Despite the current anomaly, everyone in Michigan can tell you the winters are usually awful and always have been. A recently discovered film from the 1930s shows just how true that is … along with ways people still enjoyed the freezing cold and snow.
For example, back then Detroiters took a snow train Up North.
The film called “Winter Comes to Michigan” was created between 1933 and 1940 when the future Governor Murray Van Wagoner ran the precursor to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). It also acts as a black-and-white look into our state’s history of facing the frozen beast.
The window to the past comes from a basement in Newberry. Sisters Nancy and Barbara Sleeper found the film in their mother’s home there and wanted to preserve it as part of their family heritage.
“Our grandfather, Sanborn Sleeper, was the superintendent of the Luce County Road Commission from 1928 until sometime around World War II,” Nancy Sleeper says. She believes he acquired the film during that time.
It seems fitting Sleeper had the film since he was one of the people responsible for bringing the Snogo, an early snow blower, to the Great Lake State. Thank you, Mr. Sleeper! The device is shown in use near Newberry in the reels.
“We saw the ‘Winter Comes to Michigan’ film and thought, gee, this is some great footage of those old-time ‘busy highways,'” Nancy says. “They were so interesting. We couldn’t see just holding onto them.”
The Sleeper family donated the original reels to MDOT. They’ve now been digitized, restored and uploaded to MDOT’s YouTube Channel. Here it is for your viewing enjoyment.
A clear depiction of the elements as an adversary and a look at the difficulty in keeping the roads open helps the modern Michiganders connect with the past, as they see their everyday struggles in winter have been experienced and battled before … without snow blowers.
Of course, it also allows us all to breathe a sigh of relief as you see how fortunate we are to have the modern highway system that sprung up nearly two decades later. Before that it was man against nature … the theme of the film.
“Winter maintenance is a gigantic task for heroic men and efficient machines,” says the film’s foreword. “It is a public service fraught with grave responsibilities. OUR HIGHWAYS MUST BE KEPT OPEN!”
At least these days there is a chance to enjoy the season with survival less of a force for concern.
“Yes, winter is a season of unusual beauty,” intones the narrator. “Only a brief score of years ago, however, the idyll of winter brought only the sad realization of a long season of isolation.”
As highways improved and snow removal equipment got more sophisticated, maintenance became an easier task. Despite the depiction of a “man vs. nature” scenario, the roads are shown to lead to places of enjoyment only available in winter. Such places include Ishpeming’s Suicide Hill ski jump, fledgling downhill ski areas, outdoor public ice skating rinks and an elaborate toboggan run.
Filmmaker and author Bill Jamerson, whose documentaries have explored winter sports and other aspects of state history for Michigan Public Television, says many of the film locations were probably in the U.P., while the toboggan run scene was probably filmed at a winter sports park in Grayling.
“Winter Wonderland,” a documentary by Jamerson, said the 1930s-1960s were the golden age for winter recreation in Michigan. Better cars and snow removal equipment made it easier to get to the fun than it was when most of the parks were opened in the 1920s.
“Winter driving was hazardous, so this film goes a long way in showing that progress had been made,” Jamerson says. “Remember, up until WWII, snow trains brought people up to the Grayling winter sports park from Detroit. So, rail was considered the safe option for most people. Trains were also bringing people from Chicago and Milwaukee up into Iron Mountain.”
Remember, back then there was no Mackinac Bridge.
That golden age did come to an end as air travel became more affordable and Midwesterners could enjoy spots for cold fun out West.
“I think an important thing these films do is remind us who we are,” Jamerson says. “For example, there once was a day when skating rinks were overflowing with families … it could happen again!”
Watching the film brought back vivid memories for one veteran ski-jumper.
“That’s Ishpeming. That’s Suicide Hill, back when it was smaller,” said the late Rudy Maki, 80, an honoree of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Maki died unexpectedly on Jan. 17.
Since he was from Ishpeming, Suicide Hill was an old acquaintance. His days of competitive jumps began at the age of 8 and brought him records in Ishpeming and Iron Mountain and even a national championship in 1955.
In those days Maki travelled to his competitions across the state and country by car, as most of his fellow competitors did. The weather did not always cooperate. In 1947 a competition of Maki’s was postponed for a week due to a particularly heavy storm in the host town, Ishpeming. It was a costly process to provide for the out-of-towners during an extended stay.
“That was the year the ski club went broke,” he said.
If your image of winter is one of fun or contempt for the elements there is proof in the film you are not alone. Surely that can bring some comfort next time you either stare down a ski jump or take a heavy sigh as you clutch a shovel and clear your driveway of snow up to your knees.