Marquette plays host to first-ever Yooper Day

For anyone who was wondering what all the celebrating was about in Marquette last weekend, it was quite simple: It was a salute to all things Yooper.

From pasties to beer to Stormy Kromers and flannel, Yooper pride was on display throughout Marquette and the center of the festivities at Mattson Lower Harbor Park for the first-ever Yooper Day.

The idea behind Yooper Day is simple: Celebrate everything Yooper from the past, present and looking toward the future.

"There's no doubt the Upper Peninsula is someplace special," says Yooper Day founder Sonny Melvin. "This is a celebration of the people who make it that way."

The idea for the event came to Melvin after he moved to Chicago to open an advertising firm. After living there for awhile, he came to realize just how much it was he missed the Upper Peninsula and the people who lived there.

"When you're away from it, you start to think about going back and what a great place it is," he says. "You really take it for granted when you live here, but once you move away you quickly realize what a special place it is. The whole idea of Yooper Day is to celebrate being here, living here and loving it here. It's about being a Yooper in the best place on Earth."

But what does it mean to be a Yooper? The answer varies greatly depending on who you're asking.

For some, the only way to claim the title Yooper is to have been born in the Upper Peninsula. Even those who moved to the area as children don't qualify.

But, that doesn't mean you can't be accepted.

"There is an 'honorary' status," says Matthew Luttenberger, who lives in Marquette.  

But some disagree. To them it's entirely feasible that being a Yooper is less of a birthright and more of a way of life. There's no need to be an honorary Yooper if you earn it, or simply live the lifestyle.

"I think it's a point of pride that people have to claim being born a Yooper, but I also think it's something you can become if you have the personality traits," says Lauren VanHamme, who moved to Houghton in September 2012 with her then-boyfriend and decided to stay. "My first thoughts when I came to the Upper Peninsula were that people were more laid back and slow paced in general, but kinder, and welcomed me into their lives. I've been here for almost a year and my thoughts are pretty much the same. Everyone I've met is so kind, welcoming and genuine."

The celebration of Yooper Day didn't require anyone to subscribe to one belief or another--all that was needed was a love for the essence of being a Yooper.

Lina Blair, who moved to Marquette to attend college at Northern Michigan University and then settled down in the city, loves the area and the people. She was in attendance at the festivities last weekend.

"Of course the Upper Peninsula and the word 'Yooper' mean different things to everyone, but I think what stands out most to me is the sense of 'getting through it together' that people in the U.P. feel," she says. "Some people call it 'sisu,' some call it a Yooper thing. I think it comes from the community of people here--people say 'hi' to each other, people shovel snow and push cars out of snow banks together. That kind of thing makes me proud to call the Upper Peninsula home."

Some Yoopers were not able to make the trek back home for the event, but Melvin says they have been showing their support nonetheless. He says orders for official Yooper Day apparel, made by Ishpeming's Jeremy Symons and his company, Yooper Shirts, have been shipping across the country.

Dan Helmer, assistant prosecuting attorney in downstate Kent County, is one of the Yoopers who wasn’t able to make it home for the event this year. Next year may be a different story, however--a sentiment shared by many displaced Yoopers.

"I think it's a great idea," Helmer says. "I'm proud to be a Yooper and tell anyone I can about it whenever I get a chance. While I sometimes don't want the word to get out that the U.P. is such a great place, it's a great opportunity to bring people in to experience what makes it so great, and have the locals celebrate it, too."

Another Yooper who wasn't able to make it home was Matt Butler, who resides in Kentucky. He says he's just thrilled  there is finally a day to celebrate the life in the area where he grew up.

"I think the U.P. has a lot to celebrate because its people have accomplished a lot," says Butler. "I tell people in Eastern Kentucky, where the coal business is plummeting and the people have little hope about the economy, about towns like Hancock that were boom towns and reinvented themselves, or how education and medicine are the two industries that really drive Marquette County.  

"The U.P. attitude is one that celebrates the environment in a way that really means something, and that demands hard work. The pride Yoopers take in their summer fun--they've earned it during each winter--deserves its own celebration and I hope to be a part of the festival in the coming years."

Next year, by design, Yooper Day will be hosted in another city in the U.P. So far, the cities that have shown interest in hosting the event have been Escanaba, St. Ignace and Hancock.

"It's great to know there's so much interest," says Melvin.

Between the people and the places and the lifestyle, there is a lot for folks to do and see when they come visit, or come back home. Out of it all, what's the one thing that is so specifically Yooper that it can't be duplicated elsewhere?

"Pasties," says Scott Weber, who was born and raised in the U.P. but now lives in Kentucky. "Swear to God, you can't find them anywhere else. Trust me, I've looked and I've tasted."

Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of U.P. Second Wave. He was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula and believes that being a Yooper isn't a birthright, but rather a mindset. He can be reached via email.
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