January 2010: Pendill's Creek, painting by Fred Peterson
Header image: Pendill's Creek, painting by Fred Peterson

Featured Artist: Bernie Arbic

Last updated: January 1, 2010

..Bernie Arbic with his book Sugar Island Sampler.

Sault author Bernie Arbic with the book that started it all. The cover drawing, by Bernie’s son Joel, is of Charley Andrews. It is based on a photograph taken in 1982 by Bill Hamilton and superimposed on a satellite image of Sugar Island. Sugar Island Sampler” is in its second printing.

The arts community in the Sault would be poorer, indeed, without retirees. Not only do they make up the core of our volunteers, they also provide much of our art. It’s a sad truth that very few artists can make a living producing art. It is only when they can squeeze time from their paying occupation or when they retire that they can turn to painting, crafts, theater, and literature. We all enjoy it, but we aren’t willing or able to pay enough for it so that most artists can earn a living at it. It has to be a labor of love. Retired LSSU personnel working in the arts locally include Paul Wilson, Ken Hatfield, and Polly Allison. Other retired teachers on the local art scene are Judy Hamilton, Sharon Schmeltzer, Ron Corey, Moonyeen Albrecht, Barbara Bryant, Judy Colein, Tom Marshall, Kate Marshall, Jeanne Mannesto, and William Morrison. Other retirees among local artists are David Bigelow, Joan Muckelbauer, and Janet Bonnell.

Bernie Arbic is a mathematician who retired from the LSSU Math Department who has been documenting the history of the Sault in a series of books. Here is what he tells us about his writing career:

“My first book was Sugar Island Sampler, self-published through Priscilla Press in Allegan, Michigan, in 1992. As a mathematics professor, I would not be a likely suspect for writing a local history book! The motivation for the project came from a chance exposure to a little booklet about the history of the Bruce Mines, Ontario region. My maternal grandmother, Lena (Broad) Schopp, grew up in Dun’s Valley, north of Bruce Mines, and when I found several references in the booklet to the Broad family, I was thrilled. I decided to search out a similar book about Sugar Island, since my parents originally met there, married, and were still living there when I was born. I figured that the history of the island would be every bit as interesting as that of Bruce Mines. Of course I discovered, much to my surprise, that there was no history book about Sugar Island, so I decided to try my hand at writing one. Fools rush in...

“It turned out to be more work than I had anticipated, but I enjoyed talking with some of the island’s “old-timers,” many of whom I hadn’t seen in years. I also met some fascinating people, such as Larry and Sylvia Hokkanen — both now deceased — who, as a young married couple, left Sugar Island to go to Karelia in 1934. They were lucky to get out of Stalinist Russia alive, traveling from Moscow to Vladivostok on the trans-Siberian railway in the winter of 1940-41. They describe their experiences in Karelia, a book especially interesting to me because of their Sugar Island roots; it has been one of my top recommendations to friends for years.

“Although I found that I enjoyed the research for the Sampler, I had no plans for other publishing. But my wife Colleen was spending a fair bit of time working in the gift shop at the River of History Museum in the 1990s, and she encouraged me to write a book on the Sault’s history, indicating that people were coming into the shop saying “If the Sault is so old, where are all the books about it?” Knowing that it would be a much bigger project, I dismissed the idea for a while, but she persisted, and I started seriously considering it in about 1997.

“The problem I ran into on the Sugar Island book was finding enough documented material to write about, whereas with the Sault, it was the opposite—there’s too much material here, so what do I include, and what do I skip over? I haunted the Steere Room at the Bayliss Public Library, joking with library staff that I wished they had room for a cot and coffee pot in there. My home when I was growing up didn’t have an attic in it, and maybe that’s why I got such a big kick out of finding little nuggets in the Steere Room, which is such an incredible storehouse of Sault history. Imagine reading the original of a letter containing a first-hand description of the maiden voyage across Lake Superior in 1835 of the American Fur Company schooner John Jacob Astor, a vessel built above the rapids at the Sault. Or a notebook containing poetry written (in the original French) by a young Peter Barbeau in the 1820s.

“After I retired from the Mathematics Department at Lake Superior State University in 2000, I began to devote a lot more time to my second book, entitled City of the Rapids, which was published in 2003, again by Priscilla Press. The title is intended to stress just how dominant the rapids have been in the city’s history. My other choice for a title, not really given serious consideration, but stressing the same point, was Sault Ste. Marie: the Real Grand Rapids.

“Books I’ve written or co-written since are:

1) From Carnegie to Bayliss: the First Hundred Years of Sault Ste. Marie’s Public Library, published in 2005, by the Bayliss Public Library working with the Sault Printing Company as part of the library’s centennial celebration.

2) Upbound Downbound: the Story of the Soo Locks, co-written with Nancy Steinhaus and published by the two authors and the Chippewa County Historical Society, working with Priscilla Press. This book was also published in 2005, to help commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Soo Locks.

3) Fighting Fires in Sault Ste. Marie: From Horses to Horsepower. This was another centennial project, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of our fire hall in 2007, done as a cooperative effort of the historical society and the Sault Fire Department. It was printed by Sault Printing Company.

4) This year, Deidre Stevens and I co-wrote the book Then and Now: the Changing Face of Sault Ste. Marie, published by the Chippewa County Historical Society in cooperation with the city of Sault Ste. Marie. Printing costs were paid by a grant from the city’s Governor Chase S. Osborn Historical Trust Fund.

Book Cover: Then and Now: the Changing Face of Sault Ste. Marie by Bernie Arbic and Deidre Stevens“This most recent project grew out of the historical society’s 'digitization project.' We are scanning our collection of images, and entering relevant information about them in a searchable data-base. So far, we have processed about 1200 large-format negatives from our Walter Materna Collection, which contains upwards of 3,000 images. The idea of organizing an exhibit of some of the pictures by presenting a contemporary photograph next to the historical view came from one of the volunteers in the digitization project. (Nobody is entirely sure who first came up with the approach, but most likely it was Bonnie Barnes). It turns out that there is a name for the approach: rephotography. It put an interesting wrinkle on a book containing old photographs. Since its release in late September of this year, we have sold over 600 copies.

“I took most of the contemporary photographs. The goal was to get an image of the location shown in the historical picture, taken, insofar as possible, from the same vantage point. In a few cases, there was very little change depicted; the most notable example of this is probably the pair of photographs of the Ojibway Hotel. The first was taken in about 1930, and the contemporary one in 2009. Other pairs exhibited major changes. The example that jumps to mind is a pair of aerial photographs. The earlier one was taken in about 1955 of the Northwestern Leather Company (the “tannery”). Most people say “I had no idea how huge that place was” when they see it. The contemporary view, taken by Fred Smith from his plane, could hardly be more different. Trees eight to ten inches in diameter now cover the former industrial site.

“It was a delight to look at the detail in Walter Materna’s photographs. Some of the negatives we have are eight by ten inches. If scanned at high enough resolution, they could be blown up to four by five feet and still remain crisp! Part of the fun is to notice things that were only in the picture by happenstance, such as the old cars, or a particularly interesting billboard or sign. The biggest adventure for me in retaking the photos was getting to go up on the top girder of the International Bridge in order to replicate a photograph of the Soo Locks taken from the heights of the railroad lift bridge in 1959. I was with a group of other “rookies” (including Sharon Kennedy and five young Canadians). Someone pointed out the interesting shadows cast by our figures on the roadway below, and so I took the image shown below—perhaps the closest thing to an “artistic” photo that I have ever taken.

..Shadows on the International Bridge. Photo by Bernie Arbic.

Shadows on the International Bridge. Photo by Bernie Arbic, taken during the writing of Then and Now: the Changing Face of Sault Ste. Marie

Then and Now contains 36 pairs of photographs. About 30 of them are from 'downtown' Sault Ste. Marie. As an admittedly imprecise characterization of them, I would say that five pairs exhibit little change, 14 pairs show moderate change, and 17 pairs show dramatic change. Deidre Stevens did most of the research for the captions, which are fairly detailed, but the emphasis of the book is definitely visual, so detail was sacrificed in some of the captions in order to present the image as large as possible.

“All of the books are available at the Chippewa County Historical Society Gift Shop, at 115 Ashmun Street. Unfortunately, the shop will probably be closed from January through March. The phone number there is 635-7082. Most of the books can also be purchased at Das Gifthaus, The Mole Hole, Up North Books, and seasonally at Great Lakes Gifts and The Lamplighter. Prices are:

Works by Bernie Arbic
Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.

Alberta House, December 2009, photograph by Bernie Arbic

Alberta House Photo: This photo of Alberta House taken by Bernie Arbic in December 2009. Below is the same photo that he turned into a mosaic made up of many old and new photos of Sault scenes and people. Click for the (very) large version and see how many you can pick out!

Mosaic Photo of Sault scenes and people, by Bernie Arbic


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