Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum

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KAREN ANN BRZYS

I have been coming to Grand Marais for as long as I can remember. My grandmother was born here just after the turn of the last century after my great-grandparents emigrated from Finland in the late 1890s. My mother also was raised in Grand Marais. As a child, my summers were spent in this magical place on the south shore of Lake Superior. My experiences here not only developed a dynamic appreciation for the natural world, but they also served as an important counterbalance needed to offset the school-year time spent in the busy suburbs of Detroit.

One of the key aspects of my Grand Marais summers involved the Gitche Gumee Museum. There were many evenings I sat on the front porch of the museum waiting for Axel to return from his day-job of managing the tourist park, located kitty-corner across the street. Axel managed Woodland Park, owned by the local township, for over 30 years after the lamprey eel desecrated the lake trout population, causing he and his dad to retire from commercial fishing. Sometimes he would finish his park duties early and escape down to the beach to hunt for the elusive Lake Superior agate. He knew he could depend on me waiting for him to come and open the museum doors for his evening hours of entertainment. I would just sit and watch him amuse the tourists, or occasionally he would give me little chores to help.

After starting in a deficit position of having poor eyesight until I was 10, my work ethic allowed me to do well academically, both in high school and at the University of Michigan. But I think I also learned Axel’s tendency toward diversification. After graduating with my bachelors degree in Natural Resources, I earned a masters in Educational Administration. During my work life I have enjoyed the challenge of more than twelve different types of jobs including: information specialist, organizational development, gaming simulations designer, technical writer, sales trainer, public relations, market research, trade show management, marketing product management, government relations, brewpub restaurant owner, public official, and museum owner/curator and artist. Through it all I survived over a million and a half miles of airline travel before I moved to Grand Marais in 1994. Although I will always stay busy, I look forward at this stage of my life to a calmer existence of operating the museum, teaching classes, and making agate art. With both kids grown (both graduated from college and now developing their careers), I can now harvest a few of the fruits from my different jobs to eke out a meager living wherein I can carry on Axel’s legacy of helping others to enjoy the beauty of nature and the wonders of life.

Axel was a major positive influence on my life. Since he never had children of his own, a few of us were “adopted” into the Gitche Gumee Museum’s world of rocks and minerals. I learned from Axel about having positive connections with people, setting and committing to goals, working hard, and never being afraid to live your passion each and every day -- and to tackle things that are different or unfamiliar.

Since the museum will always be Axel’s museum, he should also be mentioned here.

AXEL AARO NIEMI

May 25, 1917 - February 22, 2004

After a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Axel passed away on February 22, 2004 in the full care facility at Ontonagon Hospital. He was the youngest of six children. His parents, Alino and Otto, who emigrated separately from Finland, married not long after meeting in Grand Marais. All six children were valedictorian of their classes -- still a state record in Michigan.

Axel lived in Grand Marais nearly his whole life, other than when he was serving in the medical corps during World War II, and when he moved to Ontonagon with his wife, Margaret, in the mid 1980s to be closer to her family as well as to medical facilities. During his time in Grand Marais, Axel worked with his father in the family fishing business until they were forced to sell the last of their three handmade fish tugs, the Shark, in 1954 due to the decline in Lake Trout population caused by the Lamprey Eel. After that, Axel entertained tens of thousands of people in his Gitche Gumee Museum, as well as during his time managing Woodland Park.

Now Axel can resume his project-implementation ways from the other side.

Axel, thanks for being unique and spontaneous. Thanks for showing us how to laugh and how to live fully each moment. Thanks for instructing us about the world around us so that we can more fully appreciate it. Thanks for teaching us to have the courage to form our own opinions. Thanks for exhibiting your passion and sharing your love. We will miss you.

Axel's PicturesKaren BrzysKaren Brzys in the Grand Canyon
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Gitche Gumee Museum.
E21739 Brazel Street
Grand Marais, Michigan 49839

 


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