Monks, KEDA have jam session

HANCOCK – The monks of the Society of St. John do not often attend Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance meetings.

Wednesday, they made the trip to present on the history of their Jam Pot store, which has become a Keweenaw institution.

“When we got the invitation, we were somewhat puzzled, somewhat flattered – but more puzzled than anything else,” said Father Basil. “Hardly do we know anything about economic development. We’re just poor, ignorant monks.”

The monks came to Jacob’s Falls between Eagle River and Eagle Harbor in the summer of 1983. A sympathetic pastor at a church in Detroit helped the monks make a down payment on a small piece of property.

The Bishop of the Marquette Diocese of the time suggested they incorporate as a nonprofit, which would enable the monks to support themselves while maintaining their vow of poverty.

They started with an uninsulated building with no year-round water supply. The summer supply came from the spring. In winter, “it ran only as fast as we could carry it,” Father Basil said. That first winter, they stoked fires, hauled water and shoveled snow.

“That first winter, all we could do was survive,” he said. “Uninsulated buildings on the shore of Lake Superior don’t hold heat well at all.”

Hewing to a monastic tradition of work, the monks thought of how to make a living. The soil and climate ruled out agriculture; a lack of skill did the same for handicraft.

So they looked at what others were doing in the area: picking abundant local berries to make jam. The first summer, they made enough to cover expenses for two months. To cover the amount needed to cover the payment for their land, they reached out to readers of their newsletter. About 2,500 people donated $15,000 within two weeks.

“That put us in a position where we were no longer threatened financially, and could begin to expand,” Father Basil said.

They began selling it themselves rather than going through a wholesaler, and buying the berries to devote more time to production.

The monks knocked down their old kitchen with a sledgehammer in 1989, putting a bigger version into practice the following year. They had been helped by another donation. The previous summer, a man had walked into the shop, bought a couple of muffins, and asked to pay by check.

“He handed me a check for $15,000,” Father Basil said. “I said, ‘I can’t make change for this.'”

Sales went up 50 percent the first summer after the new kitchen.

Part of the success was due to new regulations that required jam-makers to have a separate kitchen. The monks did get a break when the state allowed them to use a temporary water purification system for its spring water for two years while they built a well.

“The agencies that might have threatened our survival were willing to go the extra mile to allow us the space to grow,” Father Basil said.

That space has shrunk as the Jam Pot has grown. The Jam Pot’s opening is being delayed this year because of coliform bacteria levels in its well. In its place, the monks have to bring water from another well under the highway to the Jam Pot.

The monastery now has six monks, who are supplemented by six employees. The monks’ mailing list has now grown to 33,000 people, many of whom keep buying. Father Basil credits the Jam Pot’s success to a few qualities.

“Hard work,” he said. “Quality ingredients. Good relations with the public. Staying in touch with people. And a lot of – some people would say luck. I would say divine providence.”