Thursday, August 7, 2014

North Country Redux: Immigrants and woodcarvings

July 22 2014

After a very pleasant start to the day yesterday paddling the Tahquamenon River it began to heat up in earnest and by the time I got to Ashland Wisconsin it was downright - well - hot.

One again Karma was working for me and I managed to snag one of the two or three left-over sites in the Ashland city campground right there on the lake-shore which kept me from having to retreat a few miles to the Bad River Reservation Casino for a night of dry camping, which was a very good thing considering.
One of the 600' self-unloaders was way out there on the horizon near Ashland
Ashland is on the southern shore of Lake Superior but, despite reports of the lake surface temperatures being abnormally cold this year, the wind must have been wrong or something because  the air temps were well into the 90's, along with the relative humidity. Some in the campground were saying it was the first real summer-like day of the year and were reveling in it, but it forced me to reluctantly resort to the air-conditioner for the first time on the trip. (I've been harboring the notion of being able to remove that noisy 100 lb. behemoth from the roof and replacing it with a second vent fan but I suspect that if I keep ending up on these summer trips that's not going to happen. . .)

I probably should have climbed up there and hosed the mud-dauber nests off of the fan blades before I left home. At least that's what I hope has the thing so unbalanced it's shaking the whole van!

Storms blew through in the wee-hours last night and cleared some of the heat out, along with a few awnings and other lightweight camp stuff, but the forecast was calling for high temps again today. Not that it mattered all that much to me since I wasn't staying. Instead I hit the road again, timing my arrival in Duluth for the 9:30 opening of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum.

I tried getting here last year but the parking situation thwarted my plans. This year, armed with directions from Carol in the marketing department, I was able to park my oversize vehicle and turn up at the admissions desk just as they opened. (Most available parking is inside parking garages and I'm too tall for those!)

If you have an oversize vehicle and want to visit the museum: From I35 north or southbound, exit at 5th Avenue; at the light at the top of the exit ramp turn northwest towards downtown Duluth, away from the harbor and towards the hills; one street over is W. Michigan, turn right; the next street is 4th Avenue, watch for it because it's a modest street that could be mistaken for an alley, turn right; at the bottom of a short down-hill 4th T's at another alley-like street, from the T make a very short jog right then left into a parking lot tucked under the 5th Avenue exit ramp. If you are towing and miss the first entrance to the parking lot make sure you don't miss the second because the narrow street you are on dead-ends into the side of the museum a half-block in front of you. Assuming you've made the proper turns, this puts you in a lot marked as being for riders of the Scenic Train only and says nothing about oversize vehicle parking, but that's where Carol told me to go and nobody complained.
In addition to the train museum, the depot, saved from the wrecking ball back in the 50’s, also houses several other museums and exhibits.

One that was a surprise to me is called the immigrant’s waiting room. This is the room where immigrants arriving to work the woods and mines of the area first ended up as they came off the trains.

Along with the usual information plaques the room is full of stuff. Stuff like dresses and trunks and kitchenware and other things immigrants brought with them to their new life, but the real attraction for me, one which no one else seemed to even notice, was a flat-screen mounted at eye level just to the side of the door.

A film about the immigrant experience at Ellis Island was looping on that screen and I stood there and watched it; twice.
The film is done from the perspective of the immigrants, with firsthand accounts and readings of some of their writings. It starts by explaining the drivers behind immigrating in the first place, showing the economic and political conditions of their home countries. Conditions so desperate that they drove large percentages of the population to abandon all they knew and strike out for the vague promise of something better with the few possessions they could carry. It's one thing to hear about this stuff in history class or read about it, but to hear it from the mouths of people that lived it was - well - powerful, and just might make you want to rethink current immigration policies. 

From their homelands the film followed the immigrants through the process of getting cleared at Ellis Island. We’re talking about people desperate beyond most of our comprehension, people who had no prospects back home, who viewed police (I think this was a common translation for any official.) as someone who could, in the words of more than one immigrant, 'cut our heads off and leave us lie in the street to be cleaned up by the dogs'.

The film conveys their mix of hope for the future, fear that they will be rejected and sent back where they came from, confusion brought about by the language barrier and the complicated, multi-step process, and the gut-wrenching separation of families into males and females with their children for much of that process. A process where they had to overcome their most basic fears and submit to the ‘police’ at each station.

The film ended with the bewilderment of being released into the streets of the city and dawning comprehension that they had made it to their new country, and must now make it in their new country, building an entirely new life from scratch in a place they don’t know, don’t understand and haven’t yet learned the language.

My grandparents immigrated in the early 1900’s and I have to imagine they had a little bit of the same experience. At one point, while I was rooted there in front of that screen, a little boy fled to his mother’s leg and asked her what was wrong with that man, because I was standing there with tears streaming down my face.

Not cool to make me scare little kids like that, not cool at all!!  (Oh crap, just standing here writing this has me doing it again. If I hadn’t lost it long ago someone should just come along and take away my man-card right now!)

As a counter point to that very dramatic exhibit, is the whimsical look at the extensive woodcarvings of Herman Melheim. Herman, a Norwegian immigrant, built the 'little log cabin on Moose Horn Rd, on the way to Wooden Frog Park near Lake Kabetogama' and then started carving furniture. Things got a little out of hand and soon everything, and I mean everything, in the cabin was hand-carved by Herman!

The Depot houses several different museums and exhibits, including, in addition to those already mentioned, the Veteran's Memorial hall, the Forest History Gallery and the North Shore Scenic Railroad terminal, but my main purpose in getting here was for the Lake Superior Railroad Museum.

But in the interests of not subjecting you to a bunch of railroad crap you may or may not be interested in, I have decided to give that part of the museum it's own separate post.

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