A Christmas Lesson from a Copper Mine

by DanWolgemuth on December 17, 2021

What follows is an extended Christmas Friday Fragment. It’s about twice the normal length… but I couldn’t do the story justice without the extra details. I trust that it prompts you to adoration of a God who “con-descended” into the darkness for us.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.                    

John 1:5

J. Benjamin
1880 – 1943

We found it. A grave site tucked deep inside the Lakeside Cemetery outside of Calumet, MI.

The discovery accompanied a retracing journey that I took with Mary to the Copper Country of Michigan. The Upper Peninsula. The U.P. The Keweenaw. A little finger of land that sticks into the expansive Lake Superior. A little finger with loads of memories for the woman I married in 1978.

Jankila. The maiden name of Eunice Cargo. Mary’s Mom. My mother in law.

Benjamin and his wife, Lizabeth, were immigrants from Finland. Both had made the courageous trek from their Scandinavian homes when they were teenagers. Neither ever traveled back again. They met in a region of the United States populated by Finns. A place that reminded them a bit of home. A place where they believed they could carve out a better life.

Benjamin was Mary’s grandfather. A man she never met.

For the entirety of my married life, now 43 years, I’ve known about Mary’s roots. I’ve heard about Calumet, Michigan. The hometown of her non-English speaking grandparents. I’ve listened to stories about a small frame house with shingle siding and a sauna out back. Of grandparents who never owned a car. Of a grandfather who worked for Calumet & Hecla Mining Company and walked every workday from his home in Calumet to the mine in Laurium. Of a couple with determination and faith who raised eight children in their sparse home. Of a family rich in tradition, steeped in Apostolic Lutheran faith, and propelled by a heritage anchored in virtue and value.

This was an adoptive pilgrimage for me, and an incarnated memory jogger for Mary. She was back in a place where early childhood experiences came back to life. Where emotions surged. Where roots tingled.

Our trip included a tour of the Quincy Mine. A mining operation that competed directly with the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company that Mary’s grandpa had worked for… but a proxy for what the life of a miner was like. For two and a half hours we heard stories. And included in these stories was a trip into a small preserved section of the mine. We had been warned by a sign that was unavoidable in the parking lot… “Mine Temperature is 43 degrees”. Year round. 43 degrees.

The tour became strangely personal. Inspiring. Convicting. Humbling. Overwhelming.

J. Benjamin Jankila had believed that life in America would be better for him, for the wife he would find, and the family he would raise. He believed this enough to leave the familiar for the unknown. He had a dream. A picture in his mind for what this dream would be like. And he had the courage and persistence to pursue that dream.

Copper miners worked with candles on the front of their helmets for light. At some point they replaced candles with small kerosine helmet-mounted lanterns. For ten hours a day these miners would pound spikes into rock to make a small cavity where black powder could be placed for explosions. They did this work thousands of feet below ground. In fact, the Quincy mine shaft was over 9,000 feet long and descended over 6,200 feet below the surface above.

The work was dirty, difficult, dark, and dangerous.

In the early history of the mines, the miners would use a series of ladders to descend. Then, a pulley-system and rail cars allowed workers to descend deeper and deeper with less wasted time into the unforgiving, unknown, undiscovered, and un-mined rock. For copper.

Thirty men who would descend into darkness in pursuit of a ribbon of precious metal. Thirty men with a significantly reduced life expectancy. Thirty men who were willing to risk their lives for the sake of their families. Thirty men… and one of them was a 28-year-old Finn by the name of Benjamin.

This redefined “tough”. It calibrated grit. It reinvigorated a vision of “Father”. It exposed the softness of my own familial commitment. It challenged my willingness to sacrifice, and it exposed my personal sense of entitlement.

In my first job I was more concerned with the size of my cubicle than whether I would survive another day on the job.

Benjamin. Father. 1880 – 1943.

The only reason that I am married to Mary today is because of Benjamin Jankila. God’s providential plan for my life ran through the veins of this man. His gritty Finnish blood runs through the veins of my wife and kids and grandkids. And I’m so grateful for that. They got something special with that bloodline.

At 66 years old I have already outlived Benjamin Jankila. He died at 63 in his home in Calumet. A heart attack. Prematurely brought on by the conditions he had worked in for his entire work life. Thirty-three years before his wife died. But long enough to have a daughter, who would have a daughter, who would change my life.

This is what good and noble and selfless fathers do. They sacrifice. Real sacrifice. Not like the difference between a rotary dial phone and an iPhone… but real sacrifice. The kind of sacrifice that reminds us of Jesus. Of the love of God, our Father, who sent His only son into the mine of human darkness… to bring light and hope.

I married grit. And I now steward the memory of a man I long to meet. A man who understood what it meant to descend into darkness in order to provide light for his family.

Jesus. Our condescending King. Into the darkness. Inviting the sacrifice. Giving up His life so others could live.

Christmas. Into the mines of human darkness… a light has come.

And for me… an invitation to descend. To challenge the darkness. To hunt for ribbons of precious metal in the rocks of life.

A calling. A legacy.

Benjamin Jankila.



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