Winter is story-telling time in the U.P. – a time to pull chairs close and listen as tales reveal how this land was built: one log, one road, one relay, sometimes one man at a time. Brookridge Heights resident, Harold Mortensen, is one of those men. You have to lean in close to hear him above the whoosh of the oxygen tank. Each breath comes at a price but the stories are worth it as one man’s extraordinary life is uncovered: a life that has literally lit up, wired, heated or cooled a great deal of the Upper Peninsula for the past 70 years.
“I finished high school during the depression,” Harold begins. “My brother and I were hired on by the CCC at Manistique to lay logs.” Harold pulls out a photo album and points to the first float raft built to ferry across the Kitchitikipee Spring. “We built that,” he states with quiet pride. “I think it lasted quite a while.”
“I took a practical electrician’s class by correspondence and went to work as an apprentice for a year and figured out how to climb poles at a fir tree nursery where we had to string wire fence to keep the birds from eating all the seeds. When I asked the foreman about some boots, ‘guy said he had a pair back up at the pump house. ‘Here…use mine ‘til I get back,’ he says. “The guy never came back, so from then on – I was the climber.”
“One of my first projects was to light up the athletic field at Pickford. Kids from the school came out and used my pulleys to hoist the materials I needed. Most of the time, the companies couldn’t meet my paycheck. I didn’t even have enough cash to buy a pair of overalls, but I found some steady work in wiring up the telephone system. The first time I saw the switchboard, they were keeping connections open with toothpicks! I didn’t really know what I was up against, but I decided I’d figure it out.”
Harold figured out the telephone relays across the U.P., and a lot more – like how to wire street lights the length of the Soo locks and how to wire farmhouse after farmhouse throughout Chippewa County. “I guess I did a bit of everything. The farmers all knew me – and I knew them. I decided to take another correspondence course and taught myself refrigeration and heating. I remember all the service calls on those cold U.P. nights. When a farmer calls and says he’s got 50 head of cattle and his water pump is out, there’s not much you can do but jump in the truck and go. ‘Same thing when the heat goes out. How was I going to tell a farmwife her five kids would have to stay cold until the morning?”
The answer is obvious – if you’re a guy like Harold: You don’t. “I just figure we’re put on earth to help each other. That’s all. I just like to help.”
This lifetime habit of helping others is still evident and Harold’s still at work. “The other day, the fellow was vacuuming the halls here when the machine just up and quit. He had it on its side looking for the trouble. I offered to help, but he just waved me on. “Well, if you get stuck, let me know, I told him. A half-hour later, he came knocking. I took the cover off the plug and sure enough, the wires were reversed. Once you take the cover off, the story is usually right there.”
These days, the help comes close to home, with Harold on the receiving end; nurses and personal aides from U.P. Hospice keep regular tabs on his health. He also gets visits from Hospice social workers and volunteers who love to share in Harold’s many stories. And he loves to share his stories too. “The other day a volunteer surprised me with my favorite meal, a baked potato and chicken from Wendy’s. She encouraged me to enjoy it while it was hot, but I set it aside and got wrapped up in telling her one of my stories. I’ve got so many of ‘em, and I love sharing them all.”