Note: A proposal to resume iron ore mining in Wisconsin, after a lag of four decades, means we’re likely to hear more than usual about Iron and Ashland counties during the next few years. Gogebic Taconite wants to spend $1 billion on open-pit mining on 22,000 acres of the Penokee Range, between Upson and Mellon. This is the second of a three-part series about what defines the heritage and tourism of the area.
When our waitress rattles off the soups of the day, the list ends with green chicken chili. “Pretty hot,” she suggests.
How hot? “Hotter than hell,” she offers, with an I’m-not-kidding smirk.
A friend who loves spicy food later would agree with the assessment, after polishing off a bowl. For me, fall-off-the-bone barbecued ribs left an excellent impression. The meat came from the in-house smoker at Kimball Inn, 6622 Hwy. 2, about five miles northeast of Hurley.
Owner Mike Lagalo advertises little for the restaurant that he’s operated 14 years. “It’s my retirement restaurant,” he says. That means it’s only open for dinner but altogether closed for one month before and one month after the downhill skiing season.
“I don’t want it sounding that we’re more than we are,” emphasizes Mike, who has spent 55 years in the family restaurant business, most of the time in Michigan. “If you ask me, this is upbeat family dining. I try to give my customers what they want.”
That results in a tasty and somewhat unusual menu, baby beef liver entrees and sardine sandwiches to seared sesame ahi tuna appetizers (with wasabi and chili mayo on the side). Entrees almost always are less than $20. Mike has line cooks but makes the soups, dressings and sauces himself.
“The people who seem to like coming here seem to like flavor,” Mike says. So he includes Thai pork, spicy goulash and creole chili as daily specials. Son Gabe, a culinary school grad who works elsewhere, also provides menu ideas.
“We’re not smart enough to do anything else,” he says of the family’s multigenerational decisions to remain in the restaurant business.
What else makes a culinary difference in the area?
Linger over turtle cheesecake or an almond bar (“my Christmas cookie mistake”) at Sharon’s Coffee Company, 122 Silver St., where fruit smoothies are made with ice cream and customers sit in a former meat market whose century-old tin ceiling and walls remain. Although sandwiched within Hurley’s downtown strip of taverns, no alcohol is served.
“I think Hurley has enough watering holes,” owner Sharon Ofstad says, with a shrug, “and all our help would have to be 18 or older.”
Bonshell Café, 410 Silver St., also doesn’t serve alcohol but is known for omelets, which include The Dumpster (12 eggs and many other ingredients).
The long-loved Liberty Bell Chalet, 109 Fifth Ave. South, began as a bar whose tenants – from Capistrano – fed rowdy lumberjacks and miners for free. Since 1923, when restaurant dining began, the Fontecchio family has served Italian fare to locals and the growing fan base of tourists.
Expect rustic décor that involves locally harvested copper and cedar in a lodge motif. Attached to the restaurant since 2008 is an Italian market, which means frozen pizza, lasagne and fresh-cut imports (cheese to salami) also are sold. www.libertybellchalet.com
Look for other ethnic fare – saffron bread with raisins, flat Finnish rieska bread – in bakeries on the opposite side of the Montreal River, particularly the Famous Pastry Kitchen, 125 W. Aurora St., Ironwood, Mich. That’s also one of several places selling meat-and-potato pasties, the longtime workman’s lunch.
Some pasty makers add carrots, onions or other vegetables, but these deviate from the authentic Cornish recipe. True pasty makers also don’t smother these sturdy turnovers with gravy, or ask if you want ketchup.
What else is authentic in Ironwood?
Kaufman’s Original Snow Scoop, invented decades ago by a local sheet metal company, requires no lifting. Just slide the metal sled under the snow, push down on the handle to tip up the scoop and push it wherever it needs to be dumped. For sale are three scoop sizes, $60-80, at Kaufman Custom Sheet Metal and Fabrication, 400 W. Aurora St. snowscoops.com
Also look for a giant statue of the Stormy Kromer, a hand-stitched and six-panel wool cap produced here since 1903. That’s when the wife of railroad engineer George “Stormy” Kromer modified a baseball cap to keep her hubby’s head covered without hassle during windy weather. Word got around, and the rest is history.
Now the $35 caps are made (according to head width, not small to extra-large sizes) at Stormy Kromer Mercantile, 1238 Wall St., and free tours begin at 1:30 p.m. on weekdays. Other durable outerwear also is produced. www.stormykromer.com
These products also are stocked at Abelman Clothing, 327 S. Sophie St., Bessemer (six miles west), a 124-year-old Michigan family business. President Bob Abelman says his grandfather was a peddler who walked from one logging camp to another, laden down with backpacks of merchandise, before opening a storefront during the area’s mining boom. www.abelmanclothing.com
The business is one-of-a-kind, as is the 1928 Ironwood Theatre, 113 E. Aurora St., Ironwood. The community has spent $750,000 so far on restoration of heavenly murals, bronze entrance doors and a mix of Greek Corinthian, Italian Renaissance and Moorish interior design.
Another $300,000 revived the theater’s original $10,000 Barton organ, a rarity because it remains where it was originally installed. The sound of bells, sirens, birds, thunder, bass drums and more come from this glittery instrument, a long-ago one-man orchestra that accompanied love scenes to dog fights in silent movies and vaudeville acts.
Tours available by appointment. www.ironwoodtheatre.net
Next: The pride and fragility of the area’s Finnish, mining and winter sports heritage.
“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.