Sunday, August 16, 2009

Iron Crown to Ironwood II

As stated in the previous article (Iron Crown to Ironwood), the town of Hurley is on the west side of the Montreal River (Wisconsin), and bigger town of Ironwood is on the east side of the Montreal River (Northern Michigan). About 20% of Hurley's residents are "Italian," largely Lombardian. Although small, Hurley has had quite a reputation as a very rough town at the height of it's iron mining and lumberjack past.

[Above, left: A portion of the stripper joints along Hurley's main drag. The town is a pale shadow of the days in the 1920s and 1930s when Hurley was one of the most raucous places in the country.]

The following is an article from

Region: Ironwood & the Gogebic Range

Hurley Area

Today Hurley, Wisconsin, is a fairly placid place with a tourism-based economy. But it has nearly 30 bars, a rather unusual number for a town of 2,000. That's the only tip-off to Hurley's notorious past, unequaled in all the north woods. "Hurley, Hayward, and Hell," the saying went- though some people wonder if Cumberland shouldn't have been added to the list of lawless lumber towns. Three Hurley taverns at the bottom of Silver Street still have strippers.

Snowmobilers love Hurley because it's so snowy, so friendly, and so handy. Snowgoer magazine consistently rates it "best nightlife in the Midwest." The entire downtown is virtually on trail because the snowmobile trail is on the old railroad right of way. The railroad made Hurley boom in 1885 by connecting it with Ashland, Wisconsin, and its ore docks. The tracks ran right behind the north side of Silver Street.

"Throughout the Middle West, wherever lumberjacks and miners congregated, Hurley was known as the hell-hole of the range," stated Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, the 1941 W.P.A. guide. "Even Seney, at its worst and liveliest, could not compete with the sin, suffering, and saloons that gave Hurley a reputation unrivaled from Detroit to Duluth."

From the beginning, Hurley was the wild, wide-open frontier town, in contrast to Ironwood just across the river, where mining companies based in Michigan reflected the more sober values of the eastern and Marquette interests that developed the Gogebic Range. The fledgling community of Hurley fought to preserve its autonomy by separating itself from more powerful and staid Ashland County, which it did in 1893. Hurley's elaborate courthouse with its impressive tower had already been built, in a prearranged deal.

Hurley's rough, crude past was the subject of Come and Get It (1934), a popular novel by Edna Ferber, the author of Show Boat, Giant, and Stage Door. She set it during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ferber stayed in town at the celebrated Burton House hotel, then in decline, and talked to many local people. She based the novel on fictionalized composite versions of an expansive lumber baron (said to reflect aspects of Escanaba lumber titan Bill Bonifas) and the celebrated Lotte Moore. Moore was "a well loved entertainer and lady of the evening," in the words of local historian Gene Cisewski. "In her day, the profession of high-class escort was not illegal. And when a woman carried herself with the proper comportment and discretion, the profession wasn't even frowned upon too seriously." Lotte was murdered in 1890, perhaps because she had witnessed a bank robbery.

In the sanitized but still enjoyable 1936 film version of Come and Get It, Lotta (played by Frances Farmer, now a cult figure, in her most noted role) reforms, marries, and has a daughter who marries the son of the lumberman who deserted her.

Ferber described the fictionalized Hurley as "a sordid enough town. . . , with all the vices and crudeness of the mining camps of an earlier day, but with few of their romantic qualities. Lumber and iron were hard masters to serve. A cold, hard country of timber and ore. . . . A rich and wildly beautiful country, already seared and ravaged. . . . Encircling the town were the hills and ridges that had once been green velvety slopes, tree shaded. Now the rigs and shafts of the iron mines stalked upon them with never a tree or blade of grass to be seen." Local people say that Come and Get It has little to do with the truth, but it's a good read and a memorable movie, often available through inter-library loan. Ferber, who was Jewish, did her research in Hurley but took offense to perceived local anti-Semitism, left town, and finished the novel at Bill Bonifas's cottage on Lake Gogebic.

A colorful true story from more recent times concerns a judge who ran a strip joint in which the stripper used a boa constrictor in her act. One fateful time she battered a heckling customer with it. Not long after that, the fire department got a call about a fire there, but arrived to find no smoke. Four or so hours later the place burned.

Hurley ignored all limitations on the sale of alcohol, up to and including Prohibition, passed in 1919. Stories of protracted conflicts between federal agents and local people are told during the Living History tour of Hurley taverns held during the Iron County Heritage Festival in late July and early August. For times, call (715) 561-5310 or look in at

The lower block of Silver Street dates from the Prohibition years, when a mining company decided to subdivide it and sell it off. Nearly 200 saloons, disguised as soda shoppes, lined downtown's streets. When Chicago gangsters established resorts and gambling rackets in northern Wisconsin mining and lumber towns, Hurley was a favorite place to relax and recreate. Al Capone never could figure out how to make inroads into Hurley's well-established business in illegal booze. He is said to have been a regular visitor; his brother Ralph ran several businesses in nearby Mercer and died in a Hurley nursing home.

Strip clubs are less artistically erotic and more crudely sexual than 50 years ago, and a small place like Hurley can't pay big-time performers. Compared to metro areas, local strip clubs are said to be tame. And patrons can't break the rules about physical contact, or the police will be called.

These Hurley bars stand out in terms of general interest:

• FREDDIE'S OLD-TIME SALOON and HALL OF FAME is full of sports memorabilia. The thick, bulletproof walls from Prohibition days aren't evident to visitors. 411 Silver St. (715) 561-5020.

• THE IRON NUGGET CASUAL FOOD & DRINK has a dining area that's a virtual museum of local iron mining. 404 Silver St. (715) 561-9800.

• MAHOGANY RIDGE feels like it's an original tavern from the 1890s, but it really dates from the early 1920s. Visually it's far and away the most striking of Hurley's taverns. The heavy, ornate back bar is said to have been carved by Scandinavians from the Keweenaw Peninsula. Said to get rowdy as the evening goes on, but it's a placid place in the daytime. (It opens at 9 a.m.) 29 Silver St. (715) 561-4414.

• Daytime pedestrians and sightseers may find more of interest at the HURLEY COFFEE COMPANY, a cheerful, light-filled coffeehouse and internet cafe with ice cream cones, soup and sandwiches, coffees and mugs, teas and teapots, cards and gifts. 122 Silver St. at Second/U.S. 1. (715)561-5500. Open 7 days from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Handicap accessible.


Actually, there are quite a few articles online about the Ironwood area, which, although small in population, is part of our history in America. It's also notable that the area is one of the chief centers of Finnish ancestry in America. Some of the names of the local towns in the Montreal River area strike me as interesting, like Rhinelander, Germania, or Tomahawk. Of course there are also all the regional names with "iron." I was thinking also of another remote connection, as our culture was a chief center of the "Iron Age," called the "Villanovan culture," which was based in Tuscany, Lombardy, and a little bit in the Veneto. The book 'Creed of Iron' is about Wotanism, and the old ways of our ancestors in that era. The Langobards called Wotan... "Godan," and that's a whole new subject. As you can see, there are so many connections here, literal, and spiritual. When you dive into a simple subject like this, it's amazing just how far you can go.

A few YouTube videos about the region:

Old family photographs in Ironwood

The Hiawatha of Ironwood

The Beauty of Lake Superior

Kayaking Montreal River canyon

Amazing Snowboarding at Big Powderhorn Mountain

Bad River Casino National Snocross Race - Ironwood, MI - Pt. 1

Finnish American Lives

The Finnish American Lives video is part of a documentary from 1982, which can be found here. Although we hear it probably too often about the Midwest, the Ironwood area is a very pure part of America. It did have a very rough reputation at one time however. Maybe a little bit like Deadwood, South Dakota.


8-23-09 Addition: I could almost make a third part to this series. I just wanted to note a few items and thoughts. When looking at a map of the region, I saw Green Bay, which is not all that far away. I have never been there, but it appears to me that it possesses the rugged charm of a small town, and a way of life probably not even much different than in the Ironwood area. There's so much history there, and I would like to look into further connections, past and present, in relation to what we're looking at here. There are just over 100,000 people in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It's probably best known for it's NFL team, the Green Bay Packers, named after the meat packing industry there. There is also a timeless element to the team, as one can easily vision the old Packer teams playing in the frost of winter, and images of Vince Lombardi on the sidelines, and all the other famous Packer players of the 60s. Vince Lombardi wasn't Lombardian, but was Neapolitan. On top of winning games, Lombardi was known for all those thought-provoking and challenging ideas about "life and winning."

Also noteworthy is the historical relationship between mining in the Montreal River area of Northern Michigan and Wisconsin, and the automotive industry in Detroit or Pontiac, Michigan. The mined metallic product is loaded onto ships and shipped east across Lake Superior and then south along Lake Huron to the various shipping ports. To show that these ocean-like lakes are not anything to be taken lightly, in 1975, one of these cargo freighters actually sank during a storm upon Lake Superior. It was called the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. It more than just sank, it was wrecked and the entire crew was lost.

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