My Finnish Grandmother Was a Copper Country Woman

At the beginning of the twentieth century my grandmother immigrated to a mining town in Upper Michigan, from Finland. She married a copper miner in the Copper Country. Long after my grandmother passed away I learned about the miner’s strike and a disaster that killed 73 people, most of them children, most of them Finnish.

The family story is that my grandmother was at the Italian Hall Disaster in Calumet, Michigan. A Christmas party was organized for the families—the children—of striking miners.

Over five months the tensions between striking mine workers and the mine company had risen to a feverish pitch. The mine company was supported by Citizen’s Alliance (local business owners). Some one shouted fire at the Christmas party, but there was no fire. Children and adults were killed when they ran to exit the building. Bodies fell over each other on a stairway.

My grandmother with her children exited the building a different way, maybe by the fire escape.

I never had a chance to ask my grandmother or grandfather about about this event. It happened before my mother was born and her knowledge was limited.

A friend passed along a newly released book, The Women of the Copper Country, by Mary D. Russell. The book is a novel but the author has done admirable research to bring the year leading up to the Italian Hall disaster to life. The main character is a historic figure. 

Big Annie Clemenc was president of the Woman’s Auxillary of the Western Federation of Miners. The miner’s strike began at the end of July and continued into the following year. The Christmas party was organized by the Women’s Auxillary and  took place on December 24, 1913.

The book showed me a period of time in my grandmother’s life. The author’s description of Calumet resonates with my knowledge. In a few places, I found the fiction stretching my imagination. But the author acknowledged the areas that might not be exactly right in her notes at the end of the book.

Solving Social Problems or Shining Light in a Dark World?

Every summer I visit Calumet, Michigan. At one time it was the center of the copper boom with a growing immigrant population. Both of my grandfathers emigrated from Finland and worked in the copper mines. I know that Calumet had many bars to serve the immigrant workers.

Calumet, Michigan

So it is with interest that I am reading Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent.   The saloons and bars were a place of   escape for men working long hours in menial tasks.

That the proliferation of saloons was abetted by immigrants (usually German or Bohemian), largely for immigrants (members of those nationalities, but also Irish, Slavs, Scandinavians and many, many others),  was not lost on the moralists of the WCTU  [Woman’s Christian       Temperance Union].*

The wellbeing of women and children was affected when a husband spent his paycheck on alcohol.

Various groups came together in a fight against drunkenness,          supporting prohibition. The WCTU, the Anti-Saloon League and the Suffragettes joined together in the battle against alcohol consumption. I wonder if a fight for better working conditions might have helped men and their families—less use of alcohol?

In response the brewers and distillers organized against Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage. Women’s Suffrage became a target because the brewers believed that women would vote for Prohibition.

In 1906 a state suffrage amendment in Oregon was defeated when the brewers secretly enlisted Oregon’s saloonkeepers and hoteliers in an elaborate get-out-the-vote operation. Secrecy also prevailed when the USBA [Brewers Association] paid the nationally known suffragist Phoebe Couzins to repudiate her previous position . . . *

It is interesting to me that Finland gave women the vote in 1906 and the Netherlands in 1917. The United States did not give women the vote until 1920.

What a tangled web we weave as humans when we try to solve social problems. The money involved makes it more complex. Until 1913 when the income tax was instituted, the government depended on revenue from liquor sales.

In the New Testament Jesus does not confront government practices or politics. Instead he asks his followers to be a light to a confused and chaotic world.

You are the light of the world. Matthew 5:14

Light of the World

Jesus also prays for his followers.

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. John 17: 14-15

In this election year I see the need to spend more time in prayer,      seeking God’s guidance. I can rest in the knowledge that Jesus is interceding for his people.

*Okrent, Daniel, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, New York; Scribner, 2010, pp. 26, 65

Linking with Word of God Speak, Weekend Whispers,  Sitting Among Friends and Faith Filled Friday