By Joann M. Ringelstetter
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Last fall, at the end of September, Ruth and I took a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with a focus on photographing the remains of the copper mining architecture and equipment from the 1800s and early 1900s. The first day, we photographed our way north, taking our last photographs near Hurley, Wisconsin and then we crossed into Michigan, staying the night in Ironwood. The next morning, at first light, we were in downtown Ironwood to capture a few scenes before heading north. One of the first shots I took was of this old-fashioned bakery.
The best part about this bakery was…..no, not the pastries, which we didn’t sample, but the cat in the window to the right of the door. He was watching every person who walked past or went in or out of the bakery.
After photographing for two or three hours, I said, “Is that it? I hope so because I’m starving.” Ruth then informed me that we still needed to capture a few pictures of the Memorial Building, a Neoclassical building completed in 1923. It houses municipal offices, community facilities, and several veteran memorials. So we drove by the building and pulled onto a quiet side street. Then Ruth said, “Why don’t you get some boiled eggs out of the cooler and I’ll peel them while you photograph the building.”
So I opened the lift gate and started digging around in the cooler for the carton of boiled eggs. When I found it, I took out four eggs and laid them beside the cooler. As I did this, an elderly gentleman strolled past on his morning walk. I nodded Hello and went back to getting breakfast. Suddenly, the man stopped and turned around, asking with a grin, “Do you have a chicken in there?”
I started laughing and then walked toward him, telling him that Ruth and I go on trips to photograph old historical structures. I also told him that we eat all of our meals out of the cooler and that we eat really well – organic fruits and vegetables, and other food that is good for us, and that we never eat in restaurants.
He said, “Good for you. That’s the way to do it!” Then he told me that his parents had driven a Model T Ford from Iron Mountain, Michigan to Seattle, Washington and they didn’t stay in motels or eat in restaurants. Instead, they camped along the way and hunted or fished for their meals. This would have been a trip of over 2,000 miles in the early 1900s, long before there were interstate highways and probably when there were still many dirt roads.
I told him my name and he said his name was John, that he was Swedish, and that he had lived in Ironwood nearly his entire life. Then a nostalgic look of sadness appeared on his face and he said, “Things are just not like they used to be. It’s sad to see the world the way it is now. Ironwood was a nice place to live, and it’s still better than most places, but it’s not as nice as it used to be.”
I asked John about a historical photograph that we had seen in a window in downtown Ironwood earlier that morning. It was a black and white photo of a huge crowd of people in front of the Ironwood Depot, with the US Flag waving above them. He said that Ironwood was such a nice place in those days with community events and picnics held often. He thought that the photo may have been taken at one of those events. According to John, “It was an awesome time and an awesome place to live.” Then he repeated that it made him sad to think about how the world has changed. And then he said, “It’s especially sad for me because I’ve lived through all the changes and I know what it was like in the old days.”
John continued on, saying that he had several children who are now in their 50s and 60s. At one point, they had all moved away, but now he was happy that all of them had returned because of how nice living in Ironwood is compared to other places. Then he told me that he was 91 years old and that he was a World War II veteran. I extended my hand and shook his, saying, “Thank you for serving.” He smiled proudly, and gave me the impression that it was unusual to receive such thanks.
When John returned from the service, he went to Alaska to work in the mining industry there. He stayed for three years and even built his own home there. But Ironwood was calling him back. So he returned and began working in the iron ore mine in Montreal, Wisconsin.
John explained that the Montreal Mine was the deepest iron mine in the world. Every day, he and his fellow miners would pile into a cage and descend over 4,000 feet to mine the iron ore. He worked there for 16 years before the mine closed in 1962. And then he told me that I wouldn’t believe what it was like down there in the depths of the mine.
Knowing what I know about mining and thinking about what I’d seen in the movies, I knew that miners worked in dirty, dangerous jobs. Therefore, what John said next took me totally by surprise. Instead of telling me about the poor working conditions, he said that, every day, he would find crystals among the iron ore. He would stuff them into his pockets and then transfer them to his empty lunch bucket after lunch.
Every day, John went home with his lunch bucket full of crystals. I asked him what kind of crystals they were and he said that there was every kind of mineral down in the mine. Then I asked if all the men were taking crystals home. He said that most of them didn’t because they were more interested in producing as much iron ore as possible. The whole team was paid by how much iron ore they could collectively bring out of the mine. So John had to make sure he was pulling his weight and mining as much iron as the other men on the team. And because he did do his share, the other men would often give him the crystals they found.
I then said to John, “So, I’m assuming that your boss didn’t know that you were taking these crystals home every day. He said that the “big bosses” didn’t know he was finding and taking crystals. If they had known, they might have stopped him. Then John told me that, one day, he discovered a huge bunch of crystals. And with a look of wonder on his face, he said, “It was like looking at a palace.”
John’s immediate boss was with him when he made the discovery, so he asked his boss, “What should we do?” His boss said that they should get some boxes and haul the crystals up in the cage. So they worked together to do that and when they got the boxes of crystals up to the surface, they hid them. Then they returned to the mine and worked extra hard to make sure they were producing enough iron ore for the day.
John continued to collect crystals during the 16 years he worked in the Montreal Mine. And after the mine closed, he continued to look for crystals in the piles of “junk” iron ore that the company had discarded. Some years later, he opened a rock shop to sell all the crystals that he had collected, which he ran for 10 years. He said that he made his living and supported his family with the crystals that he sold in the rock shop.
One day, a very rich man contacted John and bought some of his best crystals that he then took to the annual rock and crystal show in Texas, where they won “best of show.” John said that there is a book about crystals that sells for around $250 and he is mentioned many times in this book for the crystals that he collected from the mine. In researching for this story, I tried to find information about this book, but came up empty-handed. However, I did find on a website by the Hudson Institute of Mineralogy several beautiful crystals in private collections that came from the Montreal Mine in the early 1960s.
I asked John one more time what kind of crystals he sold in the rock shop. He replied, “I never learned all the names of the crystals….I was just selling beauty!” And with that, I could see he was eager to finish his walk, so I thanked him for the delightful conversation and we both went on our way. That wonderful conversation made the whole trip worthwhile and as I walked back to the car, I was so hungry, I could have eaten a horse. But before I could enjoy the boiled eggs “from the chicken we had in the back of the car,” I knew I had to dictate notes about everything John had told me to prevent the details from slipping away before I would get around to writing this story.
Note: Most of the photos of crystals in this blog post are probably not the kind that John would have collected from the Montreal Mine, but were used just to portray the feelings John shared about the beauty of all the different crystals he discovered, collected, and later sold in his rock shop. And my thanks go out to Burnie’s Rock Shop in Madison, Wisconsin for allowing me to photograph a few of the rough crystals they have for sale.
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