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People of Marquette [Planting Seeds & Building Community in Ishpeming]

In this article

“The first year we were here, we did a lot of listening. Not change the community - but make it better. I will do everything I can to strive to be a Yooper”

Dave Lawler

Tilling the Earth

At the foundations of any city or town, you’ll find it miraculously glued together through its community. Not the cement, not the buildings, not the streets or businesses or people alone… but instead the coalescence of all of those elements is what creates incredible communities. We’ve said this before – but we’ll say it again; Marquette is… odd. There’s nowhere else quite like it, or like the people who call it home. Every pace taken through our town is steeped with community efforts & practices. The culture of our town, which we’ve also talked at length about, is born from those foundations. Without its community, there really wouldn’t be Marquette.

Stepping outside of town, however, you’ll readily see those very same elements coming together to sculpt incredible communities all over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s true that Marquette is an oddity, so much so that it’s attracting a growing number of new & returning residents every year… but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusive. We look excitedly towards Ishpeming, Negaunee, and the West End as a whole and see that same, wholesome community building changing things for the better in the area. As a result, each of these towns is manifesting incredible new life & character from within.

We can’t be too quick to ignore the history of the West End, though. During the area’s heavy mining and industrial years, spanning the early 1900’s, there was such life in those towns. Following the end of the second world war, however, for reasons that we don’t need to revisit in this article, the economy slowed… people left town… and lives changed. People escaped the small, slowly disintegrating towns of rural America. But now, there’s new life & energy emerging from the soil. Young, accomplished entrepreneurs (most of whom are the very people who left in order to find work) are buying up and renovating old buildings in their hometowns, new businesses are popping up almost every day, healthcare & accessibility is blossoming. Efforts are being made to innovate and attract past residents & new people alike back into the hearts of small-town America. It’s spectacular. Especially considering the remote work capabilities being introduced over recent years, there’s scarcely a reason to seek out work that was otherwise only accessible in larger cities. If you’re passionate about your hometown and want to invest back into it, there are more reasons to stay now than ever. Ideas are being given life more than ever, and behind those ideas – the very people driving some much-needed soul into their communities.

We took a trip recently out to the West End, Ishpeming specifically, to meet and talk with some of those influential and potent young yay-sayers, and so we’d like to introduce you to May Tsupros & Dave Lawler. Together, they’re carving – quite literally – into the earth for their passionate community efforts. May, who’s Director of Programs and Partnerships at Partridge Creek Farms, is leading the charge on some of the most exciting community events happening in Ishpeming. Dave, who also happens to be working remotely in Ishpeming, has brought his extensive history of community trail building efforts into a number of our local trail networks for the community to enjoy. Just like the rest of our People of Marquette, May & Dave are incredibly passionate Yoopers, but their attachments to Northern Michigan weren’t always so rooted…

Planting Seeds

Before they firmly planted their feet in the West End territory, May & Dave were passionate community leaders in Chicago. Both growing up in Illinois, they accumulated a passion for the outdoors pretty early on, finding camaraderie through mountain biking & trail riding when they first met. Most of May’s upbringing was spent in “rural, farm-country Illinois at [her] grandparent’s houses (and farm)”. There, as you might imagine, her interests in the food growing process first began. Researching biology and conservation ecology following high school, May’s interests guided her to Florida where she studied sea turtles for a short time. Soon after, she applied for a role with Teach for America, which tossed her back into the Chicago area as a science teacher in the Chicago Public School system on the west side of the city. She taught there for 7 years before leaving, saying that her experience there “really carved out my desire to support the community” and that “my experience at that school really shaped what I’m doing with my life”. She left to co-found Gardeneers, after seeing first-hand how impactful food & nutrition was within the Chicago Public School System, with a mission “to give students access to healthy foods in schools in food-insecure neighborhoods throughout [the city]” by building school gardens (Gardeneers.org).

Long before they met, Dave was exceedingly passionate about biking & trail riding. Growing up in Wauconda, he and his friends saw an early need throughout his home state for accessible biking trails. “We didn’t have a whole lot of land access [in Illinois], no legal bike trails, we’d have to go mountain biking in Wisconsin”. Those northern adventures into Wisconsin would eventually creep eastwards into the U.P., where Dave’s first introduction to the Marquette/Ishpeming area took place roughly 20 years ago. Already wanting to bring some of that recreational energy into Illinois, his experiences in Upper Michigan really inspired him to take meaningful strides with the sport back home. He started by learning how to build trails in Kettle Moraine State Forest, while also finding a passion for working with and for the local community at the same time. When we asked about where his interests in trail building and riding come from, Dave had this to say: “It’s a way for me to get out and kind of clear my head, and have a healthy activity – mentally and physically – but also a way for me to connect with other people. I’ve made so many friendships through bikes…I just wanted to show my appreciation and help grow that sport”. After a number of years and countless local meetings, Dave and his team were finally granted land access in the Chicago area to build a single, half-mile trail. A number of years after that, following its success, they were allowed to expand up to about 6 miles of trails. That mileage may not sound like much when compared to the Marquette area, but we think Dave said it best: “when there’s nothing else around, it’s amazing”.

“I think we went to 6, 7, 8 cities… we did the tour. We were looking for the outdoor recreation, the food and the community. We wanted to make sure we had all of those things and that we had a hand at the table and support from the community. The ability to do authentic work in the community so quickly…[the Marquette area] checked all those boxes”

May Tsupro

In 2012, Dave took on a massive project and built the Andres Bike Park, a 25-mile park in the heart of Carpentersville, Illinois. The park was largely abandoned and forgotten for almost two decades, slowly degrading into a site for gang-related activity as well as an unofficial dumping ground. The park was completely renovated & reimagined that year, and continues to be updated with things like: playgrounds, pump tracks, terrain parks & more (cambr.org). Following the massive success of that rebuild, Dave later joined as a board member of the Chicago Area Mountain Bike Association. Still venturing into the U.P. regularly with friends for trail riding, snowmobiling, skiing (and pretty much every other outdoor sport), Dave somehow managed to squeeze an entire full-time career into his portfolio as a database software specialist. Currently working for Oracle in a remote work capacity, Dave took a moment to joke with us about his work & upbringing, saying that “if i wasn’t riding my bike, I was probably behind a computer”.

Growing Together

May and Dave officially met in the fall of 2016 during a cyclo-cross bike race, which we find amusingly fitting for the adventurous couple. They began dating in 2017, seemingly sealing their fate when Dave brought May up to ride bikes in the Ishpeming area for the first time that year. “It built trust in a beautiful way, we built a bond coming up here” May had to say about her first experiences biking with Dave in Upper Michigan. The pair would return to the U.P. often, digging into the local communities with each visit, saying that they “had a lot of friends before we even moved up here”. “When we were looking for somewhere to live, we wanted a change”, Dave had to say, “I wasn’t going to move into [Chicago], so we made a list of places where we did want to live. After a while [all the searching] was kind of exhausting, we found ourselves coming up to Marquette a lot to decompress”. May chimed in by saying “I think we went to 6, 7, 8 cities… we did the tour. We were looking for the outdoor recreation, the food and the community. We wanted to make sure we had all of those things and that we had a hand at the table and support from the community. The ability to do authentic work in the community so quickly…[the Marquette area] checked all those boxes”.

So in 2019, the couple made their move to Ishpeming. During the move, they were often asked things like: “Why Ishpeming? Why not Marquette? The city is the obvious choice”. For May, she felt that Ishpeming was just “super approachable, super quaint, super beautiful” and that the “people are amazing. [It’s] really authentic and beautiful in a special way”. Dave added on, saying Ishpeming is “really close to some amazing recreation and winter sports”, and that there’s something special about “living in a smaller community, [you] have a voice and get to know your neighbors”. Dave recalled an experience he had with his own neighbor a while back – “I was coming home and needed to get the camper out of the back of [my] truck, and my neighbor who works long hours…just pulled into the driveway, came right over with all his work clothes on and gave me a hand. [It was] pretty unexpected, but much appreciated”.

“It feels raw and authentic. I always say - we came for the mountain bike trails and stayed for the people”

May Tsupros
marquette west end

Needless to say, May & Dave have found a true home in Ishpeming. Their passions for their new community is undeniably incredible. “I always say that ishpeming is a vortex…all of these people are coming here and we’re building this monumentous thing”, May made sure to say about how quickly she settled in, “building gardens was something I really wanted to do, and literally the week we moved here, I was at a meeting and there was a Partridge Creek Farm board member there, and I convinced them to hire me. They thought I was really valuable… meeting the right people at the right time is pretty frequent in Michigan”. In the short time that May has been involved with Partridge Creek Farm, they’ve collectively received the Michigan Endowment Grant, just recently finished their first ever Farm to School Summer Camp with Negaunee, Ishpeming & Westwood’s fifth graders (a partnership with MARESA Health Educators), landed in the final 15 for Lowe’s 100 Hometowns Campaign, and are busy securing plans for an intergenerational 2-acre farm with a focus on self sustainability & community training. “Getting people involved is really important. [Partridge Creek] is an educational farm, with 5 community gardens in Ishpeming. We take those 5 gardens that make up the farm, and we’re building the community through everything between: how to grow, how to cook, health education, etc. We have an office on main street, but it’s just a farm stand, so when produce comes into season we’re able to distribute food there. We also have a gallery where artists keep 100% of the proceeds.” Notably, May & Partridge Creek Farm are also involved in building the Indoor Agriculture Program at Northern Michigan University, which is a mostly local, collaborative effort to “create the first known higher education interdisciplinary indoor agriculture program” in the country (nmu.edu).

Dave, on the other hand, through his amassed reputation for trail building and community work in his hometown and throughout the Chicago area, has been lending his skills to the Marquette/Ishpeming area in no small way as well. As one of the newest members of the RAMBA Nonprofit Organization, the group is “dedicated to inspiring people to realize the benefits of mountain biking and living a healthy lifestyle. Through the advocacy for, building, and maintaining hand-built non-motorized trails, [they] strive to provide the outdoor enthusiast the opportunity to enjoy Ishpeming & Negaunee” (rambatrails.com). Additionally, Dave has recently secured a position on the City of Ishpeming’s Planning Commission. “I always wanted to be a bigger voice in the community. It’s fun to be a part of the city, going to the different store owners and asking what’s important to them, what the town needs and things like that.”

Blossoming Communities

What’s great about the work May & Dave are putting into the community, is that you can experience it yourself – first hand. Partridge Creek Farm, throughout October, is continuing their alarmingly popular Community Wednesdays Events. “It started with 5 people the first week, last week it was 35 people. Intergenerational, small kids & elders – making new friendships and working together. [We] extended the program because the community called for it not to end. At the end [of the event], they get a voucher for free food and fresh produce.” We had an incredible opportunity to sit in on one of these events recently, where local chef & food enthusiast Rishi Prasadh taught local community members about – and how to make – kimchi at home using fresh ingredients from your garden. We’d recommend keeping an eye on PCF’s event calendar for many more opportunities to get involved! 

Dave’s work in the community is also equally thrilling to seek out. A number of our team members here at Make it Marquette have had incredible experiences riding the trails he’s had a hand in maintaining & building, and are looking forward to seeing what project the group will be tackling next. We’d recommend keeping tabs on their website for information on their upcoming events & endorsed community rides. In addition to being involved in some exciting decisions being made for the City of Ishpeming, Dave is also excited about the growing energy in Ishpeming’s downtown, “there’s a lot of potential on main street…people are starting to see the change – and wanting to be a part of that change”.

In Conclusion: 

May & Dave are, undoubtedly, in the thick of the change they want to see in their community. We think May said it best: “when the tide rises, so do all the ships”. May & Dave are seeking the right waves for their community, will you?

Make it Your Community.

“When I see this town, I don't see the vacant buildings...I see the potential, the gardens and the community.”

May Tsupros