Michigamme Market closing felt throughout community

by Cindy Coleman

Sometime during the night of Tuesday, November 18, the Michigamme Market closed. The shelves were stripped bare; gasoline emptied from the pumps; canned goods, bakery and deli items, fresh vegetables and soda pop, frozen meats, pizzas, beer and wine all disappeared.
Almost no one knew: not the employees, nor the suppliers, and certainly not the citizens of the Michigamme area, for whom the market has been a lifeline, the gathering place on frosty mornings, where local news and world events were passed on over a cup of coffee.
For years, the market closed only once a year, on Christmas Day—if it closed then. Its busiest day was July 4; so much a tradition that even on the memorable Fourth of July in the 1970s when a few snowflakes fell, the market sold 350 ice cream cones.
Situated on US-41 at the entrance to Michigamme, it was the only surviving gas station and general store for miles. In fact, going “down the road” toward Ishpeming and Marquette, the closest gas and diesel pumps are eleven miles away. Going “up the road” to L’Anse, at thirty-one miles, is the closest if you stay on US-41. The same is true if one needs bread, milk or a newspaper.
Wednesday morning, November 19, was a shock. Everyone knew that something was amiss and there were speculation and rumors. From the outside, it looked as though the owner, Michael Kowalski, was having trouble paying his bills—when the diesel tank ran out of fuel, it stayed out, with duct tape across the handle—for a small community with a large area to cover, that is a problem: Most fire and EMS equipment run on diesel fuel. If we have a large fire, you do not want your pumper to run out of fuel. Local loggers depend upon diesel to operate their equipment. Then too, the State run lottery closed down during the summer and the DNR pulled out their licensing machine in the fall.
Many in town supported the store. A small town knows the value of keeping a local place going, so residents bought gas there, even if it was a few cents a gallon cheaper down the road. They went “to town” for major shopping, but also supplemented pantries and refrigerators at the market. The clothing embroidered with Lake Michigamme on it was for the tourists, as was the fancy snowmobile equipment, but residents stopped in for newspapers daily (you could be sure of running into friends and neighbors at the market about 3:00 p.m. when papers were dropped off, in case you missed the morning gathering). Customers bought cigarettes and beer and bread and milk. They picked up the gravy they had forgotten to buy for Sunday’s roasted chicken, and bought taco kits and salsa for Monday Night Football.
0901bt2The locals did not come to rely on the market overnight. Michigamme had a gas station and auto repair shop there since the 1940s. All through the 1950s, it belonged to Julie Forrest and her family.
Kenny and Birdie Skytta bought the Standard gas station on Memorial weekend, 1964, naming it Skytta’s Standard Service. They paid $10,000 for it on a land contract. The bank would not give them a mortgage until the amount they owed was low enough to use their house in town as collateral. Birdie borrowed $500 from her brother to put gas in the gas pumps for the first time. She and Kenny had nine children and almost no money, but they both believed in paying cash. Kenny was working in the mine in those days, so whatever they made at the service station went right back into the shop.
One day shortly after they opened, Amelia Perry walked in and asked if they had popcorn and Koolaid. Birdie said no, but she’d have it tomorrow. She went to the local IGA operating in town at the time, and charged a few packages of both items to her personal charge account (the first and last time she didn’t pay cash, she says now). Back at the shop, she placed the merchandise on the counter for sale. Copper Country Dairy gave her a small refrigerator and supplied her with milk to sell. The Bunny Bread truck brought her a bread rack and kept it filled with bread for her customers. The Skyttas had a tire machine in back of the store, and on Sunday evenings, Birdie fixed tires there. They bought an old power wagon with a plow and throughout the winter months hired out to plow for local residents. During the summer, they took the kids out to the farming country at night to pick night crawlers to sell. They trapped minnows in the lake and sold them from the store.
0901btBirdie cashed in her life insurance policy and bought $200 to $300 worth of groceries at the local IGA to resell at the store, but that was expensive. They were earning more now, so after awhile, Kenny drove the twenty-seven miles to a big supermarket in National Mine to replenish their stocks.
Copper Country Dairy added an ice cream freezer. They sold ice cream cones for five cents and ten cents for many years. The huge cones—twenty-five cents for five scoops of ice cream with a cone stuck on either end—became an institution. Tourists would ask how they were supposed to eat the cones; Birdie’s usual reply was to hold it by the cones like you were eating a cob of corn, and lick fast.
The market had a meat grinder to make fresh hamburger. They got a beer and wine license. They had to take “Standard” out of the name of the market, because you could not sell alcoholic beverages where you had gasoline products in the store’s name, so the market changed its name officially to Skytta’s Service. By then, they already had a concession to sell fishing and hunting licenses. Getting that license took some time because markets had to maintain at least $1,000 worth of grocery inventory to qualify. After several years, the Northland semitruck was able to supply groceries directly to the market, enabling Kenny and Birdie to offer a wider variety of staples. They put in a bin for fresh vegetables—rutabagas, potatoes and onions—stock fare in this cold climate, and a big stand filled with fresh fruit in season. They carried Vollwerth’s fresh and frozen meats. In the fall, they sold Sorel boots and gear for hunters.
“We had a delivery service in town the whole time,” Birdie said. “People would call up and give me a list. One old guy never plowed in winter, so I had to crawl to his door, pushing the box of groceries ahead of me on top of the snow. You took care of the old people.”
She remembers the time when an elderly customer drove to the store to shop and then went out and got into the passenger’s seat. Birdie reminded her that she had driven herself to the store.
“That’s OK,” she said. “You can drive me home.”
So Birdie did, putting her groceries away for her and opening the milk.
There were no telephones out on the lake back then, so the market took messages and delivered them. If a smoke alarm went off in someone’s home, they would get excited and call the store. Birdie would send one of her kids out to turn it off. Some nights, she stopped off at an older person’s house to start the fire in the stove. One time, a cat jumped out of the warming oven.
Truckers and snowmobilers stopped at lunchtime (in the winter, there was no place in those days to eat in town): She kept a big pot of hearty food going during the day. One time, a fellow from Wisconsin brought her a beaver; the next day she served beaver stew. At Eastertide, she colored eggs and everyone who came in got an Easter basket with jellybeans and a hard-boiled egg.
“You did for people,” she said. “It was like an old time country store.”
By 1991, Birdie was selling 300,000 gallons of gasoline and 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year. But she was getting older now, Kenny had died back in 1975 and she had been in business a long time. In January 1993, after twenty-nine years of working eighty hours a week, she sold the market and retired at the age of sixty-two.
“I still miss the people, but I don’t miss the work,” she said.
Dave and Marti Querfeld, who lived seven miles up the road in the small settlement of Nestoria, took over the market in September 1992, and operated it until the final purchase in early 1993, renaming it Michigamme Market. They put in a deli, making sub sandwiches, and sold sliced meats and cheeses. The huge ice cream cones remained, although they no longer cost a quarter. The Querfelds updated the fuel pumps, replaced the fuel tanks and built a large canopy over the fueling area. But the market remained as it had been for many years, a morning meeting place with free coffee and conversation, a gathering spot in the afternoon when the papers were delivered. The winter snowmobile traffic increased as Dave groomed the trail from the main trailhead to the market. It was still an area hub.
In July 2005, the Querfelds, like Birdie before them, entered into a management agreement for several months with the new buyer, Michael Kowalski of Marquette. On February 2006, he took over the market completely. He hired a manager to run the day-to-day operation. The building was expanded, with rooms added for soft drink coolers and clothing.
Just as Amelia Perry asked for specialty items back in 1964, one could special order items and the manager tried hard to fill the order, although instead of popcorn and Koolaid, it was more likely to be specialty wines and low-fat dairy products. So many people congregated in the early morning that the town’s mayor jokingly suggested putting in a round table with chairs so patrons could sit and drink their coffee while exchanging the latest news.
Less than three years later, the community awoke on a November morning to find the market abandoned.
The Querfelds and Kowalski are in litigation and the market remains closed. Like many small communities across the Upper Peninsula—and indeed the country—the community needs this lifeline, this institution, and hopes that sometime soon Michigamme Market will reopen and thrive.

— Cindy Coleman
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