Of Monks and Miners

(Originally published on MOLI 8/5/8)

In 1900 Calumet, Michigan, was a thriving copper township of more than 25,000 with money to burn. An opera house was erected downtown; lit by a mammoth copper chandelier, the Calumet Theatre drew such talent as Sarah Bernhardt to this nether region of the U.S.: the Keweenaw, the upmost peninsula of the Upper Peninsula.

Tragically, the bourgeoisie didn’t treat its proletarian so well. In one incident during the resultant labor unrest, 74 people — including 59 kids — were trampled to death at a Christmas party in the Italian Hall, a tragedy immortalized in a Woody Guthrie song. The copper boom went bust. Nowadays, Calumet has a population of about 900.

But what a population it is. I admit I’m a sucker for little towns with historic industries, antique shops, confectioneries, and funky restaurants. A couple months ago, I wrote about that pearl of a Florida oyster town called Apalachicola. I hit the motherlode of mining towns in Calumet (sorry for my bad puns).

The past is ever-present in the settlement that was originally known as Red Jacket. The imposing red stone buildings of a century ago still line the main streets. The town has a smart preservationist streak. The theater has been maintained and renovated, and today still hosts plays, concerts, movies, etc. The Vertin department store is now the Vertin Gallery, a haven for the area’s many artists. The Michigan House is a great pub/restaurant, with its old northwoods mural and its Red Jacket microbrewery (I like the Pick Axe Blonde just for the name and label). Calumet is chockablock with antique stores and a to-die-for used bookstore (where you can also buy antiques).

Perhaps best of all are the lodging opportunities. The Laurium Manor was built 100 years ago by a mining magnate. Now its 45 rooms house both a museum and a B&B. We stayed here several years ago, enjoying breakfast on the big porch on the second floor.

One of the craziest, coolest places I’ve ever stayed in my life is several miles from Calumet. Follow the Eight Mile Road from Ahmeek and you wind up at the Sand Hills Lighthouse. Lighthouses are cultish magnets of romance and desolation, and Sand Hills is the perfect site of a gothic novel. The innkeepers, Bill Frabotta and Merry Mary, are an odd couple who have decked the rooms out like Hollywood movie sets, in lush velvets and antiques. Sand Hills alone is reason enough to come to the Keweenaw, even if the peninsula weren’t a quiet, unique wilderness oasis — and a registered national historic region.

My husband and I always finish our Keweenaw tours at Copper Harbor, the little town at the top of the world that is almost as perfect as Calumet (there’s just one too many tacky tourist shops). There we dine finely at the Harbor Haus, watching for the ferry to return from Isle Royale — only to be greeted by the dancing waitresses of this Germanic eatery.

The drive from Calumet to Copper Harbor is beyond scenic, whether you take the western road that winds along Lake Superior or Brockway Mountain Drive. Make sure to stop at the Jampot, perhaps the most unilkely spot of all in the Keweenaw. A group of monks make the preserves here, along with sinful truffles, in a divine spot between a waterfall and Gitche Gumee. My gay brothers insist their gaydar goes off whenever they’re here, which is why they go each year; a local friend also tells tales of the friars’ wild orgies. Isn’t that just what you expect from monks? Eyeing the opulent gold minaret of their lakeside Holy Transfiguration Skete — will someday this be a B&B too? — I can only applaud the brothers for knowing how to live.

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