On January 31, 2023, after 101.75 well-lived years, Myrtle Barrette left this world as she lived it – on her own terms.
Myrtle was born as Esther Lillian Myrtle Mattson on April 29, 1921 to Julia (Johnson) and Jacob/Jaakko (Kaaniainen) Mattson in Swedetown Location. She weighed only four pounds at birth and lived the first weeks of her life on the open oven door wrapped tightly in blankets.
As a child, she was a voracious learner, a trait that stuck with her for the rest of her life. At age 4, speaking only Finnish, she started attending the Eugene Field School in Swedetown where her older brother Rueben would act as her translator. Her early life was also marked by her love of summers on her Aunt Pyykkonen’s Massie Road farm in Chassell. She told stories of playing with her cousins, taking Saturday night saunas, trying to milk her favorite cow, and the pleasures of drinking fresh warm milk and eating korppu.
Myrtle loved music from a young age. In 1933, her (then) single mother saved up enough money, in part by cashing in Calumet and Hecla bonds and providing midwife services, to purchase Myrtle a piano. She loved dances at the Swedetown Clubhouse. When the accordionist couldn’t make it, she would take her brother Howard’s accordion and play the few songs she knew over and over – “they never seemed to mind.” She could often be found dancing at the Laurium Town Hall, the Electric Park, and sometimes would hitchhike with friends to the WAC in Hancock.
Her love of music and commitment to performance led her to become an accomplished pianist and organist. In 1952 she became the accompanist at Faith Lutheran Church, and in 2002 was honored for her 50 plus years of service. After her retirement, she taught piano lessons for over 20 years to more than 50 students. She wanted to leave behind her love of music, which she most certainly did as many of these students continued to correspond with her over the decades. She played the piano until she was 100 years old, when she said her hands just couldn’t do it anymore.
Myrtle was fiercely independent, and worked from a very young age. Her first paid job was cleaning Tambellini’s apartment (above what is now Luigi’s Bar) in Calumet where she was able to save enough money to purchase her first pair of new shoes. In high school she corrected typing papers at Calumet High School through the National Youth Administration, and also worked the cash register at Waarala’s Drug Store, in the location of what is now Cross Country Sports.
After graduating from Calumet High School in 1939, she was married on December 2, 1939, to Gerard (Gary) Barrette, whom she met at a dance. Soon after they relocated to Detroit where their son, Dennis, was born. She loved living in Detroit near family and friends, where she had a view of the Fisher Building lights out her apartment window.
They returned to Swedetown in 1942, and she spent the next 67 years atop the hill, keeping tabs on the Copper Country.
After returning from Detroit, Myrtle worked as a bookkeeper at the Public Oil company in Calumet. In 1943, she began bookkeeping at WHDF Radio (WCCY) about which she wrote, “I was so scared to start working with several men, but I figured I better become more assertive. I did, and I managed very well.” Assertiveness was a trait that once cultivated, stuck with her until the end. At WHDF she eventually began writing and broadcasting a 15-minute women’s program that aired every weekday called “What’s New.” She also performed with musicians on the air. She recently laughed about being the voice of a radio show focused on recipes, cleaning and homemaking: “I wasn’t even a homemaker! I just read what came in on the teletype!”
Shortly after the birth of her daughter Jill in 1954, Myrtle was asked to help out in the office at Calumet Public Hospital. Her assertiveness and hard work paid off and she was quickly promoted and eventually worked her way up to Controller and Assistant Administrator. Upon her retirement, she was the only female hospital controller in the U.P.
Myrtle loved to spend time in Big Traverse. For years, she spent summers with her family on the north side of the pier. Many of her fondest memories of summer took place on that (once) white sand beach with her good friends next door. She couldn’t wait to come home from work to “catch some sun” on lawn chairs with the neighbors.
Myrtle’s post-retirement years were filled with travel, friends, art, adventures, and community-service. Never one to sit still–up until the end, she told us “naps are for lazy people”–she worked as a tour guide which brought her to many places from Hawaii to Nova Scotia. Her active community service won her the 2012 Main Street Calumet Rita Finch Community Service Award. She was a talented artist, and continued to create beautiful oil and watercolor paintings under the name Systi, a nickname from her brother. In retirement, she also met her later-in-life partner, Cecil Sparling, with whom she joyfully shared a love of music, meals and adventures.
Myrtle never stopped evolving. This was exemplified through her embrace of technology throughout her 101 years. Her grandchildren recall her having an internet connection before anyone else they knew. She used her desktop computer to write her Daily Mining Gazette column, “The View from my Window.” These columns were combined into a book by the same title which had three successful printings. For Myrtle, this book was one of her great accomplishments and she loved to share a copy of it with anyone who was interested. In her later years, she was never without her Samsung tablet, looking up crochet patterns, painting ideas, entering contests, emailing her grandchildren and friends (her last email was sent a few days before her passing to one of her former piano students who emailed her daily), watching how-to videos on YouTube, and playing online Scrabble with friends and family. As a fiercely competitive woman, she never went easy on anyone in Scrabble, dropping 7-letter words on even her young grandchildren.
In 2015, Myrtle moved to the Bluffs Senior Community where she was incredibly happy making new friends and continuing her love of learning. The Bluffs’ varied activities (including Bingo, Wii bowling, arts and crafts, and Saturday Kings in the Corner with friends) kept her calendar full. Bailey’s Irish Creme was a daily ritual, which along with continual learning, she believed kept her mind sharp. When asked about the success of her long and healthy life, as a proper demonstration of her sisu, she told people “I’m so stubborn, even the good Lord doesn’t want me.”
She was preceded in death by her husband Gary, her brothers Howard Nordstrom and Reuben Mattson, her special friend Cecil Sparling, and her son Dennis (Sandy) Barrette. She is survived by her daughter Jill (Bill) Hodges from Big Traverse, her grandchildren Bradley Barrette, Lynn Barrette, Lucas Barrette, Kristin Arola and Adam Arola, six great-grandchildren, two great-great grandchildren, and too-numerous-to-be-counted nieces and nephews.
A celebration of life will be held at Faith Lutheran Church on April 29, 2023, on what would’ve been her 102nd birthday. More details to follow.
Memorials can be made to the Omega House in Houghton, where she received the best care imaginable in her final days to make her passing as comfortable as possible.