The Other Berry

Boundary Waters Berries

     It’s been a summer of bumper crops for raspberries and blueberries and now the other berry is ripening up nicely in the northwoods.  The thimbleberries are popping out everywhere and I love to eat them straight off of the bush.  They are a bit tart compared to a raspberry and people love to make jam out of them.  Here’s an interesting story about someone who does just that.

Bumper crop of thimbleberries has Jam Lady preparing for record year


FREE PRESS TRAVEL WRITER  The thimbleberries are thick this year on the Keweenaw, and the Jam Lady’s Paul Mihelcich is ecstatic.


Usually berry season lasts two weeks in late July and early August. This year, it should run for six weeks.



"We’re making jam as fast as we can," says Mihelcich, 55, whose Eagle River shop finally stopped buying berries from pickers last week. "I’m thinking we’ll have a record year. We’ve done a good 175 cases of thimbleberry jam already. We’ll probably get close to maybe 500 cases."



The bumper crop of the berries that grow wild along a 20-mile swath near Lake Superior is due to a cool summer with normal moisture, says Mike Schira, director of the Michigan State University Extension Service for the Keweenaw. "It’s a rebound of stored energy from a couple years of drought."


History of the Jam Lady


Or, maybe, it’s a heavenly gift from Mihelcich’s mom and dad, Florence and John, the original Jam Lady and second Jam Lady.



Mihelcich’s mother died in 1995 after 35 years making jam. His father took over the business but died March 11.



Now it’s Mihelcich’s turn as the second male Jam Lady in the family.



"I’ve got one girl part-time, and then I do it. I’m basically the cook, the bottle-washer and everything else," he says.



The tiny Jam Lady shop, marked with handmade signs along M-26, is actually part of the Mihelcichs’ house. The living room is attached to the store, so if a customer drops by to purchase jam, jelly, syrup or other products made of wild Keweenaw thimbleberries, blueberries, huckleberries, cherries or rhubarb, somebody is usually around to sell it.



Honesty is the policy at the shop, which has been open nearly 50 years. If Mihelcich isn’t around when tourists come, he leaves out an honesty can for payment. But a lot of Jam Lady business these days is online via a Web site it has had for six years.


Raspberry’s wild cousin


The wild thimbleberry is in the raspberry family. It is the same red color "and it makes as good or better of a jam than a raspberry," Mihelcich says. In Michigan, they grow only in the latitude of the Keweenaw and Isle Royale near the humid lake.

"We either get winds from the north or the south, so there is about a 20-mile span that borders Lake Superior with thimbleberries, mostly within 5 to 10 miles from the lake," says Mihelcich.



In addition to the berries being plentiful, the price he paid dropped from $15 to $10 per pound, "and when I finally paid two boys with pails of them $8 each, I ran out of money," he says. "People have been picking them like crazy. I’ve had 25 people a day with wild fruit coming. I have to turn them away or tell them to clean and freeze them, and I’ll buy them later on."



Mihelcich also has been experimenting with branching out into greenstone jewelry-making. Greenstones are the Michigan state gem and found locally. But jewelry making is labor-intensive, and for now, thimbleberries are taking all his time.



"The jewelry is on hold. We’re making thimbleberry jam," he says.



The Jam Lady is at 5055 M-26 in Eagle River (, 906-337-4164).



Contact ELLEN CREAGER: 313-222-6498 or