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Making money as a child in the 1950s in Houghton

Growing up in the 50s, there were always a lot of ways for a kid to make money. Seasonal gigs like snow shoveling, mowing lawns, gardening, window washing and even thimbleberry picking provided more than just pocket change. My early clients included, Mrs. Frimodig, Ms. Irene Prisk, Mr. Carlos Haug and Ms. Linda Nikula.

My other occasional jobs included delivering the “Grit” newspaper, for which E.B Pancratz had the franchise, and also delivering catalogs for the Fuller Brush Company’s Mr. Moll.

I would later graduate to my regular paperboy routes for the Daily Mining Gazette and the Sunday Milwaukee Journal. I also did window washing for several downtown stores, which helped me grow a sizeable savings account at the Houghton National Bank- with the guidance of friendly banker, Dick Rowe, to keep myself equipped with the latest sports gear and other popular goodies.

My window washing customers included, King’s Gift Shop, Nantel’s Beauty Parlor, Marty O’Connor Insurance, Dale’s Flower Shop, Healy Insurance, Wilcox Photo Studio, and Fashion City.

In the 50s, downtown Houghton had two new-car dealerships on Shelden – Copper Motor Company (Ford), across from the Post Office, run by the Sanregret family, and another dealership owned by (I believe) the Kaiser family, across from Houghton National Bank. But it was common for people to boast of going to Detroit and saving big bucks by buying a new car “from the factory.” New cars didn’t yet have seat belts, and came with protective heavy clear plastic seat covers, which people would sometimes leave on and suffer the discomfort – summer and winter – to preserve their new car look and feel. Factory “invoice stickers” were often left on the side window as a “badge” of what their new splurge had set them back.

As for air travel, twin prop, “tail-dragger” DC-3 airplanes of North Central Airlines (aka the ‘Blue Goose’) served the Houghton County Airport, with amazing ability to land in blizzard conditions.

Air service was also available to Isle Royale. These smaller planes took off and landed at “the sands” airstrip in east Houghton, where several private planes were kept by local pilots like Professor Gil Boyd. Carlos Wenberg had a shop facility there that serviced Studebakers and other fading car models.

Back then there was also daily train service between Houghton & Chicago. The Milwaukee Road’s “Copper Country Limited” (aka. the “square-wheeled limited”) ran on pretty rough old track. It ran on the current bicycle trail along the east Houghton waterfront, crossed the old bridge on a lover deck, and ended its northerly run in Calumet.

As I recall, heading south to Chicago, the old “Limited” made one memorable stop – in Channing (I think) where passengers could de-train and walk to a nearby café for quick snacks – even in the middle of winter. Amazingly, at the age of 12, I took that train on an unaccompanied trip to Chicago to visit my relatives, the Asselin’s.

As a kid who had never been out of the U.P., the spectacle of de-training into Chicago’s cavernous Union Station and being met by my cousin, Tom Asselin, is still vivid in my memory. Over the decades, lots of young guys took that train to their draft physicals in Chicago, and saw skyscrapers for their first time – and maybe their last.

One other form of transport was a fallback for Copper Country people – the Greyhound Bus. Even in the dead of winter, it usually came through, with stops at Goodman’s in Houghton and the Kaleva Café in Hancock. The old Copper Range Bus Company provided limited service beyond Houghton. Although the old electric streetcar system had been long gone, interestingly, there was still evidence of it in the form of the old tracks visible at certain spots in the pavement near our house on Jasper Avenue near Agate Street.

In those days, getting to Hancock involved crossing the old swing bridge. (The current lift bridge wasn’t completed until 1959.) Walking across it; especially via the lower railroad tracks was a rite of passage for young boys, to explore the world of Hancock, with maybe a sneak visit to the off-limits backroom world of Legault’s Pool Hall, located in the smoke-filled rear of their family liquor store on Quincy Street. Pool was 10 cents a “rack” (game) per player, and the young Legault boy (Albert?) roved the smoke-filled room, quick to respond to a request to “Rack em,” as dimes were flipped onto the well-worn green felt. Friday and Saturday nights were especially crowded with older guys slicked-up and beginning a full night on the town.

Hancock also had a cool Teen Center in a great old ballroom above the old downtown stores near today’s Bleacher’s Bar. It was for high school kids, but in 1959, at 13, I begged my mom and dad to go for the first time because the popular Bobby Rydell was appearing!

For Houghton and Hancock teens, that Center became the nucleus of social life throughout the high school years. What a place! It had an adult chaperone area and a stage for occasional bands and visiting stars like Rydell. If those big names could make it to the Copper Country, they could make it to any small town in the U.S.

A few local bands also occasionally tried their best, but for the most part, dancing was to records. The boys tended to be wallflowers when it came to dancing, so the girls usually danced with each other and most of the boys just watched from the sidelines. Lake Linden and Laurium also had teen centers into the early 60s. In the 50s there had also been a teen center in Houghton, above Andy’s (McCormack) Restaurant next to the old Kirkish Furniture store on Shelden. Too bad these places don’t seem to exist in towns anymore.

As youngsters, we always looked for a place to hang out in the evenings, and one popular hangout was the Dairy Queen. When the new lift bridge was built in 1959, the Dairy Queen was moved from it’s landmark site on the Houghton end of the bridge, to a new location on College Avenue, next to the old Civil War Monument park. (The park, along with the monument, has long since been relocated to the Houghton end of the bridge). With DQ cones for a nickel, and sundaes and malts a quarter, it ensured a high-sugar diet for us kids.

The colorful owner, Mr. Jacobs, drove around town in a white mini station wagon (a Fiat?) with a big DQ cone on the top. There were also some small neighborhood stores for hanging out included Vivian’s (later Babe’s and then Cracker Barrel) Market near Tech, Matson’s Market on Jasper near the present day Jim’s, Gauthier’s near St. Ignatius, and Lehti’s Market in West Houghton.

Perhaps the real saving grace to living in this remote part of Michigan was the presence of a college. Michigan College of Mining and Technology (MCMT) as it was called then, supplanted copper mining as our mainstay “industry,” and afforded us locals a lot of resources we wouldn’t otherwise have had.

For us kids it offered an in-town campus and various cool facilities to explore, like the Student Union Building (snack bar, pool hall, bowling alley), Sherman Gym, Engineers Field, Hubbell Field, Dee Stadium, a ski area, a golf course, a rifle range, and, yes, even the Library. We used them all. Of course we followed Tech sports closely – especially hockey and football. But a special thrill was Tech’s annual Engineering Show, a big “campus open house” event that allowed the public to see a lot of magical science demonstrations and displays. I still believe that the many benefits of growing up in a “college town” can’t be overstated.

I’ve concluded that with all the great memories from the 50s, any look back can, at best, scratch the surface and hit just some high points. In my next segments I’ll look at some seasonal memories from my early “Mayberry” years. Stay tuned!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Roger Smith now resides in California and can be reached at: rdsmith2009@gmail.com.

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