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Our Pioneering Spirit Lives On

Posted on June 6th, 2013

This Inspiring A-Town column by Mary Beth Stutzman first appeared in The Alpena News on September 6, 2011

There are four things in this world that will survive a nuclear holocaust. Cockroaches, Cher, Twinkies, and Alpena. Wait, what? Alpena? Yes, Alpena, and I believe it to be true because I’ve been reading up on the history of our town and we are potentially indestructible.

If you have never read “The Town That Wouldn’t Die” by local historian Robert E. Haltiner you need to go check it out of the library (as soon as I return it – I just got a letter in the mail showing I owe $3.12 in late fines) or go to the bookstore and get your hands on a copy.

I just finished reading it for the second time. The history of my hometown is interesting and the old pictures are fun and that’s what I got out of it the first time. My second reading of the book allowed me to put the facts together and has left me in awe of our town and its pioneering culture.

Our founding fathers essentially, found a paradise. Our stunning shoreline, lush forest, tranquil rivers, bountiful land, and four season splendor were too good to pass up. And honestly, when I envision what Paradise looks like  it looks an awful lot like Northeast Michigan. So, of course people wanted to relocate here. About 130 years ago Alpena boomed as a lumber town. Alpena was a majestic mecca with grand buildings and even grander social events. Famous people vacationed in Alpena! This was when transportation was still mainly horse and carriage. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end and lumbering and its quick prosperity eventually declined.

Haltiner wrote “The gay Nineties (1890s) in Alpena may not have been truly gay. In 1890 the more than eleven thousand Alpenians were still enjoying prosperity but the lumber industry had peaked in 1889, and as the decade wore on it became increasingly evident that Alpena was headed for the obscurity shared by most lumber boom towns of the era as the supply of lumber trees disappeared.”

Herein lies the most fascinating turn of our history. This reality didn’t faze us. We didn’t panic and leave in droves. We didn’t blame the economy. Early residents of our paradise town didn’t want to leave. So instead, they looked for other ways to keep paradise running. Haltiner’s books detail many of these stories. From logging we moved to making paper, leather tanning, sewing garments, manufacturing, and cement operations. We worked hard. We were innovative, adaptive, and able to evolve together. Even more fascinating, was the value system that was shared by our entire community at the time. Our founders worked as much for the common good as they did for the prosperity of themselves by way of funding community buildings and efforts that continue to benefit us today.

But somewhere along the way we lost our pioneering spirit. A few years ago I sat in on a lecture by former Museum Director Janet Smoak. The title of her presentation was “Alpena: The Boom Town that Forgot to Bust.” The population of the town is about the same as it was 100 years ago. We’ve always created enough to keep us going. However, if you talk to people today you get a “learned helplessness” type of mindset. Not all of us, but many seem to be expecting that someone else is going to come along and take care of us instead of thinking about how we can take care of ourselves. A decade or so ago Boeing was considering Alpena and the whole town came together to entice the corporate giant. The teamwork was marvelous yet at the heart of the effort, I believe we were still expecting someone else to save us. This was evident in the cloud of sadness that hung over the town when it became known that Alpena wasn’t Boeing’s chosen community. While an operation such as this would be a phenomenal addition, it’s not the only answer.

There are a number of inspiring examples of local business entrepreneurs, employees, and citizens who are crossing this line of learned helplessness and striking out on their own to take control instead of waiting for someone else to step in. It’s not just about making money; it’s also about giving time, talent, and resources back to the community. These are the same types of people who founded this community over a century ago; people who don’t just look at “what is” but at “what could be.” These are the types of people who are going to keep Alpena dancing into the decades ahead. Are you one of them?

If our founding fathers were able to make a go of it with an incomplete and fledgling infrastructure without telephones, computers, the internet, or even indoor plumbing – then there is no excuse for us.  Alpena’s next big thing probably won’t be one big thing, but a number of smaller efforts driven by a community that remembers its tenacious spirit and wants to maintain this life in paradise. We all have the ability to take control of our situation and give back. How can your talents, skill set, knowledge, or vision improve our community? Don’t wait for permission to make a difference. We are pioneers; let’s get back to trailblazing!

See the column on the Alpena News website here.

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