Images and text by Chelsea Batten http://chelseabatten.com
Light filters through the windows of the Calumet Village Hall like a fine rain, lifting the honeyed tones of its woodwork. Joe Snow’s earnest demeanor fits well within this setting. Seated at his desk and peering down at the first of a neat file of papers, he looks like a Norman Rockwell scene. Even more so when you consider that he grew up in Calumet during its heyday, watching the flames rise from the foundry chimneys across from the Colosseum.
As his father’s air force career was coming to a close, Joe’s family resettled in Calumet in 1965. He was in third grade, a student at Sacred Heart. He and his friend used to run around town on a Friday night, excited by the hustle and bustle.
“It was packed all the time. All the stores were open. Vertin’s had all four floors lit up. The Parkside Restaurant was a booming place. There were something like twenty-seven bars, and just as many churches. People were employed; there was activity all the time.”
The village changed quickly when the mines closed. People started moving away, shuttering their homes and businesses behind them. Joe got through high school and college while working at his father’s body shop and Calumet Electronics, then followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Air Force.
Even while traveling the world and starting a family, the Keweenaw stayed strong in his memory.
“It was always home. It was always where I’d planned to be. In the service, a lot of people went on vacations here and there. Our vacation was coming back here [and] seeing our families.”
In 2016, after Joe retired from the service, he and his wife left their home in Washington State to return to the Keweenaw. They moved into Joe’s parents’ old home just north of Tamarack, took up cross-country skiing, and became regulars at the Calumet Golf Course. However, announcing their move brought a certain amount of skepticism, even from his old friends who were still in the area.
“A lot of people I talked to, they said, ‘Are you sure you want to move back here?’ I say, why wouldn’t I? This is home. Yeah, it’s changed a lot, but maybe there’s something I can do to make it better. When I found out this position was open, I thought this would be something I could contribute to.”
As village manager, Joe wears a dizzying array of hats. He jokes that he’s still reading the job expectations in his contract. Along with holding monthly village council meetings and making sure the city’s bills get paid, he serves as an administrator for the zoning board as well as for the Downtown Development Authority. And of course, there’s being the point person for any question a Calumet resident might have. When it comes to the thousand and one questions of daily life in a village, the buck stops with him.
“There’s constantly people coming in, asking questions. Some are fairly simple—‘Can I tear up the sidewalk to put a driveway in?” Other questions are more complicated—“‘There’s a house with a loose pane; I’m afraid it might fall into the street.’ Then we have to track down the homeowner. We had a lady come in because her next door neighbor’s dog was crapping in the yard. She said, ‘Is there an ordinance about the dog running loose?’ And yeah, turns out there is. “There are lots of things I have to bring to council. But I don’t ever say, ‘That’s not us.’ I’ll either find out who they can talk to or point them in the right direction.”
The immediate challenge is picking up where the previous manager left off. The gap between village managers has left Joe to orient himself and restore operations to good working order. “One of the things I'm trying to do is establish Operation Instructions”—Air Force speak for a clear procedural system—“so that whoever comes after me, everything's in place for them.” For this, he depends on the help of village council president Dave Geisler, as well as his secretary, Corrinne, who has held down the village hall office through the tenure of three past managers.
Balanced against all this fine detail is a long-term vision for Calumet's future. Joe has made it his mission to get the village on the path toward revitalization. He is working on preservation measures such as stabilizing Calumet’s historic sandstone buildings and restoring the village hall’s clock tower to function again. Already, he has applied for grants that would set up a fund for the maintenance of Agassiz Park, and he has led the council in passing an ordinance against urban blight.
Taking care of the village’s appearance is a cornerstone of economic development in the area. Another crucial component is forging partnerships amongst the Keweenaw’s many development and tourism organizations. This region-wide effort would not only benefit everyone, but it could potentially restore Calumet to its former place as commercial center for the Keweenaw.
“People in this area have a lot of pride in the community. I don’t mean just Calumet. The Keweenaw is really one big community. I want to work with other municipalities to get people to work together, instead of in isolation.” Partnership, Joe says, is essential for any of these efforts to be effective. “There are some things that I can do, but there are things a lot of other people can do. I know people from my experiences traveling around that may be able to financially assist—bring a business in, maybe invest in the village. [And] citizens can help out, also. People here are very friendly and helpful."
Joe says that he took the Midwest’s work ethic for granted until his travels around the country showed him how rare a quality it is. People from this area, he says, are closely bonded by their pride in their hometown, their community spirit, and their commitment to getting a job done well. “I think those people would be the same ones who would be able to help the village move forward.”
Fortunately, this fierce local spirit is one of Calumet’s richest resources. And unlike copper, it doesn’t go away.
“I don’t think anything’s going to happen tomorrow. But if everybody continues to work together, the small things start showing up, and hopefully people get a little more pride in the community. Then they can maybe take on things themselves. We have to grow together. You don’t forget about home.”