The Keweenaw Peninsula, also known as Copper country, is a remote place, given to long winters, snowmobiling clubs, Cornish pasties on local menus and undeveloped areas where a cell phone has no service. If you pull out a map of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (known as the UP), look to the farthest northwest point until you find, jutting out into Lake Superior, the Keweenaw. Halfway along the the canal which divides the peninsula is where you’ll find the twin towns of Houghton and Hancock, an unlikely setting for an elegant, architect-designed shul known as Temple Jacob. I call it The Little Shul Under the Mineshaft.
Dr. Douglass Houghton first discovered copper here in 1841 and it quickly became the chief business. The Quincy Mine opened in 1846 and housing for the workers was built in Houghton and Hancock. The smaller town of Hancock became known as the town of the Finns, who had come seeking work in the mines.
Miners’ families needed goods such as clothing, and housewares. Back then peddlers provided these., Some of these peddlers were Jews who had come from northern Germany. The Jewish population of Houghton-Hancock increased substantially in the late 1880s as the economy of the area grew, driven by a market for copper that increased with the spread of electric power. One of the most notable of these peddlers was Jacob Gartner who, with his son Isadore came to America from Breslau, Germany in 1880.
15-year old Isadore worked his way from Detroit up to Sault St. Marie but was told that the real action was to be found in Copper Country. With his last coin he wired his father to meet him there. Carrying a battered suitcase with just a few dollars worth of dry goods he walked two weeks to rendezvous with his father. For six years they peddled only on foot , walking along the frozen country roads between Hancock and Copper Harbor, because Jacob had a fear of horses. As the Gartners learned more of both the Finnish and English languages, their salesmanship improved.
The Gartners were extremely frugal, walking their way to success while saving for their first store, which opened in 1886. Gartners grew to became the largest department store in the area but there is another reason why Jacob Gartner’s name is so memorable. The Copper Country’s synagogue is named for him.
In 1889 the Jewish population of Houghton-Hancock established a congregation, naming it First Congregation of Israel.
By 1912 there was a declining demand for copper but there were approximately 100 Jewish families in the Copper Country. The building committee was able to raise the $10,000 needed to complete the exquisite little synagogue. Though many donated to the cause, the generosity of Jacob Gartner made it possible to open the doors of the new shul debt-free. Jacob Gartner died while it was under construction and never got to see it completed. May 30, 1912 the cornerstone, prominently engraved with the name “Temple Jacob” was laid with much civic fanfare. The congregation started with a full-time rabbi and there was a circuit riding shochet living in Hancock who provided kosher meat to the western UP. AS fortunes declined in the 1920s Temple Jacob changed from being Orthodox to Reform. Pew rental was then replaced with annual dues and open seating.
It is believed that the architect of Temple Jacob was Henry L. Ottenheimer, who had trained in the same Chicago firm as Frank Lloyd Wright; Adler and Sullivan. Ottenheimer opened an office in Houghton in 1899, and immediately procured some of the largest commercial commissions in the Copper Country. Design elements found in Oppenheimer’s projects are echoed in Temple Jacob.
Built of indigenous materials, the foundation is local sandstone while the upper floor is brick. Above the door is a Tudor arch with the Hebrew inscription in gold letters “Adat Israel”. Perched above this is a pediment followed by a hipped roof with gables. Crowning the roof is a handsome copper dome with a copper spindle, replete with a copper Magen David. Inside, the originally Orthodox shul boasts a simple but breathtaking interior with an upstairs gallery and really magnificent stained glass windows. Downstairs is a social hall and kitchen.
Today, Temple Jacob remains as a shining little gem. Many of the Jews are there either as students or faculty at Michigan Technical University in Houghton. Temple Jacob features HUAC outreach programs, regularly scheduled holiday celebrations, a newsletter, archives, an updated library and education for the small number of Jewish children there. This vibrant feeling of community and activity happens with a dues-paying membership of just 13 families!
David Kaufman, their 1999 student rabbi, said “the energy level there is increasing. It’s extremely inclusive. Rabbi Kaufman says, ”I felt like I was in Northern Exposure.” Another student rabbi commented that an extra amenity of this post was that one could go bear hunting. This contemporary congregation has a sense of humor. One member crocheted hunter orange kepot and Harley Sachs, a retired Professor Emeritus, sewed some from camouflage material..
Sources for this article: Articles by Rochelle Berger Elstein and David Mac Frimodig, The Daily Mining Gazette, Temple Jacob newsletters, correspondence and interviews with Harley Sachs, interview with David Kaufman, phone interview with Susan Burack. Photos by Sherry Zander.