North Woods: Calumet, a frontier community

Sep 29, 2011

All this week, we're bringing you stories from the North Woods. Yesterday, we visited the town of Calumet in the western tip of the U.P., where copper was once king.

As we reported, the town is experiencing a kind of resurgence:

Tom Tikkanen runs the Main Street Program, a nonprofit focused on redeveloping Calumet. His group did a study a couple years ago to figure out what’s driving the town’s relatively recent upswing. The answer? Culture economic development.

"It starts with our artists," explains Tikkanen. "It’s a natural development that’s taking place. The more art that’s displayed and that’s created here, the more that attracts other artists."

Tikkanen also described the town as a "frontier community" that's redefining itself. We conclude our stories on Calumet with a look at what happens when new folks move in to an old town.

Meet Calumet's newest residents

Stephanie Swartzendruber is one of the bartenders at Shute's Bar in downtown Calumet. Outside, the bar looks like your typical dive bar. Inside, it's beautiful. Nearly everything is original from the 1890s: the rich, dark wood bar, the 1895 liquor license, the beautiful, Tiffany-like stained glass canopy above the bar.

Swartzendruber moved to Calumet last November, and she’s says the town is on the verge:

"I feel like it’s coming back! We have cute little coffee shops and art galleries and awesome bars like [Shute's] in a place where you can buy a house for under $20,000," says Swartzendruber.

It’d be a stretch to say the town is booming, since the actual village of Calumet has less than 800 residents. But there is a kind of quiet, yet palpable energy bubbling up. When I visited in late August, two new cafes had just opened up.

Carly Williams and her partner, Patrick, opened Café Rosetta on August 19th in downtown Calumet. Carly is from Seattle, Patrick is from Wisconsin. They lived in Minneapolis for a while, which they liked enough, but eventually they wanted something different.

"We wanted to live in a smaller place where people know each other by name, know what they do, and who they are," explains Williams. They had never been to Calumet before, but Patrick had heard about the town from Woody Guthrie's "1913 Massacre" about the Italian Hall Disaster.

Williams says they had always been interested in living in the North Woods, and "we thought that Calumet had such a rich history, that it would be nice to live in a place where the history is really apparent."

Calumet: "It's almost so far out that it's in!"

Julie dePaul Johnson grew up in the neighboring town of Laurium. She and Katie Jo Wright opened the new Omphale Gallery & Café in downtown Calumet. They describe the town as "a cross between Mayberry and the Twilight Zone."

"I've always said it’s almost so far out that it’s in!" adds dePaul Johnson.

Katie Jo Wright moved from California to Calumet four years ago. She and the folks at Café Rosetta and others like them are part of this new generation of entrepreneurs moving into the area. And they bring with them a new way of doing things.

"It’s so fascinating," says Wright, "I see this mindset of 'We got to recreate what’s familiar. Oh, you gotta have a breakfast, an American breakfast [with] bacon and eggs and you should do hash browns, too.' And the kind of things we serve here are beet burgers and quinoa tabouli with pita."

Even though people in town might think their food is weird, Wright says for the most part everyone’s supportive.  She says the old timers come in and share stories and recipes for her and Julie to try. Which they’re happy to do.

A mix of young and old

One self-professed “old timer” I talked to, Tom Rudd, says he’s noticed a nice "balance of energies" between the two generations.

"Old people have a tendency to rely on what they’ve done before," says Rudd, "and young people have energy to learn these things and do whatever needs to be done."

Which might be just the combination this town needs as it tries to re-discover itself 100 years after its heyday.