Community Stories

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about a place that most people have never heard of. With that story, I wanted so badly to convey a sense of place (and probably one of belonging, too) seeing as those of us who got a chance to live there were eventually told to leave, at some point. When the barbed-wire fencing came down and the guard gates were left and abandoned, that place fell into the hands of those who were unprepared to care for it or who never quite understood its history, its present, and what all of it meant to us.

Since I posted that story, I have been in contact with former residents, some of whom were only children (as I was) during their years there and others who received orders to be stationed there, either as singles or with families in tow (or who eventually started families while living there). I’ve shared stories with people who attended the same schools as me, during different decades even, but we still laughed about having had the same teachers. I have been contacted by several retired enlisted men who sent me stories about lifelong friendships and how they have returned to the area to visit those friends only to be heartbroken by the sight of its disrepair. Some have taken their spouses there just to share with them what it used to be like, even though it has been left to disorder. Most have thanked me for writing that post.

That little story became a community in itself, albeit a tiny one. We all belong to this place, no matter our age or where we came from or where we were eventually shipped off to. In a way, there is still a piece of us that continues to live there or, at the very least, a piece of us that likes to go back to visit…even if it is just through a humble little blog post (this link includes more comments).

For more on K.I. Sawyer, visit the K.I.Sawyer Heritage Museum and this website.

(As I write this, and other posts about sense of place, I will try not to bombard you all with my nostalgic whims. I think I’m just working through my move to Oklahoma via emotional purging. There is more on the way.)


5 thoughts on “Community Stories

  1. I arrived at K I Sawyer on a commercial flight from Keesler AFB in Mississippi during March of 1960. My plane had made it as far as Escanaba and could not go further to Marquette, as the airport was snowed in, The airline brought me to Marquette via Taxi. You might guess how much snow I was greeted with at the base. I worked in the SAGE building in the missile branch and on the battle staff. My wife joined me from Pittsburgh PA in September, and we lived in a trailer park in Little Lake until we moved to a house in New Swanzy. We then opened a Radio and TV sales and service business called Baker Radio Service, it was located across the road (M35) from the IGA store, My wife ran the business while I was on duty. We also lived across the road from the IGA in a house that is now a bait and fishing supply shop. As a business we sponsored the late movie on the one and only local TV station WLUC TV. No cable TV service in that time, only one station to watch.

    When I was discharged from the Air Force in August of 1963 my wife and I traveled in separate vehicles and I almost never made it out of the UP as the pickup truck I was driving blew a tire and caused the truck to roll over splitting the gas tank and drenching me with fuel. I did however manage to walk away unharmed. I often thought that one day when I had retired and had free time I would return to Gwinn and K I Sawyer to see how much things had changed. In a way I am glad that I never did that now that I have seen the pictures of the base as it is today. I have been able to “visit” via Google maps on my computer while sitting at my home and it seems nothing stays the same.

    I had grown up on a small farm near Pittsburgh PA, My wife and I had returned to the Pittsburgh area when I left the Air Force and have remained there. My family sold our farm to a contractor and moved in 1976. The contractor razed all of the buildings but never had developed the property in to the planned tract of homes. This last summer, I visited the property where the farm once stood. Nature had completely taken over the land and it was like visiting a jungle. Nothing was familiar, no land marks to go by. I could not locate where the farm house or any of the buildings once stood. Although I was standing on the property where I once grew up I realized that sometimes you can never return to what you might call home.

    The building in New Swanzy where our Radio & TV business once was, is now a home. The house that stood next door is a vacant lot. The house we once lived in is now a bait shop. The A&W root beer stand near the Gwinn park no longer there.The trailer park in Little Lake is vacant with just the concrete pads that were next to each mobile home the only remaining land mark. The road to the base that I once drove to and from the SAGE building has been moved. The familiar main gate now gone, buildings closed or now used for other things. Going back now for me would be sad.

    Home is where you now live. Home is not where you once lived. Home is a place in your heart not a physical location. Home is sweet home.


  2. I agree, Walt. And I remember the IGA vividly, although nothing that surrounded it. Not much of my life was lived outside the base gates, but when I could break free from Gwinn Middle School’s campus, it was usually to visit Dr. Bright across the street. His dental office was next door to the salon that gave me the most horrendous perm known to any girl or woman.

    This has become one of my favorite topics and I always seem surprised when I am put in touch with someone who lived there once, too, and has their own stories. Why? I’m not sure. It was a pretty interesting place to live! Thanks for sharing your story, Walt.

    • Hi again Dena, I remember a few places on base, the bx and commissary (Although my wife and I found buying at the local IGA store was a bit cheaper) go figure. And of course the base movie theater, if I remember correctly we saw Physco there. Living in New Swanzy we hung out there. There was a sort of general store in the middle of Gwinn that at our time was rather out dated, from what I can see on Google Maps street view it is a thrift store now. The old fire department on M35 in Gwinn was still in use in our day and I remember one very cold night when they had to tow the fire truck through New Swanzy with a oil fuel truck before they could get the fire truck started and on to the fire call. I remember the sheriff and his deputy (I think the deputy’s name was Rocko Mennie) or something like that. I often thought of Gwinn when watching the Andy Griffin show. Gwinn seemed to me to be a lot like Mayberry. We saw the movie, The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe when it was shown in a store front in Gwinn, we sat on folding chairs. My Air Force job was almost a 9 to 5 type so after I got off duty I was almost a cilivian. One evening while working in my store, across the street from the IGA the Sheriff pulled up in front of the store, walked up the steps and in the door, and told me to hold up my right hand and I was deputized. Before joining the AF I had been a volunteer fireman back home and under the hood of my station wagon was an emergency light that was on a hinge like contraption that when needed could be flipped out to sit on the fender. The sheriff had noticed it one day when he stopped by to chat. There had been a report of a station wagon driven by a lady that spun out of control due to icy conditions on one of the curves of the road leading from M35 to the base. A couple of her kids were thrown out the back of the wagon. I was asked to provide traffic control south of the accident (If my memory is correct there was a fataility) until the state police could be on the scene. I always carry a supply of road flares in my vehicles and used all I had that night to warn traffic of the road closure. The next day the state police stopped by my store and dropped off a carton of replacement flares to my wife. As the nearest TV repair business to the base, I did a lot of service calls to the base housing area. When I got discharged we closed our business to return back to Pittsburgh as my Father had cancer and I was needed there. Another Air Force person opened an off base business in our store building, the Dixie Cream Donut store. I also remember many of the locals being rather bad off in the financial sense. I recall one time making a service call to a house in New Swanzy on a very old TV set, which was not really worth repairing, needed a replacement picture tube. But what stands out in my mind is that they were butchering a deer that they had poached out of season in their living room. I did not have the heart to report them as they were trying to provide food for the family and kids. There is another memory that may be interesting, one afternoon, my wife and I took a country drive for something to do. After a bit we came to an intersection with a country store and gasoline filling station. If I had paid just a bit of attention to the the gasoline pumps out in front, the rest of this would be moot. When I went into the store to purchase a couple of bottles of soda for the two of us is when I discovered that there was no electrical service this far out, therefore no refrigerated soda. Out in front were gravity fill gasoline pumps with a five gallon glass globe with gallon markings on top. A handle on the side of the pump, pumped the wanted fuel up into the glass globe, when you pumped how much you desired it was then drained into your vehicle. The last memory, at a local electronic service men meeting in Marquette. One of the men told of a farmer that came into the Montgomery Ward store in town and purchased a black and white portable television set. The next weekend he returned it to the store explaining to the salesman that it did not work. The next week end he returned to the store to pick up the set and take it home. It had been checked by the stores repair department and per the salesman was working fine. The next weekend he again returned to the store and was, as reported, mad as hell. The farmer demanded that Ward’s send a serviceman to his farm because the new TV still did not work. The story goes; that the serviceman went to the farmers house and walked into the kitchen of the house and found the TV set sitting on a side board. He looked at the back of the set and found that the electrical cord was still neatly wound up on the back. He unwound the cord and looked for a place to plug it in, and not finding an electrical plug, asked the farmer. The farmer’s reply was that it was a “portable” TV and why when his portable radio worked Okay without being plugged in, did this portable TV need to be plugged in. The farm had no electrical service and since his portable radio worked on batteries he thought a portable TV should also. I am not sure that if I had lived on base while at Sawyer, that I would ever have had so many memories of my time there.

      Sorry it is so long, It is hard to write a memory without the details.

      I sure liked reading about your time at the base. When I first arrived the SAGE building was not full operational, it seemed to me that a lot of the base was really new when I arrived. I should have paid better attention and asked about more history of the base time line.


      • I love these kinds of stories. Especially because I have never known “hardship” as I was a kid and everything was fun. I had no idea about the lack of electricity in certain areas out there, but it doesn’t surprise me. A lot of the UP is still so isolated that I am amazed there IS electricity available now.

      • Hi again Dena
        While I was stationed at Sawyer some of the officers and airmen ventured out to some of the remote farms searching for old automobiles. Some were lucky to find an older automobile that the farmer had put up on blocks or had lifted up to the hay loft to store them during WWII when gasoline was rationed. For some reason after the war; some of them remained there; and these guys would search them out to buy them. There was a repair garage located across the street from the Gwinn park that was operated by a Bill Gurkey (not sure of the correct spelling) he worked on a lot of the old cars for the guys, to get them road worthy again. From time to time, Bill had me in to spray paint one of them. As I had some pre military experience spraying automobiles. One officer brought his car in to have it painted and supplied the paint he wanted on it. A bright yellow, the only problem is he brought in a dark grey primer first and had me spray it. After he inspected the primer job to make sure it was finished to his expectations, he then pulled out the yellow paint. Yellow is almost a transparent color and it did not cover the dark grey primer very well at all. I had tried to explain when he presented the yellow that it was not going to cover the dark grey and we should re-coat the car with a light grey or white primer. However this officer was rather set in his ways; and I do not think he liked that he had made a mistake or to be inferred that he had. By the time the car was finished he had to purchase three times the amount of paint it should have taken and now had several coats of the yellow paint applied. In the end it was beautiful, a very bright yellow show stopper. It was the last automobile that I sprayed for Mr. Gurkey before I left the UP.


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