My Experiences Growing Up as a Copper Country Boy

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“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.

bold fix

Walt Lindala

Walt Lindala is Network News Director and Morning Show Co-Host/Producer at mediaBrew Communications in Marquette, MI. Walt is a lifelong Yooper, graduating from Chassell High School in 1986 and Northern Michigan University in 1990. He currently serves on the Board of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Marquette and Alger Counties, and chairs the Arts & Culture Advisory Committee for the City of Marquette. Walt is a founding board member of the Marquette Area Blues Society which produces the annual Marquette Area Blues Fest in Downtown Marquette. Walt and his loving and tolerant wife of over 30 years, April, reside in Marquette.

22 Comments

  1. Avatar Jane Polcyn on March 10, 2021 at 9:38 am

    Thank you my dad Grew up.in Manistee 1 of 9 parents older father worked at Morton Salt Company. Education very important also attending The local Roman Catholic Church. They wete 3 generation Polish. Mymoms side of thre family was Irish, French Canadian, Scots.
    She grew up in Detroit her dad was a GP and mother a nurse. Catholic and Prebyterian. Hard work love of family and liove and care of animals. I am a retired RN/ pastor with the Salvation Army. Community, familiy, and faith are important to me.

  2. Avatar Steven Nelson. on March 11, 2021 at 9:21 am

    Good job Walt. I’d give that essay an A.

  3. Avatar Christina LaVergne on March 11, 2021 at 10:58 am

    Well done, Walt!!!

  4. Avatar Rose on March 11, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    Glad I read that! Thank you!

  5. Avatar I enjoyed reading about your history. It makes me think you should expand on it and tell us more. on March 11, 2021 at 5:42 pm

    I enjoyed reading about your history. It makes me think you should expand on it and tell us more.

  6. Avatar Mike Irish on March 11, 2021 at 9:25 pm

    Great job, Walt! Your love of the area and the values instilled are palpable and inspiring. People should also know that you are a terrific musician!

  7. Avatar Ron Carnell on March 14, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    To know Walt is to know he had a great set of parents. Thanks for this, my brother, it’s a brief lesson to all that there is something for everyone in any place big or small.

  8. Avatar Corinne LaLuzerne on March 16, 2021 at 8:38 am

    Very much enjoyed! I am 1/2 Finnish from 1900 immigrants. They came to the Copper Country; my mother born there in 1914 in Winona. I have enjoyed my “Finnishness” all of my life! Music & Art very much of my childhood. born in 1929 – retired – successful family & business life.

  9. Avatar Diane Koskela on March 17, 2021 at 1:51 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I’m looking forward to reading more Yooper stories.

  10. Avatar Robert Hilton on March 19, 2021 at 9:03 am

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  11. Avatar Lynn M Walden on March 19, 2021 at 1:08 pm

    Great article Walt! Love the Chassel area…for several years my brother lived “behind the sloughs”. I came to the UP from California…talk about culture shock! The first thing that made an impression was the blinking neon light in downtown Marquette that said Pasties…at the time I did NOT know it was something to eat! Fell in love with the Copper Country…even did my student teaching up there…8 weeks at Ryan Elementary and 8 weeks at the special ed classroom housed in the Baraga Armory building (where I got to drive a tank! Gotta love da Yoop!) SISU definitely gives folks a different perspective and prepares them to face the real world…and the Copper Country remains one of the coolest cultural centers in the state…and yes I freely admit my bias!

  12. Avatar George Portice on March 21, 2021 at 3:56 pm

    Being from the UP originally, I can relate to your feelings about being a Yooper. Once a Yooper, always a Yooper! A job well done Walt!

  13. Avatar Mary Brandt on March 28, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    Great read. My father is from Winona and I have many relatives there. Try to visit each summer.

  14. Avatar Lin Bailey on March 28, 2021 at 6:40 pm

    Your life story touches close to mine. My folks were born and raised in the CC and I’m 1/2 Finn. Still have lots of relatives up there! Our son lives in Mqt and we visit the Blues Fest every year! We live downstate now, and draw on sisu when needed. Lol.

  15. Avatar JIm O'Brien on March 28, 2021 at 8:42 pm

    Hey Walt,

    Your Dad painted the sign/logo on the on the side of my Soap Box Derby car in the summer of 1967!

  16. Avatar Christine Widgren on March 29, 2021 at 8:33 am

    Conveyed the warmth and love in your home without being overly sentimental. You had a good start in life and it is evident that you know how to appreciate it.

  17. Avatar Frank Krozel on March 29, 2021 at 8:57 am

    Well done Walt. Starting at Tech when I was 16, I feel like I grew up in the Copper Country and many lessons were learned when I took to the area, lived and worked off campus, then came back for another degree. The UP folks are definitely hard workers, perhaps in the vein of SISU thinking, well stated. Although we moved several times in the past years, now spending time in Indian Shores, Florida due to COVID, I still look at everything happening in the UP (weekly) and both my wife and I have strong feelings for the UP. From Bishop Baraga to Brockway / Copper Harbor, to the Northern Lights (as of late) we have a deep love for the UP. I have driven (and got stuck) on almost every road in the Copper Country and memories that make me smile (and laugh) every week. We will be back soon, save a pasty (OK, a few) for me. (Oh, gravy or ketchup) Thanks for your contribution. (Yes I do feel I am a UPPer) Frank

  18. Avatar Frank Ozanich on March 29, 2021 at 5:11 pm

    Disagree the companies took the loot and left the union greed destroyed C&H look up the final proposal by the company it was pretty good for the times. My Dad worked for C&H at the time told me if they would have had a secret ballot would have never voted strike but folks were afraid to show their cards so to speak. Your right you were born at the beginning of the end for the Keweenaw doubtful you remember when Hancock, Calumet and Laurium every storefront was occupied. Even the little towns like Hubbell, Lake Linden had numerous stores in fact almost every little berg north of the portage had one maybe 2 stores that was because everyone had a job. I live in a old mining town now in fact in a mining captains house and when I walk the streets I imagine the neighborhoods back in the day and to me it’s sad that it’s all gone.

  19. Avatar Howard Ek on March 30, 2021 at 6:50 pm

    I enjoyed your story! MTU 1997 and 1978. Here’s a joke: *Toivo Needed a Loan *

    He was from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan….A YOOPER, EH? So… He
    walked into a bank in New York City and asked for the loan Officer. He told
    the loan officer that he was going to Helsinki for an International Finn
    festival for two weeks and needed to borrow $5,000 and that he was not a
    depositor of the bank. The bank officer told him that the bank would need
    some form of security for the loan, so Toivo handed over the keys to a new
    a brand Ferrari. The car was parked on the street in front of the bank.
    Toivo produced the title and everything checked out. The loan officer
    agreed to hold the car as collateral for the loan and apologized for having
    to charge 12% interest.

    Later, the bank’s president and its officers all enjoyed a good laugh at
    the Finlander from Michigan for using a $250,000 Ferrari as collateral for
    a $5,000 loan. An employee of the bank then drove the Ferrari into the
    bank’s private underground garage and parked it. Two weeks later, Toivo
    returned, repaid the $5,000 and the interest of $23.01.

    The loan officer said, “Sir, we are very happy to have had your business,
    and this transaction has worked out very nicely, but we are a little
    puzzled. While you were away, we checked you out on Dunn & Bradstreet and
    found that you are a Distinguished Alumni from Michigan Tech, a highly
    sophisticated investor and Multi-Millionaire with real estate and financial
    interests all over the world.

    Your investments include a large number of oil wells around Williston, ND.
    What puzzles us is, why would you bother to borrow $5,000?”

    Toivo replied, “Where else in New York City can I park my car for two weeks
    for only $23.01 and expect it to be there when I return?”

    Keep an eye on these YOOPERS, eh! Just because we talk funny does not mean
    we are stupid.

  20. Avatar Ray Muzzin on April 9, 2021 at 3:39 am

    Great story. My Grangparents were the from Dodgeville. That is where my Mom and her 2 Sisters were born 1927. My Grandmother ( b1900) was at the italian Hall disaster, she had left just before someone yelled fire.

  21. Avatar Debbie Griggs on April 10, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    Great article. My Mom grew up in Ahmeek. I have some Finnish blood in me. My hubby and I spent 10 days in 2019 in the UP including seeing Ahmeek. Have fallen in love with the UP and we are going back again this summer.
    Your love and respect for your parents comes shining thru. Thank you.

  22. Avatar Roger Smith on April 11, 2021 at 4:30 pm

    Nice article with ken insights about U.P values. I remember your dad painting lettering on store windows in Houghton. Didn’t he also rent cabins & boats on the lake near Chassell. (I recall he had a trophy fish mounted on his wall with chicken legs on it! Next to it was a yellowed (fake) newspaper article about this very rare species being stuck by a car while crossing US41!
    Good ol’ Yooper humor!

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