Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sic transit gloria mundi

I had a reminder this week about just how ephemeral most people's lives can be. We're born, we live, we die, and we don't leave much evidence we ever existed behind.

One of the services our county historical society provides is assistance in genealogical research. We received a request earlier this spring for help in locating and photographing grave markers, marriage certificates, and anything that might be left of the built environment in the area where a specific family lived. To say that results were slim is putting it mildly. The descendants of a fellow who lived in Baraga 100 years ago are putting together a family history. If its main focus was going to be the Baraga County connection, it's going to be a very thin book.

The man was not born in Baraga County, he didn't marry his first wife here, and he died elsewhere so the only legal record was the marriage certificate from when he married again after being widowed. They had hoped to include photographs of the house where their great grandfather lived. The site is now a vacant lot. How about the public school their grandfather attended? Long gone. In fact, even the school that replaced that school is gone -- the current Baraga High School is the third one on the site. Where did he work? The sawmill is gone; the site adjacent to US-41 is now vacant lot and marina. What about the cemetery? Well, there is a grave marker, a simple pillow stone, for the great grandfather, but several other family graves are unmarked.

The man's great grandson stopped by the museum the other day. He was hoping we might have some historical photos on file that included either views of the buildings related to his great grandfather's life or group photos of some sort that included the man. I was able to provide some turn of the century street scenes and a nice view of the Thomas Nester sawmill, but there were no group photos or portraits that were labeled with the person's name. There was one group photo of sawmill employees in which only about half the men were identified; the great grandson said that one of the unnamed men strongly resembled the descriptions of his great grandfather so he asked for a copy of it. Is it a match? Who knows -- his great grandfather was a physically small man with a large mustache; the fellow in the photo was a physically small man with an impressive mustache. But so were three of the other guys in the picture.

The whole experience left me feeling rather melancholy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why bother redux

Okay. So I've said I'm ignoring politics. This morning, however, the news is so delicious that I cannot resist typing a few sentences.

Michelle Bachmann, Minnesota's gift to stand-up comedians and political junkies everywhere, is hanging it up. She's decided not to run again in 2014. She even managed to say with a straight face that it's not because:
(a) she came really, really close to losing in 2012 and she doesn't want to deal with the possibility of losing for real in the next election; or
(b) she's under investigation for misuse of campaign funds.
Nope, her decision to step down is strictly for personal reasons.

And pigs can fly.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why bother?

I haven't had much to say lately about politics. Why bother? It's been five years now of Obama Derangement Syndrome in D.C., and nothing much changes. The Republicans keep trying to gin up scandals based on remarkably flimsy evidence, the MSM keeps playing along, and after awhile a person just zones out.

Haven't had much to say about life in general either but now that the museum is open for the season that should change. The last couple weeks have been tied up with getting three new exhibits set up; they're done, the museum is open, and I can go back to a more normal volunteer schedule. Maybe then I'll remember how to blog.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

You betchum, Red Ryder

Since I started volunteering at the county historical museum, I've stumbled across a lot of oddities. The museum has always been a 100% volunteer effort. A few of the historical society members have actually been historians (or at least had a B.A. that qualified them to teach high school history classes), but most have been and still are enthusiastic amateurs, folks who got interested in one aspect of local history -- the Lac Vieux Desert trail, Frederic Baraga's missionary work -- or in genealogy, and one thing led to another. They're enthusiastic, they enjoy learning more about local history, they love interacting with museum visitors, but they're still amateurs. Thus, it's no longer much of a surprise to me when I stumble across something a tad odd in one of the display cases or realize something has been wildly mislabeled.

We're in the process of getting ready to open for the 2013 summer season. I've been working on a new exhibit. When I feel like a break, I amble around the building and do minor puttering and dusting. I'm always noticing new (to me) stuff because our museum is like a lot of local museums: it's got a lot of stuff crammed into not a whole lot of space, most of which isn't labeled particularly well and often doesn't even share a common theme or time period. One corner of the museum, for example, is sort of the Native American corner, except it's pretty much a jumbled mess. Anyone hoping to learn much about the local Anishinaabeg is probably doomed to disappointment. The display case has an odd mix of artifacts donated by various people, there are some nice baskets but no indication as to where they came from or when they were made, and some of the items are just plain odd.

Well, I noticed that things had slid over time in the case, probably the effect of years of vibration from traffic on US-41. I decided to straighten the artifacts out, maybe do some dusting, and more or less neaten things up a bit. That's when I spotted the item pictured to the right. Well, not the whole set. Just the bow, and the string was missing. I am, however, a child of the '50s. I know a child's toy bow when I see one. I looked at it carefully tucked in there with the pine needle baskets and other (probably) genuine Native American artifacts. Holy fuck, no wonder the local Indians hate us. The stupid, it burns. Can one have a head*desk moment if you're not at a desk?

The Little Beaver bow is now in the same case as a Red Ryder bb gun. It's the right size and color to match the one pictured, so I'm assuming that's what it is even if there were no rubber-tipped arrows with it. Fairly soon there will also be a label providing some context. I do, however, find myself wondering just how many years that kid's toy was on exhibit as though it was a genuine Native American bow? From the day the museum opened? There was enough dust in that case that it could have been in there for 20 years.

Amateurs. . .

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Business as usual at the IRS

I've been watching with some bemusement the current kerfuffle about the Internal Revenue Service scrutinizing applications by quasi-political groups seeking tax exempt nonprofit status. A number of questions have crossed my mind, including the obvious -- why the heck would groups that were created for political lobbying be referred to as "social welfare" organizations? -- but one thing struck me that doesn't seem to have been worth noting by the various talking heads. A number of the Tea Party organizations complained bitterly about the length of time it took for their applications to be processed. Most did eventually receive the desired tax exempt status, but in some cases it took over a year. 

Having had a personal experience with a small nonprofit group that was trying to obtain a related form of tax exemption, the 501(c)3, I must say the Tea Partiers have nothing to bitch about. Thirteen months for their paperwork to get processed? Pshaw. That's business as usual for the IRS. The group I was involved with was a local historical society -- an extremely small and poor group with an annual income of barely $1,000 (most of which goes for paying for liability insurance on a community hall) -- that was raising funds to do repair work on said hall. We decided to open a savings account so the money could earn a pittance in interest while it sat in the bank. At some point the account did generate interest; the bank sent the requisite information to the IRS, and, lo and behold, a year or two later our group began receiving correspondence asking for information on our budget, i.e., just how much money were we raking in annually and why weren't we paying taxes on it? Apparently if you show signs of having any income high enough that it can be rounded up to a whole dollar amount, the Internal Revenue Service wants its cut. That's when our correspondence with the IRS began.

They'd send us a letter, usually accompanied by a form of some sort. We'd respond. Several months would go by. They'd send us another letter. We'd respond. This went on for well over a year. The process was neither fast nor easy. It required multiple forms, a thick stack of copies of our financial records and incorporation papers, and a lot of patience. Eventually, a letter did arrive saying that our organization did indeed qualify for tax exemption.

In short, the length of time the process took for the Tea Party groups was totally within the norm for the way the IRS does business, regardless of whether it's with organizations or with individuals. They are the government. Nothing they do is fast or easy.

Incidentally, I do find it a tad bizarre that organizations that devote their time and energy to complaining that the government is inefficient should express surprise that the bureaucracy moved slowly. I also find it highly ironic that the same folks who rant about the need to downsize government are now saying (as I heard on NPR yesterday) that the IRS needs to hire more staff so applications don't take a year to process. The stupid, it burns.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

And then Elo begat Toivola: History of the Finns in Michigan

Back when I was in grad school, my professors would rant about "History is more than just one damn thing after another!" Pastor Armas K. E. Holmio never got that message. Either that, or his training in the seminary meant his writing style was influenced way too much by the Old Testament and its long lists of begats. History of the Finns in Michigan has some fascinating tidbits buried in it, but it can be a hard slog finding them.

Every chapter reads like something out of the Bible, except instead of Adam begetting Cain it's the Hancock Co-operative begetting the Bruce Crossing and the Mass and the Trout Creek co-ops or the South Range temperance society begetting Negaunee and Rock and Trenary. The founding of Suomi College calls for what reads like a summary of the personnel records, i.e., "Faculty were . . . " starting with John Nikander in 1896 and wrapping up with who the archivist is at the time of publication (Holmio in 1967). When did the first Finns arrive in Michigan? Who knows, but in 1880 certain Finns lived in Calumet, and we're treated to another long list of names. No doubt people doing genealogy love the name index at the back of this book, although it is incomplete -- not every person mentioned in the text got indexed, which leads me to believe the copy editor got as burnt out on the list of names as I did.

History of the Finns in Michigan was first published in 1967. It was printed in Finnish; if I'm reading the information in the book correctly, an English translation did not appear until 2001.Why is an intriguing question, particularly when one of the interesting themes in the book is the rift developing between the older Finns -- folks who had emigrated from Finland or who were the first generation born in this country and could speak and read Finnish -- and younger generations. The intense nativism in the United States following World War I meant that children were discouraged from learning Finnish, either spoken or written, so by the time History of the Finns in Michigan was published, the number of potential readers under the age of 60 had to be fairly small. Holmio mentions this rift in a number of chapters: its effect on church going (English speaking young people had no interest in sitting through sermons preached in Finn), fraternal orders (membership in the Knights and Ladies of Kaleva began dropping as older Finns died and younger people had minimal interest in an organization that insisted on conducting all business in Finnish), and cooperatives. In the latter case, larger economic forces played a role, but the insistence on the part of older co-op members on conducting business meetings in Finnish may have hastened the end for some stores.

Another interesting portion of the book discusses the reasons for immigration: emigrants left Finland for multiple reasons, but there were two that were key: economics and avoiding the Russian draft. In the last half of the 19th century, immigrants went to the United States and Canada almost purely for economic reasons. For example, the first Finns arriving in the Copper Country in the 1860s came because they were experienced miners and were recruited by one of the mining companies. As the mining industry grew, so did the stream of immigrants looking for work in Michigan. That first wave of immigration tapered off in the late 1880s. Then the Russians changed the rules in the Duchy of Finland. Russian military service had been voluntary; the Russians made it compulsory in the early 1900s, and, not surprisingly, young men began leaving. That was the second big wave of immigration. With the first wave of immigration, quite a few men stayed in the United States only long enough to save the money they needed to buy land or establish a business back home in Finland; they didn't see themselves as permanent immigrants. The second wave came to stay. This is a section that could have benefited from an editor telling Holmio, "Hey, you've listed almost every parish in Finland in the tables; you don't need to mention each one in the text, too."  

History of the Finns in Michigan is one of those books you may find worth reading if you have Finnish ancestors, live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, are interested in social movements like temperance or cooperatives, or have a burning desire to know the difference between Evangelical and Apostolic (aka Laestadian) Lutherans. Pastor Holmio was a Suomi Synod Evangelical minister; his take on the Apostolics is almost worth suffering through the begats. The Laestadians begat a lot: apparently it was impossible to form an Apostolic congregation without it splintering into two or three separate congregations in fairly short order,  kind of like Pentecostal and other fundamentalist congregrations in the South.

As I read the chapter on churches, I couldn't help thinking about the old adage that "history is the stories the winners tell about the losers." At the time Holmio wrote the book, the Evangelicals thought they were the winners; the Laestadians were the crazy people who didn't allow dancing or frivolity in their homes but did shout and dance in the aisles at church, the Finnish equivalent of Holy Rollers. Too bad Holmio is dead or he'd know it doesn't pay to gloat. The Apostolics may not have emphasized higher education and advanced degrees for the ministry, but they definitely knew how to begat: they were practicing quiver-full Christianity long before other fundamentalists coined the term: the family car for many Apostolic families is a 15-passenger van. They may not have won the doctrinal war, but they've triumphed in the demographic one.

History of the Finns in Michigan does have some distinct flaws. One is that it was obviously updated before its publication in 2001, but there is no mention of who did that updating. Pastor Holmio died in 1977; the person credited with the English translation, Ellen Ryynanen, passed away in 2000. Did she do the translation as one of her final activities before dying, or did she translate the book at the time it was first published? Was she also the person who updated the manuscript by adding recent dates to some sections, but not others? And if there had been a decision made to update the manuscript, why not go all out and give complete histories for organizations like the Copper Country Dairy (a farmers' cooperative that shut down in 1986)? As it is, the random pieces of more recent data are jarring. They feel anachronistic or like typographical errors. How could the author know that a certain event took place in 1999 when at that point he'd been dead for 22 years?

Another flaw is the selection of photographs. I've seen the Finnish language edition. It has numerous photographs salted throughout the book, and the photos cover a wide variety of subjects. The English language edition seems to be a lot thinner when it comes to photos, and they're all clustered in one section in the middle of the book.

As for my overall assessment of History of the Finns in Michigan? I'm glad I read it, I learned some interesting and useful information, but I'm also really happy it's a library book and not something I spent actual money to obtain.

Note: Elo and Toivola are actual town names; Elo means "life" and Toivola is "land of hope." 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Fear mongering pays off

A year or two ago I mentioned the two cent solution as the low budget version of euthanasia for ailing pets. Turns out it's no longer quite that cheap. Fear mongering apparently pays off. The price of ammunition has been climbing. The fantasists who believe Obama or the ATF is coming to take their guns away have made such a run on the gun stores and online sales sites that the cheap stuff is selling out. 22LR shells now cost ten times what they used to, maybe more. The S.O. is so ancient he can remember when you could get a brick of 500  .22 shells for $5 -- they were basically a penny apiece. Now, depending on where you shop, they're more like $20 for 100 shells (20 cents each), and that's considered a sales price.

Maybe we'll all get lucky and the paranoiac gun nuts will drive the prices high enough that the truly crazy people won't be able to afford to load their weaponry.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Is it still Vappu if there is no bonfire?

Last year we didn't do a May Day bonfire because conditions were too dry. This year there's no bonfire because the snow in the field is still more than knee deep and we don't feel like wading through it an attempt to torch a pile of sodden spruce boughs. Besides, how can it be May when snow is predicted for tomorrow?

It's been an odd year. Time is out of joint. January felt like it should be April, and now May feels like March. Last May everyone was worrying about wildfires; this year we all wanted the snow to be gone but now are worrying about what happens as it melts. The U.P. is thoroughly saturated, the CN tracks near our place have been underwater for a couple days, and a long section of state highway M-28 is closed because the Middle Branch of the Ontonagon decided to flow over a bridge instead of under it.

Not that this year is really that unusual. Last year was the aberration. This year is typical. I can recall that in my younger days (as in elementary school age) I used to wonder about a tradition I'd read about: May Day baskets. Ditto dancing around a May pole with flowers on one's head. I always wondered just where people got the flowers for the baskets and garlands I saw pictured because all I ever saw outside on May Day were melting snowbanks, mud, and once in a great while (if it was a particularly early Spring) a few crocuses.

Two more days until my birthday, and it's still looking like I'll be able to do some cross county skiing -- at least as long as I stick to the high ground.

[Actually, from what I hear, it's not truly a traditional Vappu unless there a  few drunks pissing on lamp posts, but this isn't Helsinki so we're out of luck in that department.]