Thursday, May 21, 2009

Up Nort Wit Da Yoopers

After learning I grew up in Northern Wisconsin, a neighbor introduced me to a man he said was a Yooper. Having been exposed to an occasional “Uff da” and dozens of Finlander jokes in my youth, I knew something about where the guy hailed from.

Residents of my hometown had much more in common with the denizens of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula than with those down-State city slickers in Madison, Milwaukee, and Racine. We were suspicious of State government. After all, State agents could hurt our tourist business by enforcing liquor, gambling, and fishing and hunting regulations. (The drug store in the front part of my family’s “Main Street” building had two slot machines in the middle of the establishment, right in front of the fishing tackle display, many years after gambling was declared illegal in Wisconsin.)

We didn’t want to discourage anybody who liked to travel “up Nort for the Fourt” or any other time. The city people brought greenbacks we needed, and we were pretty good at extracting them. There also was a common perception that more tax dollars were traveling the 200 miles south to Madison than were migrating back up Highway 51 to the north.

Similar feelings about Detroit and Lansing were more intense in the U.P. The Yoopers, a true collection of rugged individualists, several times pushed proposals to secede from Michigan. In 1962 they got serious and formed the Upper Peninsula Independence Association to make it happen.

About that time, my Dad became well acquainted with William F. Brown, who had come to town to open a real estate and insurance agency. Mr. Brown was in his early 60s, an energetic, outgoing man with a wry sense of humor. He landed a part-time job as an appraiser when property values were in question during lawsuits in the county court. Brown had lots of real estate expertise, but not much knowledge of the area. He recruited my Dad as a partner who had lived in Tomahawk all his life and knew a lot about the values of various building locations and whether the owners were likely to have maintained their property.

I recall Mr. Brown chuckling about how he and Dad could complete an appraisal in a matter of minutes. He said they never entered a building, or measured much of anything. They just got the construction date, eyeballed the place, roughly paced off a few dimensions, and declared a value. Dad said they must have been fairly accurate; their findings were only challenged once in the many years they worked together.

Mr. Brown wasn’t a Yooper, but he knew a chance to interject some humor into the Northwoods environment when he saw one. He became a vocal supporter of seceding from Wisconsin to join the U.P. in a new Great State of Superior. I was young and quite willing to entertain thoughts of rebellion against any authority that happened to be present. I read some of the realtor’s writings about getting a divorce from Wisconsin and forming a 51st State with the Yoopers. Dad just snorted when I said secession seemed like it had merit. “It’s all a bunch of Brown’s b.s.,” he said.

The State of Superior never materialized, but there was some fun during the campaign. Lots of folks wore T-shirts featuring the proposed State’s official emblem . . . a giant mosquito.

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