‘It’s become toxic’: Houghton County wrestles with its past, Trump and coronavirus

By: - March 8, 2021 5:18 am

Houghton County | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

This series is the product of a more than month-long investigation involving hundreds of documents, court proceedings, several days on the ground in the western Upper Peninsula, and interviews — both on and off the record — with over 30 sources in government, law enforcement, local residents and experts in extremism. The investigation began two days after the arrest of accused Capitol insurrectionist Karl Dresch of Calumet. The result is a look at the gradual radicalization of communities in Houghton County, from the tea party movement a decade ago to groups today mobilizing against diversity and embracing COVID and pro-Trump election conspiracies. That extremism, bolstered by a strong church network, boiled over several times last year into large protests with many concerned about violence in the future.

There’s an unwritten, and unquestioned, rule in the Upper Peninsula, including in the far-western area where Houghton County lies between the shores of Lake Superior. Generally, folks stay out of each other’s business and leave each other alone. But if there is a problem, and one can help, it’s an expectation. It’s known as the “Yooper Code.”

“There is no better place to get stuck in a snowbank,” says Houghton County Commission Vice Chair Tom Tikkanen. “People don’t pass you; they stop and they will help get you out. That’s just how we are.”

The code is a necessity in this county in the middle of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the western U.P. near Wisconsin. Boasting an average annual snowfall of 200 inches, the county is 30% national and state parkland or specifically preserved land reserved for logging. Houghton County’s entire population, according to the Census Bureau, was 35,684 people in 2019, a 2.6% drop since 2010. 

The few times Houghton County made headlines downstate in recent years had revolved around tragedies and outrage, including a synagogue being vandalized, an alleged insurrectionist being arrested and racial tensions boiling over at the area’s largest college, Michigan Technological University. 

During Father’s Day 2018, historic flooding submerged the county, killing one and leaving the community devastated. A month later, a second flood washed out what recovery had already been made. Then-Gov. Rick Snyder and then-President Donald Trump both made disaster declarations. 

Houghton County Clerk and Register of Deeds Jennifer Kelly

Houghton County Clerk and Register of Deeds Jennifer Kelly said in the wake of the destructive floods, she saw the character of her county that she’s always known: Strangers helping strangers, lifting each other up and cleaning up the damage together.  

But sometime in the last year, Houghton County began to change. It became angrier, more divided and more confrontational. It’s a common refrain from residents, law enforcement and elected leaders shared with the Michigan Advance in dozens of interviews over the past month. 

For Kelly, those changes are a gut punch to the community she has called home her entire life. 

“I wish I could point at one moment when it changed,” she said wistfully during an interview in a lobby of a Super 8 Motel in Houghton in late January. “I just don’t know. I wish I did. But I don’t.”

Kelly, one of three Democratic countywide elected officials, sighs when she acknowledges the county seems to have been poisoned. “It’s become toxic,” she said. “It’s like a toxin is slowly happening.” 

It’s been a year filled with tumultuous COVID-19 protests that have turned into shouting matches between neighbors and demonstrations known as “Trump trains” supporting the former president featuring hundreds of cars decked out with flags for Trump, America and the Confederacy. The largest such event occurred on Sept. 27 and featured trucks flying Confederate flags, threats to rape protesters and racial epithets hurled at people of color. 

Despite that, Kelly is emphatic that the people here in Houghton County, which she has represented since 2014, are the same loving, caring people she grew up with. She wants to believe it. 

“Maybe I’m pretending,” she said. “But we really are a good, good people, Just good people.”

Downtown Calumet | Todd Heywood

A rough election

Kelly admits her belief in that was shaken on March 6, 2020. She was jarred awake at 1:01 a.m. by a phone call. 

She was up for reelection that fall, but had not filed paperwork to get on the ballot. Nineteen-year-old self-described “Trump Republican” Justin Kasieta had already announced his candidacy on Feb. 25.  

His announcement included a hint of the national crisis to come, with the Keweenaw Report, the online news site for several area radio stations, noting, “Election security and transparency will be big parts of his platform.”

The GOP was gearing up for a national election fueled by the belief that candidates who backed Trump’s rhetoric and policy positions would ride to victory on his electoral coattails. A Gallup poll released at the end of February 2020 found 58% of Democrats were “more enthusiastic” to vote, while 64% of Republicans were more enthusiastic to cast their ballots. At that point, the Democratic presidential field was large and a ferocious battle was underway to select a nominee. Within a few months, the Trump trains would start parading through Houghton County.

On the other end of Kelly’s phone was a man who claimed initially to be from a local television station. When Kelly challenged the caller, noting it was early in the morning, the man said he was a producer for TLC’s television show, “Hoarders.” The man, she alleges, claimed to have been inside her home. Then the call turned ominous. The caller allegedly said he would make sure she was never reelected and that he would poison her dogs and throw their corpses in a dumpster. 

“I was scared,” she said. “I was really scared. I almost didn’t file to run again.”

Matthew Smith

She called the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department and filed a criminal complaint. An investigation was launched after Houghton officials referred the case to the Michigan State Police. The caller was identified as Matthew Smith — a Davison School Board member and Republican candidate for Genesee County Commission in Southeast Michigan.

The investigation dragged on for months, only becoming public in October, just weeks before the election. Kaseita lost with 7,667 votes to Kelly’s 9,951, in spite of heavily outraising the incumbent, compiling nearly $8,000 to her $2,500. Kelly’s money all came from the Houghton County Democratic Party and was spent on radio ads. 

Most races in Houghton County never meet the spending or fundraising reporting threshold of $1,000. As a result, the battle in the clerk race was one of the few races in 2020 to require campaign finance disclosures. Unlike other communities, Houghton’s campaign finance records are not available online. The Advance had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain copies of the reports. 

Fundraising reports filed by Kasieta show he provided $3,000 of the cash in his campaign account — and the campaign owes him $1,000 listed as a loan. But it’s who else appears in the report that may raise eyebrows. 

One of his donors was Karl Dresch, who gave $20. Dresch is one of the county’s best-known residents, having made headlines for being charged in January by federal officials for participating in the pro-Trump U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. 

The 40-year-old Calumet man known for his rabid Trump support and sale of Confederate stickers has been indicted by the federal government for his alleged role in the insurrection. On the day of his arrest, media photos showed his home draped in two huge Trump flags. 

Dresch was charged on Jan. 20, the day after the FBI arrested him at his home in Calumet, five federal counts for his actions that day. They include charges of obstruction of an official proceeding, entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly conduct in the Capitol building, and parading, demonstrating or picketing in the Capitol building. 

In a sworn affidavit, the FBI alleges Dresch’s own social media betrayed his involvement in the insurrection. On Jan. 22, U.S. Magistrate Marteen Vermaat ordered Dresch held pending transfer to Washington, D.C., where he will face charges. Vermaat cited Dresch’s previous criminal history, as well as a stash of weapons in his possession at the time of the arrest, as reasons to deny bail. 

Dresch is the son of former Republican lawmaker Stephen Dresch, who served in the state Legislature from 1991 to 1992. He also served as a dean at Michigan Technological University and died in 2006. Interestingly, he had a role in 2005 of revealing that convicted Oklahoma City bombing suspect and Lapeer native Terry Nichols had hidden additional explosives in Kansas before the April 19, 1996, attack on the federal building. 

Kasieta had other familiar donors. Former state House Speaker and 2018 GOP Attorney General nominee Tom Leonard, who represented the downstate Clinton County area north of Lansing, contributed a total of $100. His first $50 donation was on Aug. 30. His second on Aug. 31. 

In 2019, Trump nominated Leonard for U.S. attorney in the Western District of Michigan. But the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, blocked his confirmation in early 2020. 

Leonard did not respond to an email inquiry about his donation. 

Aside from his own cash, Kasieta’s largest donor was Krist Atanasoff, who gave a total of $750. He’s the owner of Krist Oil located in Iron River in nearby Iron County. 

In 2012, Atanasoff made headlines when he referred to Native Americans as “thieves,” “felons,” and “tax evaders.” His comments were made to buttress his business decision to yank the biggest paper in the U.P., the Marquette Mining Journal, from Krist Oil store locations after the paper supported a land-into-trust deal for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. 

Atanasoff also is the top individual donor leadership fund of area state Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock), to the tune of $10,000, with two donations of $5,000 apiece. The first was made in July 2019; the second in August 2020. 

Atanasoff did not respond to a phone message left at Krist Oil.

The Houghton County Courthouse | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

The criminal case against Smith was referred to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office for delegation to a special prosecutor. The Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office was selected to review the case report, alleged thousands of pages long, and determine what — if any — charges would be filed. 

David Williams, chief assistant prosecuting attorney for Oakland County, told the Advance no decision on the case had been made.

It was later revealed that two others were listening in on the Smith call: Jake Putala and Kasieta, who are both currently legislative staffers and have lengthy political resumes.

Kasieta works for Markkanen, having first ran the Republican’s successful 2018 campaign for the open seat while still in high school in Marquette, according to WLUC-TV. Markkanen did not return calls seeking comment. Kaseita did not respond to messages left on the cellphone number found on his campaign finance report. 

Putala works for state Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) and previously was employed by GOP former Attorney General Bill Scheutte, raising awareness about consumer fraud in the U.P. In 2018, he managed McBroom’s successful Senate campaign against Democratic then-state Rep. Scott Dianda, who hails from Calumet. 

Putala also had dreams of being a Michigan state trooper. MSP spokeswoman Shannon Banner confirmed in an email that Putala had applied to be a trooper, but voluntarily withdrew his application in July 2020. At the time Putala’s application to become a trooper was under consideration, the Smith harassment call had been under investigation by MSP officials in Genesee County. 

Why Putala had given up on his dream is unclear, but McBroom said he had discussed the decision with his employee when it was made. He declined to elaborate. 

McBroom did tell the Advance he was aware of the call to Kelly.

Sen. Ed McBroom | Michael Gerstein

“I spoke with Jake personally, as it being kind of a dumb kid’s prank — and obviously Jake’s an adult, but he’s a young man,” said McBroom. “I think I kind of felt for him, that he just ended up on the call and should have hung up the phone. He has testified to, spoken to the police and spoken publicly about what, as far as I can tell, aside from talking to an idiot on the phone, he didn’t do anything criminal or anything that should ruin a guy’s life.”

Putala did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him. McBroom said his staffer was unlikely to respond. 

After losing the County Commission race, Smith was appointed as the deputy clerk of Davison Township and continues to serve on the Davison Board of Education. 

Smith did not respond to an inquiry sent to his township email. But his boss, Clerk Mary Miller, did and strongly defended him while complaining about “harassment” from the media. 

“[Smith] is definitely NOT a malicious person and would never threaten to harm an individual or a pet animal,” she wrote. “There have been no charges made against him, nor do I expect any to be made. In my opinion, it would be a foolish waste of time and taxpayers’ money. I have known Matthew for a year, and in that time, I have observed only responsible actions. He is an active member of our local school board where some of his constructive ideas have been implemented. I trust him completely and feel he is an asset to our community. I have no reservations regarding his participation in our Township Office procedures. I would hope that the press harassment of him would stop.”

COVID steps in

Just days after Kelly received the harassing phone call, Michigan announced its first case of coronavirus. That was March 10, 2020, and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made her first state of emergency declaration hours after the presidential primary polls had closed. Her candidate, Joe Biden, had been declared the winner in the state, a key victory in his somewhat unlikely road to securing the Democratic nomination.

Whitmer’s declaration was soon followed by a flood of executive orders which virtually shut the state down in order to slow the spread of coronavirus. Schools, restaurants, local governments and many retail businesses were all shuttered after COVID-19 had been declared a global pandemic. 

Donna Effinger, 66, is a lifelong resident of Houghton County and the executive director of the Copper Country Angel Mission, a nonprofit that’s partnered with the local Portage Lake United Church in Houghton. She said she saw the human impact of the crisis on the community. 

Donna Effinger | Todd Heywood photo

“We’ve definitely seen an increase need with the food pantry,” Effinger said. “We have people that come religiously every month just because whatever benefits they get just isn’t enough to sustain their family. But in the past year, we’ve had big increases in first time signups, which have now become more repeat visitors. We’ve had more calls to help with utility shutoffs, even with the moratoriums. The thing is, that money is going to owed when the moratorium’s over, so we help with what we can.”

The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis shows that Houghton County entered 2020 with a 5.3% unemployment rate. The state had an unemployment rate of 3.8% in January. By April, when COVID restrictions were most stringent, Houghton’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to 15.7% — a high in 2020. Statewide, unemployment was at 24% in April. The county’s rate declined over the months to a low of 3.5% in November, and was 4.2% in December. Statewide, the unemployment rate in Michigan in December was 7.5%.

But the area had experienced economic woes before the pandemic. The annual median income was $42,852 in 2018, the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s more than $13,000 less than the statewide median income of $56,697. Nationally, the median income was $63,179. 

In 2018, 20.9% of the community was living below the poverty line compared to only 14.2% of Michiganders statewide. Nationally, 11.8% were living under the poverty line in 2018. According to census data, just over 15,000 of the county’s 36,000 residents were employed in 2018. 

Cafe Rosetta has been making headlines statewide for its refusal to follow COVID health rules — just one block down from the Calumet landmark is the Angel Mission Free Store.

On Jan. 30, Effinger was in the back sorting through piles of donated materials. The main storefront was packed. It was mostly clothes, but on one side were non-perishable foods and in a corner were toys. An open curtain with a sign notifying folks everything beyond was for staff, revealed two staff members scurrying around sorting. 

Effinger readily agreed to an interview and escorted this reporter to a second storefront next door. 

“Don’t pay attention to the mess,” she said as she traversed the stair landing between the two buildings. “This is where the upstairs tenants hang out.” 

A few beer cans attested to this. 

The second store front is where Angel Mission offers free winter clothing and back-to-school supplies. It was much less packed than the other side of the store and the door was locked. Effinger took a position sitting on the edge of the storefront display shelf, accidentally knocking over a wooden stick reindeer wrapped with white lights. 

Everything in the two storefronts was free for the taking, she said. If someone wants to make a monetary donation for the items they take, that money is applied to the 20-year-old program’s other support services. Those include a food pantry, utility assistance, backpack program for school kids, an angel tree and a free library. Because Houghton County does not have a shelter for those experiencing homelessness, the agency also will assist in locating temporary housing. 

“Whatever need there is, that’s all people have to do is come and ask, and if we’re in a position to help we will,” Effinger said. 

The Angel Mission Free Store | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

Economic insecurity has been tied to increased extremism, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including violence in the United States. Houghton County has certainly seen a rapid rise in right-wing activity. There are the Trump train parades that drove throughout the county during the summer and fall of 2020. The white nationalist group Patriot Front slapped stickers and launched recruiting efforts at Michigan Technological University in March 2019. And in September 2019, Temple Jacob, the area’s only synagogue, was vandalized with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. 

In September, protesters who opposed a 500 to 600-vehicle Trump train complained that originated at MTU said they had been subjected to racial slurs and threats of rape. Those concerns were brought to the university’s Faculty Senate, which convened an ad hoc committee to investigate and propose recommendations to address the situation.

After the ad hoc committee reported its findings, the Faculty Staff Senate in January passed a resolution condemning racism and anti-Blackness in education. The resolution demanded the university take action to counter racism, as demonstrated by the Confederate flags on Trump train vehicles.

There’s been a pushback from increasingly vocal right-wing activists, like Erik Kiilunen, a local businessman, Trump supporter and vocal critic of coronavirus restrictions. He characterizes it as a fight between “socialist” university officials and a more conservative surrounding community. 

Driven by faith?

Tucked back off Michigan Highway 203 in Calumet Township is a large white building. 

The drive is hidden on a curve off the road, with a stretch of trees on one side and a graveyard on the other. The only acknowledgement of what the unassuming building’s purpose is a sign with removable letters announcing this is the First Apostolic Lutheran Church. The sign also lists the times of services. 

It would be hard to know the church off Highway 201 is considered the “mother church” for this small breakaway sect of Christians. Nationwide, the church is understudied and not well reported on. There are estimates of the denomination’s entire size ranging between 6,000 and 9,000 people with 33 locations across the country. 

Fourteen miles south, just on the edge of the city of Houghton’s commercial district, sits the second-largest First Apostolic Lutheran Church location. And the third-largest congregation is in Howell, a conservative Detroit exurb in Livingston County.

Houghton County is home to at least 59 individual churches of various denominations. But leaders and community members concur that the First Apostolic Lutheran Church is the dominant, and growing, community of faith in the county.

The Michigan Advance interviewed 30 individuals about the church. Some of those interviews were on the record with the person’s name, some were on the record on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from church members who are often family members, and some of those conversations were on background. Some are experts in religion, some are former members of the First Apostolic Lutheran Church, some are current members and some are elected officials throughout the county.

Those interviews reveal an intricate relationship between the church and extremism in Houghton County related to COVID orders. This closed community of believers is convinced their faith structure is a “representative of Heaven on earth,” as one expert on Lutheranism said. They are, in their belief system, the only people bound for Heaven and they work to keep the church pure and unadulterated by the secular world around them.

Television watching is a taboo within this community, as are outsiders. With the rise of coronavirus restrictions, masks also have become a taboo. And participating and cooperating with COVID testing and tracing activities from the government also is frowned upon. 

The First Apostolic Church | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

“You go back to our faith,” said Kiilunen, 52, a member of the First Apostolic Lutheran Church. “And what makes us maybe different from most people is we accept the fact that somebody will die; get used to it.”

Since the First Apostolics broke from other Lutherans in 1929 over doctrinal belief conflicts, the group has quietly lived in Houghton. But that has begun to change. 

In recent years, church members have slowly begun to run for, and win, elected positions in school boards, township boards and the Houghton County Commission, although the exact numbers aren’t known. Members are sworn law enforcement officers in both the Houghton County Sheriff’s office and the Michigan State Police, multiple members of the church, community leaders and the sheriff confirmed.

“They’re good people, hardworking people,” said Sheriff Brian McLean. 

Tikkanen, the county commission vice chair, offers some insight into why it’s hard to track down how many church members hold prominent positions. In his view, any perception of the First Apostolics overtaking or having an undue impact on county politics is a form of discrimination. 

“It’s just a thing that dates back many, many years. A friction between them and others,” he said. “And it’s really not fair.”

Kiilunen also argues that his church has nothing to do with the growing tensions and radicalism in Houghton County. 

“They don’t want anything to do with controversy,” Kiilunen said. “You really can’t make this about the church. That’s my family and they have nothing to do with this.”

However, the three most visible advocates opposing coronavirus restrictions and supporting Trump in the area are members of the church: Kiilunen; Amy Heikkinen, who owns Cafe Rosetta; and Antrisha Marie Luoma, who’s attended anti-COVID order rallies and documented them in social media videos.

Kiilunen said his recently formed “Patriot Club” is the core of the growing political activism in Houghton and beyond. The group consists of concerned citizens, said Kiilunen, who are trying to stop what they see as a socialist threat looming in American and the state. He boasts the group has a membership of over 800 people and was formed to assist the community in engaging the community on political decisions. 

“Of the 10 people in the leadership, I am the only one from my church,” he said. “If that tells you anything.” 

Tenets of the faith

The First Lutheran Apostolics do not call ministers from seminaries or other training centers. They run their churches through lay leadership, appointing as minister the person or persons they believe is the right person to help illuminate the gospels and lead the flock. 

That lay ministry is also carried out within the church faith system. A minister is not needed to absolve a person of a sin; any confirmed member of the church can do that. 

Kiilunen repeatedly stressed that he held no official position in the church, and was just a member. 

Dr. Sharon Stoll is a former Democratic candidate for the Houghton County Commission. She moved to the area with her ex-husband, Scott, following her residency at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Scott was a member of the First Apostolic Lutheran Church who attended the Howell location while a youth. Stoll attended an evangelical church growing up a little more than 100 miles away in Marquette. 

“If you’re evangelical, you pray to the Lord to have your sins forgiven,” said Stoll. “If [you’re] Apostolic, you go to another church member and say, ‘Give me the blessing.’ And they respond, ‘Believe all your sins are forgiven in Jesus name and precious blood.’ And that’s the specific words. And so people will ask for reassurance on their deathbed. They’ll ask their relatives to keep assuring them that their sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name and precious blood.”

The church also is known for being wary of outsiders. An undated sermon from a lay leader from the Howell church, obtained by the Advance, calls on members to be careful around non-church members. 

“This simple gospel message is one that the devil in all his trickery and evilness would like to say to us that there must be more, or that others have this same gospel,” the sermon reads. “Yet we read in God’s word that, ‘But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another.’ Thus, if it were the same light, we would be lead to walk together, having that same fellowship with, as we do with each other. That fellowship that contains much closeness and warmth even with those from farther distances who we don’t see very often. Yet because we are following that same light, we know them through the same spirit that guides us along this road of life.”

Stoll said she and her then-husband’s different faith backgrounds were an instant frustration for his family. 

“I didn’t convert and our wedding was not held in the church,” she said. “His family boycotted our wedding, his paternal relatives did.”

Dr. Sharon Stoll | Todd Heywood photo

Church youth enter into full membership in the church somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16, members told the Advance. None would speak on the record using their own names for fear of retaliation from other church members, including family members. 

Much like other religions, teens must go through a confirmation process to become full members of the church. 

“Those are really the chance, the opportunity, to meet your future husband,” said Kate, a former member who asked not to be identified by her real name for fear of retaliation. “We were told that he was there. Our future mate was in that room. To look closely. That was sort of the expectation, beyond learning a few things. This was really about connecting us.”

Marriage is a key foundation in the church, as it’s the foundation for families. The church encourages large families — Kiilunen isn’t unusual as the father of 10 children — and opposes birth control of any sort. Women, Stoll and others said, have a primary role within the church and the community of bearing and rearing children. 

Those gender expectations become clear in the way Apostolic teens respond to being confirmed members in the church. In a ceremony that essentially marks a transition into adulthood, the youth kneel at the altar — boys in white shirts with black slacks, girls in white dresses. They are affirmed in their faith. 

As they leave the altar, the boys, said Stoll, drift back to the back of the church where confirmation gifts are waiting for each youth confirmed that day. The boys rip into their gifts, discovering money and cheering. 

But the young women respond differently, she said. 

“During one confirmation ceremony, there was one girl coming back to her seat with her parents after finishing confirmation at the railing,” Stoll said. “And she’s crying and hugging her mother and blessing her mother for the first time that she has obtained this right, or this adult status in the church to give the blessing herself. …This daughter was right in front of us and her and her mom were both crying. It was very emotional and she gave her mother the blessing for the first time, it’s very special for her. While boys are giggling in the back, opening their cards.”

Becoming active and visible

The First Apostolics used to pay little attention to local politics, going on about their lives and focusing on the family — both their biological and church clans. But that began to change in recent years as their families grew to represent more of the student body in the county. Parents began to get involved running for education board seats — and winning. Then they began running for local township boards. 

McBroom, the Republican state senator representing the area, said he is not surprised by how many First Apostolics are represented on public bodies or law enforcement. 

“Well, it’s the dominant church in the area,” said McBroom, a self-described regular Baptist. “It’s clearly the dominant church. So as the dominant church, it’s also going to have the majority of people in it.”

No one could put a finger on how many public bodies are dominated by First Apostolics. That is, in part, to the closed nature of the sect. 

They’ve also integrated into law enforcement in the county. McLean, the long time Republican sheriff, said “five or six” of his 19 armed sworn deputies were church members. Local leaders said as many as eight of the Michigan State troopers in the Calumet post are members of the church. 

Shanon Banner, a spokeswoman from the MSP, said the agency does not track the religious affiliations of its officers.

Many church members frequent Cafe Rosetta, which Heikkinen has kept open during the winter as the pandemic has dragged on, despite state and court orders. Like at the church, masks are frowned upon there, even though the restaurant is subject to the state mandate. 

Effinger, the executive director of the Angel Mission, said divisions in the church have grown. 

“It wasn’t the pandemic that brought this on,” Effinger said, “but it gave them the venue.”

Idealizing history

The allegations from some progressives of “white supremacy” and “white privilege” that arose following the contentious Trump parade at Michigan Technological University, rankles long-time residents like Kiilunen. They defend their history, arguing the area was built by European immigrants and even claim Black slaves were not subjected to the same levels of horror as the whites who worked the surrounding mines. 

The majority of First Apostolic Lutheran Church members trace their roots back to Finnish ancestors who immigrated to the U.P. as part of the mid-19th century copper boom. This ancestry is a proud, shared legacy among members in the church and the community at large. 

Houghton County has a deep, lengthy history tied to mining copper. (That’s why residents of the county, indeed the entire Keweenaw Peninsula refer to themselves as “Copper Country.”)

Immigrants from Europe were among those who migrated to the U.P., particularly Cornish, Swedes, Finns, Germans and Italians. Each European immigrant community tended to stay to themselves throughout the 19th and early 20th century. 

The peninsula was originally inhabited by several bands of the Ojibwe tribe. Archeological evidence shows copper from the area had been distributed across North America, serving ritual as well as economic functions in Native American lives for at least 7,000 years before Europeans descended on the area chasing riches through the fur trade. 

Approximately 11 billion pounds of copper and an unknown amount of silver have been extracted from the ground in the area. European copper speculation has been recorded as early as 1771, but the area saw a true boom in copper mining beginning in 1841. 

A mining company store in Atlantic Mine, Mich. | John Vachon, Picaryl

Backed with money from Boston, speculation and excavation of copper officially began in 1841, with the first successful mine being established in Clifton in 1845. As a result of the Clifton mine’s success, the U.S. saw its first mineral rush with the population in the U.P. growing dramatically. 

That history, of white European miners, is the predominant story of the copper boom in the U.P. It comes up today in the debate over area Trump supporters being white supremacists, something Kiilunen strongly rejects.

“‘Look, my forefathers came over here and worked in Keweenaw,” said Kiilunen. “Most of them left the old country — whether it was the U.K., whether it was Italy, whether it was from Finland or Scaninavian countries — came over here by themselves with no family, went up on the rocks up there in the middle of a winter, grabbed a sledgehammer, and by the light of one candle, pounded holes in rocks for years on end. And when they drilled the hole, one guy sat there and grabbed the bit, right? You know how this worked, put it down, bang, flip the tongue, bam, flip the tongue, bam. Packed the hole with dynamite. Boom. Picked it up with your hand and a shovel, put it in and take it out, and do this 10 years, 20 years. All right? That’s white supremacy?”

Kiilunen went on.

“The captains and the executives and you can see right in the houses, all right? All the big houses right on the main track and all the poor miners who did most of the work lived in a shack, half a mile or a mile away or in a boarding house. We have white privilege up here?” he said. “Sorry. I don’t buy it because I didn’t see in any of these pictures, any Black guys. I didn’t see any Asians. I didn’t see anybody. They were a bunch of poor white Fins, Englishmen, Italians that came here for a better life, It’s all relative.”

However, like most American historical narratives, Kiilunen’s understanding about western U.P. history is missing the contributions of people of color during the copper boom — a history that is just now beginning to be reclaimed and studied. 

In 2017, MTU masters of science candidate Brendan Pelto published his thesis, “Black Americans in Michigan’s Copper Mining Narrative.” In archeological studies of existing government records, Pelto was able to piece together the story of Peter Verdine, referred to in later publications as “Black Pete.”

Verdine first appears in historical census data in 1850, where he was identified as the only Black person in the entire county. By 1860, 99 residents of the county were identified as Black in the census records. 

Pelto makes the point that Blacks may have found refuge in the copper industry leading up to and during the Civil War because the investors were abolitionists. He notes that some smelting facilities became stops on the Underground Railroad, the secret path taken by slaves running from the South and into Canada for their freedom. 

While the communities in Houghton may have had a more welcoming feel to them, race-based legal restrictions still applied. 

Verdine met Martha Lorasch, a white Bavarian immigrant, and the two had a child together. As a result, Verdine was criminally charged with cohabitation and seduction — morality laws that served the basis to enforce moral opposition to miscegenation or race-mixing. He was found guilty and ordered to pay a $250 fine, nearly $7,900 in today’s dollars. In order to keep his family together, he was forced to build a second home on his property for his wife and child to live in. 

Verdine was later convicted of manslaughter and served an eight-year term in Jackson Prison, but returned to the area. He soon became the Clifton Mines’ doctor and healer. A report on “Black Pete” in the Mining Gazette in 1916 indicated Verdine bribed local schoolchildren with candies so they would not be afraid of him. 

Erik Kiilunen | Todd Heywood photo

Kiilunen knew nothing about Verdine’s story until Pelto’s thesis was shared with him. 

It was nice to see a couple photos supporting the several Blacks who, based on the evidence provided, moved to the U.P. in the civil war era,” Kiilunen wrote in a follow up email after skimming the thesis. “This is proof positive that Finns and the rest of the folks up here did not discriminate and allowed these Black folks to suffer the same fate as them. I note he died in an accident at the mine, that truly puts him on an equal playing field. I also note that the Blacks in the area tacitly aided and abetted the whites in keeping the territory taken from the Ojibwe.”

Heidi Beirich is the co-founder of the Georgia-based Global Project Against Hate and Extremism who previously served for years at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project tracking hate groups and anti-government extremism. She called the misinformed understanding of the complicated racial dynamics and history in Houghton County part of the ongoing legacy of American history’s “whitewashing.”

“Well, when I see that, what I think about is this entire history in the United States to sort of write non-whites out of the picture, right?” she said. “To which is being confronted right now in various ways with people talking about Black history, what Black people, Native peoples, all these peoples contributed to the United States, but there has been forever, including the lost cause narrative, these attempts to sort of whitewash American history. 

“And so when I read that, that’s what it evokes to me. This whitewashing of reality, and that is a part of white supremacist narratives. I’m not seeing in this case, them saying that white people, there should be a white ethnostate and everybody thought like the more aggressive versions of white supremacy. It’s a white supremacist narrative. It’s rewriting history to favor a particular white population and ignoring the contribution to reality of others.”

Lake Superior, Houghton County | Susan J. Demas

The complex interrelationship of the culture of the western U.P. — a mix of fierce independence, proud immigrant roots and strong religious beliefs — swirl under the surface of ongoing battles over racial equity, freedom of political expression and public health. 

The March 6 harassment call targeting Kelly was the vanguard of a roiling storm that was about to consume Houghton County, empowering a new extremism and radicalism tied to churches, fueled by resistance to coronavirus restrictions and fanned by adherence to Trump. 

And so this is the story of how Houghton County, a once mild-mannered area in a remote, picturesque corner of the Upper Peninsula, has become a microcosm of the social and political upheaval that rocked the nation over the last year. It’s also the story of how the county remains a powder keg, with concerns from elected officials, residents and law enforcement that the pressures underneath the tranquil-appearing community, could explode into confrontations, violence and, perhaps, revolution. All that’s needed is a spark to ignite the fuse. 

Corrections: The story has been updated with correct spellings of the names of Sharon Stoll and Brian McLean and the correct locations of the Super 8 Motel and the First Apostolic Lutheran Church.

Up next: How Cafe Rosetta became the nexus of Houghton County’s conflict over the COVID crisis

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Todd A. Heywood
Todd A. Heywood

Todd Heywood is an award-winning journalist with over 30 years of experience. He's worked in print, online, radio and television. His reporting has been cited by the U.S. House of Representatives as well as in the United Nations reports on HIV. He's an avid vintage Star Wars collector and lives in Lansing with his three dogs.