The stealing of the Courthouse and Humungus Fungus

Since we are still new to the area , we love to hear the locals, you know those actually born and bred here, tell the folklore stories of the area. This one in particular interests me since I can only find “politically correct” versions of it, not the version told be locals.

See the Iron Country Timeline

1887-The county seat of Iron County was removed from Iron River to Crystal Falls when county records were taken surreptitiously*. this incident became known as “The Stealing of the Courthouse.”
1890-New courthouse built in Crystal Falls following vote of 1888.

*The local’s version is that there was an east-west rivalry on where the building site would actually transpire. East and west sides agreed to a poker game to determine the outcome. Long story short they say that much cheating took place during the game and while this was all going on,unknown political entities ‘borrowed’ the plans and located them in Crystal Falls.

According to this site , “Few Midwestern towns enjoy a more spectacular site and provide a more striking visual image than Crystal Falls (pop. 1,800). Where U.S. 2 turns from heading north to west, there emerges the memorable Iron County Courthouse, a tall-towered 1890 Romanesque courthouse that sits at the crest of a steep hill surveying the Paint River Valley. “The Jewel of Iron County,” as the courthouse has long been known, is at the very head of the main business street, Superior Avenue, which runs straight down to the river. An undulating, uninterrupted vista of forest unfolds beyond.

Crystal Falls actually stole the county seat – a fact widely remembered as an element of the east side vs. west side county rivalry that’s still strong today. At Iron County’s very inception, economic development on the county’s east side, centered at Crystal Falls, was exactly mirrored by that on the west side, at Iron River. Both towns revolved around iron mining and lumber. That coincidence set the stage for inevitable tension between each town’s booster groups. 1875 brought the first iron ore prospectors and the first loggers to each area. By 1882 each town had a branch of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad to serve its mines and lumber camps.

At first Iron River received the temporary designation of county seat. In 1886 voters voted on the permanent location, but the ballots never got counted – why, no one knows. County ledgers were stolen at night and moved to Crystal Falls. Procedural strategies were implemented to keep meetings and offices there. By the time a second vote on the county seat was conducted in 1888, Crystal Falls had legitimately won by nearly 100 votes. The striking vista afforded by the Crystal Falls courthouse site was used to help make its case for the county seat.

The county’s west side population around Iron River would eventually overtake the east side in population, but only after 1900. It took that long for Menominee Range iron mines to recover from the depression caused by the nationwide Panic of 1893.

By 1890 Crystal Falls had grown to a population of 3,231. The booming town built a dam and electrical power plant on the Paint River. The oldest Upper Peninsula dam, it can be reached by taking Sixth Street north half a mile from the town center – a scenic detour that also passes the old log houses remaining from the isolated Falls Location mining settlement. (Some houses have been sided over.)

Other architectural legacies of Crystal Falls’ boom times in the 1890s and again in the 1920s are the many handsome but not overwhelmingly impressive houses near downtown on Fifth, Marquette, and Crystal. A large population of Finnish immigrants recruited to work in mines and lumber camps still flavors the town today. At the end of July, Finnish Day is celebrated with dance and craft workshops and more. Visit

Today Crystal Falls enjoys a reputation as a tight-knit town where natives and a considerable number of transplants and native-born retirees who moved back home work together on community activities from the arts and the environment to historic preservation. “You fall in love with the place,” says Pat Sommers, a Grand Rapids transplant who has a sausage shop here. “It’s slow, it’s easy-going. This is an interesting town, and you can be in the woods in three minutes. You can make a living here if you can live on $5 an hour.”

In 1992 national media descended on this quiet place after a Nature journal research article proclaimed the existence of the world’s largest and possibly oldest known living organism, an armillaria bulbosa or honey mushroom extending over 30 acres south of Horserace Rapids south of town.

The “humungus fungus,” as it was quickly dubbed, was discovered as part of a study of tree pathogens conducted for the United States Navy by researchers at Michigan Tech and the University of Toronto. The study tested possibly negative environmental effects of the Navy’s ELF (extremely low frequency) underground antenna system to communicate with submarines. An ELF line was already installed near Marquette to take advantage of its geology on the Canadian Shield, which aids transmission. The studies revealed that the mushroom’s underground filaments taken from a wide area were genetically identical. That was different from previously known large fungal colonies, in which molds at intersecting edges were smeared together. This extremely large and successful individual organism, well adapted to its environment, was descended from a single spore probably over 1,500 years old, based on observed growth rates.

Crystal Falls’ special status didn’t last long. Other similar but larger fungi systems were discovered, including one in Washington state that’s 40 times as large.

Economically, Crystal Falls has stagnated for some years, its population in decline. The community is quite progressive, however — as a visit to its community web site indicates. The community web site, , pulls together information on
all sorts of real estate renovation opportunities, surprising cultural resources, and more. Attention has been paid to the town’s natural assets and historic architecture.

Moreover, Crystal Falls is a designated Renaissance Zone eligible for tax breaks. The infrastructure has been installed for the city’s 26-acre industrial park a half mile west of town at the intersection of U.S, 2 and U.S. 141. Several businesses have located there, including a meat processor (it does some bear, mostly venison) and a snowmobile/ATV sales and repair shop.

The “falls” part of Crystal Falls’ name has long been harnessed by a dam and a city-owned hydropower plant that today supplies a third of the city’s electricity. Anything like a waterfall can only be seen in spring runoff time, as the “Paint River” portion of shows in historic and contemporary photos of the dam and hydropower plant.

(Humungus Fungus Fest will be August 7-10, 2008) and is celebrated with numerous family events, a farmer’s market, sidewalk sales and rummage sales.