Getting right to the point, a “Yooper” is a resident of, or someone who was born in, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Those of us who fit this definition commonly refer to our homeland with its acronym “U.P.”, which is why we U.P.ers are called Yoopers.
The U.P. is the northern of the two major landmasses that make up the state; the southern landmass is typically called Lower Michigan. The U.P. is bounded on the north by Lake Superior, on the east by the St. Mary’s River, on the southeast by Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and on the southwest by Wisconsin.
The first inhabitants of this land were Native American tribes, including the Menominee, Nocquet, and the Mishinimaki. The British and French fought over this land in the 1700s, with the native tribes ultimately being the biggest losers.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, large numbers of French Canadian, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Cornish, and Italian immigrants came to the U.P. to work in the area’s mines and lumber industry.
Copper and Iron Ore Industries
By the 1860s, the U.P. supplied 90% of America’s copper and by the 1890s it was the largest supplier of iron, which peaked in the late 1920s and then sharply declined, leading to widespread unemployment, which still persists today. The U.P. has long supplied the country with lumber and, even today, logging remains a major industry in the area.
For most of Michigan’s history the two parts of the state were physically separated by a five-mile stretch of water that is 120 feet deep, the Straits of Mackinac. Then, in 1957, the straits were spanned and the two landmasses were connected when the Mackinac Bridge was completed. This five-mile long suspension bridge is still the longest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
Since its completion, Yoopers playfully (and sometimes mockingly) refer to Michigan residents who live below (i.e. south of) the bridge as ”trolls” as in the troll who lives under the bridge in the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” Norwegian fairy tale.
The occasional friction between Yoopers and Lower Michigan residents largely stems from the fact that the U.P. contains 29% of the land area of the state but just 3% of its total population; rightly or wrongly, many Yoopers believe that those south of the U.P. border ignore their part of the state when it comes to doling out state funds and passing laws.
How Do Yoopers and Trolls Communicate?
If you ever observe Yoopers and Trolls meeting for the first time you will see an elaborate and fascinating ritual involving the “showing of hands.” In this ritual, both the Yooper and the Troll take turns displaying one of their hands to the other, with the palm always facing the stranger.
The Yooper will always display their left hand tilted sideways and point to some area on it with their right hand. The Troll will always respond by displaying their right hand tilted upwards and point to some area on it with their left hand. At the end of this “showing of hands” both parties visibly relax as they commence normal verbal communication. Believe it or not, what these two people just accomplished with their hand gestures was letting each other know where they live in their respective parts of the state. The U.P. looks like your left hand tilted sideways with the palm facing you and Lower Michigan looks like your right hand sticking straight up with the palm facing you.
Yoopers live in a very cold area of the country that receives a great deal of snow; we typically skip spring and jump from winter right into summer, somewhere around late June or early July.
Summer doesn’t last very long, but we are blessed with beautiful autumn weather before the long, cold, snowy winter greets us once again. Yoopers are hardy people who enjoy their winter sports, such as snowmobiling, ice fishing, skiing, skating, and snow blowing (which many of us would like to make into a Winter Olympics event).
Politically, the U.P. today is a “mixed bag.” Throughout the 20th century, Yoopers traditionally voted for Democratic Party candidates due in large part to the strong union support from the peninsula’s mining legacy and the historically high union membership of workers. However, with the decline of unions nationwide and with the saturation of far-right news media throughout the region that has stifled alternative political viewpoints, the U.P. has become increasingly politically conservative. Today, split-ticket voting is common. For example, in 2012, Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow carried every county in the peninsula in her successful re-election bid, but Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried all but two counties in the presidential election.
Culturally, the U.P. is a place like no other, which makes us Yoopers mighty proud. If you have ever visited the U.P. you are undoubtedly aware of our distinctive dialect (however, not all Yoopers speak this way).
The early Scandinavian (Swede, Finn, Norwegian) settlers profoundly influenced the region’s use of the English language.
- As an example, you will hear “d” used for “th” (“dare” for “there,” “dis” for “this,” and “dat” for “that”).
- Also, when we Yoopers agree with something, we will often enthusiastically proclaim, “You Betcha!”
- And if we want to make a statement of our own and are seeking others to agree with it, we will throw in an “ay” (sometimes spelled “eh”) at the end, as in, “Da wedder dis winter is colder den last year, ay?!”
If you are unfamiliar with Yooper dialect, I recommend the following two movies: “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” a 2001 Jeff Daniels’ film about deer hunting that is rife with Yooper stereotypes, and the 1996 film “Fargo” starring Frances McDormand (which is technically North Dakota dialect, but sounds Yooper to me).
The UP is Woods, Fishing, Hunting and Drinking: And Wisconsin is still upset
Besides our speech, we Yoopers are also known for a baked pastry dish known as “the pasty” that comes from our mining heritage, although it likely originated in the mining towns of England (Cornish Pasty).
A pasty is made by placing uncooked meat, potatoes, onions, and rutabaga (a Swedish turnip), on a flat pastry circle, then folding it to wrap the filling, then crimping the edges to form a seal. After baking, the result is a raised semicircular food item that is eaten with either ketchup or brown gravy (most Yoopers use only ketchup). Here is a recipe.
While some people eat a pasty with a fork, most Yoopers will hold it in their hands, squirting ketchup on it after each bite. We have roadside pasty stands and pasty stores in almost every town throughout the U.P., but two of the best are Jean Kay’s Pasties, with stores in Iron Mountain and Marquette, and Bessie’s Homemade Pasties in St. Ignace.
Oh, one last thing you should know about Yoopers, (besides the fact that we are very friendly); we are die-hard Green Bay Packers fans. Despite the fact that the U.P. is part of Michigan, when it comes to rooting for a professional football team, Packer fans outnumber Detroit Lions fans 10,000 to 1, if not more.
This Packer affinity is most likely because the Packers in their early years occasionally played scrimmage games with a number of U.P. football teams, and Old-Time Yoopers appreciated the small-town Packers over the big-city Lions of Detroit and the big-city Bears of Chicago. And the Packers are the only professional sports team owned by the community of fans who are shareholders, many of whom, like me, are Yoopers. To give you some idea how important pasties and the Packers are to Yooper life, I will close with the following “tongue-in-cheek” description of the creation of the U.P.:
If you wonder how da U.P. was created, well in da beginning dare was nuttin’, ay? Den on da 1st day God created da U.P. On da 2nd day He created da partridge, da deer, da bear, da fish, and da ducks. On da 3rd day He said “Let dare be Yoopers to roam da Upper Peninsula.” On da 4th day God created da udder world down below, ay? On da 5th day He said “Let dare be trolls to live in da udder world down below.” On da 6th day He created da Packers so dat on da 7th day He and da Yoopers could enjoy dare team while eatin’ pasties.You betcha! You betcha, by golly!! Ay?!!!