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LaJoie’s (Jail)house in Negaunee

The LaJoie house, located at 218 W. Case St. in Negaunee. (Photo courtesy of Dave Dompierre)

NEGAUNEE – In 1992, Negaunee native, Steve LaJoie purchased a historic home at 218 W. Case Street in Negaunee. For a few years, he and his family living in the home with it remaining in the same condition as when he acquired it. Then in 1998, he began to remodel portions of the building and over the course of the next four years, Steve made good progress on an overall upgrade to the building. In the spring of 2002 he began working on an updated kitchen and recreation room in the rear area of the ground floor.

Steve’s earlier work removing old plaster and lathe proceeded much as one might expect in such an old building, but this new area was different. When the first lathe and plaster was removed from the wall surfaces, it revealed a sub-structure that was built in a most unusual way. The exterior walls and ceilings were composed of full-size 2X4s, laid face to face, resulting in walls and ceiling that are solid wood four inches thick throughout. As the work moved to the north wall, Steve found evidence supporting a story he’d been told years earlier by a former owner — this building was once the Negaunee City Jail. Found in the north wall were two small windows with iron bars still embedded in the frames.

Some historic research found that on December 24, 1865, shortly after the establishment of the Pioneer Iron Company Plat, the mining company sold two adjoining lots on the 200 block of W. Cast Street to the Village of Negaunee. Those lots were, and still are, designated as lots 3 and 4 of Block 8. Sometime later, prior to 1871, the village built a new, rather large, town hall on lot 4 adjacent to St. Paul Catholic Church.

During the same timeframe, the Common Council also built a much smaller structure on lot 3, most likely for some purpose related to the conduct of village business. Its specific use at that time has not yet been determined. Negaunee became a city in 1873 and the town hall then became known as city hall and is labeled as such on the official 1876 Negaunee map which is housed at the Negaunee Historical Society Museum. The city continued to own and use these two buildings until 1889 when, following the completion of a new city hall, both lots and the buildings on them were sold to well-known early settler, Phillip Marketty.

Unfortunately, Phillip passed away about six months later. The properties were then inherited by Phillip’s sons, Napoleon, Paul, and Charles, and they owned the two properties jointly until 1908 when Charles became the sole owner. From 1908 until 1992 various members of the Marketty, Harsila and Wehmanen families owned the home until it was purchased by Steve. Somewhere along the way, the barred windows had been covered and the building’s history had faded to a rumor.

Recognizing the historical significance of what he’d found, Steve decided to preserve this area of his home in a way that would allow him to share it with others in the future. He continued exposing this special architecture until all of the two by four walls were free of plaster, lather and nails. The next operation involved sanding all of the visible surfaces of the two by fours. The goal was to clean the surface while retaining the marks that help to show the history of the space. Steve met his goal and completed the transformation with a coat of clear finish.

The most notable features in Steve’s kitchen/recreation room are the two windows with the iron bars. The bars in the windows are not the typical round bards that we have seen in other jails, movies or television productions, but rather, they have an entirely different appearance. At first glance, the bars appeared to be about two inches wide, three quarters of an inch thick, with randomly placed one-half inch holes that are countersunk. They seemed to have been designed and produced from some other purpose.

The existence of the bars came to the attention of a member of the Negaunee Historical Society which put in motion an effort to find the origin of these unique bars. After seeing the bars in the LaJoie home, one of the society members recalled seeing a reference to a similarly fabricated produce in a book written by local author, Robert Dobson. A review of “The Plank Road and the First Railroad” revealed the content of an ad in the October 6, 1865 issue of the Lake Superior Mining Journal (predecessor to the Marquette Mining Journal) published in Sault Ste. Marie at the time.

The ad offers, “Strap Railroad Iron for Sale.” It goes on to say, in part, “About twelve tons, two and half by five eighths inches, spike holes punched and countersunk, ends of bars notched and matched.” It further states, “Price five cents per pound delivered at Negaunee or Marquette.” With a closer look, and taking actual measurements of the LaJoie window bards and making a comparison to the description in the ad, we find that there is a perfect match in every visible detail. We are quite certain that the LaJoie window bars are made from pieces of the salvaged iron rails used on the strap railway which carried iron ore from the Jackson, and other early mines, to the docks in Marquette in the 1850s.

Residents of Marquette County who cherish our local history will appreciate Steve LaJoie’s commitment to preserving these historical features in their original state. For those with an interest in seeing his work, he has agreed to open his home to the public as part of the Negaunee Historical Society’s House Tour from 1-4 p.m. Friday in Negaunee. For more information call 458-2400 or 204-0017.