Tag Archives: Art

Behind the Scenes: Windows to History

Class of 1940 Window.
Class of 1940 Window.

If you have ever visited the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections, you might know that the staff are eager to welcome members of the campus and Copper Country community to the reading room. What you might not know, is that we’re equally excited to share information about the reading room itself and the objects that are visible to patrons every day. One of the most beloved aspects of our reading room are the three stained glass windows that adorn the south wall of the space. Each year we field a variety of questions regarding the windows, but today we’re going to reveal many of those secrets, as well as some that have recently come to light for our staff.

The first stained glass window ever installed in the archives’ reading room was the center window celebrating the class of 1940. The window was a created in tandem with the opening of an expanded facility for the University Archives in the Library in 1982, made possible through donations by the Michigan Tech Class of 1940. The window itself was designed by Walter Boylan-Pett of Mohawk. The new facility was celebrated with an open house to the public on August 6, 1982, debuting the window featuring the Michigan College of Mining and Technology school seal. Its original installation on the third floor of the library allowed for natural illumination by ambient light from the exterior of the building. Today, each window on the garden level is backlit by fluorescent lighting to give the illusion of natural lighting, which has the added benefit of making the reading room appear cheerful and sunny.

Michigan Technological University Centennial Window.
Michigan Technological University Centennial Window.

To the right of the Class of 1940 window is our stained glass window celebrating the University’s centennial. Dedicated in 1985 to celebrate the school’s 100th birthday since its founding in 1885, the window features a vibrant green, yellow, and orange pallet.

At the far left of the reading room is the “Window to the Copper Country” stained glass window. Designed by Peg McNinch by commission for the Michigan Tech Archives in the summer of 1988, the window was made “to honor the depth of local historical and natural resources materials” and has, by far, the mosting interesting story to tell of the three windows. The unveiling of the window in 1988 included a dedication by State Director of the Bureau of History, Martha M. Bigelow. The window, which stands at 6.5 x 5.5 feet, features a map of the region as its central focal point while border panels depict the local historical and natural resources for the which the window was designed.

The history of the Copper Country is indebted to the native peoples who occupied and made this area their home long before the establishment of modern mining operations. The Chippewa, Ojibway and Ottawa bands have resided in the Upper Peninsula for nearly 4,000 years, leaving a lasting legacy. The Thunderbird, which occupies a place of prominence at the top of the window is meant to represent a mythical bird believed to cause lightning and thunder while honoring the native peoples of the Upper Peninsula.

Several panels depict the natural resources of the Copper Country and incorporate local materials into the artwork. One panel on the middle-left of the window shows a waterfall representing the many natural waterfalls in the area such, as Douglass Houghton Falls, Hungarian Falls and Jacobs Falls. Local specimens of datolite are embedded into this panel. Another panel at the lower left shows the trillium and thimbleberry, well-known natural plants in the area. The thimbleberry in particular is a favorite of locals and makes excellent jam, which can be found throughout the Copper Country. A third panel on the middle-right depicts Estivant Pines, representing the last stand of virgin white pine in Michigan. Named after Edward A. J. Estivant, a pioneer who purchased the site in the 1870’s, this natural wonder is an amazing site that can be visited just south of Copper Harbor.

Window to the Copper Country.
Window to the Copper Country.

While the majority of the panels depict the aboveground history of the region, the bottom right panel containing a miner’s candle, hat and pick, is meant to commemorate the vast resources underground and the lasting legacy of the mining heritage of the Copper Country.  A quartz crystal, donated by the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum, is inlaid on the miner’s candle, which represents the earliest form of illumination used by miners while working in the underground mines.

Prominent buildings are represented among the panels to showcase different aspects of the commercial, entertainment, and recreational history of the area. The top left panel depicts the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge. A fixture within the Copper Country, the Mountain Lodge is one of the major resorts in the area. Built in the 1930s under the Civil Works Administration, the resort is located off of U.S. 41 just outside of Copper Harbor and includes a 9-hole golf course.

Like the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, the Copper Harbor Lighthouse has long been an important building and site in the Upper Peninsula. Built in 1866, the lighthouse marked an important port of shipping on Lake Superior since water transportation was the sole means of accessing the area and moving people, supplies, and equipment until the age of rail transportation. The top right panel depicts the Copper Harbor Lighthouse and this important era in the history of the Copper Country.

Peg McNinch working on the Window to the Copper Country, circa 1988.
Peg McNinch working on the Window to the Copper Country, circa 1988.

During our research into the Window to the Copper Country, we made a very surprising discovery that we’re excited to share with you today. On the bottom center of the window is a panel depicting the Calumet Theater. Meant to symbolize the important role the theater has played since its opening in 1900 as a place of entertainment and social gatherings into today, the panel plays a subtle, yet significant, dual role of commemoration. In December 1913, following the tragic events of the Italian Hall disaster, which left 73 people dead, including 60 children, the dead were brought to the Calumet Theater, which functioned as a temporary morgue. This relationship between the Italian Hall and the Calumet Theater is solidified in the window, which includes a slice of brick imbedded in the panel from Italian Hall. While likely known by departmental staff at the time, this interesting aspect of the window was rediscovered during our research into the windows.

We hope that you enjoyed this one of a kind behind the scenes view of the Archives’ reading room. If you would like to view the windows in person, please visit us anytime during our regular operating hours, Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.!


Reading Room Spotlight: Portrait of an Ancestor as a Young Woman

This week’s blog post is courtesy of our Assistant Archivist Resident, Emily Riippa. It provides a thoughtful spotlight on one of our reading room art pieces.

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For the past year, visitors to the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections have been captivated by the portrait of a striking young woman that graces a wall in the reading room. This painting of Christeen Shelden was donated by Therissa Jane Libby, a great-granddaughter of the subject, in 2016; a previous blog post by University Archivist Lindsay Hiltunen provides additional information about Mrs. Libby’s generous gift.

While our staff knew the provenance of the portrait, our knowledge of Christeen herself remained minimal. As we passed the painting many times in our daily work and fielded questions from patrons who had paused to admire it, the sense of mystery grew. Christeen was a scion of the respected Shelden family, yes, but what more could be said about her experiences? Did she live to a happy old age, or was her life cut tragically short? Did she pursue one of the careers available to women of her time? Did she marry and raise a family? As archivists, naturally, we turned to historical documents to answer these questions. Like researchers who come to investigate their family history here, we now are able to see this face from the past with greater clarity.

Donor Jane Libby and Archivist Lindsay Hiltunen pose with the framed portrait of Christeen M. Shelden, daughter of local historic figure Ransom B. Shelden. The painting was donated to the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections on Monday, June 20.
Therissa Jane Libby posing with the portrait of her great-grandmother, Christeen Shelden.

Christeen Shelden was born in May 1848 near the Portage Entry, where her father had recently built a store on the sandbars near Jacobsville. She was the third child and only daughter of Ransom and Therissa (Douglass) Shelden; Carlos and George were several years older, and Ransom, Jr., would join the family four years later. Hoping to further capitalize on the supply needs of the nascent copper boom, Ransom and his business partner relocated the store to Quincy Mine in the early 1850s and then to Houghton. Their operations flourished: by 1860, Ransom Shelden informed the census taker that his property was worth some $175,000.

Christeen grew up in Houghton, surrounded by her family and by the world that had sprung up around the mines: mercantiles, hotels, saloons, investors like her father, laborers who had spent everything they had to move to the Copper Country for a chance at something more than subsistence. Many of her neighbors were American-born, like her family, but just as many had come from places like Canada, England, and Germany. Undoubtedly, living in a boom town made for an interesting childhood, with the surroundings adding a real world touch to Christeen’s education. Based on the presence of a teacher named Emily Collingwood in the Shelden household in the 1860 census, it seems likely that Christeen received her formal schooling in her home. Census records also indicate that, as a young adult, Christeen probably did not elect to become a schoolteacher herself, one of the few careers available to a woman of her socioeconomic status. In 1870, her occupation was listed as “at home,” meaning that she likely filled her days by assisting her mother and their servants in household upkeep or by attending to social and charitable obligations. The style of Christeen’s clothing in the portrait suggests that it was painted at some point in the early years of this decade.

Love found Christeen in her twenties. She met a young man named Edwin Salmon Gilbert, a bookkeeper and the son of a Baptist minister. Edwin had spent his youth moving around the country, following his father between pastorates in his native New York, Illinois, and Marshall, Michigan, according to various federal censuses. From Marshall, the youthful accountant headed north and took a job with Ransom Shelden in about 1873. Christeen and Edwin fell in love and were married in Houghton on February 28, 1874. They remained close to her family: when the Michigan state census was taken later that year, the Gilberts and the Sheldens were recorded as living side by side.

Christeen and Edwin’s brief marriage was marked by moments of profound joy and sorrow. They welcomed their first child, Shelden Douglass, nine months after the wedding; a second son, Edwin Gage, followed in April 1876. Sadly, their next two children, who arrived in March 1877 and April 1878, were stillborn. Therissa I. Gilbert, named for her grandmother, was born on October 2, 1879.  Less than six months after her daughter’s birth, Christeen died; her headstone in the Shelden plot at Houghton’s Forest Hill Cemetery gives the date as March 8, 1880. She was 31 years old.

Christeen’s memorial in the Shelden family section of Houghton’s Forest Hill Cemetery as it appears today.
Christeen’s memorial in the Shelden family section of Houghton’s Forest Hill Cemetery as it appears today.

After Christeen’s death, Edwin and the children moved south to Illinois, residing with his parents at census time and likely trying to come to terms with their loss. They eventually returned to Houghton County. In 1883, Edwin remarried in Houghton and moved with his new wife to Santa Cruz, California, where voter registers the following year recorded him as a merchant. It is unclear whether Shelden, the younger Edwin, and Therissa accompanied him immediately or whether they remained with extended family in the Midwest. What is apparent, however, is that Christeen’s brothers felt it important that they take her children under their wing. Shelden Gilbert showed an aptitude for the law, and his name appeared in the alumni directories of Northwestern University and Yale Law School. When Carlos Shelden was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1896, he chose his young nephew as his private secretary. Sadly, Shelden Gilbert’s life was even shorter than his mother’s. While visiting the Copper Country in April 1899, the 24-year-old contracted cerebrospinal meningitis and died within a day.  

An obituary of Shelden D. Gilbert in the April 24, 1899 edition of the Copper Country Evening News.
An obituary of Shelden D. Gilbert in the April 24, 1899 edition of the Copper Country Evening News.

Edwin G. Gilbert, meanwhile, studied at Northwestern University and what was then the Michigan College of Mines, developing his abilities as a civil and mining engineer. Like his father, he moved to California, residing in Plumas County and San Diego. He died there in 1943, leaving a wife and one son.

Therissa Gilbert seems to have resided in Illinois for a time before also making the migration to California, where she married pharmacist Edwin Elliott at the age of 21. Their two sons thrived as professionals: the elder, Shelden, was a professor of law at New York University and dean of the University of Southern California School of Law, while Edwin Elliott, Jr., became a teacher and attained the rank of commander in the Navy during World War II.

It was Therissa Gilbert Elliott who inherited her mother’s portrait. Thanks to her faithful care and preservation of the painting over the years–a responsibility later taken up by her granddaughter–Christeen’s confident and thoughtful countenance will continue to charm onlookers well into the future, just as it has for over a century.