California native Russell Magnaghi first visited the Upper Peninsula in the midst of a formidable snowstorm in January 1968. Despite the harsh initiation, he accepted a faculty position in Northern Michigan University’s history department and immediately began investigating the region’s s cultural, economic and ethnic heritage. Magnaghi has completed the daunting task of condensing nearly 50 years of meticulous research and oral interviews into a newly released book titled Upper Peninsula of Michigan: A History. This definitive, general-interest account of the area’s past is the first attempt to tackle the topic in more than a century.
“There’s a strong sense of identity among Yoopers now and a great deal of pride in this unique place they call home,” said Magnaghi, who recently retired. “But that wasn’t the case when I first arrived. People were complaining that the U.P. was isolated and nobody in the state or nation cared about it. They almost seemed embarrassed and that surprised me. So I was determined to show that the Upper Peninsula and its people have played crucial roles throughout the country’s history, from the Native American experience and Colonial fur trade era to World War II and into the 20th century. The book explores these contributions. It’s really designed to promote the U.P. by sharing its interesting history.”
Magnaghi debated whether to present the material chronologically or through topical themes. The result is a combination of both. Some chapters are dedicated to spans of time, such as “50 years of boom and bust” and the World War II era. Others broach subjects including the landscape, environmental concerns, the first inhabitants and ethnically diverse immigrants, and the industries of mining, timber, fishing and farming.
The book also profiles U.P. residents, “some famous and others relatively unknown.” Examples include Canadian immigrant Dr. Nancy Rodgers-Chenoweth, who installed one of the first X-ray machines in the Upper Peninsula before hospitals considered them desirable equipment. Dr. Francis LeBaron, a surgeon at Fort Mackinac, was among the various entrepreneurs who tried to develop internal resources to strengthen the nation’s economy. He launched a multi-year campaign to get Congress to promote the development of the known U.P. copper deposits. Viola Turpeinen of Champion became the best-known Finnish-American accordionist of her time, touring widely in Finland and making a number of recordings. Holly Greer was the first woman elected to the city commission and the first female mayor of Marquette.
The last attempt to chronicle the Upper Peninsula’s past was a three-volume set of county histories and biographies compiled by Alvah Sawyer in 1911, before there was source material to draw on through a regional archive. Magnaghi said his own book project was made easier by the efforts of those before him who recognized the value of documenting and preserving local history.
“One of my role models is Lew Allen Chase, the late NMU history professor,” Magnaghi said. “He was a big proponent of promoting local history and helped to establish the Marquette County Historical Society. His professionalism and dedication to the work were inspiring.”
Another mentor was Jesuit history professor John McGloin at the University of San Francisco, where Magnaghi earned his bachelor’s degree. McGloin frequently used the phrase “history on the hoof” to impart the value of personally visiting historically significant sites rather than relying on written accounts. Magnaghi’s approach to research has embodied that philosophy. He dedicated the book to both men, along with his wife, Diane Kordich, who shares his love of travel and U.P. history.
Magnaghi’s new book complements his previous works. He co-edited A Sense of Place: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a tribute to the late NMU President Bill Vandament and his wife, Margery. He also created Portals to the Past, an expansive online bibliography of published articles on U.P. history and culture. It is searchable by topic and can be viewed from the NMU Center for U.P. Studies website at nmu.edu/upstudies (follow the U.P. History navigational link).
Upper Peninsula of Michigan: A History is available in Marquette bookstores or in electronic format at lulu.com or barnesandnoble.com. It can also be ordered for mail delivery through 906 Heritage by calling 361-7877.