Northern Michigan University sociology professor Michael Loukinen has produced documentaries about a variety of topics, many with a Native American focus. But trying to make a film about a once-booming Upper Peninsula community that has diminished almost to ghost town status has proved his most daunting challenge. Loukinen’s goal was to produce a historical documentary about Winona, located nearly 30 miles southwest of Houghton. In the 1890s, Winona was a mining company town with “close to a thousand” residents who included immigrant copper miners. By 1920, the copper mines had closed and the town crumbled.
“It all seemed so everlasting,” Loukinen said. “There were family homes, enormous mining buildings, stores, a saloon and brewery, a temperance hall, barber and shoe repair shops, a post office and railroad station. That all of this could vanish was unthinkable. A lot of mines closed around that time because the end of World War I killed the demand for copper. Immigrants from many countries in Europe raised their children in ethnic neighborhoods in Winona, struggled to learn English and buried loved ones in the cemetery. Only 11 residents remain and there’s a lurking sense of anxiety among them that the memory of their community will become extinct. I’m trying to preserve it.”
The idea for the film first surfaced in 2006. Loukinen was invited to record the 100-year celebration of the Elm River District School and, with the help of colleague Grant Guston, shot video and conducted interviews. The school is still hanging on. Loukinen said there are six students from two families and five staff members.
The effort to create a historical documentary about the community has been in the works ever since, though it stalled periodically. With retirement looming this year, Loukinen refocused on the film and will complete it as a research associate at NMU after he leaves the faculty. He said the biggest challenge is that there is no living resident with a link to the mining era.
“I interviewed about a dozen elders, but their earliest childhood memories only go back to shortly before the Great Depression. That’s after the mines closed. I rethought the film during my sabbatical and realized I needed outside expert historians and archeologists to help reconstruct the past.”
Loukinen said all that remains in Winona is the school, a Lutheran church and about seven homes. When the mining company left, it shut down the power plant and running water supply. Some homes sold for as little as $25, some were dismantled so the lumber could be repurposed and a few burned from lightning strikes. Trees are growing out of building foundations and an encroaching forest is swallowing up the town, erasing evidence of human activity.
“Winona isn’t an anomaly; it’s the rule,” Loukinen said. “It represents many communities where mining thrived, then failed. But while this happened a lot, the story of these places hasn’t really been told. My interest is in visualizing the passage of time. I see decrepit buildings and think of who lived there. I see all the ghosts and it drives me to document what happened.”
The project was supported by grants from NMU and the Friends of the Michigan Technological University Archives. Loukinen plans to hold the film premiere at Elm River District School and possibly another showing at the Calumet Theatre. He relied on consultants from NMU, MTU, Finlandia University and Rainy River College.
Anyone with information, photos or other material related to Winona's history is encouraged to contact the filmmaker at firstname.lastname@example.org.