Museum Information

Museum History

For almost 25 years (1954-1978) the founder of this museum, Axel Niemi, entertained people with his music, stories, and knowledge about rocks and minerals. In 1990, Ronald Marshall purchased the museum from Axel. They had been close friends since Axel taught Ron how to play cribbage in 1970. Ron made major repairs to the museum building over the next few years. I met Ron in 1991 and told him how important the museum and Axel were to me. In exchange for a couple of Axel’s agates, I wrote a poem for the museum titled Perspective. After reading the poem and without saying anything to me, Ron decided that if he ever were to sell the museum — he would sell it to me. Finally, in 1997 while agate hunting together, Ron stunned me into silence and offered to sell me the museum.

After the purchase was completed in August 1998, the building was completely refurbished. The history items, saved by the Niemi family for over 90 years, were sorted and displayed for the first time. My mineral collection was combined with Axel’s. After being closed for 21 years, the museum was reopened on July 4, 1999.

We now take the next step to carry on Axel’s legacy via the Internet – welcome to the Gitche Gumee Museum web page!


After 24 years, the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum has permanently closed at the end of August 2022. That is the bad news. The good news is that the Agatelady Rock Shop opens in the spring of 2023 at a different facility located two miles away from the museum. For more information, please go to the new webpage


Museum Poem: Perspective

Karen Brzys wrote this poem for Ron Marshall and the Gitche Gumee Museum in November 1992. She assumed that someday Ron would open the museum. Instead, the poem convinced Ron to someday grant Karen the chance to buy the museum, which took place in 1998.

To walk the path you’re on, it helps to look behind.
Precious moments go and find; the clock you must unwind.
This place to which you’ve come, with odds and ends of age,
demonstrate how things have changed as history’s turned the page.
As you travel back, your focus will come clear.
You’ll learn from those before; go forward with no fear.
There are agates with their bands: a layer for each season.
The strength of their endurance can help you to gain reason.
While wandering through these rooms, you’ll see objects from the shore.
They’re meant to stimulate your thoughts by the rolling waves that roar.
Treasures from the past of this town we love so much,
are here for your enjoyment: let your heart these relics touch!
Take time to read the stories; they’ll help you to understand
how special are the people in this great northland!
Before leaving — get perspective; appreciate where you are.
Like the agates with their colors, you really have come far!
Go forth in your adventure; seek balance to be your best.
Take with you the wisdom you’ve gained while here a guest!

From Where Have You Heard “Gitche Gumee?”

….. From Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems about Hiawatha

Longfellow was fascinated by the books published by Henry Schoolcraft, a friend who served as an Indian agent in Sault Sainte Marie, MI. Longfellow wrote at least a dozen poems about an Indian boy, Hiawatha, who lived next to the “Gitche Gumee … shining big sea water” (Lake Superior). In honor of the Niemi family’s fishing business, below is a copy of the poem: Hiawatha’s Fishing.

Hiawatha’s Fishing

Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,
On the shining Big-Sea-Water,
With his fishing-line of cedar,
Of the twisted bark of cedar,
Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma,
Mishe-Nahma, King of Fishes,
In his birch canoe exulting
All alone went Hiawatha.
Through the clear, transparent water
He could see the fishes swimming
Far down in the depths below him;
See the yellow perch, the Sahwa,
Like a sunbeam in the water,
See the Shawgashee, the craw-fish,
Like a spider on the bottom,
On the white and sandy bottom.
At the stern sat Hiawatha,
With his fishing-line of cedar;
In his plumes the breeze of morning
Played as in the hemlock branches;
On the bows, with tail erected,
Sat the squirrel, Adjidaumo;
In his fur the breeze of morning
Played as in the prairie grasses.
On the white sand of the bottom
Lay the monster Mishe-Nahma,
Lay the sturgeon, King of Fishes;
Through his gills, he breathed the water,
With his fins, he fanned and winnowed,
With his tail, he swept the sand-floor.
There he lay in all his armor;
On each side a shield to guard him,
Plates of bone upon his forehead,
Down his sides and back and shoulders
Plates of bone with spines projecting
Painted was he with his war-paints,
Stripes of yellow, red, and azure,
Spots of brown and spots of sable;
And he lay there on the bottom,
Fanning with his fins of purple,
As above him Hiawatha
In his birch canoe came sailing,
With his fishing-line of cedar.
“Take my bait,” cried Hiawatha,
Dawn into the depths beneath him,
“Take my bait, O Sturgeon, Nahma!
Come up from below the water,
Let us see which is the stronger!”
And he dropped his line of cedar
Through the clear, transparent water,
Waited vainly for an answer,
Long sat waiting for an answer,
And repeating loud and louder,
“Take my bait, O King of Fishes!”
Quiet lay the sturgeon, Nahma,
Fanning slowly in the water,
Looking up at Hiawatha,
Listening to his call and clamor,
His unnecessary tumult,
Till he wearied of the shouting;
And he said to the Kenozha,
To the pike, the Maskenozha,
“Take the bait of this rude fellow,
Break the line of Hiawatha!”
In his fingers Hiawatha
Felt the loose line jerk and tighten,
As he drew it in, it tugged so
That the birch canoe stood endwise,
Like a birch log in the water,
With the squirrel, Adjidaumo,
Perched and frisking on the summit.
Full of scorn was Hiawatha
When he saw the fish rise upward,
Saw the pike, the Maskenozha,
Coming nearer, nearer to him,
And he shouted through the water,
“Esa! Esa! shame upon you!
You are but the pike, Kenozha,
You are not the fish I wanted,
You are not the King of Fishes!”
Reeling downward to the bottom
Sank the pike in great confusion,
And the mighty sturgeon, Nahma,
Said to Ugudwash, the sun-fish,
To the bream, with scales of crimson,
“Take the bait of this great boaster,
Break the line of Hiawatha!”
Slowly upward, wavering, gleaming,
Rose the Ugudwash, the sun-fish,
Seized the line of Hiawatha,
Swung with all his weight upon it,
Made a whirlpool in the water,
Whirled the birch canoe in circles,
Round and round in gurgling eddies,
Till the circles in the water
Reached the far-off sandy beaches,
Till the water-flags and rushes
Nodded on the distant margins.
But when Hiawatha saw him
Slowly rising through the water,
Lifting up his disk refulgent,
Loud he shouted in derision,
“Esa! Esa! shame upon you!
You are Ugudwash, the sun-fish,
You are not the fish I wanted,
You are not the King of Fishes!”
Slowly downward, wavering, gleaming,
Sank the Ugudwash, the sun-fish,
And again the sturgeon, Nahma,
Heard the shout of Hiawatha,
Heard his challenge of defiance,
The unnecessary tumult,
Ringing far across the water.
From the white sand of the bottom
Up he rose with angry gesture,
Quivering in each nerve and fibre,
Clashing all his plates of armor,
Gleaming bright with all his war-paint;
In his wrath he darted upward,
Flashing leaped into the sunshine,
Opened his great jaws, and swallowed
Both canoe and Hiawatha.
Down into that darksome cavern
Plunged the headlong Hiawatha,
As a log on some black river
Shoots and plunges down the rapids,
Found himself in utter darkness,
Groped about in helpless wonder,
Till he felt a great heart beating,
Throbbing in that utter darkness.
And he smote it in his anger,
With his fist, the heart of Nahma,
Felt the mighty King of Fishes
Shudder through each nerve and fibre,
Heard the water gurgle round him
As he leaped and staggered through it,
Sick at heart, and faint and weary.
Crosswise then did Hiawatha
Drag his birch-canoe for safety,
Lest from out the jaws of Nahma,
In the turmoil and confusion,
Forth he might be hurled and perish.
And the squirrel, Adjidaumo,
Frisked and chatted very gayly,
Toiled and tugged with Hiawatha
Till the labor was completed.
Then said Hiawatha to him,
“O my little friend, the squirrel,
Bravely have you toiled to help me;
Take the thanks of Hiawatha,
And the name which now he gives you;
For hereafter and forever
Boys shall call you Adjidaumo,
Tail-in-air the boys shall call you!”
And again the sturgeon, Nahma,
Gasped and quivered in the water,
Then was still, and drifted landward
Till he grated on the pebbles,
Till the listening Hiawatha
Heard him grate upon the margin,
Felt him strand upon the pebbles,
Knew that Nahma, King of Fishes,
Lay there dead upon the margin.
Then he heard a clang and flapping,
As of many wings assembling,
Heard a screaming and confusion,
As of birds of prey contending,
Saw a gleam of light above him,
Shining through the ribs of Nahma,
Saw the glittering eyes of sea-gulls,
Of Kayoshk, the sea-gulls, peering,
Gazing at him through the opening,
Heard them saying to each other,
“‘T is our brother, Hiawatha!”
And he shouted from below them,
Cried exulting from the caverns:
“O ye sea-gulls! O my brothers!
I have slain the sturgeon, Nahma;
Make the rifts a little larger,
With your claws the openings widen,
Set me free from this dark prison,
And henceforward and forever
Men shall speak of your achievements,
Calling you Kayoshk, the sea-gulls,
Yes, Kayoshk, the Noble Scratchers!”
And the wild and clamorous sea-gulls
Toiled with beak and claws together,
Made the rifts and openings wider
In the mighty ribs of Nahma,
And from peril and from prison,
From the body of the sturgeon,
From the peril of the water,
They released my Hiawatha.
He was standing near his wigwam,
On the margin of the water,
And he called to old Nokomis,
Called and beckoned to Nokomis,
Pointed to the sturgeon, Nahma,
Lying lifeless on the pebbles,
With the sea-gulls feeding on him.
“I have slain the Mishe-Nahma,
Slain the King of Fishes!” said he’
“Look! the sea-gulls feed upon him,
Yes, my friends Kayoshk, the sea-gulls;
Drive them not away, Nokomis,
They have saved me from great peril
In the body of the sturgeon,
Wait until their meal is ended,
Till their craws are full with feasting,
Till they homeward fly, at sunset,
To their nests among the marshes;
Then bring all your pots and kettles,
And make oil for us in Winter.”
And she waited till the sun set,
Till the pallid moon, the Night-sun,
Rose above the tranquil water,
Till Kayoshk, the sated sea-gulls,
From their banquet rose with clamor,
And across the fiery sunset
Winged their way to far-off islands,
To their nests among the rushes.
To his sleep went Hiawatha,
And Nokomis to her labor,
Toiling patient in the moonlight,
Till the sun and moon changed places,
Till the sky was red with sunrise,
And Kayoshk, the hungry sea-gulls,
Came back from the reedy islands,
Clamorous for their morning banquet.
Three whole days and nights alternate
Old Nokomis and the sea-gulls
Stripped the oily flesh of Nahma,
Till the waves washed through the rib-bones,
Till the sea-gulls came no longer,
And upon the sands lay nothing
But the skeleton of Nahma.

The Niemi Family

Arrival in Grand Marais

During the early 1890s, when the Alger-Smith Lumber Company extended their railroad and relocated their operation from Seney to Grand Marais, there was a massive influx of people. By 1900, Grand Marais grew to include over 2,000 permanent residents, along with thousands of other transients who worked in the logging camps and mills. The bustling town of Grand Marais featured many fine retail shops, a hospital, an opera house, 28 taverns, one of the finest schools in the Upper Peninsula, five large lumber mills, and a Coast Guard Station.

One person responsible for “recruiting” immigrants from Finland to the Upper Peninsula region was Wooden Leg Matson. For a set amount of money, he arranged for immigration papers, transportation from Finland to Michigan, employment, and a track of land. Otto Niemi decided to start a new life in America and paid Matson to immigrate to Grand Marais in 1905.

Soon after arriving, he met Alino. They were married in 1906 and started their family in 1907. Although these first few years went well for the Niemi family, it didn’t last long. By 1910 all the trees had been harvested and the Grand Marais lumber era came to an end. When the railroad was shut down, all but two hundred of the town’s residents left. The Niemi family, as well as my own family (the Hills), decided to stay and try to eke out a living.

Otto was determined to acquire a larger house. He didn’t have enough money to buy the materials needed to construct a house, so he went in search of someone who was willing to give him their abandoned house. The house, which was four blocks away, was dismantled and rebuilt on his lot. To save money, he straightened and reused all of the nails. The house still stands today, located directly west of the museum!

The Niemi Family

The Niemi Family in the early 1920s

The house to the west of the museum was the Niemi family’s homestead. NOTE: The house has now been remodeled. Only the original frame remains. The inner and outer walls, roof, foundation, and infrastructure have all been replaced. Otto Niemi emigrated from Finland in 1905 to work in the Grand Marais lumber mills. He married and started a family only to suffer with many others when the mills closed in 1910. Being resourceful, self-sufficient Finlanders, the family built a series of three fish tugs and made a living off the lake for almost a half century. The museum has several displays honoring the Niemi family’s work ethic and self-reliance. The premier display is the fish tug, Shark, which is located outside the museum. The Michigan Maritime Museum, that owned the tug during the mid-1990s, verified that it is the last hand-made fish tug left intact in the entire Great Lakes region. It was quite a project to acquire, move, and refurbish the fish tug so that it could return back to Grand Marais. NOTE: After spending many thousands of dollars to acquire and to try to preserve the fish tug, we lost the battle in 2016. Attempts were made to get preservation groups to join in the cause, to no avail. To prevent someone from getting hurt (the tug’s wood was too far gone and the tug was listing to the left), we had to have the tug removed.

After the railroad was shut down, Grand Marais was extremely isolated. During the warmer months, a schooner serviced Grand Marais from Sault Saint Marie. In the winter, the only way to get to town was by dogsled, sleigh, snowshoe, or ski. All of these options proved to be a long 25-mile trip from Seney.

Those few brave souls who stayed in Grand Marais had no choice but to be self-sufficient. People found ways to live off the land and the lake. The Otto Niemi family was one that chose to live off the lake due to Otto’s experience in Finland working on the sailing sloop Hanna. The sloop’s crew hauled grain, cotton, and gunpowder between Finland, Scotland, and other European ports. After doing odd jobs for a few years, Otto decided to use the knowledge gained while working on the Hanna to build and operate fishing boats to support his family in Grand Marais for almost five decades.

The Niemi Fish Tugs

Niemi Fish Tugs
Row Boat 1916
Swan 1917 – 1922
Elk 1923 – 1939
Shark 1940 – 1953

First, Otto tried to fish from the only vessel he had: a rowboat. He realized, though, that Lake Superior would not cooperate with a boat that small. So, in 1917, Otto built his first tug, the Swan. Like all three fish tugs, it was hand-built. It measured 23 foot long and was a two-masted sailboat, since Otto at that time could not afford to buy an engine. When Otto first started sailing her, he had only his hands to pull up the lines of hooks and only the sails to maneuver in the tricky winds of Lake Superior. Otto always said that sailing in to and out of Grand Marais Bay was harder than sailing the ocean. Finally, after a couple of years, he was able to purchase a Sears “Make and Break” one cylinder motor that had one speed — Slow!

The Swan

Otto built his second tug: the Elk. She was a 34-foot cedar strip-built plank boat. He searched the surrounding woods to find naturally bent trees from which he cut the ribs for the boat. She was initially constructed with a small pilothouse, which was later expanded, to avoid the “attack” of Lake Superior’s trailing wave. The Elk was powered with a two-cylinder, two-cycle engine as well as with the one cylinder motor out of the Swan, which was used for backup. The Elk was also outfitted with an automatic net lifter, which allowed the Niemies to put out more hook-lines or nets. This tug was used successfully for 16 years.

The Elk

The third fish tug built by the Niemies was the Shark. After many years of experience fishing out of Grand Marais, Otto designed the Shark specifically for Lake Superior’s rugged wave patterns. The Niemies used a pig boiler to create the steam needed to bend the ribs and planks. White oak was used to make the planking for the 34-foot long hull. This boat was a little more intricate than the Elk, so it took two winters to complete her. She was put into service in 1940 and was used by the Niemies until 1953 when Sea Lampreys and other factors all but desecrated the commercial fishing industry in Lake Superior.

The Shark

The third fish tug built by the Niemies was the Shark. After many years of experience fishing out of Grand Marais, Otto designed the Shark specifically for Lake Superior’s rugged wave patterns. The Niemies used a pig boiler to create the steam needed to bend the ribs and planks. White oak was used to make the planking for the 34-foot long hull. This boat was a little more intricate than the Elk, so it took two winters to complete her. She was put into service in 1940 and was used by the Niemies until 1953 when Sea Lampreys and other factors all but desecrated the commercial fishing industry in Lake Superior.

The Shark on launch day. Axel is on the left; Otto is on the right.
What a catch! Otto and Axel are holding 3 large Lake Trout: 28,32.5, and 48 pounders!

The Shark’s Vital Statistics
Niemi Years: 1940-1953
Length: 33 feet
Beam: 10.6 feet
Depth: 3.8 feet
Number of Ribs: 96
Hull Material: White Oak
Horsepower: 44
Main Engine: 1919 Fordson 4 cylinder
Back-up Engine: Model T
Net Lifter: Pentwater
Capacity: 11 gross tons – 7 net tons
Crew: 2

Niemi Self-Reliance

The Niemi family homestead is the gray house to the west of the museum. This self-reliant family built their own fishing boats, grew vegetables, raised chickens and cows, and took care of their own needs. Their fortitude and hard work manifested in everything they did. The collection in this museum, is the result of a lifetime of dedicated rockhounding and historical preservation by the youngest of the six children, Axel Niemi.

While other fishermen pushed operations well into the fall of the year, the Niemies were satisfied just to make a living. When they had enough money to survive the winter, the Niemies quit fishing for the year.

The Life of a Commercial Fisherman

“You would wake up at 5:00 AM. Mother would have breakfast ready and your lunches packed. After arriving at the boathouse, you would chip ice and repack the fish caught the previous day. You would then mark the boxes for shipment and carry the 200-pound boxes to a waiting truck. Next, you would haul the nets or hook lines (whichever you were using that day), and set them in the stern. The trip out to the fishing grounds would take a couple of hours. Once there, you would either bait hooks with herring, or set 5-6 boxes of nets (300’ per box)—which would take another couple of hours. Next you would pull up the lines or the nets from the previous day and head back to port. On the way back, you would clean the fish. By the time you got back to the dock, you often couldn’t feel your hands or your arms. However, despite the cold you would have to chip ice and pack the fish. Finally, you would reel the nets to dry. It would usually take 3-4 hours after you were home to fully warm up again.”

Information provided by Alfred Niemi who fished with his Dad for six years.

Six Children in Family Are All Valedictorians

Published in unspecified newspaper

Newberry, Jan 18, 1935—Six valedictorians in high school graduating classes, is the unique record of a Grand Marais, Mich. Family. The valedictorians are the four sons and two daughters of Mr. And Mrs. Otto Niemi of Grand Marais.

This unusual family was brought to the attention of Michigan school authorities by the Rev. Lauri Ahlman, pastor of the Finnish Lutheran churches in this district. Eugene E. Elliott, State superintendent of public instruction has written a letter of praise and commendation to the Niemi’s for being the parents of such a fine family.

The first names of all the Niemi children begin with the letter “A”, which may have something to do with their scholastic record. The boys are Arvo, Arvi, Alfred, and Axel, and the girls are Aila and Aino. Axel, the youngest was the last to graduate from Grand Marais high school with valedictory honors. He graduated in 1935. The Niemi’s are fisher folk at Grand Marais, and all of the children live at home.

Mr. Ahlman pointed out another singularity. He said that ever since the start of Grand Marais high school, every valedictorian has been of Finnish descent.

The Return of the Shark

Axel’s brother Arvi, in front of the Shark soon after it arrived in Grand Marais.

Four years after the Niemies retired the Shark, she was sold to a fisherman in Cheboygan who was determined to catch sturgeon in Lake Huron. After two years with no success, he sold the tug to a pleasure boater in southwestern Michigan. Its ownership was transferred a couple of more times before it was used at least once more for commercial fishing in Lake Michigan.

After purchasing the museum, I decided to head down to southeastern Michigan to interview Arvi Niemi. During our conversation, he said that he thought the Shark was on display somewhere in South Haven. I drove another hour south and while doing some shopping, I asked the cashier if she knew of somewhere in South Haven that an old fish tug might be on display. She said: “You mean a boat?” She directed me to the Michigan Maritime Museum. When I introduced myself to the museum curator, Ken Pott, and showed him some pictures of the Niemies and their fish tugs, he got very excited and invited me to the museum library wherein he relayed his story.

Mr. Pott explained that in 1994 an article was published in the Inland Seas Journal about the Niemies and the three fish tugs they had built. Inspired by the article, he convinced the museum’s board to acquire and renovate an old fish tug. A couple of weeks later, as he was driving outside of South Haven he spotted an old fish tug next to a corn field. He stopped and asked the farmer about the tug. The farmer replied: “I don’t know much about her, but I think she was built in the Upper Peninsula. I only bought her so I could take out the Fordson motor, put that motor in my tractor — and now my tractor works just fine!”  After conducting some research, Mr. Pott discovered that this was indeed the same boat described in the recently published article. The farmer gave the tug to the museum. However, the museum never renovated her as it was decided instead to renovate a larger fish tug.

When I explained to Mr. Pott about reopening the Gitche Gumee Museum, the agreed to donate her so that the Shark could come home.  During the time that the Maritime Museum owned the Shark, a student from Western Michigan University studied her.  It was determined that the Shark is the last hand-made fish tug left intact in the Great Lakes Region.  A professional boat hauler was hired, who charged by the quarter mile for an 800 mile round trip.  We turned many heads as we traveled up the highway and over the Mackinaw Bridge on the long road home to Grand Marais.

The Shark today

NOTE: After spending many thousands of dollars to acquire and to try to preserve the fish tug, we lost the battle in 2016. Attempts were made to get preservation groups to join in the cause, to no avail. To prevent someone from getting hurt (the tug’s wood was too far gone and the tug was listing to the left), we had to have the tug removed.

Grand Marais Fisherman

CoreyDes Jardine



NOTE: If there are any names that you feel are missing from this list, please email Karen at karen @