Small town, rich history: Traunik at a crossroads

by Leslie Allen

Photos Courtesy of A.J. and Jeff Fischer

Traunik is a dot on a map, a blip on the radar, a blink in the road. Traunik, north of Trenary and south of Chatham, is an historic location named after a community in Slovenia, the home of many of its settlers.
It’s an old logging village that sprouted and flourished in the early twentieth century like so many others in and around the woods of the Upper Peninsula, its population eventually whittled away by mid-century changes in economics and culture. It sits at a dusty and peaceful corner, holding fast to the crossroads of H-01 and H-44, a small collection of houses, an old general store gone organic, a meeting hall gone global and a schoolhouse with a still-clanging bell.
Frank Bartol was born and raised in Traunik, and he knows its history, having lived it and written about it.
“We no longer have a sense of community,” he said, sitting at his kitchen table, talking over cups of tea and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. Bartol, a retired English teacher, wrote and published Still Sits the Schoolhouse by the Road, a memoir of sorts about the Traunik schoolhouse, now a Head Start center. The school, down the road and around the corner from Bartol’s house, is a modest building with a black, hipped roof topped with a bell and cupola. Bartol attended the two-room school from 1935 to 1942, and he recalls how the bell used to ring four times a day; now, it rings only once in a while. He tells the story of how he saved the bell a few years back when the school’s roof needed fixing and the contractor suggested removing the belfry to simplify the job. Bartol wouldn’t hear of it. So today the bell still clangs, and that’s music to his ears.
Next to the schoolhouse is the Traunik Hall, a squat, single-story building painted white with dark green trim. A wooden deck spans its front and double-hung windows march down each side. After passing through a small entryway, one comes into a large, airy, wood-paneled room—a dance hall with a raised stage at the far end. The wood floor is worn and shiny, shined, Bartol said, by decades of corn meal and dancing feet. An old pot-bellied stove squats in a corner. Unadorned, single strand light bulbs dangle from the ceiling. Short lace curtains on the windows filter sunlight, and between the windows are photo displays, each with a theme such as “Logging,” “Entertainment,” “Children” and “Getting Together.” Each display tells a story of Traunik, of loggers and farmers, of generations of hard-working Bartols, Debelaks, Mikuliches, Knauses, Lusticks, Ostaneks and others. The hall is steeped in antiquity, sweet and musty.
But on the Fourth of July, the hall rocks.
0905fea3“The community exists in our history,” Bartol said. “Because we got together to preserve the Traunik Hall and create the Traunik Slovenian Club, that sense of community exists once or twice a year because people come from wherever they live to celebrate the Fourth of July.”
The Fourth of July dance annually attracts as many as 200 revelers from around the world. They gather to eat sausage, potica and strudel, to reminisce, and to polish the hall’s old floor with polkas. In 2000, the mayor of Loski Potok (Slovenia), came to the celebration, and Bartol said the crowd that year rose to nearly 400.
From the start, the hall, built in 1922 as Lodge 387 of the Slovenian National Benefit Society, has been a place for weddings, anniversaries, reunions and Fourth of July festivities. The society dwindled after World War II, and a local family bought the hall, renting it out for special occasions. Then, in 1993, Bartol got the idea to buy the hall and create the club. He compiled a mailing list of 150 or so Slovenians with Traunik roots and sent a letter outlining his plan and asking for financial support. Within a month, he said, enough money came in not only to buy the hall, but to establish a maintenance fund. The hall was rededicated at a ceremony on July 4, 1993, with Bartol’s ninety-eight-year-old father unveiling a boulder on which a plaque had been affixed. The dedication was written by Bartol:
“To this place they came, beginning in 1912, and when enough had come to form a community, they named it Traunik, which means “meadow” in Slovenia, the country they left behind in search of a better life.
“They brought with them a willingness to work and a desire to succeed, and out of the forest they shaped fields, homes and a good life for their families.
“This memorial is dedicated to them by their children and grandchildren, now scattered about the world but tied by invisible bonds to this spot, where once the night air was filled with Slovenian melodies, and an ethnic community pulsed with life.”
0905fea2Just down the road at Lily’s, an organic food market that has taken up residence in Traunik’s old general store, there is new life pulsing, and on Sundays the air is filled with the music of fiddles, mandolins, guitars and even a stand-up bass as local musicians gather for a jam session. A.J. Fischer, co-owner of Lily’s with husband Jeff, often joins in.
“Sunday afternoons…we have a lot of fun,” A.J. said. “Right now there’s an Irish fiddler who comes from Trenary. Dan Flescher loves to come. We just never know.”
Lily’s opened in April 2008, and for the first anniversary celebration, a special jam session was held. To accommodate the crowd, chairs were brought over from the Traunik Hall.
The Fischers bought the flat-roofed, two-story frame building on the corner of H-01 and H-44 in 2007. They had sold a screen printing business and home in Florida, were staying at their home in Chatham, and looking on the Internet for an old general store to buy, renovate and turn into an organic market. They had no set location in mind, but were oriented toward heading south in the winter. Then one day they took a drive and passed through Traunik, a place close to home, but a place, A.J. said, “We never came to. It’s so out of the way.” And lo and behold, there was an old general store for sale. The Fischers bought it the next day.
The Mikulich family ran Traunik’s general store from 1926 until 1987, and it was the unfailing commercial and social hub of the community. It was where people shopped, picked up mail, greeted neighbors, and talked over issues of the day. Folks gathered around the woodstove; children bought penny candy. Flour was measured, sides of beef cut and, as Bartol once wrote, “There was almost literally nothing that one could not either buy or order from there.” The Mikuliches and their nine children lived on the second floor of the building, above the store, and when Louis Sr. died in 1961, Louis Jr. took over. In 1987 he sold the building to the Morgans, who undertook renovations and reopened as an early-twentieth century country store and museum. Eventually that enterprise closed, and the building was idled.
0905fea4The Fischers knew none of this history when they began renovations in November 2007, but they quickly learned. They were welcomed by the small community and soon began hearing its stories. In addition, many old photos and artifacts had been left behind by the Mikuliches and Morgans. Some of these items now adorn the Fischer’s store, inspiring others to bring in their old photos of Traunik and the area, of family and friends. Jeff scans these photos into his computer and adds them to a scrapbook he shares with customers.
From the outside, Lily’s looks remarkably like pictures of the old Mikulich store. Inside, the Fischers have restored the tin ceiling, preserved the wood floor and added a coffee bar, mixing the old and the new with a deft hand. Lily’s bottom line adheres strictly to organic goods and fair trade practices—A.J. is passionate on the subject—but quirky postcards, paper lanterns, fine wines and good beer, U.S.-made snowshoes, and many other gizmos, gadgets and you-never-know-whats, round out what one discovers at the store. The building’s second floor has been remade into a chemical- and television-free vacation rental, again with a strong flavor for the past mixed with a sensibility for the future, like good diner coffee that just happens to be shade-grown.
“I had a guy in here, his wife was shopping, he was sitting here, looking at the tin ceiling, drinking his coffee, and he goes, ‘I totally get this.’” Jeff smiles, and as I sip my jasmine green tea, I get it too.
“You can slow down and reconnect a little bit with what you’re doing,” Jeff said.
Much like during the Mikulich era, Lily’s offers the community a gathering spot, drawing customers from Chatham, Trenary, Escanaba, Sundell, Marquette and elsewhere. Their guest book lists folks from far and wide, people passing through, people visiting the area, those who maybe saw the Michigan Attraction signs out on the highway or came across Lily’s Web site or just somehow heard of this oasis a bit off the beaten path. In addition, Lily’s offers a buying club, which helps customers get what they want at good prices.
“We had a very lively summer,” Jeff said of their first season in business.
They were somewhat surprised, A.J. said, that they stayed as busy as they did this winter.
“We’re all jazzed for summer now,” A.J. said.
As music from a CD plays in the background, talk turns to the Fischers idea for a full moon concert series, perhaps in the granary out back, where Louis Mikulich used to measure feed and fuel, nuts and bolts. The building’s in good shape; Jeff and a friend shored up the floor last year, and this year, he said, “We could knock this wall down, and put a stage in that other area, and this could all be a seating area, put twenty, thirty people in here easy, maybe even forty. In the summer time you open this up,” the old loading dock door slides open with a whir, “and it’s nice and cool in here.”
“Everybody loves music,” he said. I look around for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but all I find is a speck of dust and some scattered seeds, ready to sprout.
For details on Lily’s, visit www.lilys goods.com or call 446-3392. More information on the history of Traunik can be found at www.traunik.com
MM

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