Kukka by Sally Kilgore: Thimbleberry Jam

Rockwall, TX (August 18, 2023) – We recently returned from a sojourn to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the U.P.  Specifically, to the Keweenaw Peninsula, also known as the Copper Country, because of its history of the first copper boon in the United States. Way up at the far tip of the world (feels like it to me anyway) the Keweenaw is embraced on three sides by Lake Superior. Lake Superior straddles the borders of the U.S. and Canada. The Keweenaw is remote, more so than the rest of the U.P. It is my land of memories.

We took a road trip up, last month, to Calumet, Michigan. Calumet and Lake Linden, Portage Lake and Princess Point, Lake Superior.  These are the places where my roots are and where I feel as if I’ve come home, each time I visit.  It had been ten years since I had been, eleven years since the B.O.B. and I had been up together. These are the places we would visit each summer as young children, until my parents moved to Texas. Visits after that were sporadic, my last visit of childhood was the summer I was twelve. I did not see these places again until forty years later.

Crossing the Houghton-Hancock bridge across the portage waters into the Keweenaw this summer, my heart beat faster and memory mode set in. Difficult to describe, though I’m certain many of you have experienced same. It’s that feeling of a place so familiar, a place which holds the magic of your life. This is the U.P. for me. As a child, crossing the bridge would create intense excitement in the car, because we were so close to our vacation destination.  Our Aunties, cousins, the lakes, and The Camp were close ahead. Incredibly, even after ten years since my last visit, I had good recollection of the roads, the towns, the curve in the highway with a small settlement called Allouez, where my grandparents raised my mother and her siblings; in a modest two-story home, a lane between the house and the barn. My grandfather was a copper miner, immigrated from Finland. Allouez and most of the townships and villages in the Keweenaw were copper towns. We drove up that highway, our first evening after arriving in Calumet, and I knew exactly where the house sat, so deeply ingrained in my memory bank. We stopped to look from the road. I experienced a smidge of nervousness; out of state license plates, in a place where folks don’t know us anymore, wondering if we are being watched and if those watching are suspicious of our motives. I told my husband to wait, and jumped from the car, up the porch steps, to knock on the door. My sister and I wanted to have our photo taken sitting on that stoop, but I was not comfortable taking liberties without permission. Yes, the owner was fine with us taking photos, and went back to his dinner, which we had clearly interrupted. He was a young man, and though understandable, I was disappointed that he had not thought to invite us in for a peek at the interior of the house.

I did the same a few days later in Bumbletown, another tiny township, just steps from Allouez.  My mother would talk about going up Bumbletown Hill when she was a child, her first school was in Bumbletown. The school is no longer there, but driving slowly up the road gave me that esoteric sense of the past. Something that enchanted me on this sojourn, which I don’t recall noticing as a child, is the incredible bounty of flowers in the U.P. in summer months.  Just as my garden was gasping under triple digits in Texas, abundant blooms were in their glory in the Keweenaw. While creeping down the curvy roads of Bumbletown, I requested the B.O.B. stop and back up, park in the road across from a slightly shabby, gray shingled home. A sweet house with outbuildings and a cracking asphalt drive with edges eaten away by years of snow, surrounded by wild gardens starring vibrant Hollyhocks. The front door propped open to allow the breeze into the house, I knocked on the screen door. I saw a man push away from his kitchen table to come to the door, and he looked puzzled as I explained I am from Texas and a stranger, and I was compelled to take photos of his gardens, if he would allow.  His face softening, we spent several minutes enjoying talk of flowers, Hollyhocks, the Lilacs we would have seen in abundance had we come in May. I think he would have allowed the conversation to go much longer. Looking back, I’m a bit sorry I did not encourage more interaction with this man who seemed to have lived his whole life in Bumbletown. I wondered if he would recognize our family names but did not mention that. Of course, he said – take as many photos as I wished. I thanked him and he headed back to rejoin his wife at the lunch table. The Hollyhocks were glorious, as were so many wildflowers and gardens scattered about the Keweenaw. I wonder if the U.P. summers of childhood inspired my love of flowers, my drive to create my own floral design business, and now, retired, sparked my own glorious garden habit?

A rich memory of the U.P. that seems universal among all my cousins, is that of Thimbleberries and Thimbleberry Jam.  Most here in Texas have never heard of the Thimbleberry, which grow wild in the Keweenaw Peninsula. We grew up walking on the side of the road and along the shoreline of Lake Superior, picking Thimbleberries and eating them right from the bush, filling pails for Auntie Betty. Auntie Betty made Thimbleberry Jam every year. When I grew to adulthood and married, I received a jar in the mail, with a calendar dish towel, for Christmas each year. I’ve never found Thimbleberry jam that equaled the scrumptiousness of Auntie Betty’s. In fact, in 2012, we stopped at a road stand selling the jam. My disappointment at the highly sweetened jar was great. After the first taste, I threw it away. This year, we heard of an interesting stop and made it a priority to visit – The Jam Pot.  A popular bakery and jam store, run by monks, on a curving road near Eagle Harbor.  They have gardens, harvest wild berries, make delectable baked goods and jams. A charming spot, the monks quite friendly, we stood in line for about fifteen minutes. Entry to the tiny shop is limited to a certain number at a time. When some leave, another group enters. When I commented to one of the monks that we don’t have Thimbleberry Jam in Texas, he noted that he would guess the Mexican food might be much better though, in Texas. I loaded up on Thimbleberry Jam, Wild Blueberry Jam, some wine jellies. Tasting the Thimbleberry Jam just a few days ago on my morning toast, I tasted the memories. Just as good as Auntie Betty’s, from a group of jam makers with a faith clearly as strong as hers.

Returning home from those halcyon days, I’ve maintained somewhat of a memory daze.  A state of nostalgia that I am not ready to part with completely.  Still, real life quickly burst in, and I have had to slow down here and there, to pull the pleasant reverie back over me. As a child, I took for granted the rich history of the region. Now I am fascinated by it and my mind returns there again and again, wanting more glimpses of my parents’ and grandparents’ histories, and for that of the townships, the copper mining, the curving roads with Thimbleberries growing, the waves dashing the shoreline of Lake Superior. Where, in my parents’ day, carloads of young people would drive to Bête Gris, for the entertainment of a beach fire, and the company of friends.

I realized the other day, as I lined up the jars of jams that I had not given as gifts, that I had erroneously acquired a jar of Bilberry Jam. Wild Bilberries unfamiliar to me, I wondered if it would be as sublime a treat as the Thimbleberry. I opened it, found it tasty, and discovered a supreme use for the Bilberry at lunch today. Oven baked turkey and GF bread, toasted, with a smidgie bit of mayo on the turkey, a schmear of cream cheese on the top bread, Bilberry Jam on top of the cream cheese, and crisp lettuce.  Cut in half in triangles, of course. A gourmet delight in a sandwich. I can see the Bilberry being used up quickly.  I had a crème brulee with Thimbleberry compote while in the U.P.  I may revisit that in my own kitchen, or just enjoy all that Thimbleberry jam on toast, or perhaps a GF English muffin or Pannukkau (Finnish pancake.) I may be as round as a butterball by September from all the jam! It seems I have incorporated the mist of the past filled with magic, into the real life of everyday; as I am keeping the legendary Thimbleberry jam for pristine use, and putting its brother, the Bilberry jam into a new use, in a turkey samich.

Some of my favorite moments from our sojourn in the U.P., new memories I have tucked away, are much the same as some of the old memories. Simply sitting on the lakeside. Feeling a cool breeze blowing across the waters, warm northern sun beating on my arms, the sound of the waves washing in. Sitting in peace.  More in peace with the past than ever.

Sally Kilgore is a resident of Fate, Texas, transplanted from Rowlett, across the lake. She is married to her long-time flame, Judge Chris Kilgore, (aka The B.O.B.) When not writing, gardening, filling in at the local flower shop or hanging out with grandkids, Sally devotes her time to serving Bob Kilgore, a well sized, Tuxedo cat with panache.

You can contact Sally at SallyAKilgore@gmail.com , and visit her website: SallyAKilgore.com