, I have come to realize the impact that growing up in the Keweenaw had on me.
Those early experiences molded me into someone who values the arts and culture, revels in the love of family and good friends, focuses on getting the job done, and respects and learns from the generations who have gone before us.
I am also someone who knows that we cannot hold onto the past to get to the future. We need to be aware of the challenges that face us every day as we move through life and address them in new and creative ways.
We must never stop learning. We must never do something simply for the sake of “that’s the way it’s always been done.” We must never stop evolving and adapting.
That is how we will thrive.
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