'A History of the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club'

Written by Nancy Besonen


[Large Size Images have been archived to save disk space.]

The mark of a true sportsman is that he does not leave one. He doesn't cut a wide swath through the woods so that he may comfortably hunt there, nor disrespect his prey by harvesting more than he will use. When a long day on the lake has ended, the only trace he leaves behind is the ripple from his passing boat, which widens and disappears.

In charting the history of the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club through the past 60 years, it quickly became apparent that sportsmen are as difficult to track through time as they are through the woods. The fire that destroyed the original clubhouse in August of 1981 also consumed the organizations records, except for one document kept in a safe deposit box by the club secretary: the deed to its land.

Back issues of the L'Anse Sentinel have yielded a precious few facts about the first stirrings of the club, then a wealth of information about its landmark issues and events, including the fire, Keweenaw Bay fishing rights, and the organizations signature activity, its annual Turkey Shoot.

In the absence of the printed word, a core group of club members, several of whom can trace their roots back to the Laird Conservation Club or the Wolverine Sportsmen's Club, have tapped their memories ( and sometimes, perhaps, their imaginations!) to provide the text for this history of the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club. They are a vital part of the club's past and of its present, and along with you, dear reader, its future.

IN THE BEGINNING

Conservation is the key to maintaining and enriching natural resources. As early as the 1930's and well before then, area sportsmen knew they needed a plan, and an organization to help them carry it through.

The Ottawa Sportsmen's Club's history may have begun with two hunters who met on an old logging road, and shared their concerns that the deer seemed a bit scarce that year. Or perhaps it was a few anglers in a trout laden stream, topping their creels with a niggling sense that it would not, and could not, always be this way.

We do know that back in 1939, at the Alston Town Hall, a group of conservation minded sportsmen gathered to form the Laird Conservation Club, with Arnold Abramson serving as its first president. In 1943-44, the Wolverine Sportsmen's Club was organized, headed by George Haiko. And on September 14, 1961, the two organizations joined forces and interests to become the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club.

Courtney Lake Courtney Lake

THE LAIRD CONSERVATION CLUB

Sportsmen hailing primarily from Nisula and Alston, just northwest of the Baraga County border, banded together in July of 1939 to form the Laird Conservation Club. Its first roster numbered 34 charter members, and the group lost no time in joining ranks with the Northern Michigan Sportsmen's Association. Officers elected to lead the club in its first year included, Abramson, Vice President Arvo Kananen, Treasurer Waino Kirhonen, and Secretary Bemhard Kinnunen. After Kinnunen was called into military service, Lauri Kiviranta was appointed to fill his seat. Kiviranta would faithfully record the club's minutes and activities for the next 34 years.

Uno Lepisto Uno Lepistp

The Board ofDirectors was made up of Uno Lepisto, William Mili, Mike Jylha, Jalmer Rahkola, and Jim 0 'Meara. Club members determined that meetings would be held on the first Thursday of each month at the Alston Town Hall. An Aug. 24, 1939 article from the L'Anse Sentinel offers a brief report on one of the club's earliest functions:

"Members enjoyed their first picnic last Thursday night at Bob Lake. Fishing, swimming, pitching horse shoes, etc. were enjoyed and a delicious lunch enjoyed."

In 1940, the Von Flatten Fox Co., headed by the late M.J. Fox of Iron Mountain (and later, by Abbott Fox) deeded a piece of land to the Laird Conservation Club: 15 acres total, with a frontage of 1,100 feet on Courtney Lake, within the borders of the Ottawa National Forest. The benefactor was recognized and thanked by the club for both his generosity and conservation-mindedness.

Fox's gift did not lie idle for long. In April of 1940, Ontonagon attorney Lawrence P. Walsh drew up the necessary papers, and the Laird Conservation Club was officially incorporated. Work began soon after to construct a clubhouse.

The building project was financed through an FHA loan and annual dues, plus proceeds from dances, socials, etc. By the time the project was finished, club members had invested more than 1,700 hours of labor into their new meeting place. The Executive Board of the Laird C onservation Club was made up, at that time, of members James O'Meara, Uno Lepisto, John Jacobson, Arvo Kananen, Waino Pirhonen, Bernhard Kinnunen, and William Pirhonen. The building committee included Waino Matero, Ed Gillstrom, Mike Jylha, and Arthur Juntunen.

Art Juntunen, Contractor Art Juntunen Juntunens at Palisade 1940s Juntunens at Palisade

The finished clubhouse was dubbed "The Palisade", and stood 60 feet long by 40 feet wide. When The Palisade filled to overflowing during dances and various functions, guests would spill out onto the covered porches that ran along two sides of the building, and continue their revelry under the stars.

The clubhouse was situated among white birch, pine, and oak, and was noted to be "a pleasing attraction to all visitors". It overlooked Courtney Lake, was built of logs and had a hardwood floor. A kitchen was built into one comer of the building to accommodate hungry and thirsty guests.

Ken Jolgren Ken Jolgren Palisade 1939 Palisade

Ken Jolgren, former Laird Conservation Club member and now a member of the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club, recalls fish frys held at The Palisade, preceded by the locally famous smelt frys held at the Alston Town Hall. Bill Parkila, another Laird member and Ottawa Sportsman, said that when winter set in club meetings were moved back to the Town Hall, because the road to Courtney Lake wasn't plowed.

Throughout the course of its 22-year history the Laird Conservation Club was run by the letter, with its own constitution and set of bylaws. The club valued its affiliation with the Northern Michigan Sportsmen's Association, and worked to create a community spirit of conservation and sportsmanship.

Wolverine Clubhouse 1963 Wolverine Clubhouse

WOLVERINE SPORTSMEN'S CLUB

The Wolverine Sportsmen's Club was established at the end of W.W.II, at a time when area sportsmen could fully appreciate and want to conserve the pristine natural resources they had come home to. Ralph Haiko was named president of the fledgling organization, and Ed Aho, now of the Ottawa, was one of its original members.

Ed Aho Ed Aho

"I was a charter member of the Wolverine Sportsmen's Club - it was formed in 1943-44" Aho said. "We started with just a few, but it grew fast!"

While most of the Laird Conservation Club's members hailed from the Alston and Nisula areas, the Wolverine drew its membership from the Baraga and Pelkie areas, Aho said. The original roster numbered less that 10 members, he recalls, but soon grew to include 40 to 50.

The first meeting of the Wolverine Sportsmen's Club was held in the Odd Fellows Hall in Baraga. Other meeting sites, in the cold winter months, would include member John Holms' place, and the Grandville Tavern on M-38, at the comer of Bellaire Road.

Aho figured the club got its name "because it's 'The Wolverine State,' I suppose!" A club located downstate had beaten the local organization to the draw; hence its full title, "Wolverine Sportsmen's Club of U.P., Inc.".

Every club needs a home of its own, and the Wolverines were no different. Aho said when the members decided to build a clubhouse for their meetings and assorted functions, tavern owner and club member John Holms lent them $1,000 toward construction materials. In addition to the $1,000 borrowed from Holms, the members took a bold action to raise more funds for the construction project. A new Ford car was purchased to be raffled off at $1.00 per ticket. It was shown over a wide area of the U.P. including the U.P. State Fair. The lucky winner of the new auto was John Edward Lindblom of Baraga. The raffle was a success and with the earnings and the borrowed $1,000, the Wolverines purchased a parcel of land on highway M-38 and set to work.

The club enjoyed a fast friendship with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Aho said, and that agency sent a cement mixer to the site for preparing and pouring the footings. Aho said that Fred Miron of the DNR's fire division came along to operate the mixer. Twelve members showed up at the first work bee. Prior to pouring the cement, and following the custom of the times, a layer of rock 6 to 8 inches thick was laid down to save on cement.

Ted Otto served as the mason, and Chet Kuszmar, owner of the Grandville Tavern, worked with Otto in his spare time. Former Wolverine member Bill Parkila of Alston said that members who contributed a specified amount of funding toward the building project were named life members of the Wolverines, a status which carried over after it merged with Laird to form the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club.

Like the Laird club, the Wolverines were affiliated with the Northern Michigan Sportsmen's Association consisting of clubs throughout the U.P. In 1946, seeking more influence in the State Legislature, the Wolverine Sportsmen's Club also affiliated with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC). MUCC is a statewide conservation organization based in Lansing. This affiliation continues today in the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club.

In 1954 a new kitchen was built onto the clubhouse, compliments of member William Rouna who donated all the wall material, and the many members who helped with construction. On January 28, of that year, a newsletter produced by Club Secretary Onni Usitalo outlined the following concerns the club would discuss at its next meeting:

"1. Organization of a skeet shooting club. 2. Asking for construction of a fish ladder for Falls River Dam in L'Anse. 3. A new membership drive. 4. Net fishing in Keweenaw Bay. 5. Deer season and problems. 6. Length of bird season. 7. Putting out of pamphlet that would publicize our area, and have maps showing tourists how to get to the places of interest. 8. Sign making project for winter months, and 9. Resolutions to the U.P. meeting of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs in Escanaba in March. Some suggested resolutions which will be decided and voted on are: close special rainbow season, prohibit net fishing in Keweenaw Bay, eliminate bear season, and more if time permits."

Bill Parkila Bill Parkila

After the construction of its clubhouse, Bill Parkila said, the Wolverines' membership grew, and included many who were also members of the Laird Conservation Club. Though membership in both groups was going strong, on the basis of shared interests and like goals, officers of the two organizations proposed a radical step: join forces to become the Ottawa Sportmen's Club.

THE OTTAWA SPORTSMEN'S CLUB

"Some important matters have come up which concern both clubs, and it is urgent that all members attend"

The preceding announcement appeared in the May 3,1961 issue of the L'Anse Sentinel, and barely hinted at the decisive vote which would soon take place. Addressed to the members of the Wolverine Sportsmen's Club and Laird Conservation Club, the notice informed them of a meeting on Thursday, May 4 at 8 p.m. at the Wolverine Club House.

"Both clubs were a little bit jealous for territory," Ed Aho recalled. "Laird felt they were 'coming over to our club,' but it worked out fine. The two clubs got together, and it's been good ever since."

Ken Jolgren was president of the Laird Conservation Club and Ralph Jokipii was president of the Wolverines when the two groups decided to become one. Ralph said the idea was brewing a long time before it was suggested to the two clubs' members, and has worked out better than either could have expected.

"Ken and I were talking it over a number of times," Jokipii said. "It was foolish to have two clubs so close together; it was diminishing their membership. We weren't getting anything done."

At that time, membership in either club cost only $1 a year, and nobody knew precisely how many members either club had. Jolgren said that Rudy Holms used to solicit new members at his bar, but didn't always remember to add their names to the roster. Many outdoorsmen invested in both clubs at that reasonable rate, but neither organization was getting ahead.

The landmark meeting was held at the Alston Town Hall, and after the union of the two clubs was approved the first item of business included selecting a new name. Because the combined clubs would be meeting at the Wolverines' former clubhouse at the edge of the Ottawa National Forest. The "Ottawa" was deemed a natural.

Jolgren was named president of the new organization, and Jokipii was elected vice-president. Jolgren said about a dozen and more members were present at the first meeting, and that a drive for new members was quickly organized. The club also upped the dues to weed out patrons of the outdoors from active members.

"That (combining clubs) was the best thing that ever happened," Jolgrensaid. "It took off right away as the Ottawa! We decided to raise dues to $3.50 a year and that was a big jump. We figured if we got $3.50 out of them, they would come to the meetings. We started to get members more involved." Meetings were held at varying intervals for the first few years and were announced by the secretary via a newspaper article plus postcards sent out to Ottawa members. After a few years, the members elected To hold their meetings on the first Monday of every month even if it landed on a holiday. That rule remains written in stone.

CLUB ACTIVITIES

Dances at The Palisade.....fish frys at the Wolverine Clubhouse.....Rudy Holms' talent for collecting $1 bills!

There is nothing cheap about running an organization, and it's even tougher if it's not-for-profit. Over the years, members of the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club have drawn upon natural resources plus their own resourcefulness to make a go of their club and the ideals it supports.

from Ed Aho

Both the Laird and Wolverine clubs issued "Lifetime Memberships" to become established and to help fund construction of their clubhouses, and those memberships were later honored by the Ottawa. Future fundraisers would involve a more hands on approach to keeping the organization financially solvent.

The Laird Conservation Club held a smelt fry at the Alston Town hall every spring, according to Ken Jolgren in which Dorothy Salbashian and Elvi Harkonen did the cooking. Ed Aho, Frank Zeits and Wayne Heikkinen used to trap burbot in the Sturgeon River by Froberg Road for meals at the Ottawa, and those fish frys were also popular among club members and friends.

Wayne Heikkinen Wayne Heikkinen

The Ottawa Sportsmen's clubhouse with a current seating capacity of more than 200, is also capable of generating funds through rentals to private parties and garnering good public relations through use by public or charitable organizations. Boy Scout winter jamborees are held at the clubhouse and grounds and the site has become popular for MUCC Board of Director Meetings. Various Law Enforcement Agencies frequently use the clubhouse and indoor and outdoor shooting ranges for various functions. Each spring and sometimes in the fall, the club hosts a Knife and Gun Show at the clubhouse, and an annual Wild Game Dinner in the spring which is open to the public.

There is one activity -call it a tradition- that has been part of the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club since that first small group convened some 60 years ago. It is the sportsmens' busiest day of the year, in which community support and participation, plus a steady rainfall of spent raffle tickets, help insure that the coming years conservation goals may be met.

Turkey Shoot Tickets Raffle

TURKEY SHOOT

Reino Kinnunen of Nisula is credited with suggesting the Laird Conservation Club hold its first Turkey Shoot in the early 1940's to raise needed funds. Thatshoot was held at Courtney Lake, and according to Ron Kamarainen of Baraga, live birds were initially given away as prizes.

Ron Kamarainen Ron Kamarainen

Kamarainen's father was an original member of the club, and Ron was a child when he attended that first shoot. Besides the live birds, he recalls regretting the fact he was too young to shoot. Ed Aho said the club still fields some calls from citizens, most recently a woman from down state, who are concerned that live birds are being used as targets. "Years back, they had live turkeys as prizes, but we've always had paper targets," Aho said. "They could take their turkeys home and keep them 'til Thanksgiving."

The Wolverines had also adopted a fall Turkey Shoot program as a fundraiser. Early shoots were held off the Bellaire Road behind the Grandville Tavern until the clubhouse was built.

The Turkey Shoot is always held on the last Sunday in September, so winners of those early shoots had plenty of time to fatten up their prizes. Soon after the Wolverines and Laird Conservation Club disbanded to form the Ottawa, a new concept was introduced to the good old fashioned shoot out, and it was a feature both young and old could enjoy: the 10 cent raffle.

Jolgren said the first shoot at the combined club brought in $ 1300, and remembers that "We thought we'd hit gold!" Abe Matero served as the first auctioneer, keeping up a lively banter and drumming up interest in the raffles that span the day.

Jolgren said the business community and friends of the organization continue to be both faithful and generous in their annual contributions to the Turkey Shoot, which the public is pleased to support. Throughout the day a band of club members in carpenters aprons circulate around the main room between drawings selling hundreds of 10 cent tickets for prizes including cash, hunting gear, household appliances and automotive supplies.

By the end of the day, flocks of frozen turkeys have been awarded to top shots, the floor of the clubhouse is ankle-deep in discarded raffle tickets, and the club's coffers are bolstered for another year of conservation based projects, educational materials for area schoolchildren and various activities.

The most successful Turkey Shoot to date was one which was held in September of 1981, and it wasn't even held at the clubhouse. A month earlier, for causes that remain unknown, the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club burned to the ground. On the day the concrete floor for a new clubhouse was being poured, community support was pouring in at a shoot which was held at the Pelkie Fair grounds, the likes of which Jolgren noted "had never been seen before".

Clubhouse 1968, Before Fire Clubhouse before fire

THE FIRE

Jim Parkila of Pelkie was returning home on M-38 in Baraga at about 3 a.m. on August 16, 1981 when he noticed a glow in the sky. Parkila notified his brother, John, who contacted the State Police Post in L'Anse. The call was received by 3:20, and by the time the Pelkie Fire Department arrived 10 minutes later, it was already too late to save the Ottawa Sportsmen's Clubhouse.

"It was gone by then, or purt near gone," Pelkie Fire Chief John Porter told the L'Anse Sentinel. "She's to the ground now. There's nothing left."

Eleven firefighters and four fire trucks responded to the call, and a tanker was sent back to town five times for refills before they left at 10:15 Thursday morning. Charred embers and a fireplace were all that was left standing, and damages were estimated in excess of $60,000 for the Clubhouse and its contents. The clubhouse kitchen had been remodeled in the spring; Aho, who'd arrived at the scene by 7 a.m. Thursday, lamented, "We never had a chance to use 'em."

Arson was suspected from the outset, and an investigation was immediately undertaken. The club decided to match the State Arson Control Program's reward of up to $2,000 for any leads, but the sum has never been collected.

On Aug. 22, a special meeting of the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club was held at the club indoor shooting range. The range had been built by club members three years previous, and at 90' long and 4O' wide,was larger than the former clubhouse. Members were reportedly in good spirits. Besides deciding to match the arson program's award, they elected to go on with the annual Turkey Shoot, and to re-build.

The former clubhouse had included storage rooms and a large meeting room. Fortunately prizes for the annual Turkey Shoot were not stored inside, and the club's NRA rifles for target shooting had all been stored in the range. A recently recelved shipment of amunition for use with the guns was also safe and sound in the rifle range.

New Clubhouse 2001 New Clubhouse

A NEW CLUBHOUSE

The ruins of the original Ottawa Sportsmen's Club building were atill smoldering when a truckload of lumber from All-Wood, Inc. of Baraga pulled up outside. Albin Jacobson had contributed the lumber as a gift, and the sight of a fresh load of building supplies beside their burned out buildmg quickly spurred the Sportsmen into action.

Russ Weisinger Russ Weisinger

"That's the type of support we have in the community," said long time Ottawa member Russ Weisinger of Baraga. "I still remember the old building still smoking, and the trailer of new lumber outside."

"From there on out," said Bill Parkila of Alston, a lifetime member of the Ottawa, "It started. Everyone put their shoulder to the wheel. There was a great show of cause in the sportsmens' interest, and in others as well."

Harold Mitchell Harold Mitchell

Harold Mitchell had volunteered to act as leader for the rebuilding project and coordinated all the various aspects of construction, even sawing many of the materials on his personal portable sawmill. The construction was decidedly a group effort, but Ken Jolgren said that five men worked steadily on putting up the walls and roof. Don Mieko, an area carpenter, was hired to lead the actual construction. Club members working with Mieko were

Irv Santti Irv Santti Ron Mitchell Ron Mitchell

Irving Santii, Ron Mitchell, Ralph Jokipii and Jolgren. A crew of 33 men showed up on the day the floor was poured, the same day the relocated Turkey Shoot was held at the Pelkie Fair Building and grounds.

The scope of the project called for all hands on deck, and Jokipii figures he probably handled every single log that went into the building. For price considerations hemlock was the material of choice for the walls of the project. Though hemlock isn't ordinarily considered an ideal material for log construction because of its tendency to twist as it dries, the sportsmen put the logs up green, bolting them down as they went for a tight enduring fit.

"The logs are chamfered, and eight inches high by six wide," Jokipii said. Rods were set into the foundation, spaced four feet apart and running from top to bottom and holes were drilled into the logs so they could be stacked on the rods and then anchored to the floor. The rods helped prevent the hemlock from twisting both during and after construction of the building.

"We had to do it while everyone was emotionally shocked, and in high gear," Jolgren said. "and we had that load of lumber!" Jokipii added.

The finished product measures 96 feet long by 40 feet wide and includes a large meeting room, smaller room with a bar, kitchen and bathrooms. In the summer of '96, a smaller storage room was added on to the original building by a crew of ready and well experienced volunteers.

CAUSES AND EFFECTS

From its very beginnings, the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club has worked to inform and educate the public in natural resource use and conservation. Article 2 of the club's original constitution and by-laws holds in part that it "vote and work for passage of improved legislation in the interests of hunting, fishing and reforestation " On a crisp fall day back in 1979, two club members in a fishing boat set out to change a law the Ottawa Club was opposed to by breaking it.

Ron Moilanen Ron Moilanen

On Oct. 2 of that same season, Donald LaPointe Vice Chairman ofthe KeweenawBay Indian Community notified Ottawa Sportsmen's Club President Ron Moilanen of an ordinance newly adopted by the Tribal Council. It would temporarily close a portion ofKeweenaw Bay to fishing by both tribal members and sports fishermen, in order to protect spawning lake trout.

Sports and commercial fishermen had long been at odds with the tribe over utilization of the exceptional fishery which had been seriously depleted in recent years. It was not the ban, but rather the issue of jurisdiction over the body of water that stirred club members into taking action.

The ban was scheduled to go into effect Oct. 10 and run through Oct. 30. On Oct. 9 at a special meeting of the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club, the membership elected to put the new ordinance to the test by purposely violating it.

Charley Roberts and Joe Drake of L'Anse reeled in the one and one half pound lake trout that brought the issue to a head. They were ticketed by the tribal police, but a later ruling determined the Bay was under the jurisdiction of the State of Michigan and that the ban did not apply. Subsequently the KBIC withdrew the ordinance.

Carl Patterson Carl Patterson

"The Club spent a lot of money on litigation," said Carl Patterson of L'Anse, who was instrumental in staging the act of civil disobedience. "From an environmental standpoint, that's the only time the Club has hired an attorney."

The Ottawa Sportsmen's Club has historically lent its support to conservation efforts, both monetarily and through public education. Its violation of the ban on Keweenaw Bay stands out as an effort that hit closest to home: the day the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club went fishing for trouble, and found it!

IT DOESN'T END HERE

History is still being made at the Ottawa Sportsmen's Club, now in its 37th year of operation. But on this Spring day of 1998, the story temporarily stops here. Special thanks are due to the Club members who contributed to the compiled history, including: Ed Aho, Ralph Jokipii, Ken Jolgren, Ron Kamarainen, Bill Parkila, Carleton Patterson, and to Russ Weisinger, whose campaign promise for club president has finally been fulfilled.

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