Circuit Spotlight: Houghton/Hancock, UP

The communities of Hancock and Houghton sit across the river from each other at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula. While sitting at Cyberia Cafe (where you could buy bowls of cereal!) in Houghton after posting a flyer by the door, I was approached by Harry Gable, who turned out to be one of the founders of the Keweenaw Food Cooperative. He told me a bit of the history of the cooperative's development, including that it started because customers of a local vegetarian worker cooperative cafe became interested in having their own tofu and brown rice to prepare at home. The food cooperative is thriving at its location across the river in Hancock, though the cafe – called Funkey's Karma Cafe because one of the workers found an old sign that said “Funkey's” on it in his field – didn't survive. Chris Alquist, one of the cooperative's first members and my location host at Portage Lake District Library (which has a view of the canal, an in-house tarantula named Webster, and curbside book returns that had been yarnbombed by library staff!), shared with me that a vegetarian cafe in that area back in the 1970s was still too counter-cultural to be viable.

Through the Houghton training, I met a woman from Covington, a smaller town south of Houghton, who had come to the training to see if cooperative businesses had anything to offer the youth in her community. Specifically, she is connected to a young man born and raised in Covington with several unique skills and a desire to stay in his home community, but, if he can't find a way to afford to work and live there, he feels he has no other choice than to join the army.

Chris and others provided me a great deal of history on the area, as well as insights into area businesses and organizations who would be receptive to the program and could be hosts or recruitment sources for future iterations. One of the most exciting is Finlandia University and its Jutila Center for Global Design and Business, which is refurbished old hospital that serves as a small-business incubator with more than 30 leasable spaces and other resources for business, including design and business consulting, rapid prototyping, and training seminars.  "By combining design spaces within a business incubator, we have created a "community" where students, faculty, and business people interact and collaborate-sharing ideas, equipment, and workspace. Community entrepreneurs come for training, consultation services, and inspiration." Over twenty service and retail businesses occupy the center, ranging from wellness and design services to insurance, music studios, commercial photography, engineering, and software development.

I spent my day off driving around the Keweenaw Peninsula, seeing the beautiful scenery, visiting the remnants of the mining industry in the area, and enjoying some local food. An eating highlight was the Jampot, a bakery and jammery run by the monks living down the road at Holy Transfiguration Skete. In the store, they post a list of all the places where they purchase ingredients like butter, sugar, and flour. The vast majority of the purveyors from which they purchased goods were cooperatives. I asked one of the monks if they chose to buy from those cooperatives because they sold quality product, because they had the best product, or for some other reason. He replied that they simply "have the best quality product on the market."

 A view of Lake Superior from the west side of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

A view of Lake Superior from the west side of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

The photo above is of me sitting alongside Lake Superior outside of Copper Harbor at the northern tip of the Keweenaw. It was taken by a fellow-Iowan (#bornandraised) - it turns out she works for Monsanto, so I shared with her that DeKalb and Monsanto gave me my first paychecks as a young field laborer in the cornfields of Iowa. The shirt I am wearing is from Monkeywrench Books, a radical collective bookstore in Austin, Texas. I am also wearing a Land'O'Lakes-Cenex hat (kind of like a combination Taco Bell-Pizza Hut, except for agricultural cooperatives!), but you can't really tell from the back. ;)