Upper Michigan’s Despicable Storm of ’38: the first part

An age long gone; nearly one hundred years ago, in a world where nigh a familiar automobile headlight lit the dirt and gravel corridors of these young northern cities, a wintry brew was beginning far above. In celebration of the melting snow, I’d like to take a moment to address the great blizzard of 1938.

Children conducting their typical frosty two-odd mile walk to school usually expected to be walking back home after their adolescent daily grinds concluded. The northern winds stirred together a new concoction, one that would squirrel away the young students inside their attending facility’s gymnasium for the better part of four days and blast powerlines from their ordinary sway. Amid all this blizzardly blow, another tragedy bubbled on the burner: that of the Masonic Building fire, which consumed many storefronts, offices, and the much-celebrated Marquette Opera House, which made its home inside. The storm halted all activity and production for an extended period of time, shorting power lines where they ran and cutting off neighbors from each other with sometimes eighteen-feet-tall drifts of snow. Needless to say, this barred NMU, then-operating for thirty-nine years, from conducting its usual routine as well.

Credit: Tyler R. Tichelaar
Power lines hang limp with frozen water from relentless fire hosing.

Pictured left is the ravaged opera house proceeding the extinguishing of the flames. As The Queen City, the second installment of a trilogy written by Tyler R. Tichelaar about Marquette, referred to the disturbing rivalry of fire and ice, “People peered out their windows to see an eerie conglomeration of smoke, bright red flames, and hurling white snow.

Everywhere, from Lake Huron to Michigan in the upper sloughs of the peninsula, was drowning in icy spit-up from the sky. Several accounts recalling the storm remember exiting their houses from the second floor, the first too smothered to access from the inside. Snowy drifts pressed against windows and doorways, an incomprehensible barricade. The mining operations in the area closed; families went without regular income for days.

From the City of Marquette Reports for the year ended 1938 (annual). Courtesy of the Central Upper Peninsula and NMU Archives, collection number 135.

The Marquette City finance report of the fire (shown right) claims the damages of the Masonic Building to total nearly two hundred fifty thousand dollars; adjusted for inflation, that would be almost five million today. The insurmountable devastation of this fire only barely meets the incredulity of its origins, however.

The building, and the storm, has existed in the minds of those who experienced it for years. Now that that generation is fading away, we can begin to catalogue their memories through personal accounts and the historical province at our disposal. Besides, it can be fun to take a step back and admire the preposterous events of our past in order to appreciate the present.

In the next installment, we’ll explore the cause of the fire itself. Look forward to it during the first week of fall semester! It’s quite the doozy.

Edit history: Queen City is a novel, not an outlet source.

This post was written by Eli Saylor

40 Years Ago in NMU’s History: Financial Exigency is a Bad April Fool’s Joke

We who attend NMU have no fear that our University will still be open and running tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. For students attending NMU in the early 80’s, that may not have been the case. Financial exigency defined by the American Association of University Professors is an, “Imminent financial crisis which threatens the survival of the institution as a whole.” “Financial exigency” is a scary phrase to utter in a budget meeting. On April 1, 1982, those words were not just uttered, but shouted by Northern Michigan University. Despite the date, this was no joke.

The declaration, see last paragraph

To understand why NMU declared financial exigency we have to leave Marquette and look a little bigger. In a memorandum addressed to Professor J. Patrick Farrell, Northern’s President, John X. Jamrich provides this background for his support in declaring financial exigency:

“There is a fiscal crisis in the State of Michigan… There has been a significant reduction in the funding of higher education in the State of Michigan during the past ten years, with an even more severe reduction in the funding of higher education during the past two or three years.”


Beyond even Michigan, the entire United States was facing a recession, traced to the Iranian Revolution, which resulted in oil prices increasing sharply. Inflation rates hit whopping double digits, and interest rates rose in an attempt to balance the fluctuating market. 

And so on April 1, 1982, exactly forty years ago, NMU’s Board of Control declared a “bona fide financial exigency.”

A $1,681,000 instructional budget cut was proposed. Inflation wise, that amount in 2022 would be valued at $4,942,244, almost five million dollars. Specifically, these reductions would take place in the child development center, off campus courses, elimination of the marching band, cuts in the following departments: Mathematics, Management and Marketing, Communication Disorders, Accounting, Art and Design, English, History, Sociology, Business Education, Industry and Technology, Philosophy, Speech, elimination of the Spring session, reduction of the Summer school budget, and elimination of the Licensed Practical Nurses program and graduate assistants, to name a few.

John X. Jamrich stated these goals for the bargaining process:

  1. Minimize disruption of the academic schedule
  2. Maintain reasonable costs for students
  3. Minimize layoffs
  4. Provide flexibility in this time of certain uncertainties, especially for planning for 1983-84 and beyond

Negotiations between the NMU Chapter of the AAUP and administration lasted six months, culminating in invoking Article VII of the agreement between the AAUP and NMU Board of Control, which outlined the oncoming changes that would need to take place at Northern in lieu of a declaration of Financial Exigency. Settling on an instructional budget reduction of $1,207,000, and the selecting of 19 faculty members to lay off (many having tenure), NMU survived. At least we got to keep the marching band. 

This post was written by Eliza Compton

Postcards of the Poignant Upper Peninsula

The archives aren’t all about doom and gloom and endless genealogy records (although that’s interesting in its own right). We also have tiny pockets of history preserved in little unassuming boxes; this one, specifically, in glorious 1900’s technicolor.

Dating from the near-decrepit year of 1905 to the more recent and familiar era of 1995, postcards in all shades stand out in broad variety inside our Central Upper Peninsula and NMU Archives Postcard collection. Ranging from historical photos of buildings long demolished on campus, to the fanatical and illustrious greetings from Da Yoopers Tourist Trap, these postcards tell an easily digestible story about our beloved U.P. and the people inside of it. I must admit: the oldies are my favorite.

These are only a few of the historic gems in this collection; you can come drop by and take a gander any time during our open hours! One particular instance concerning an extraterrestrial spaceship included. Although more obsolete now in the age of text messages and video calls, harkening back to old and beloved methods of communication like postcards and hand-written letters can be a very rewarding excursion, if you’re willing to read a bit of cursive.

This post was written by Eli Saylor