Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Visit to Hurley and Ironwood

Last July, during a cross-country trip that took me to Milwaukee and Los Angeles and points in-between, I made a long detour to Northern Wisconsin, where I visited mon ami ancien Gene Cisewski, who now runs a bed-and-breakfast inn in the small town of Hurley, near the Michigan border.

While Hurley now has a population of just about 1,200 residents, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a boom town. Hurley grew up as a market center for the iron mining industry that stretched across Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Novelist Edna Ferber, who had previously portrayed the American South of the same period in Show Boat (the basis for the musical play of the same name), spent time in Hurley doing research for a book that became Come and Get It (which itself became a movie and won Walter Brennan an Academy Award).

The Hurley that Ferber knew was a town of saloons and bordellos. One of Hurley's great mysteries continues to be "who killed Lotta Morgan?" (Morgan was a lady of easy virtue, and therefore one of the town's leading citizens, when she was murdered.) Al Capone's brother, Ralph, settled in Hurley, which was a popular summer destination for Chicago-based mobsters (as was Manitowish Waters, about 20 miles to the south, where John Dillinger had a shoot-out with the FBI).

The town is much quieter today, but it still is said to have the most bars per capita of any municipality in Wisconsin, and Silver Street, the main drag, seems to offer proof of that claim.

Innkeeper Cisewski is also a former member of the Iron County Board of Supervisors and now serves as president of the Iron County Historical Society. During our visit, Gene hosted an event at the Iron County Historical Museum, which is just about a block from his own historic home, the Anton-Walsh House on Copper Street. I captured some of the event, and a good number of the museum's exhibits, on video:

Someday I might also post the still-unedited video of that night's speaker, a writer who specializes in the history of Italian immigrants to the United States. (Italian-Americans make up an astounding 19 percent of Iron County's population.)

After the lecture and the reception that followed, I interviewed Gene about his house and the bed-and-breakfast business located there. The Anton-Walsh House was one of the first merchant-class homes in Hurley, and Gene ticks off the names of all the owners from the one who built it to the present. He also describes, in excruciatingly delicious detail, the foods he prepares and serves to his guests for breakfast every morning. (I can attest to the tastiness of the wild-rice and cranberry pudding, the various kinds of muffins, and the homemade jams and jellies -- some of which come from grapes grown in the Anton-Walsh House backyard.) Here's a chat with Gene Cisewski:

Nearby Hurley is its "twin city" of Ironwood, just across the Montreal River and the Michigan border. Ironwood has about twice as many residents as Hurley, but it seems to be far less robust, economically speaking. One can tell that it, too, was once a boom town, but today it has a faded, rundown look.

One thing that Ironwood has that nobody else can claim is a 52-foot, 8-ton, Fiberglas statue of Hiawatha, said to be the world's "tallest and largest Indian." (There is a statue of an Indian in Maine that is about ten feet taller, but it's not nearly as large or heavy.) The statue was erected in 1964 and refurbished in 2004.

According to the Ironwood Area Chamber of Commerce,
A giant statue of an Indian chief was felt appropriate as a symbol of the region, although ideas for a sculpture ranged from an iron miner, skier and Ironwoods Red Devil. The Indianhead signs had been a feature of the Gogebic County Highways for many years and had attracted widespread attention. Several larcenous tourists even carted off some of the Indian signs. It was unlikely anyone would be able to carry away the 50 foot Hiawatha.
That's an understatement!

The chamber's web site describes how the statue arrived in Ironwood, and the Erection Ceremony that followed:
Hiawatha was transported on a 70-foot trailer truck on a special route that would reduce the number of sharp curves and low bridges and any other obstacles in transit. The trailer was over 14 feet wide and required a special permit to transport it with a state police escort through each state. Hiawatha traveled on Highway 94, 63 and 77 to Hurley, then north on Highway 51 to US2. Delivery of Hiawatha was set to leave Minneapolis at 2:20 AM Thursday, June 25th and arrived in Ironwood late Thursday evening, a haul of nearly 12 to 14 hours...

Erection of the statue was set for Friday between 3:00 and 4:30 PM. Originally the plans had called for placing the statue on the foundation on Saturday, but due to the need of the large 80-foot crane by the Mauthe Mining Company, it had been advanced to Friday afternoon. The crane needed to extend 90 feet for lifting of the statue to go above the 26-foot beams on the site...

Shortly after Hiawatha arrived, workmen began attaching Hiawatha's right hand. The right arm was made in a slightly extended position and in order to avoid damage while traveling, the wrist and hand were detached when the statue arrived. The Hiawatha statue rested on a base that was eight feet deep and contained 55 yards of concrete and had 5,000 pounds of steel reinforcement mixed in with 15 yards of crushed rock.

There were cheers and hand-clapping from the large crowd of men, women and children that had gathered in the hot sun to see the huge image erected. Many curiously waited the full two hours to see what it would look like once it was firmly secured to its foundation. The raising of the statue was the highlight not only to the crowd, but also fulfilled the dreams of a group of businessmen, known as the Hiawatha Committee, who spent many months planning for the tourist attraction.
(I just know I'm going to start getting strange visits to this blog based on search terms like "men women children huge erection" and "hand-clapping erection ceremony.")

I first visited the Hiawatha statue nearly 41 years ago with my parents. In the video below, you'll see one photo of my mother and me (and two other, unknown children) from August 3, 1967; the rest were all taken on the evening of July 25, 2007:

In the 44 years since it was installed, the Hiawatha statue has become a gathering place for local skateboarders. (My video is not the only one on YouTube that demonstrates this fact.)

The Anton-Walsh House is located at 202 Copper Street, Hurley, Wisconsin 54534-1339; for more information, call 715-561-2065 or send an email to

The Iron County Historical Society Museum is in the old county courthouse -- the one with the clock tower that chimes the hours -- at 303 Iron Street, Hurley, Wisconsin 54534. For more information, call 715-561-2244.

The statue of Hiawatha is on Suffolk Street in Ironwood, Michigan. The best directions can be found at

I previously posted video of another attraction close to Hurley, the Copper Peak Ski Flying Hill, under the title, "The 'Getting High' Series" -- which may soon have some addenda.

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