History’s Gem of the Month: Unusual Wedding Invitation

February 2008

Unusual Wedding Invitation

I have seen a copy of Axel’s wedding invitation before. In fact, I have one on display at the museum that Axel mounted onto a board. However, when I looked through some of my mother’s things, I came across the copy that was sent to my grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Richards. I must say, that Axel’s wedding invitation was as unique as he was.


History’s Gem of the Month: Grand Marais Tourist Signpost

January 2008

For those of you who lived in or visited Grand Marais during the 1960s, you probably remember the signs that were displayed on the pole outside of the Dunes Saloon, now called the Lake Superior Brewing Company. The founder of the museum Axel Niemi, was actually one of the movers and shakers that helped develop Grand Marais as a tourist destination. During that time, he managed Woodland Park and helped to develop tourism-related resources to draw more people to the area.

We are not sure exactly when the signs were put up, or when they were taken down. Most likely the Chamber of Commerce was responsible for installing them.

All in all, though, it was nice to run across this newspaper clipping and include the photo as this month’s History Gem. I remember many a summer evening when us kids hung out in front of Kozy Corner across the street from the sign post. We watched tourists try to read the signs and figure out what Grand Marais destinations they wanted to check out.

History’s Gem of the Month: Lake Superior Editorial

December 2007

This month’s History Gem continues with the Lake Superior information theme. Recently, I received an email from David J. Krause, a geology professor from Ann Arbor, MI. He is a UP enthusiast who wrote the book “The Making of a Mining District” about the history of copper mining in Michigan. David’s wife is from Ontonagon, where her father named a fish tug after her and her cousin: the Sheryl-Dennis. In fact, as David reports, for some years the tug belonged to Grand Marais fisheries.

Through a mutual friend, he found out about the web page and the Gitche Gumee Museum. He sent me an email to tell me about his campaign to have Lake Superior officially designated the lowest point in North America. In his email, David reports: “I am dead serious about getting this information out and the need for correcting the “Death Valley thing” thrown around by national people who should know better. For many years I made sure that everyone who took my geology class understood it. The Death Valley defenders will likely argue that the bottom of Lake Superior is under water, but this is a non-issue for several reasons. Death Valley (Badwater Basin) is itself a lake during part of some years, and the fact that the Lake Superior basin happens to hold fresh water (not marine salt water) is irrelevant to its structure.”

In his campaign effort, David sent the following letter to the National Geographic Magazine:

Editor, National Geographic Magazine:

Your article on Death Valley (Nov 2007) includes a photograph with a caption that states: “At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is North America’s lowest point.” This is not correct. Lake Superior currently occupies what is by far the lowest structural basin on the North American continent. The surface elevation of Lake Superior is usually cited as about 602 feet above sea level and the depth as about 1333 feet, leaving a bottom elevation of 731 feet below sea level. This point lies about 40 miles north of Munising, Michigan, and therefore falls within the borders of that state. Therefore, the lowest point on the continent of North America is the bottom of the Lake Superior structural basin, being nearly 450 feet lower than the minus 282 feet of Badwater Basin (which itself may be under water or not, depending on local climatic conditions).

One further point I would like to make is that I believe the sign at the Badwater Basin says that it is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Thus, Lake Superior is actually the lowest point in the western hemisphere. The photo below show the deepest point in Lake Superior, which is not very far from Grand Marais. I’ve also included a photo of my hiking friends and I that was taken at Badwater in Death Valley. This was a vacation we took in the early 1990s wherein we hiked Mount Whitney (14,496 feet), which is the highest point in the continental U.S., and went to Badwater (-282 feet) within the same 12-hour period. On that trip, we also went to Las Vegas and stayed a night in the hotel on the Queen Mary. We called it our “vacation of contrasts” trip. In the photo, I am on the left.

History’s Gem of the Month: Tourist Information from the 1920s

Fall 2007

Last year, a couple of boxes of Grand Marais memorabilia were donated to the museum from the John Strom family. Included were several newspaper clippings going back to the 1920s, as well as some old post cards, logging equipment, and other items. The following article, written by Robert Page Lincoln, was published in the Minneapolis Tribune. In that this article mentions many areas that no longer exist, it must have been published during the 1920s. The post cards included below also were from the same era, or earlier. Notice that the Munising picture has almost no houses or other structures. Also, the Sable Falls picture shows a falls that is very much different that what we see today. Compare this picture with the one included in this month’s Grand Marais Scenes.

Outdoors . . .

Without doubt, Alger County, in the upper peninsula of Michigan, contains more attraction per square mile than any other section of the state. Here are a list of the attractions that are of interest to the traveler and outdoor lover:

  • The world famous Pictured Rocks of Sandstone.
  • The bathtub of the gods on William’s Island.
    • An enormous “tub” in the rock about 100 feet long and 30 wide.
  • Miner’s Castle
    • From the top of which Father Marquette preached to the Indians in their birch bark canoes below. On top of this rock can still be seen a rugged cross cut in the face of the sandstone and beside it a bowl hollowed out of the rock for the holy water.
  • Caves of the bloody chiefs
    • Where the Indians placed their prisoners of war, with such a thing as escape impossible.
  • Virgin’s rock and Bridal Wreath Falls.
  • The gigantic caves on Grand Island.
  • The remarkable grandeur of the shifting sand dunes of Grand Marais.
  • Remains of ancient iron furnaces near Munising, and the ancient charcoal kilns near Onota.
  • The enormous meteor at Star Siding on M-28, just a few miles from Munising.
  • The 200-foot glacial pothole on Perch Lake trail out of Munising.
  • Cox’s trout pond at Wetmore
    • The only inland body of water in the Upper Peninsula that flows both into Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.
  • Ancient Indian burial grounds on Sandpoint.
  • The location of Munising Bay
    • “Where stood the wigwam of Nokomis, daughter of the moon and grandmother of Hiawatha.”
  • Grand Island
    • The home of the elk and albino deer, where the renowned George Shiras III, famous wild life photographer, experimented with almost all of his night photography of wild life. … Grand Island is one of the most unusual islands in the United States, second only to Isle Royal, having 40 miles of shoreline, 13,600 acres of virgin timber.
  • The ancient fur trading posts of the American Fur Trading Company
    • Still standing, with fur derrick intact. Au Train, the resting point for the dog teams that carried the mail on one of the first mail routes to be established in the Upper Peninsula. Peter White was the mailman. The beautiful Adam’s Trail, one of the finest drives in the Upper Peninsula.
  • The Cusino Deeryard
    • Ranked as one of the largest deeryards in the United States.
  • The Hiawatha National Forest
    • One of the government’s most ambitious efforts in Michigan. It has considerable wilderness that is untouched by either fire or the axe of the lumberman. The vast pine plantings in this forest which are a study in themselves and might well be studied by foresters elsewhere.

History’s Gem of the Month: Lake Superior Origin from 1957

August 2007

This article was contained in the museum’s archive. It was glued onto a page on which the museum founder, Axel Niemi, wrote that it was written in 1957 by Dr. George M Schwartz from the University of Minnesota. The source of publishing was not noted.

Origin of Lake Superior

Lake Superior, is the largest body of fresh water in the world and also one of the deepest. The term, superior, referring to its position as the upper lake of the five Great Lakes of North America was first used according to Grace Lee Nute in the Jesuit Relation of 1647-1648. The lake is 300 miles long and has a maximum width of 160 miles with an area of about 32,000 square miles. Its normal surface level is 602 feet above sea level and the greatest depth 1,290 feet.

In view of its great size and depth, it is natural that there should be much interest in the origin of the lake. In addition to its size, another fact of importance in considering the origin is occurrence of the lake in the trough of a great syncline or down fold in the rocks. That this structure of rocks has had an important effect on the origin of the lake is certain, but that the down folding of the rocks is the primary cause of the present lake is doubted inn view of the great length of time since the folding. The folding can be fairly closely dated as late Keweenawan or some 600,000 years ago. This would seem to allow plenty of time for any depression formed by the folding to have been filled with sediments.

Another fundamental fact to be considered in the origin of the present lake is the great depth of the bottom of the lake below sea level. The depression could therefore not have formed by stream erosion unless this whole portion of the continent once was much higher with respect to sea level than it is at present. While there have been changes in both continental and sea levels, there is no good evidence that these were on a scale to account for the Superior depression.

There are two main possible explanations: (1) The lake was scoured out by successive ice lobes which probably occupied the rock basin culminating in the Superior lobe of Late Wisconsin time. The glacial erosion was probably guided by a deep river valley in the structural basin. (2) Depression of the basin by faulting at a sufficiently late date for it to have escaped filling with sediment.

Difficulties with the fault hypothesis are the lack of evidence of late faulting anywhere at this portion of the North American continent and the lack of good evidence of faults in the proper positions to account for the depression. Certain great faults are known to exist in the Superior region and it is reasonable to assume that erosion was modified by their existence.

The hypothesis of glacial erosion has more obvious support. The movement of the Superior ice lobe down the axis of the lobe was one of the last great geologic events in the region. The timing to account for the present depression is excellent. Furthermore it is evident form the moraines of the Superior lobe as shown by Leverett’s maps that a great deal of rock debris was picked up by the ice lobe and deposited to the southwest of the present lake. It is also shown by glacial drift to the southwest in Minnesota that earlier ice sheets passed over the superior region and gathered up enormous amounts of rock debris and carried it on to the south. It is reasonable to suppose therefore that the Superior syncline was occupied by previous lobes that moved along the length of the basin gouging it out to a greater extent each time it was occupied by a lobe of ice.

In summary it may be said that Lake Superior probably owes its origin to a combination of conditions. The first important event was the formation of the great syncline following the extensive igneous extrusions and intrusions of the Keweenawan. This syncline no doubt was expressed at a surface by a basin that was filled by later and softer rocks than the older rocks round the edges. Faulting at a still later time modified the structure of portions of the syncline. Some of the faulting has been considered of late Keweenawan age, part of the movement is Paleozoic or later. The immediate cause of the present topographic basin was erosion by successive lobes of glacial ice that occupied the bottom of the syncline and eroded out the soft sediments but modified only in a moderate degree the resistant pre-Cambrian rocks on the sides. It is generally assumed that a large river valley occupied the present site of the lake and guided the early glacial erosion.

History’s Gem of the Month: Hints on Hunting Glacial Agate Article

July 2007

While looking through the museum’s archives to select this month’s history gem, I came across a draft of an article written by the museum founder, Axel Niemi. I’m not sure if and when he ever published this article, but I thought it worthy of sharing.


Grand Marais to Whitefish Point are gravelly for the most part. The glacial rocks leave the harder agates and other quartz minerals to be picked by the lucky hunter. There are a number of gravel pits scattered throughout the U.P., but the chances of finding anything of importance in these pits are slim. The author found only one large green jasper moss agate (1 pound), which was identical to a specimen found by a conservation worker on the high banks of the Sucker River. However, rockhounds will have better luck combing the beaches.

Many visitors examine the Gitche Gumee Mineral Museum collection every year and are amazed at the multiple varieties of agate, jasper, and other gem minerals that have come from the local beaches. That the collection was found within a few minutes walk to a couple hour drive from the museum seems unbelievable. To those rockhounds who understand the difficulty encountered in hunting these all but camouflaged mineral gemstones, it is apparent that a great deal of time is required to find these priceless rarities. Those who are willing to put in the time, though, are often rewarded.

The biggest reason beginners are not successful in finding glacial agates is the fact that they give up too easily. Since the agates have become worn to the point that they are rather indistinguishable from other translucent non-gem rocks and opaque stones, the problem of spotting a choice agate is readily understood. To add further to the confusion, until the rockhound becomes accustomed to spotting agate characteristics, it is easy for your focus to be diverted by a host of variously colored pretty jaspers, cherts, and granite pebbles that are thrown into the jumble. Even the experienced agate hunter must avoid being inflicted by “the pretty rock syndrome.”

Another reason why agates are hard to spot is that many are covered with dozens of tiny powdery fractures that may hide the true nature of the interior beauty. If you were more than a billion years old having to contend with the waves and ice of Lake Superior, as well as its predecessor lakes and oceans, you would have a few fractures, too. Thus to be successful it is important that you keep your focus, spend the hours required, and concentrate on looking for the agate characteristics. With such a variety of rocks on the beach, coupled with the need to look through or among millions of other glacial-worn stones, the task to spot the elusive agate is a challenge in itself.

History’s Gem of the Month: The Story of the Grand Marais “Meteor”

June 2007

This new section, History’s Gems, replaces two sections from the original web site, including Gems from the Past, and Story Corner. It also evolves and expands to include new items. After updating the original web page each month during the first couple of years, it became more and more difficult to separate the two sections, as many of the entries could have been included in either section. Thus, in the effort to streamline the new web page, one section has emerged from the previous two. Also, as I was sorting some of my history reference materials, I realized that they have never been fully utilized. I have several books and other documents about natural history, the history of Grand Marais, surrounding communities, Michigan, and the United States. Most of these materials tell the story of what life was like in the 1890s and early 1900s.

As the web page monthly updates now continue into the future, there will be a wide array of possibilities for what will be included in the monthly History’s Gem. I may include a story written by or about Axel. An interesting recount of a Grand Marais event may be incorporated. Perhaps an intriguing tidbit about the natural world will be the selected Gem. Or I may look through the reference materials and describe a characteristic of what life was like a century ago.

June 2007

NOTE: This article, which was posted on the web site several years ago, is being reprinted due to the fact that I have decided to sell the property on which the “meteor” sits. If you are interested in looking at or purchasing this 10-acre parcel, please refer to the information at the end of the article.

The Story of the Grand Marais “Meteor”

One of the memories I have from my childhood summers in Grand Marais is traipsing through the woods over by Sable Lake to visit the “meteor.” Of course, back then most of us believed that the rock really was a meteor. It never occurred to us that a bolder that is 27’ x 12’ x 8’ in dimension (including the broken off slab) maybe would have dug at least a little crater when it hit.

One of the reasons for our belief in the “meteor,” is that in the agate book published in 1973 by the museum founder, Axel Niemi, had s story titled “Observing a Falling Meteor.” Another contributing factor to our belief was that Axel created a brochure for the town pointing out various tourist attractions. A sign post was erected downtown as well as on the road near the “meteor.” Axel’s purpose in developing tourism resources was to increase the number of campers at Woodland Park, where he worked at his “day job.” It seems that Axel negotiated with the township to receive a percentage of any revenue increase realized at the camping park as a result of his marketing activities.

The chapter in his book about the “meteor” appears near the end, and is sandwiched between two factual chapters about agate hunting in the Upper Peninsula, thus, further influencing people’s tendency to believe that the story was true. This story is reproduced below:


Approximate day of occurrence 10 January 1920, Mid-day

Since a meteor is composed mostly of iron, the only manner of occurrence as iron in the natural state, the mineral or metal tends to oxidize and disappear after a few years. Nevertheless from the description given by the observer, this meteorite could very well be still in its original area of fall.

While walking across Au Sable Lake in Alger County in the winter, Otto N. Niemi observed the object. At first a sound, such as a strong wind would make, was heard. Mr. Niemi, on the open ice, had nowhere to go for shelter. Suddenly he observed a streak in the sky just above treetop level to the south. The object was coming closer and closer, leaving a trail of smoke or vapor. The angle of travel was such as to avoid the lake and traveled to his right hitting a treetop at the south end of the lake. The meteor (while still in air, it’s a meteor, on ground it’s a meteorite) finally crashed through the tops of some birch trees and into the ground.

Since the time was already beyond half-past the day, with traps and furs in sack, Otto Niemi never did visit the area of the fall, although he insists that it was not far from the edge of the lake. A real attempt to locate this object has never been made. The high-pitched sound indicated a meteor flying and producing a rapid spinning motion. This type of meteor disintegrates after striking an object. However, the fact that a large limb was taken down from the birch tree, may indicate simply a fast moving object which produced the sound due to the friction against the atmosphere, and not due to spinning motion. If such is the case, then the meteorite may well be buried nearby.

Many of those who read Axel’s book and followed his subsequent directions to go and look at the meteorite, which had since been “discovered,” never noticed the short paragraph located near the beginning of his book:


The author knows of an area where a meteor had fallen years ago not so far from the rock that is now marked as a “meteor.” The large stone marked “meteor” is not a meteorite at all. Rather, it is a piece of metamorphic iron sediment (note the layers of formation).

Soon after moving to Grand Marais, a good friend of mine, Jan Carol Ogden, dragged me back to the “meteor” one day. I had not been back to the site for many years, so it was great to see this incredible rock again. She announced to me that since I was the biggest rockhound she knew, that I had to purchase and own the biggest rock in town. That I did.

I’ve since studied the “meteor,” and agree with Axel that it is a metamorphic iron sediment. I also think that it is a glacial erratic, having been moved and deposited to its current location when the glaciers retreated north almost 10,000 years ago. Given that the glaciers were many thousands of feet thick, they would not have had any trouble transporting this rock.

The story of the meteor lives on to this day. It is a difficult decision for me to “burst the bubble” when I am faced with telling museum visitors that the rock is in fact not a meteor.


Although it is a difficult decision, I have decided to sell the 10 acres on which the “meteor” sits. The property is located on a corner lot (William Hill and Lowder Roads) with 12-month road access. The area accessing and surrounding the “meteor” has been cleared and pert tested. The property is located southwest of Grand Marais a few miles, within a quarter mile of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, between the Sable Lake Boat Ramp and Grand Sable Dunes. It is a mostly wooded parcel offering a peaceful setting. The selling price is $80,000. If you are interested, send an email to Karen@agatelady.com or give me a call at 906-494-2590.

History’s Gem of the Month: The Telescope Story

May 2007

This first entry in the new section has been requested by several museum visitors. It recounts one of the many reasons why Axel was a major influence in my life. This is the story about Axel’s telescope, which is now safely stored at my house.


My eyesight was extremely poor until I was around 10 years old, due to an excess amount of oxygen in the incubator when I was born. One day, soon after my eyesight improved, Axel said to me: “Karen, meet me tonight in the street in front of the museum at 11:30.” When I asked him why, he just told me to show up. I was so nervous all day that I could barely eat or contain myself. Why would Axel want a ten-year-old kid to stay up past her bedtime to meet him in front of the museum? Both my mother and grandmother, who were as interested as I, encouraged the rendezvous.

At twenty-five minutes after 11:00, I ran the four blocks down the sidewalk from my grandmother’s house, where we were spending the summer.  I especially ran fast past the scary dip in the sidewalk east of the Lutheran Church, fueled by hours of curiosity about what Mr. Niemi was up to.

As I approached the museum, I was astonished to find Axel aiming the biggest telescope I had ever seen up toward the glittering stars. I was not aware that Axel had ordered the telescope kit and hired other kids to walk in circles to grind the lens. When they were almost finished with the grinding, the mirror fractured and, after he muttered a few select words, Axel ordered another one and started the grinding over. You can still see the mark on the floor of the museum where he fastened the grinding station.

As I ran up just before the requested time, Axel said, “You are a little early; I’m not quite ready yet — just hold your pants on for a minute.” Finally, he told me to stand up on the chair, without touching the telescope, and to look through the eyepiece. As I carefully looked through the eyepiece and saw the rings of Saturn, Axel said to me: “Karen, given your eyesight problems, if you can see the rings of Saturn, you can do anything.”

That was one of the first moments in my life that I believed I really could accomplish something. Thanks to Axel, I not only enjoyed success in several different career paths, but I also was able to acquire the museum to carry on his legacy.

In the photograph, if anyone recognizes the person standing with Axel in front of the sign next to the telescope, please email me at karen @ agatelady.com. I know that Axel also shared the telescope with many other people throughout the years. Please send me an email if you have a story to tell about Axel’s telescope, or if you were one of the Grand Marais kids that helped to grind the telescope’s mirrors.

When I searched the Internet for a picture of Saturn, the very first web page that I looked at had the following quote at the top of the page. Coincidence? I will always thank Axel for giving me hope.

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and reality of tomorrow.” – Robert Goddard

Information about Saturn

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest

Orbit: 887 million miles from the Sun (10 times that of the earth)
Diameter: 74,100 miles in diameter at the equator (9 times that of the earth)
Sunlight: Reaches in 1 hour, 19 minutes (compared to 8 minutes for the earth)
Year: Takes 29.46 earth years to rotate around the sun

In Roman mythology, Saturn was the god of agriculture. Saturn has been known since prehistoric times. Galileo was the first to observe it with a telescope in 1610; he noted its odd appearance but was confused by it. It was not until 1659 that Christian Huygens correctly inferred the geometry of the rings. Saturn’s rings remained unique in the known solar system until 1977 when very faint rings were discovered around Uranus (and shortly thereafter around Jupiter and Neptune).

Saturn was first visited by NASA’s Pioneer 11 in 1979 and later by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Cassini (a joint NASA / ESA project) arrived on July 1, 2004.

Saturn is the least dense of the planets; its specific gravity (0.7) is less than that of water. Like Jupiter, Saturn is about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with traces of water, methane, ammonia and “rock”, similar to the composition of the primordial Solar Nebula from which the solar system was formed.

Though Saturn’s rings look continuous from the Earth, the rings are actually composed of innumerable small particles each in an independent orbit. The ring particles seem to be composed primarily of ice, but they may also include rocky particles with icy coatings. They range in size from a half inch to several yards in diameter, with some even larger. Despite their impressive appearance, there’s really very little material in the rings — if the rings were compressed into a single body they would be no more than 60 miles across.

The origin of the rings of Saturn is unknown. Though they may have had rings since their formation, the ring systems are not stable and must be regenerated by ongoing processes, perhaps the breakup of larger satellites. The current set of rings may be only a few hundred million years old.

When it is in the nighttime sky, Saturn is easily visible to the unaided eye. Though it is not nearly as bright as Jupiter, it is easy to identify as a planet because it doesn’t “twinkle” like the stars do. The rings and the larger Saturn moons are visible with a small astronomical telescope.