Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Holy Wah!

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. 


  1. You could have pointed out that as a result of the shape, people from Michigan really do tell each other where they are from by pointing with the finger of one hand onto the made into a mitten shaped other hand. It's a weird but fascinating thing.

    1. I did think it was silly when we first moved here, but after a few years, it became quite natural and expected to point to your right hand to show where you live. So I live in the SW squishy part of the palm.

  2. Fun and learning, all in one neat package.


  3. the northern boundary of Illinois was also supposed to line up with the southern tip of Lake Michigan. i forget the machinations that went into it, but the boundary was moved north to its present location in order to give Illinois a Great Lakes port as well. and that's why we're not cheeseheads.

  4. Two questions. Was the rifle part of a Toledo War reenactment and why weren't the Cheeseheads upset about the deal?

  5. Off point. Do you have any idea how hard it was for me not to be usually annoying self and post on your FB timeline that this post wasn't up at 2 AM?
    I guess i just made up for it.
    I apologize (instead of deleting). I think i might enjoy the brow beating over my annoyance. Negative recognition is better than none. I guess......
    Unless you block me. That would be horrible.

    1. I'd never try to undermine another man's purpose in life, Paul, and you're pointing out when my blog isn't up, and my actually doing the blog, are very close together, in terms of futile and unnecessary endeavors. I didn't mean to browbeat you, just observe that I'm dancing as fast as I fucking can.

  6. The answers can also be found in"How the States Got Their Shapes"..a copy of which I eagerly got my paws on after seeing the History Channel series of the same name, with its excellent explanations and ANIMATED maps. The answers come directly from the book:

    When Illinois residents sought statehood, they knew that access to Lake Michigan would be critical to the state's economy, because of the construction of the Erie Canal. So Illinois sought a border adjustment that urged Congress to locate its border nearly sixty miles to the north. There were multiple reasons for this.

    First, Missouri was also about to become a state...a slave state. The drift toward civil war was already becoming a concern. A new state "connected" to New York (via the Lakes) would give "security" to the Union--and allow Illinois to channel goods and resources through the Lakes as an alternative to shipping them through the South, via the Mississippi.

    Secondly, the canals Illinois needed to divert commerce to Lake Michigan depended on access to the network of rivers (the Rock, the Fox, the Des Plaines, and even the Kishwaukee) that lie in the sixty miles of flat land between the Wisconsin hills and the proposed Illinois-Wisconsin border. Not having this access could have jeopardized the canal ventures.

    Apparently, there were not yet enough Cheeseheads in the Wisconsin Territory to voice a serious objection. Wisconsin's population growth lagged far behind Illinois and the other states in what came to be called the "Middle West." The fact that it was the last of these states to acquire sufficient population for statehood significantly altered its borders, including its northern border with Michigan, which took the "Upper Peninsula" as compensation for the land it lost to Ohio in the "Toledo War" of 1835.

    Wisconsin strongly objected to the loss of the U.P.--but still lacked the political clout to prevent it--just as Michigan had lacked the clout to fend off the designs of Indiana and Ohio.

    Track down the book. It's fascinating, with magnificent maps. You will learn a helluva lot.


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