Monday, June 2, 2014

Once a Yooper...

Dear George,
A while back I ran into a long-time Cincinnati friend who said she had an interesting story to tell me.  She said she had recently interviewed a workman for a potential house-painting job.  Within seconds she realized that his accent was almost identical to mine.  She said to him, "I know where you're from.  You're from Menominee, Michigan."  The man smiled and said, "No, I'm not."  Then he added, "I'm from Birch Creek."  Birch Creek is tiny hamlet four miles north of Menominee in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  It's where my parents renovated an old log cabin as a second home and where we’ve held many family reunions.  I found my friend’s story amazing.  I haven’t lived in Menominee for almost sixty years and didn’t think I had even a trace of a U.P. accent.  It makes you realize how profoundly we're affected by our childhood environment even when we have no awareness of it. 

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is an extraordinary place.  Several years ago a prominent travel source rated it among the top ten summer travel destinations in the world.  Way back in the 1920's Henry Ford said it’s “one of the prettiest places in the world."  The U.P. is larger than the states of Massachusetts and New Jersey combined, and about a third of it consists of uninhabited national forests.  There are 1700 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, stretching along Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron.   And there are 4300 inland lakes.

The U.P. is mostly rural.  There are only three towns with populations greater than 10,000.  A majority of U.P. residents live in relatively isolated areas.  In Menominee County where my home town is located, there are only 23 people per square mile.  By contrast, Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is located, has about 2,100 people per square mile – a hundred times more dense.  

U.P. residents are known as "Yoopers" (because they live in the U.P.), and they refer to people in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan as "trolls" (because they live under the bridge, i.e., the Mackinac Bridge).    Cultural stereotypes, which contain a dose of humor, are that Yoopers long for the deer hunting season to start; are hardy folk who endure harsh winters and heavy snowfalls; eat venison, pasties and fried smelt; drink lots of  booze; go ice fishing in the winter; swat hordes of mosquitos the rest of the year; and are proud to live in the U.P.  One author commented:  "The U.P. is a hard place.  A person has to want to hurt a lot to live there."

“Yooper” also refers to the particular dialect spoken in the region.  Many people in the area are of Finnish, French Canadian, Cornish, Scandinavian, or German descent, and local accents are strongly influenced by these native languages.  In the Yooper dialect, “yes” is pronounced “ya”; “th” is replaced by “d” (as in “dere” for “there”); sentences often end in “Eh”; and “ing” at the end of words is pronounced “een” (e.g., “what are you do-een tonight?”).  A popular bumper sticker says, “Say ya to da U.P., eh!”

My hometown of Menominee, with a population of about 8,500, is the fourth largest city in the U.P.  It's located on Lake Michigan’s Green Bay at the mouth of the Menominee River.  Menominee was a lumber boom town and the world’s largest logging port in the 1880’s and 90’s.  Today the economy rests mainly on manufacturing.  While Menominee lacks Chicago or Milwaukee’s museums and universities, violent crime rates are about a fifth of the national rate, there are excellent beaches and parks, there’s some of the best bass fishing in the nation, Menominee County has the U.P.’s largest deer population, and the air quality gets a near-perfect rating of 97 on a 100-point scale.

When I went off to college, most of my classmates were from metropolitan areas in the East or Midwest: New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, etc.  No one had ever heard of Menominee.  Some didn’t even know that Michigan had an Upper Peninsula.  I quickly discovered that my dormitory mates were generally more knowledgeable and sophisticated than I was, particularly in terms of politics, the arts, and world events.  On the other hand, I’d done more swimming and boating; pitched more tents and built more campfires; gone to more county fairs and demolition derbies; shot at rats with a .22 at the city dump at night; captured eight-inch nightcrawlers on the cemetery lawn after a heavy rain; and cruised around town with my teenage friends virtually every night of the week.   I still enjoy doing small town/North Woods stuff. 

A few weeks ago I ran across a test on the Internet that asks, “Are you a true Yooper?”  It had questions like:  “Have you ever driven a snowmobile?  Gone ice fishing?  Gone smelting?  Can you point out Escanaba on a map?”  I answered “yes” to all those questions, though I didn’t score that high on the test as a whole.  Since being a Yooper means living in the U.P., I haven’t been able to make that claim for a long time.  However, once you’ve grown up there, I think you always have a Yooper streak in your blood.

SOURCES:, “Menominee County, Michigan”;, “Da Yoopers Official Website”;, “The Upper Peninsula Traveler”;, “Are you a true Yooper?”; www.informationgirl,com, “Yooperland”;, “Menominee, Michigan”;, “Upper Peninsula of Michigan,” “Yooper,” “Yooper dialect”

G-mail Comments
-Linda C (6-3): I am well aware of what a yooper accent sounds like and I have never ever heard it when you talk.  But recently yooper was put in the dictionary.  Msu has a coach who is a yooper. So at a national tv basketball game , an announcer said our coach was from yooper. I can't believe that is the correct usage   But said repeatedly it was now in dictionary and coach was from yooper.

No comments:

Post a Comment