"My Family Story", A History of South Range Michigan

December 15, 2020
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While the beginning of South Range was officially platted in 1902 by the Wheal Kate Mining Company, the history of South Range in Michigan copper range actually began many years prior. In the mid to late 1800s, Slovenia, Finland, England, and Italy were mired deep in poverty. My own family’s history in Slovenia was affected by the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ruled the area of Slovenia and attempted to unite all Slovene people in an autonomous kingdom.  Rebellion broke out in the 1860 and 70s and left large areas of Slovenia ravaged.  Then in 1895, a massive earthquake struck the area around the principal city of Ljubljana, leaving much of the area devastated. 

Tri-Mountain notice the flag pole atop the school house.

My family had its origins 60 miles northeast of Ljubljana in a tiny settlement called Pri Kamniku.  They were living as farmers, and their poverty caused them to hope for a better future.  When news reached their settlement that workers were needed in the American mines, my grandfather, Joseph Urmas, born 1872, who had married my grandmother, Frances Terron, born 1882, along with his four brothers, attempted to migrate to the United States.  One of the brothers was sickly, and the United States refused to allow him to immigrate.  So, Joseph and Frances Urmas and my aunt Marie, born in 1902 and three brothers immigrated to the United States in 1906. 

They made their way to Trimountain, Michigan, and the men began to work in the mines of Trimountain.  My grandparents had three other children in America, my mother Irene Urmas, born 1920 in the Trimountain hospital, grew up in Trimountain, just southwest of the infamous curves that wound their way out of South Range to Trimountain.

Jeffers High School, South Range, MI

Shortly after my youngest Aunt Tracy was born, my grandmother kicked my grandfather out of the home, never to be seen again.  She opened up her home as a boarding house, renting beds in the upstairs of their small home. Two miners occupied each bed she rent, one worked the morning shift, and the other worked the night shift. The men who worked in the local mines of Trimountain and Painesdale. My mother attended Trimountain grade school and Jeffers High School  and graduated in 1918.  During this time, children attended school from Redridge and Freda, riding the Copper Range Railroad to school. 

South Range Holy Family Catholic Church

The Slovenes were primarily Catholic people upon arriving in America. Shortly after the Protestant Reformation in Europe, many Slovenes joined the Protestant Church. However, the ruling class, the Habsburgs, were committed to the Holy Roman Empire, and, with the help of the Jesuit order, Protestants were eliminated, either by forced removal or murdered. After some time, the people joined the Catholic Church, and by the time immigration to America occurred, several generations of Catholics adhered to the Catholic Church. Catholicism was a strong bond in the Slovene community in the range area, and Catholic Churches were built in South Range and Painesdale. Holy Family Catholic Church, which anchored one end of the main street in South Range, burnt down. The community rebuilt their church, and today it still stands and serves the Catholic community of the entire range area. The Elementary School anchors the west end of Trimountain Ave in South Range.
South Range is the only town in Adams Township in which the census records the population. All of the other communities are recorded together in Adams Township. South Range, in 1910, according to the statistics, had 1,097 people. As the mines in the area expanded, the population of South Range rose to 1435. By the time the depression hit in 1930, the population had dropped to 1,120. The population continued to fall to the present number in 2010 of 758. South Range was the center of life for the communities of the south range. Baltic, Trimountain, Painesdale, and South Range constituted almost the entire population of Adams Township. Atlantic Mine, also part of Adams Township, was separated from the primary center of the population and was closer to the population center of Houghton.
South Range and the surrounding communities had a large population of people from Slovenia. Many families, such as the Urmas, Stimacs, the Briskeys, the Pleshes, and many others, were common day names, especially in the Trimountain area. Along with many of the Slovenian families that settled in the community, many Italians also located in the area. In Painesdale, a tiny community called “Little Italy” still has remnants of grapevines and flowers unique to Italy that the newly arrived immigrants brought over. Several Italian families in the range area were the Parolini, Bonini, Paoli, Andrini, and Lucchesi, families. The Paoli owned a grocery store in South Range, which shut down as competition grew intense in surrounding communities. Margaret Andrini used to play music. Mr. Lucchesi owned a gas station and repair shop across the street from the Katalina Restaurant.
The South Range communities were built around the mines of the Baltic range and the Champion Mines along the ridge just south of Trimountain and Painesdale. The last min shaft of the Champion Mines closed in 1967. During the 1950s and 60s, my Uncle Puna Karna, who married my Aunt Tracey, lived on a farm in Tapiola and traveled to Painesdale 5 days a week to work in the last remaining mine, Champion #4 Shaft.

Trimountain Mine.  Notice the two other mine shafts in the background which shows just how many mines were in operation during this period.

The Karna families immigrated from Finland in the early 1900s and were primarily involved in agriculture, though several of the men also worked in the mines in the south range area. Like many Finnish families, they were either strongly religious and committed to either the Apostolic Lutheran Church or the mainline Lutheran Church. Both religious groups have their churches located in South Range and Painesdale.
The major ethnic groups in the south range communities were primarily Finnish, Slovene, Italian, and some French, and a few English. Each ethnic community tended to congregate together based upon their language barriers. As a result, besides local churches that catered to the different language groups, there were also fraternal organizations that developed. The Finnish population developed much of their cultural experience around the Kaleva epic poem. The Finnish people built the Kaleva Temple, completing it in 1910, according to Clarence Monette’s book South Range on pages 92-98. The Temple housed many groups and was dedicated to education. The Finnish Temperance Hall was also built in 1905 for advancing the groups’ spiritual efforts of the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church, a reform movement to address the problems of alcoholism within the Lutheran Church in Finland and carried over to America. Even to this day, the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran movement strongly advocates for an alcohol-free lifestyle. The Knights of Kaleva stressed the preservation of the Finnish literary tradition. Finlandia University in Hancock today continues to carry its cultural influence and continues to have an interactive relationship with Finland.

"Road to School" Painesdale, MI

South Range has long enjoyed parades and has loved to celebrate the national holidays. The Fraternal Order of Eagles and the American Legion have long played roles in the South Range community, contributing to the military history and tradition of the range communities. They established a war memorial just outside the Post Office and Jeffers High School in Painesdale. The Fourth of July has been especially raucous with drinking and dancing and parades. During the prohibition era, there were many underground alcohol distilleries. The federal agents were continually seeking to bust up these illegal operations. One day, the federal agents approached my Aunt Marie, informing her that they were going to bust the alcohol-making business of her mother, who relied on making the bootleg alcohol to keep her family supplied with food. They forced my aunt to give them a list of names of other bootleggers in the area. If so, they would let my grandmother continue with her business. They promised to put my aunt into the witness protection program. She gave the information, and they put her in a witness protection program. She settled in the Detroit area, met and married her husband, who worked in Detroit’s auto industry. She lived the rest of her life in Garden, Michigan. 

Edward Siller had an orchestra that played in the South Range area, much to the delight of the residents. He also owned the Painesdale Hotel. When my Aunt Ann was a young girl, my grandmother couldn’t afford to feed her; thus, she sent my aunt to live with the Sillers, who made her a maid and hotel maintenance worker. A few years later, my mother joined her in this work. Both my mother and my Aunt Ann attended Jeffers and completed their education.

Today South Range looks very different as the State Highway Department re-routed M-26 away from the central part of town to eliminate all the infamous and dangerous S-curves. While they created a beautiful new road, the main street of South Range looks empty without the M-26 traffic. Today, the elementary school stands at the West end of the town, and the Catholic Church stands at the East end of town. In between, few businesses remain open. The bank and the fire hall are still open. The many bars that used to line the main street are nearly all boarded up or torn down. The Cozy Corner is remodeled, but nothing like the belly-up bar for which it was famous. The Eagles Hall remains open for dancing at times. The Lutheran Church on M-26 remains a vibrant community. The Apostolic Church is still thriving. But the town of South Range today is a sleeping community for the city of Houghton. Most of the buildings are unused, and many are in serious disrepair. 

The Wheal Kate Mining Company, which was organized in 1851 by Walter W. Palmer and Dr. S.S. Walbank for mining copper and to “acquire, hold, and dispose of real estate,” never developed a successful mine but did end up selling real estate. Today, the name “Whealkate” is primarily known for the 1,500-foot-high bluff, which continually is a challenge for snowmobilers and dirt bikes, and four-wheelers to conquer. Every year, organizations hold competitions at Whealkate to see if they can climb the hill and just how fast it can be accomplished. Few make it, but there are always winners.

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