The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 2: The North Woods

Lake of the Clouds at Porcupine Mountains State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Source: parkcamper.com

Series to date:

Part 1: Overview

Like most people who get to know the North Woods nowadays, my first exposure to it was as a tourist.  I visited Mackinac Island (pronounced Mack-in-ah, not Mack-in-ack) when I was maybe ten years old.  It’s a good five-hour drive north of Detroit, straight up I-75, and the island sits at the point where lakes Michigan and Huron meet.  I remember the drive well.  I recall the uninterrupted line of heavy traffic heading north on I-75, with attached boats and trailers.  I remember leaving a typically warm and humid summer in Detroit, with temps in the mid 80s, and arriving in a much cooler and drier place — easily 10-15 degrees cooler.  Once we were north of maybe Saginaw or Mount Pleasant, definitely by the time we were north of Grayling, I remember the the change in the types of trees and the crisp pine smell that seemed to permeate everything.  I remember the number of small recreational lakes that were everywhere.  When we stopped in Mackinaw City, at the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, I remember a distinctively different accent among the natives.

This is the land of rocky outcrops and ten thousand lakes.  It’s the land of lighthouses and gigantic sand dunes.  It’s the sparsely settled land built on timber and mining, settled by Yoopers, full of spectacular natural beauty.  It’s the getaway location for the millions of people who live in Chicago, Detroit, the Twin Cities or Milwaukee.

Welcome to the North Woods.

The North Woods doesn’t really resonate nationally as a distinct region, but that’s fine.  It is the least populated of the five Midwestern subregions I identify, with an estimated 4 million people across the northern tiers of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.  There are more than twice that many in metro Chicago, and more than that in metro Detroit.  Perhaps the best known portrayal of the North Woods came in the 1996 Film “Fargo”, which captured the (exaggerated) accent and “niceness” of the region.  Beyond that, the northernmost part of the Midwest is best known for the timber and iron ore it produced for cities further south, and its abundant recreational opportunities.  Midwesterners know these places well — Pictured Rocks, Mackinac Island, Traverse City and Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan; the Dells, Door County and the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin; virtually any spot north of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

A recent article at Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile, in which Renn invited Minnesotan Alex Schieferdecker to write about how the Twin Cities could disassociate itself from the “Rust Belt” idea of the Midwest and rebrand itself as the “Capital of the North,” highlights how the North Woods is distinct:

“Historically, the North was settled by Germans and Scandinavians, and their legacy is evident in a way that is easy to spot. Perhaps as a result, our region differs linguistically, which is a powerful source of identity. The Minnesota accent is distinct and a cultural hallmark of the region, just as the drawl defines the American south. Some of our words are different too. Northerners play Duck, Duck, Grey Duck and eat hot dish. (NOT grape salad, remember that now.) And if we’re talking about the legacies of the past, the new North could properly recognize the American Indian history of the region, something that only the Southwest and Pacific Northwest seem to do in any measure.”

It might be a little more accurate to say that the North Woods was founded by French trappers, initially settled by New Englanders and then grown by German and Scandinavian immigrants.  The table below, which I’ll roll out for each of the five Midwest subregions, shows what I mean:

Here’s my crude map of the North Woods:

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area is the largest metro within the region (actually sitting at the intersection of the North Woods, Heartland and Plains subregions).  Other major cities in the area include Duluth, MN; Superior, WI, Green Bay, WI, Marquette, MI and Sault Ste. Marie, MI.  Interestingly, my map of the North Woods almost exactly corresponds with the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province ecoregion recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Wildlife Fund:

So at least there’s a climatic basis for this distinction.

The cold climate and lack of agricultural productivity for the area meant that it was settled later than other areas of the Midwest.  Once French trappers left the area, New Englanders moved in and established towns.  After arriving, they recognized the lumber and mineral potential of the area — copper dominated in northern Michigan, and iron ore in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The North Woods towns developed a symbiotic relationship with cities at the southern end of the Great Lakes, supplying them with the raw materials to produce manufacturing goods.  Timber traveled south to Grand Rapids, MI, which developed a furniture construction industry.  Copper and iron ore flowed to Chicago and Detroit, giving them the raw materials to support auto manufacturing and rail construction.  The rapidly flowing rivers of the North Woods made them good locations for the development of sawmills and flour mills, as with Minneapolis (where the St. Anthony Falls once meant the northernmost extent of navigation along the Mississippi River).

After a time, however, raw materials in the North Woods began being depleted and presented a challenge to their economic viability.  By the early part of the 20th century, old-growth timber, copper and iron ore were running out.  Similarly, more roads were being built in formerly inaccessible areas, and automobiles were becoming more affordable.  North Woods towns began devoting themselves to the recreational needs of towns to the south, and tourism became an increasingly bigger part of the local economy.

That meant more Midwesterners had a chance to view the natural splendor of the region:

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  Source: picturedrocks.org

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  Source: wikipedia.org

Sherwood Point Lighthouse in Door County, WI.  Source: doorcounty.com

It should be noted that because of its harsh climate, the North Woods’ ability to be a long-lasting economic factor in nationally or even in the Midwest was quite limited.  Duluth and International Falls, in Minnesota, and Houghton, in Michigan, are the three coldest cities in the lower 48 states by one measure — they are the only three cities that have more than 100 days annually where the temperature does not rise above 32 degrees.  With that kind of cold, it’s no wonder they enjoy the brief summers so much.

If I were to make a comparison between the North Woods and any other part of the United States, I’d compare it culturally and historically with northern New England.  The North Woods shares many traits with Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York — people, topography, climate, economic history.  It’s too sparsely populated to be a region of its own (which, in my opinion, might make it difficult to brand the Twin Cities as the “Capital of the North”), but it does have a unique physical and cultural character to be proud of.

Next entry in the series: the Lower Lakes — aka, the “Rust Belt”.

3 thoughts on “The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 2: The North Woods

  1. I'm originally from this region, so I was delighted to read this article. There are some problematic sections though.

    You write: “It might be a little more accurate to say that the North Woods was founded by French trappers, initially settled by New Englanders and then grown by German and Scandinavian immigrants.”

    Yet, Wikipedia reports that hundreds or thousands of years before any Europeans arrived, copper was mined in the Keweenaw Peninsula [1]. Even after the cessation of copper mining, the area was inhabited by the Chippewa people. They lived in the UP when Europeans settled and still do today. I think you may have unintentionally written native people out of your history of the region.

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copper_mining_in_Michigan

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  2. It was impressive to see how well your “crude map” boundaries for this area matched up with the ecosystem boundaries. The north woods play a role in the psyche of people that live in Minneapolis/St.Paul, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, and other metro areas in the Midwest, even if they are located outside of the North Woods. Outsiders don’t appreciate the extent to which the easy access to the North Woods is a major quality of life amenity to many people living in these metro areas.

    I agree with you that Minneapolis’s claim on being capital of the north doesn’t fit well with the actual geography of the North Woods. It’s a vast area.

    It’s a big part of the Midwest that really doesn’t fit in with the Midwest decline narrative. There is a surprising amount of industry in places such as Green Bay and Wausau. Green Bay’s another example of a city that defies almost every part of the narratives regarding cold, geographically isolated, small metro areas in the Midwest that are heavily reliant on manufacturing.

    I noticed that nearly all of your photos featured water bodies. That’s a key element of the North Woods that sets it apart from areas in the Western US and perhaps New England. It is a landscape that is dominated by water as much as by woods – not just the Great Lakes – but the 10,000 or so lakes in MN and the 15,000 lakes in WI (I'm not sure of the number for MI but suspect its comparable). Sort of a freshwater paradise.

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  3. Martin, thanks for bringing up this oversight. You are correct that indigenous peoples inhabited the North Woods for thousands of years prior to European exploration in the 1600s-1700s. I believe Chippewas and Pottawatomis inhabited much of the North Woods, and were the chief traders with the French trappers who came into the area.

    The Native American legacy is still strong and evident in the North Woods. There are still substantial indigenous populations in the area and many place names that dot the region. You'll note that above I quote a portion of an article that says the Native American presence in the North Woods is rivaled in the U.S. only by the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. Thanks for calling me out on this.

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