(Originally published on MOLI 8/14/8)
We (the media elite) generally think of culture with a big C: the high arts, or else, the mass arts. Ballet or Britney. The folk arts seem quaint, antiquated, parochial. Yet in fact, the artistic drive thrives in small, local institutions, where the heavy lifting of cultural creation and curation is part of the fabric of daily life — far from spotlights and flashbulbs.
I’m talking about places like the Ontonagon County Historical Society and the Ontonagon Theater of Performing Arts, that build the cultural fabric from the bottom up. These two institutions, one decades old, one founded a few years ago, promulgate and preserve the intellectual, imaginative life in a part of the world generally defined by physical culture: hunting, fishing, skiing, boating, snowmobiling, ATVing — or working in the mill, the shipyard, the forests. In the past month I’ve been in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I’ve written about Calumet and the Porkies, but I’ve tended to neglect the town that has always been the center of my summer sojourns, Ontonagon.
Ontonagon, aka Harbor Town, is a boom and bust town if there ever was one. Located at the egress of the Ontonagon River, it has been a portal between the county’s interior and Lake Superior — and, thereby, the world — since the 1800s. Vast swathes of timber used to float here; at the end of the 19th century, they caught on fire and the entire town burned down, except for the brick lighthouse on the river’s west side. That lighthouse is still there today; the historical society offers daily tours. Progress has been so halting in this part of the world that the past is palpably present, not just in the form of relics (a century-old windup foghorn), but in the family names: Many of the old lighthouse keepers’ descendants are still Ontonagon citizens.
The historical society also runs a museum in downtown Ontonagon that is chock a block with artifacts of a frontier life that’s still very much in sway. Needless to say, mostly retirees and teenagers volunteer their time to keep this effort afloat. Bruce Johanson, my husband’s old music teacher, was our avuncular tour guide for the lighthouse. (Two weeks before, his daughter Linda, also a school teacher, took us horseback riding). These are the unheralded stars of small-town cultural institutions, as important in their own right as Brad and Angelina.
Yet another teacher — god bless the educators! — spearheaded the effort to put a theater in the town’s old brick library building a decade ago. Dana Brookins and her Harbortown Players put on several plays a year; tonight, their version of Gypsy opens. I admit full nepotism here: my dog Otis’s father is one of the cast members, and Dana is one of my husband’s oldest friends. The Ontonagon Theater of Performing Arts also hosts visiting artists — shining a beacon of its own.
No discussion of Ontonagon cultural institutions would be complete without a mention of Stubb’s, the bar/museum that has been a repository for yellowing mining photos, taxidermied animals, beer cans, traps, liquor-advertising paraphenalia, and Packers memorabilia since the ’30s. It’s like a Hard Rock Cafe, with guns and bears instead of guitars and costumes. My parents took me here for afternoon Cokes when I was a wee lass. Now, every summer, we hold our annual Canada vs. U.S. foosball tournament here. Since America won again this year, the trophy now stands amid the overflow of bric-a-brac behind the bar, making my life almost complete.