Join us for “The Story Line,” an exhibition of family stories and local histories (Heather)

Antti and Ida Karttunen's wedding photograph, 1899

“Often the butter pat fell in the oven, as it was hard to see with teary eyes.” ~Ida Karttunen


  When my great-grandmother Ida (Nisonen) Karttunen arrived in America from Finland, she settled with her husband and daughter in a handhewn log cabin in Victoria, Michigan, four miles southwest of Rockland, near Ontonagon. Her husband, Antti, worked in a copper mine there. Now, Old Victoria is a ghost town. The home where my grandparents temporarily settled, known today as the Arvola House, has been restored along with other buildings from that period. Visitors can go there to see what life might have been like for mining families over a century ago.

            I’ve been fascinated for years with my great-grandmother’s story of hardship and hope. When I participated in the Upper Peninsula Writing Project’s Summer Institute a decade ago, I wrote a multi-genre report about Ida’s experiences, tying in some of her own writing (translated from Finnish by my dad) with some creative writing pieces that I had attempted about her life. Amy talks about how writers have obsessions (see her “Freedom to Write” post from Nov. 7th). Well, one topic I keep returning to is the journey taken by my great-grandmother Ida. I’m not sure why her story captures my imagination so much, especially since I’ve never met her; I guess it’s because of the rich writing that Ida left as her legacy.

            It’s interesting how the stories that matter to us find new ways to surface. In August, Amy and I were asked by UPWP Director Jan Sabin to meet for lunch at the Sweetwater Café in Marquette. Jan would bring along local artist Mary Wright, who couldn’t wait to tell us about her most recent art project that might engage our students.

Artist Mary Wright

          Mary is known for her large-scale community art exhibitions. Some might know her for the “grandma doors,” a project in which hundreds of grandmas were remembered by family tributes attached to doors and displayed in the Marquette community. Others might remember the totem pole genealogy tree trunks in Marquette or the giant mitten displays in Hancock.  I first met Mary in 2005, when she invited the community to paint family histories on wooden chairs in creative blue and white designs for Finn Fest. My family painted, too, and when I saw all the chairs on display, I had an idea. My classroom was full of these wobbly computer chairs that the students kept tipping over. Wouldn’t it be great if Mary donated any unclaimed Finn Fest chairs to my classroom? She was delighted to have a second purpose for them, and my room came alive with blue-and-white artistic seating.

            Over lunch, Mary told us about her latest project, Story Lines. She said students and adults are encouraged to write about an ancestor who has gone through adversity. They can write a brief piece, maybe a paragraph or two, from the perspective of that relative. The story, along with a picture, will be imprinted on a cotton panel. Mary said she hopes to collect thousands of these panels, which first can be displayed in each local community. In July, they will be displayed on clothes lines at Michigan Tech during Pine Mountain Music Festival’s premiere of the world-class opera Rockland.

            The opera is based on an incident from 1906, when striking Finnish miners were confronted by some sheriff’s deputies. Two of the miners were shot and killed. As Mary talked about the opera, I thought about my great-grandparents, and how they had left that mining community just the previous year. I felt connected.

            As Amy, Jan and I asked Mary about the details, we learned that the project has financial backing from the Michigan Humanities Council and the Finlandia Foundation. What Mary needs is teachers who will introduce this concept to students and their families.

            Amy and I can imagine hundreds of these panels on display at our school during our annual Fine Arts Festival in the spring. We hope to get students of all grade levels involved, but wouldn’t it also be wonderful to have our teachers, bus drivers, custodians, cooks, coaches, etc., all participating in telling family stories?

            Mary explained that the fabric panels, transfer paper, and press all will be made available for our use.  The project isn’t just for Upper Peninsula residents either; it’s open to all schools in the U.S. The research and writing could tie in with studies in English/Language Arts, history, journalism, etc.

            Hundreds of these panels already have been made in area schools, including: Chassell, Houghton, Baraga, Ontonagon, South Range, and North Star Academy (in Marquette). Schools in at least 10 more Upper Peninsula community have signed on to make panels in the next few months. Imagine that flurry of research, writing, reading, and sharing!

            Amy, Jan and I also love the idea of bringing the spirit of “make” into the classroom. We hear about this a lot in Writing Project circles – what can we make with our imaginations and our hands? What kinds of writing can grow out of the spirit of make? Elyse Eidman-Aadahl of the National Writing Project posed these questions on the NWP’s Walk-About site this summer. Jan responded, “Any learner can soak in more when they have touched it and can share something with others. Partnerships with the community connect a diverse group. The rewards multiply.”

            The rewards multiply. I look forward to hearing what stories my students and community members have to tell, and I also look forward to their work having an authentic audience. I hope to see this worthwhile project multiply exponentially. After the histories are displayed at the Rosza Center at Michigan Tech, they will be archived at the Keweenaw Historical Park Archives. The histories also will be made available online.

           As an example of what might be written for a panel, here is my contribution:

Ida Nisonen Karttunen

November 15, 1879 – December 16, 1954

           Loneliness sits on one’s heart like a cold chunk of butter, but it also melts with the warmth of love. I was born in Finland and lived on a small farm. Mother died when I was five, leaving Father to care for five children. Soon we lost that farm. The older girls got work in different households, but Brother and I were so young that nobody wanted us.

             I went to stay with Father’s cousin. When his wife saw me each night crying by the window, she would give me bread with a pat of butter and say, “Go by the brick oven and spread the butter on the bread, and you won’t be so lonesome.” Often the butter pat fell in the oven, as it was hard to see with teary eyes.

            Russian Emperor Alexander III had a vacation palace nearby. I got work babysitting for the guard’s children for room and board, but no pay. Of course, I was a child, too. I remember when the Czar visited our city. He rode in a carriage pulled by black horses. Nineteen-year-old Nikolai II, the next emperor in line, rode in a second carriage. I climbed a gate to get a good view; otherwise, I wouldn’t have seen much in that crowd, being so small yet.

            Over the years, work became my constant companion. I cared for children, cleaned school rooms and got a job at a spool factory. I met Antti at the factory when I was 19, and soon we married.  He left for America, and I stayed behind with a baby until we could follow a year later.         

            Antti worked at a copper mine in Victoria, and we lived in what later became known as the Arvola house. After a few years, he built a farmhouse in Green, near Ontonagon. My cheeks always rosy from cooking at the wood stove, I raised seven children with Antti in that home. I savored the love of our expanding family, and those drops of loneliness sizzled away.

Here is a link to the Story Lines website:

Here is a link about the “Rockland” opera:

           If you are interested in learning more about the Story Lines project, please contact me at or project coordinator Carol Ekstrom at

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1 Response to Join us for “The Story Line,” an exhibition of family stories and local histories (Heather)

  1. Nancy M. Nelson says:

    See how our brief lives touch others hearts!

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