Little businesses that could (and still are), Part 3, by Becky Korpi

Like hundreds of immigrants to the Upper Peninsula in the early 1900s, A. Louis Bonetti came in search of new opportunities. Arriving in 1915 from Bergamo (Italy), Bonetti found work in the underground mines around Gwinn and decided to raise his family in the area.
In 1933, when the twenty-first amendment—the repeal of prohibition—was passed by the U.S. Congress, Bonetti seized opportunity by applying for one of Ishpeming’s first liquor licenses and opening the Congress Café, dedicated to the U.S. Congress’ decision. The café offered a full menu, including bacon and eggs for forty cents and a bowl of Chili con Carne for fifteen cents.
In the late ’50s when Bonetti was killed unexpectedly in a hunting accident, his sons Guido and Geno assumed leadership of the family business and had an idea that would have a lasting impact on the citizens of Ishpeming—changing the struggling café into a pizza business.
“It was done out of necessity; it was a tough time,” said Paul Bonetti, third generation owner of the business.
Specializing in homemade thin-crust pizza and spicy cudighis, Congress Pizza was born and continues to succeed in the same location today.
Manager Mike Koski, who grew up across the street from the Bonetti family, said a fulfilling part of his job is watching generations of families grow up.
“I’ve been here for seven years, and in that time I’ve seen kids coming in for birthday parties as toddlers, then coming back as teens,” he said. “Many have their first legal drink in here as well.”
He added that a large part of Congress Pizza’s success has to do with its consistency. The arcade games—Excite Bike, Ms. Pac-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to name a few—have been there since they were released in the ’80s, but still are enjoyed by patrons of all ages. The jukebox, which contains an eclectic mix of oldies and mainstream music, has played the same version of “Happy Birthday” for more than fifty years, usually followed by the delivery of a candle-lit pizza to a blushing customer.
Other pizza businesses have sprung up in Ishpeming over the years, but Koski said he and Bonetti do not feel pressured to change their products, with the exception of a new pesto pizza that was added to the menu six months ago.
“We’re just offering something different; we’ve got such a unique pizza that we don’t need new items or specials to compete,” Koski said. “I see the Congress growing in tradition, and I think we’re here to stay.”
Another business unique to the area is Thill’s Fish House in Marquette’s lower harbor. Moved from downstate Fairport fifty years ago, Thill’s sells fresh fish and sea foods and remains the only commercial fishing operation in Marquette.
Ted Thill, second-generation owner of the fishery, has been involved with the business for thirty-five years and said it has drawn his family closer together.
“I got all family working; my brother and I are partners and my sons run the boats; my daughter-in-law comes in sometimes, too,” he said. “Hopefully my boys will take it over and keep it going.”
Faithful customers have contributed largely to the fishery’s success, Thill said, but Mother Nature is not always as supportive.
“We catch the fish ourselves and it’s always a challenge being outside,” he said. “We depend on the fish to come to us; it’s the most difficult part of the job.”
The fishing season for Thill’s runs from April through October. Fishing also is allowed in December, but because of the weather, the family uses that time to maintain their equipment and run their retail store. They have two boats used to catch whitefish—the Linda Lee, a forty-foot trap net boat, and the Kathy, a forty-six-foot gill-net boat that is now retired.
After catching fish, the Thill family fillets, freezes and smokes them for a wide range of customers, including grocers and restaurants.
Some of their more famous offerings are smoked whitefish sausage, smoked fish spread and pickled varieties of fish.
Thill said the store gets more customers whenever new people move into the area, and added that small businesses like his are what keep Marquette thriving.
“They’re the roots of the city,” he said. “They keep things moving.”
Other businesses, such as Public Service Garage in Marquette, have felt tremendous pressure to evolve as the community does.
“From cars to minivans to crossover vehicles to all-wheel drive, wherever the industry has gone, we’ve gone with it,” said John Veiht, Public Service Garage’s current owner.
The dealership has been in the Veiht family since its conception in 1927. Veiht’s grandfather, Ted A. Veiht, first opened it on North Front Street as an Oldsmobile franchise named Marquette Auto Sales. Two years later, it became Public Service Garage.
According to their Web site, www.publicservicegarage.com, “garage” was added to the dealership’s name because it added a bit of old-fashioned charm.
In 1952, Public Service Garage moved from Front Street to the corner of Washington and Fourth streets, continuing to expand their services and inventory. A third move in 1977 brought the business to its current location.
Veiht said his and other family-owned businesses remain successful to the Marquette area because they understand the community they’re working in.
“Being independently owned, we know this community a lot more than businesses from the outside do,” he said. “In an individual community we’re able to adapt faster to local needs, so you won’t see the ‘big box’ businesses here as much. As long as we stay relevant and stay as big as we can, it’s fine.”
Another local business that has seen several years of change is The Elder Agency on Main Street in Marquette. Started as a one-office insurance and real estate company in 1936 by Stanley Elder, the business now has branches in Ishpeming and Negaunee.
Sam Elder, Stanley’s son, currently runs the business with his brother Jim and said he always wanted to carry on the family tradition.
“After I graduated from college, I joined the Air Force and was gone for five years,” he said. “I used to fly over the Upper Peninsula during refueling and get homesick, so I came back,” he said.
Elder said his father had been in the insurance business in Utah, but was offered the Upper Peninsula as a territory by Mutual and United of Omaha insurance.
“He had never been here before,” Elder said.
The Elder Agency started business in the Savings Bank building and underwent a few moves before finally settling on its current location. It serves as an independent insurance agent, offering customers a variety of quotes from different companies to choose from, Elder said.
“Some choose because of the price, but others choose because of a recommendation or a long-standing relationship with a certain company,” he said.
Although Elder’s youngest son, Steve, thirty-three, joined the family business five years ago selling real estate, Elder said he has no immediate plans to retire.
“I love doing what I am doing,” he said. “My goal is to be a realtor with fifty years of experience.”
The list of “mom and pop” businesses that have seen continued success in the Marquette area goes on; but for some, time has run its course.
The Shamrock Bar on Marquette’s South Front Street provided the city with a place to meet friends and have a few drinks for seventy-five years, but was purchased by local restaurateurs Elizabeth and Thomas Wahlstrom last month to be converted into a steakhouse.
“We’ve made so many great friends and have so many wonderful memories of our time at the Shamrock,” said Shamrock owner Nancy Berglund in a press release. “I’d like to thank everyone who has been a part of the Shamrock crowd and also to the many dedicated members we’ve had on our staff over the years. I’ll certainly miss all of our great regulars and my crew. It’s definitely the end of an era.”
—Becky Korpi

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