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Michigan's furthest shore

Jun 29, 2015

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal everywhere in the nation, I was in the town of Ironwood, which is both in Michigan and in another world.

Ironwood is more than six hundred miles from Detroit. It is so far west that it is one of a handful of Michigan communities on Central, not Eastern Time.

If you walk half a mile down the main street, you find yourself in Wisconsin.

“We’ve got a lot of (Green Bay) Packers fans here,” Mayor Kim Corcoran laughed, when I asked if the state identified more closely with Wisconsin or Michigan.

In fact, not only is Milwaukee much closer to Ironwood, so is Minneapolis.

Lansing may make laws that affect the Upper Peninsula, but it seems more remote than relevant to most of the folks I talked to. Granted, many Michiganders don’t feel close to state government. But this is far truer for places like Ironwood.

Legislators in much of the state come home for long weekends. Some even commute daily. That’s not realistic for Scott Dianda of Calumet, who represents Ironwood and a big chunk of the western UP. For him, Lansing is more than 500 miles from home. Nor does the UP have much clout in the capitol.

Ninety years ago, it had thirteen percent of the state’s population. Today while the Upper Peninsula has nearly thirty percent of Michigan’s land area, it has only three percent of the population, a mere three hundred thousand people.

The decline of the logging and mining industries meant declining population. Still, for a long time, the UP had more political power than its numbers deserved. Until the 1960s, legislative districts didn’t have to be based on population.

One state senator in the UP represented a mere 60,000 people, while a counterpart in Detroit represented more than half a million. But then the U.S. Supreme Court said legislative districts had to be nearly equal. Even after that, the UP retained clout thanks to men like Joe Mack and Dominic Jacobetti, who stayed in Lansing for decades.

Then they left or died, and term limits kicked in, and the Upper Peninsula has dwindled since. That may be especially true in Ironwood, which back in the 1940s was a thriving metropolis with its own fleet of taxicabs. But the mines played out and the money left.

Today, those in Ironwood think mainly about the economy. The Upper Peninsula is supposed to be socially conservative, but the same-sex marriage decision got no more than a small story at the bottom of the Daily Globe, Ironton’s newspaper. The editors thought a local American Idol contest more important.

Nobody I talked with mentioned gay marriage. But they were wistful about their town’s past and future. Gary Harrington, head of the Ironwood Area Historical Society, grew up in Ironwood, then left for a career in the U.S. Air Force.

He retired and came home a few years ago.

“We’ve got a lot of kids who leave and wish they could come home,” he told me. But there are no jobs.

Suddenly, I remembered all the Detroit-area parents who have been saying the same thing. Sadly, Motown and Ironwood may finally have more in common than they ever knew.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.