It’s 1952 in the little town of Big Bay, on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. ( To be clear the UP is, or at least was, what we from the south might call redneckville, i.e., the Appalachia, the Lower Alabama, the “BFE” of the upper northwest.) Anyway, then and there a local and respected bar owner is gunned down in his own tavern. Army Lt Coleman Peterson, bivouacked in the area for extended support and training, apparently enraged by his wife’s claims that the barkeep had taken advantage of her loneliness and inebriation to assault her, emptied his service revolver into the body of former state trooper and current proprietor of the Lumberjack Bar, Mike Chenowith.
Another day in America, right? Except that mildly disaffected attorney John D Voelker, who would by most accounts rather be fishing, takes the case, constructs an imaginative insanity defense based on the unused in more than 60 years concept of “irresistible impulse” and… wins. Despite a complete confession, Lt Coleman walks free. All this is true and verifiable, but not really enough to warrant more than a raised eyebrow in our nation’s convoluted legal history, right? Except that half a decade later this John D Voelker, defense attorney extraordinaire and eventual Michigan Supreme Court Judge, adapts the true events of the Chenowith murder into a barely fictionalized novel, Anatomy of a Murder. And a year after that, Hollywood descends on the Upper Peninsula to film a transgressive, boundary pushing film staring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, and George C Scott that would be nominated for seven academy awards. Anyway, The Lumberjack Bar: that’s where we ate chicken wings during our three day stay in the region.
After our 19 day stay in Grand Marais, we pushed west towards Maquette, and unable to book a spot at the Tourist Campground there, we selected the county operated Perkins Park, half an hour from Marquette, rather than settle for the private parks closer to town. That’s how we ended up in Big Bay, staying on a nice piece of land on Lake Independence just a mile or two by waterway from Lake Superior. The property has spacious, foliage covered sites with options ranging from tent only through electric and up to full hook ups, with price adjusted by service.
We selected an electric only site for our stay, saving a few bucks a night and allowing us to position our rig with a near unobstructed view of the lake. At $21 a day, this was a pretty solid deal for such a nice location. The morning of our second day we headed out towards Marquette, with near constant drizzle suggesting that this might not be the best day for a farmers market. Having already committed to it, we persevered, set up at table inside the crowded commons building, and hoped for the best.
Look, it wan’t good. We could tell from the first 30 minutes that the weather had eliminated the vast majority of potential attendees, and those that did show up seemed intent on grabbing some produce and bolting for their cars. I estimate half of the attendees never even came inisde the common building, limiting their quick rounds to the farmers’s stands outside under tents. We made the best of it, enjoying conversation with our vendor neighbors and occasionally making our own trips around the market during breaks in the rain and drizzle.
We ended up selling less than a third of what we had during our first Marquette event the week prior. But we covered our table fee, gas, and all of the purchases we made to restock our refrigerator and cupboard with local, fresh food. This time it was more bratwurst, heirloom tomatoes, and garlic cloves. We were also introduced to a fantastic sort of Indian savory pancake, called a Puda, from a local chef that wasn’t selling any items, just her cooking classes. This lead to a side trip to the local food coop to get the special grain that serves as a base before making our way back to Big Bay. Our local food purchases make for some fantastic meals.
We spent our last day exploring the region, including a nearby lighthouse and a trip to the not so easy to find Squaw Beach, there meeting a pair of food foragers collecting wild beach pees and another couple picking up some driftwood for his hand carved walking canes. The partially protected bay is great for finding interesting rocks, but apparently not so much for the agate that we have so fair failed to find even one piece of during our UP stay.
The day only had one down side: an unfortunate run in with an enraged local. While looking for the beach we went down the wrong road, turned around, and spotted what looked like an RV hook up post in an empty lot. Thinking it might be a rental spot, we pulled in to look. A minute later a heavy set man came out of the next door house, screaming and ranting, repeatedly dropping f-bombs, demanding to know why we where there, not waiting for an answer before screaming additional orders and questions at us. We immediately backed out of the lot, which seemed to enrage him further. Though the lot was empty of anything but trees, dirt, and the lonely electrical post, I am guessing that this excitable fellow actually owned it in addition to his perfectly manicured and developed adjacent lot. Apologies, buddy. Last we saw of him he was still screaming f words while his wife added to the ruckus with futile but loud requests for him to calm down.
So yeah, there are wankers everywhere; the UP is no exception. We finished off the day with a beer and the aforementioned chicken wings at the Lumberjack Bar. The locals we met were a lot friendlier, showing us the outline of where Mike Chenowith had been killed, letting us look through the scrap book about the event, the trial, and the movie. Ah well, the rest of the people we met here were great, and we look forward to coming back to Michigan.