|Stubb's bartender Jen, center.|
Moonshine Mike wasn't at home—his truck was gone—so we slid by Stubb's, a watering hole on the main drag in Ontonagon, Michigan, to check on his whereabouts.
"I haven't seen him in two days," said Jen, giving the impression that this was an unusually long stretch for him not to make an appearance at the bar.
A phone call was placed. Mike was found, notified of our location and interest, and was heading this way.
In the meantime beers were ordered for my friends, an O'Doul's dusted off for me. Spirits were high—Kentucky was kicking the tar out of its opponent, 33 to 3.
"Holy wah!" laughed Jen.
I chewed on that for a while. Curiosity can be unappreciated in a stranger. Better to listen in silence. But the etymologist in me couldn't be restrained.
"'Holy wah,'" I mused, trying to seem cheery and not intrusive. "That's a new expression for me. What does it mean?"
"I don't know; it's a yooper thing," she said— "yooper" as in "UPer," meaning Upper Peninsula, the northern segment of Michigan. "I'm from Kentucky."
The online Urban Dictionary offers a definition:
A regional phrase known in Northern Michigan, used to express excitement, surprise, awe, and more. Much like the use of "dude", "Holy Wah" can express many different things, depending upon context and tone of voice.The derivation of "wah" eludes me—one online source speculates it is a corruption of "wow"—and gets in the way of a more intriguing question: why is there an Upper Peninsula at all? An unusual arrangement, a state in two big chunks, with almost a third of Michigan's territory—29 percent—in the UP, though only 3 percent of its population.
The answer lies in perhaps the least-enigmatically-titled book of all time, "How the States Got Their Shapes," by Mark Stein.
The mitten of Michigan began to take shape with the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War in 1783, Stein explains, cutting a border with Canada through the Great Lakes. Michigan's southern border was set by the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which envisioned a straight line from Lake Michigan's southernmost tip to Lake Erie.
When this came to actually doing this, not with a line on a map, but in messy reality, however, the official would have carved the thriving ports of Gary from Indiana and Toledo from Ohio, which objected, strenuously, pressuring Congress to tilt Michigan's southern border slightly northward at its easter edge.
"Michigan was less than pleased," Stein writes. "But lacking the population that Ohio had, and still needing congressional approval for its own statehood, there wasn't much it could do. Then Indiana got into the act."
Indiana was unwilling to give up Gary, and be left with a geometric point of lake access. So it too pressed Congress, which dutifully carved off another slice of Michigan, leaving Michigan with the two-stage, slightly tilted southern border it has today, and an insult more than the the Wolverines could stand.
They went to war.
The "Toledo War" of 1835 was brief and bloodless, and involved shots being fired into the air and the Michigan territorial militia seizing nine surveyors working for Ohio. The end result was Congress offering Michigan the Upper Peninsula and statehood in return for the "Toledo Strip," a deal Michigan voters at first rejected, then later approved, in essence, because they had to.
I think that's enough Michigan history for one day. Leaving the bar, we returned to Moonshine's house where, circumstances dictated that I fire a .22 rifle out his garage window and, later, tentatively apply a lumberjack's cant hook to an enormous cedar log, which some friends and I maneuvered quite handily, they providing the brawn, me providing the supervisory skill.