One of my favorite places in Iron River is Nelson Field. This is a public park that is used by West Iron County Schools as a football, track & field, and tennis venue. I spent many hours of my youth running around the track, playing football, and spending time in the playground. Some of my earliest memories are of the Ford Motor Company’s”Punt, Pass and Kick” competition. On a Saturday morning, all the kids from the local towns gathered on the Nelson football field to see who could punt, kick off a tee and pass a football the furthest and straightest. I don’t remember winning anything, but I do remember practicing with my parents and brothers in preparation for the event. The NFL sponsored event ran from 1961 to 2017. I also remember going up to the field with my dad and watching a football scrimmage of the junior varsity team. One side was wearing the black & gold of the old Stambaugh Hilltoppers High School uniforms while the other side was wearing the blue & white of the consolidated West Iron County High School. That must have been in the early 1970s.
The facility goes back to 92 years ago when the Charles Nelson Family donated land to be used as an athletic field to the city of Stambaugh. The field was named after his family on October 7, 1933. During the 1930s landscaping and improvements were made to include tennis courts, an American football field, baseball field and backstop, shuffleboard courts, trees, etc. I found some historic photos of the field below.
It was with great pleasure that I spent yesterday afternoon playing tennis with my sons Owen and Oliver. My high school friend, Toby Brznowski donated funds to refurbish the courts and they are so nice to play! We were amazed that on a gorgeous summer Friday afternoon that we were the only people in the park. My hometown continues a population decline that started in the early 20th century when the iron ore mines and logging industries were at their peak. Slowly over the century and now into the 21st century, fewer people are living in Iron County, Michigan. It makes for a quiet, peaceful environment. There are no traffic problems or pollution and for young children and married people, it is a great place to visit. It is difficult to make a decent living, however, and for young adults making their mark in the world and starting careers, opportunities are limited. Most of my graduating class from West Iron County (WIC) High School in 1985 (112 students) moved away for jobs and spouses. I saw the Class of 2022 from WIC had 45 students, which is less than half of when I graduated. West Iron County Public Schools was a consolidation of three school districts in 1967 (Stambaugh, Iron River, Bates Township) due to declining enrollment. I can see another consolidation of the two school districts left in the county. Forest Park Public Schools was the consolidation of Alpha, Amasa and Crystal Falls schools and their Class of 2022 had 26 students. Together, they don’t even reach 100 students. The problem is distance. Iron County is larger than the island of Samoa (population 203,000) but with only 11,000 people.
I do think the long-term future of Iron County and the entire Upper Peninsula is good, however. I predict that with climate change and the digitization of work and the economy, people will find abundant fresh water, forests, and cool temperatures attractive. It has already started with the city of Marquette and Houghton, and today, they are too remote to grow, but 50 to 100 years from now, the Great Lakes will experience a rennaisance.