Penokees Read: Remember the Clay

March 13, 2013


Wisconsin Life will feature several stories written by northern Wisconsin residents about the Penokee Range. The stories are the product of the event”Penokees Read”, a public reading of stories and poetry about the living, working, and recreating in the Penokee Hills.


When my dad got home from the Montreal mine each day, every hair, pore, and wrinkle, was covered with ore dust. We lived on the main street in a mining house, a family with five–soon to be six–kids.  When one of us got out of line, James “Slugger” Baron simply had to look at us and raise his eyebrow to straighten us out. Gentle and calm, wise and strong, he was my hero.

I was about four when the mine closed. Dad wanted to stay in Montreal, like a lot of people, so he commuted to a car factory in southern Wisconsin with some other laid-off miners. Sunday nights he’d wait on the sidewalk in front of our house for his ride. I’d watch him ride away and then I’d crawl under the dining room table and cry.

My grandparents lived on the next block and we spent a lot of time with them. Emil “Wobbles” Baron, also a miner, refused to have his leg amputated after an accident in the mine. He was an excellent trapper and fisherman who got caught trapping out of season once on Tyler Forks and had to walk to Mellen to go to jail. Uncle Bobby panicked and burned all the furs in the basement: bobcat, beaver, fox, you name it. Baron’s Hole on the Tyler Forks River is named after him.

Money was tight, but nature was very generous. My father and grandfather both loved the woods, gathering, fishing, and gardening. We learned the ways of nature and how to be self-reliant at an early age. The Penokees supplied spring water and an abundance of trout, berries, apples and meat.

By the time I was in fifth grade, I had no fear of being alone in the woods. I spent most Saturdays walking in them with my dog, looking at the flowers and birds and little streams. Our house was close to where the Old Flambeau Trail crosses Highway 77, which was where I usually started my hikes. When I was about 10, some Indians came to that spot to sing and dance with their drums and fancy outfits. My girlfriend and I were quite surprised to see this and watched the ceremony. She lived a block away with her mom and dad, “Squeaks,” who owned the local bar. We went to Squeaks afterwards and shared the amazing story of what we had seen, but the adults did not share our enthusiasm for this beautiful event.

Both my parents worked back then, so the six of us, ranging from high school junior Jeff to first grader Pete, got ourselves ready for school. One morning, a call came from the mine. The person wanted to talk to mom, and then hesitatingly asked to talk to the oldest person there, so Jeff took the call. He looked very serious and we all gathered around him, but when he hung up, he told us dad just broke his leg at work and we should all go to school.

Slugger had been promoted and was finally working above ground at White Pine when a two-ton bucket swung loose and struck him from behind. His leg had snapped in half, all his ribs except one were broken, one lung was punctured and his back was broken. He was not expected to live.

News of the accident spread fast. The principal called me aside after lunch and asked why I was in school, implying that it wasn’t right. I was confused until he said that my father had died. I angrily told him my dad just broke his leg and ran back to my friends who were wondering why I was in trouble.

The first time we saw Dad after that was Christmas. We had to take turns going into his hospital room. Jeff went in first and came out trying to hide his tears. By the time my turn came, I was pretty scared. The whites of Dad’s eyes were completely egg yolk yellow except for the specks of blood. His leg had been screwed back together crooked and was in traction. There were pulleys and things hanging all over. Dad joked that he had to live because Mom didn’t know how to make good gravy. He had a lifetime of operations after that, but went on to be Mayor of Montreal for over 20 years. It was tough and money was tight. We all pitched in by picking worms, delivering papers, and doing whatever we could.

Walking in the woods was my joy and refuge. When we were in seventh grade, my neighbor and classmate, Michael Matusewic, asked me to walk in the woods with him! For the next two years, we walked past the old mines and down to the Gile Flowage every chance we got. His father and grandfather were also miners, so sometimes he’d hunt or fish, but mostly we sat at Deep Rock holding hands. We made a lot of people nervous, but we were pretty innocent. As it turned out, too innocent and young to be able to talk through a misunderstanding and so we went our separate ways.

My brother Jeff was a junior at UW-River Falls when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died of this cancer at the age of 22. I was just entering my sophomore year at Hurley High. Helen Reddy had a popular song at the time, “Love Song for Jeffrey.” My mother, heartbroken, played it over and over. “You and me against the world, sometimes I feel it’s you and me against the world.” Jeff’s death ripped a hole in the fabric of our family that never mended. Nature, as always, was my soothing balm.

Dad died in his 60s. He had asked that his ashes be spread in favorite spots, including Tyler Forks. Mom died in 2003. Losing them was hard, but when my sweet, younger brother Pete went off the deep end in Alaska and killed a woman and then himself in 2008, it felt like everything, including my thoughts and the cells in my body, rearranged themselves in a crazy, senseless pattern. I was divorced, and living alone as my three boys were on their own. That was the hardest time of my life. I felt the magnetic power of the Penokees and the beauty of Lake Superior drawing me home for healing. I wrote this poem about it.

She calls to me… 
“Come daughter, 
swim in my waters and wash away the sins and the sadness of the past.” 
Standing behind her, the iron ore beating in his veins,  
He draws me to him. 
“Come daughter, 
“Walk in my forests and rest in my strength. 
Listen to the love songs of my waters singing to your mother.” 
They meet at the clay banks on her shores,  
My father and mother, 
Life after life, century after century, 
Lesson after lesson of life and love.

I found myself asking, “Where can I find rest for my soul and mind?” The answer was, back in the hills and shores of my youth, where Michael Matusewic called me back to him.

Now, as husband and wife, we walk the trails and hold hands at Deep Rock once again. We hike Tyler Forks, fish Wren Falls, sit on the shores of Gitchee Gumee and canoe and canoodle the waters of the Penokee Hills that make their way to the big lake. She is moody and beautiful, that mother lake. The Penokees, with their ancient winds, protect her with their strength and ever-solid foundation. Together, they have a magnetic power which draws our migrating souls back to rest in the beauty of their waters; waters that feed the fish, the birds, that feed all that is good, and can feed and heal our souls.


By Maureen Matusewic 

2018-01-19T17:51:40-06:00Tags: |

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