What and Where is Ontonagon? (Part One)
A personal and historical tale from one of our writers
Written by Bruce Johanson
I first heard of a place named Ontonagon in a classroom at the University of Minnesota, Duluth in 1963. Professor Maude Lindquist was lecturing us on Minnesota history and particularly about the Duluth area. In passing, she mentioned the “Ontonagon gang” that had swept into what was to become the City of Duluth and bought up a good deal of the land that was available. These Ontonagon land speculators made out like bandits.
Of course, the question arose… what and where is Ontonagon? Professor Lindquist mentioned that this was a village located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and was the first non-Native American settlement on the south shore of Lake Superior. Ontonagon was well established before there was a Duluth, or Ashland, or Marquette. She told us about an enormous copper nugget that started a mineral rush in the Ontonagon area; then went on to talk about Henry Schoolcraft. The Indian agent from Sault Ste. Marie was the one to finally discover the source of the Mississippi River.
I heard nothing more about this place until I approached graduation from the university and started to look for a teaching job.
Lo and behold, one of the many school recruiters was the superintendent of schools from, of all places, the mysterious Ontonagon. I was told that the school district was in the process of annexing two smaller districts and that a new school would soon be built. It sounded like a nice smaller town, a lot like the village in Minnesota overlooking Lake Superior where I grew up.
However, I looked elsewhere, and eventually, I accepted a position teaching instrumental and choral music in Medicine Lake, Montana. It was a small school in a rural setting but geographically nothing like being near Lake Superior. The teaching schedule included up to 2 study halls per day, plus, I had to stoke the coal-fired boiler in the music building if I wanted to keep the instruments from freezing. I began to think twice about the position with the Ontonagon Schools and wrote to Superintendent Victor Keefer, to inquire if there was still a vacancy. Surprisingly there was and I was asked to forward my credentials if I wished to apply.
Roberta, my life partner, and I really wanted to see the place called Ontonagon, so we left Montana on a Friday evening in March to drive the 800 miles to Duluth. We hit one of the worst blizzards I have ever experienced, and we also had our infant daughter with us. Ah, when one is young and foolish, there is no fear of the elements, but somehow we managed to drive out of the storm area. How we got to the Duluth area, I’ll never know and I was exhausted after 27 hours at the wheel. My father offered to drive with me to Ontonagon and Roberta and the baby remained in Duluth with relatives. Getting to Ironwood from the Duluth area was easy, and then we followed the road map to Ontonagon. Back in 1966, M-64 was not the relatively straight band of asphalt it is today. Once we got to the lakeshore at Silver City, it was a winding narrow road east until we arrived at a narrow swing bridge over a frozen river….my first glimpse of the mighty Ontonagon River.