SUPERIOR READS

New books offer insights into history

By Tyler Tichelaar

Upper Peninsula of Michigan: A History

Russell M. Magnaghi

Russell Magnaghi’s newest book Upper Peninsula of Michigan: A History is a must for any lover of U.P. history. Countless books have been written on various aspects of U.P. history, from logging and mining to prohibition and various community histories—and Magnaghi has written or had a hand in many of these books in the past. However, this book is the first attempt to cover the history of the entire U.P. Surprisingly, the book is not overly long. It’s a large size 8.5” x 11” book, but is only 209 pages. Regardless, it is completely comprehensive, and although Magnaghi can’t go into detail on every historical topic of interest, he makes sure to give at least passing mention to all of them. The book is divided into 14 chapters that cover topics such as U.P. geography; different periods of U.P. history, including the colonial era, becoming American and World War II; various industries, including farming, fishing, mining, and logging.
Originally from California, Magnaghi has adopted the U.P. as his home over his decades living here and teaching history at NMU, including U.P. history courses. He hopes to show in this book the major and critical roles the U.P. has played in U.S. history, a goal he definitely accomplishes.
Besides being a comprehensive history, the book offers many surprising nuggets of information, even for someone like myself who has already read dozens of U.P. history books. For example, for years I’ve heard the story that Calumet almost became the capital of Michigan, but Magnaghi clarifies that this story is a local myth that claims a vote was held and Calumet lost by one vote. I also learned that the term “Upper Peninsula” was first used by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in one of his letters, and I was surprised that U.P. tourism began as early as the 1810s, when many writers promoted the copper, fish and timber resources of the U.P., labeling it as a “perfect wilderness.”
Everyone will have his or her own favorite topic of interest to explore in these pages. For me, most of the later history discussed I already knew, but I thought Magnaghi really did a wonderful job explaining the colonial history of the U.P. when it was claimed by the French and British. I’ve read much U.P. colonial history elsewhere, but Magnaghi really pulled all the pieces together to create a strong chronological narrative. I think his explanation of the War of 1812 and the British, American and Native relations during that time was especially well done; it made me understand a war I’d always been a little foggy about.
It’s hard to imagine that Magnaghi has left anything out. The only topic I felt was shortchanged was his discussion of theater in the U.P. But he does an excellent job covering U.P. sports—even the Trenary Outhouse Classic gets a mention. He discusses religious denominations in the U.P., not just Catholics and Lutherans, but also Muslims, Jews and Buddhists. He covers Henry Ford, the automobile and how it changed tourism in Upper Michigan, along with the building of the Mackinac Bridge. Mining accidents and miners on strike are included, as are Native American issues past and present, World War II prison camps and the efforts for U.P. Statehood. And, of course, I love that he mentions U.P. authors, including some of the more obscure ones like Constance Fenimore Woolson.
This is a book every home should have on its coffee table. It’s a book every school should use when teaching U.P. history. Trust me, Upper Peninsula of Michigan: A History is a treasure trove I’ll turn to again and again.

Thunderstruck Fiddle: The Remarkable True Story of Charles Morris Cobb and His Hill Farm Community in 1850s Vermont

Leslie Askwith

Thunderstruck Fiddle may not be for all U.P. readers since it’s set in Vermont in the mid-nineteenth century, although its author, Leslie Askwith, is a resident of Sault Ste. Marie. I was personally interested in the book because my ancestors, the Remingtons, came to Marquette from Vermont in 1849, so this book gave me some idea of what their lives might have been like before they arrived here. Perhaps the best way to describe this book is to compare it to Little House on the Prairie as a pioneer story but one told from the viewpoint of a young man growing up.
The main character, Charles Morris Cobb, is a historical person and, therefore, not really a character. Nor is the book really a novel but perhaps more creative nonfiction. Charles Morris Cobb was the second cousin, four times removed, of Leslie Askwith, and he was a very literate young man who kept a diary from the time he was 13 in 1848 until 1861. During that time, he wrote nearly half a million words. He determined to write at least one page a day and never to exaggerate or lie. He later rewrote his original journals into the narrative that composes this book. However, Askwith cautions us that the words are not exactly his. That said, I suspect Askwith did not alter much. They definitely read like the journals of a young man and do not have any sort of plot. Rather they are the simple retelling of his daily life, including the people he knew and the experiences he had growing up in Vermont.
The book is in many ways a gold mine for understanding life in the 1800s. Charles discusses how his great-grandfather and his family moved to Vermont in the late 1790s. He talks about how his family supported themselves on a farm, including raising bees and sugaring (collecting maple syrup). He tells stories of going to school. We learn from him about medicine peddlers and even how people felt about the presidential elections of the time. He talks about religion and the religious movements of the day. He even joins a temperance society while just a boy because he’s come to hate drunkenness. This hatred stems from a time when he was playing the fiddle at his uncle’s house; his uncle and a neighbor got drunk on rum, resulting in their street being named Rum Street.
At the heart of the book is Charles’ love of music. Not only does he study music, but his father gets struck with fiddle mania and decides to start constructing fiddles himself, to the detriment of his farm work. Eventually, Charles becomes well-known for his fiddling and joins an orchestra, although he does not always get along with other musicians.
Thunderstruck Fiddle is a straightforward, factual book without the embellishments of historical fiction. Its audience may be a bit limited, but it certainly has its moments of interest and humor. For more information, visit www.LeslieAskwith.com.
Editor’s Note: Tichelaar is the author of My Marquette and Haunted Marquette. All books reviewed in this column are available in local and online bookstores. For book review submission guidelines, visit www.marquettemonthly.org.

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