Flashback Friday: “There Have Been No Perfect Days Without You”

Envelope and exterior of the above card, sent from Tom to Lily on her own stationery, Box 3, Folder 1
Envelope and exterior of the above card, sent from Tom to Lily on her own stationery, Box 3, Folder 1

“Ten o’clock on Tuesday night, back in the Soo. And in case you can’t imagine what I am wanting at this hour, it is the sight of a golden haired lady with an unfailing smile. Believe it or not–I do, I always have, and I always must–love you.”  –December 30, 1941

Thomas Rowe Ford and Lily Orvokki Siren probably met in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she was working as a registered nurse at the University of Michigan Hospital and he was studying for his bachelor’s degree in education. Lily was the daughter of Finnish immigrants who had settled near Mass City; “Tom” was born in Illinois. Lily found herself besotted with the tall, serious man in his mid-twenties. Tom considered Lily the sweetest and most remarkable woman he had ever met. The two married in Ann Arbor on October 6, 1934.

Image #MTU Neg 00141--Mass City from Depot.
Image #MTU Neg 00141–Mass City from Depot.

For several years, the newlyweds resided together in Ann Arbor. Lily’s nursing career thrived. Although Tom earned a master’s degree in 1935, the Great Depression stymied his attempts to succeed as a teacher and writer. In late 1940 or early 1941, faced with the grim reality of bills, Tom took a job with Michigan’s State Tax Commission and was assigned to the Upper Peninsula. Lily remained at work in Ann Arbor, far from her road-weary husband, through the following summer. The two kept in contact by writing each other nearly daily.

“I stayed awake until four o’clock this morning, thinking and worrying about your pleurisy and your cough. Do you know what I thought about most? It was about a room at 204 Forest, with a magic door without a lock, which by tacit house-consent shut the place into a firm retreat.” –February 20, 1942

The letters the couple exchanged during their time apart are the heart of MS-427, Thomas R. and Lily S. Ford Correspondence, at the Michigan Tech Archives. Some handwritten on hotel stationery, others typed on State Tax Commission letterhead, Tom’s letters–the bulk of the collection–document the difficulties created by their separation, their ongoing struggles to have a child, their desire to relocate to a wooded retreat, dubbed Metsala, near Mass City. Through the countless obstacles endured Tom and Lily’s deep love and respect for each other, emotions that played out intensely and sometimes teasingly in their correspondence.

World War II tested the Fords further. In June 1943, the United States Army discovered a need for Tom; his service, which included fighting in Germany, concluded in October 1945. Any letters he and Lily–who returned to the University of Michigan to further her knowledge of public health in 1944–exchanged during this war have not come down to us.

“One thing about the time in Ann Arbor I shall always I appreciate. It may not have given us–or me–very much of a push toward fame, but whatever else it did or didn’t do, it kept me within five minutes walk of the dearest lady in the world. And I made that walk several hundred times, always with the deepest satisfaction any man can know–the satisfaction of going home to the one he loves.” –March 12, 1941

After demobilization, Tom and Lily Ford found the world suddenly full of possibilities. Tom received a job offer from what would become Michigan State University and joined its faculty as a teacher of English. He also became deeply involved in improving the curricula of junior colleges, particularly what is now Gogebic Community College. Lily took a position as a public health nurse in Lansing that found her offering continuing education to fellow professionals. Finally, the couple that had longed to be together for so long resided under the same roof, bringing a touch of the “firm retreat” of their Ann Arbor youth to the maturity of their marriage. The sweet reunion would be sadly brief.

On May 22, 1953, Lily stood at the front of a room in Grand Rapids, preparing to deliver a lecture to a gathering of doctors and nurses. Suddenly, she collapsed. While those present hurried to her aid and rushed her to the nearest hospital, it was too late. Lily Siren Ford was only forty-five years old.

There have been no perfect days without you, and the end of every day is dull and savourless. I love you, dear lady. I need you.” –February 6, 1942

Eventually, Tom Ford remarried. His new wife was Mabel Cosby, a teacher and native of Kentucky. Tom’s last years, however, were consumed by poor health, which forced him to leave his long-sought teaching position in Lansing. Illness eventually claimed his life on October 15, 1961. He, like Lily, was cremated and buried in Ontonagon County. But both Fords–and their hopes, sorrows, and dreams–remain forever alive in their letters, freely open for research at the Michigan Tech Archives.

“And always–whatever–my dear, you will be respected, and loved, and–my God–wanted.” –June 12, 1941

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our blog in February 2017.

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Flashback Friday – Hidden Gems: Archives Receives New Funding to Digitize Hidden Special Collections

Miners leaving the shaft, 1915.
Calumet and Hecla miners leave the shaft after work, 1915.

Today’s Flashback Friday serves a special purpose. Our image looks back to 1915 as Calumet and Hecla miners leave the shaft after a long day’s work, hidden below the surface. In the spirit of revealing hidden gems, be it precious metals or the hardworking laborers of the copper mines, we are excited to announce the Michigan Tech Archives, in collaboration with the Keweenaw Time Traveler, has been awarded a Digitizing Hidden Special Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).

This project, called Michigan Miners at Home and Work: Digitizing, Mapping, and Sharing Employee Records, will support 1 Digitization Specialist, 6 Undergraduate students, and 1 Master’s student over 2 years. The project team will work with a subset of records from one of our most prized collections, MS-002: The Calumet and Hecla Mining Companies Collection. The goal of the project is to make a rare collection of 40,000 employee records available online for both academic and public use. This particular subseries of archival records provides valuable insights into the lives of mine company workers and their families unavailable in other public records, including details like the types of work performed, wages, previous employers, as well as notes about injuries and fatalities. The project is made possible through a collaborative effort between the Michigan Tech Archives, the Michigan Tech Social Sciences Department, and the Historical Environments Spatial Analytics Lab.

Miners eating lunch. Date unknown.

The Michigan Tech Archives will be working with the Van Pelt and Opie Library’s Manager of Technology and Innovation to create the new Copper Mining Employee Card database, which will be hosted on the library’s Preservica platform. The new database will serve as a sister database to our digital image repository, Copper Country Historical Images. Additionally, this project will provide for further access options to the employee cards by integrating the records into the Keweenaw Time Traveler. Since these employee records contain addresses and family information, the student team working with the Time Traveler will be able to connect each record at the household level with census and city directory information already loaded into the online maps. We anticipate these new resources to be available to the public in early 2022.

An example of an employee card.
An example of an employee record.

Updates about the project will be shared on our social media platforms, the Keweenaw Time Traveler Project Blog, and various local news outlets. Public programming will include several “Night at the Archives” programs which will include special evening hours to discuss the project and how the public and scholars may use the collection. Guests at our public programs can also become citizen historians by transcribing some of the cards and including them in our data set! Program dates will be shared as they become available.

Principal investigators for this $240,014 grant are Sarah Fayen Scarlett (SS), Don Lafreniere (SS), and Lindsay Hiltunen (University Archivist). David Holden is also an important project contributor. The CLIR grant program and its 2019 Awards are made possible by funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. CLIR is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning.  To learn more, visit www.clir.org or visit them on Facebook and Twitter


For more information, please contact Lindsay Hiltunen at lehalkol@mtu.edu or call (906) 487-2505.

Logos for the project sponsor and the project partners.

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Flashback Friday: Skaters Gonna Skate, Skate, Skate

Happy New Year, Copper Country! We hope that you had a fun and relaxing holiday. For many of you, the first work week of the new year isn’t until next Monday and for the rest of you, well, you’re skating into the weekend already! So despite the recent melting and rain, there’s still plenty of fun to be had outdoors with your free time, which is why for this week’s Flashback Friday we are focusing on outdoor fun with an ice skating photo collage! Enjoy!

[Making an outdoor skating rink], 1913. Image no. MS019-11-05-02
[Ice skating on an unidentified lake], undated. Image no. MTU Neg 00414
[Skating in L’Anse], January 13, 1964. Image no. MS051-021-005-001

Ice skating on Portage Lake, January 1, 1914. Image no. MS042-034-999-G137G

Off for the skating rink, December 27, 1915. Image no. MS668-01-06-30

Skating on Portage Lake, January 1, 1914. Image no. MS042-034-999-G137D

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Flashback Friday – The Portage Lake Lift Bridge

The Milwaukee Road train passes under the bridge for the first time.
The Milwaukee Road uses the new bridge for the first time. The remains of the old bridge can still be seen.

Today’s Flashback Friday honors one of our most beloved and practical local landmarks, the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, which opened to traffic on this day in 1959. 

The night before the Governor of Michigan was to christen the bridge, many families in Houghton and Hancock were awakened by the sound of a ship’s horn. A Michigan Tech alum recalls that the bridge operator was supposed to sound the horn on the bridge that all was well, but the operator fell asleep and forgot to signal back to the ship.

The photo above is a 1959 view from Hancock of the old and current bridges from the John T. Reeder Collection.

The lift type bridge replaced the Portage Canal Swing Bridge, which was built by the King Bridge Company in the mid-1890s. The cost to replace the swing bridge was roughly 12 million dollars, although sources vary on the exact amount. The lift bridge was built by the American Bridge Company and it is still in operation today, with some minor outages for maintenance and testing. While the lower portion of the bridge used to be for trains to pass, it is now mainly used only in the winter for snowmobiles.

A popular focal point, the Portage Lake Lift Bridge is the subject of many photographs, artworks, company and community logos, and souvenirs. It is so beloved in fact, that Hancock and Houghton hold an annual celebration, Bridgefest, to honor the opening of the bridge and to show appreciation for it working to unite the two communities.

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Welcome to Our New Library Assistant

On behalf of the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections, a department of Michigan Tech’s Van Pelt and Opie Library, we hope you will help us welcome the newest member of the team, Kimberly McMullan. Kimberly is our newest Library Assistant, a position which supports the Archives with excellent customer service, patron support, collaboration, and creative problem solving. Below, please take a moment to get to know Kimberly as she introduces herself in her own words.


Hello! 

I’m Kimberly McMullan, feel free to call me Kim or Kimberly. I have been part of the Michigan Tech community for about three years as part of the Chemistry Department, but have lived in the Houghton area for quite a few years. I am very excited to now be a part of the Michigan Tech Archive team. There is so much to learn, I can not wait to dive in!

Now for some fun facts. I am part of the local roller derby team, Keweenaw Roller Derby. Come spring I will be starting my fifth season playing. Other than derby, during the summer I am outdoors as much as possible; in the winter, not so much. I still enjoy snowshoeing and downhill skiing, but would much prefer to hike to a waterfall or sit on a beach in the summer. Another fun fact is that I grew up on a farm with horses, goats, and chickens, and have been around animals of all sorts my whole life. Which means my love of animals started at a very young age.

Please stop in and say hello, and bring your best questions to help me learn! Bonus points if you bring cute animal photos too.


Welcome aboard, Kimberly! We are so happy to have you join the Michigan Tech Archives team!

For more information about the Michigan Tech Archives please call (906) 487-2505 or e-mail copper@mtu.edu. You can find us on Twitter: @mtuarchives

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Flashback Friday: ‘Tis the Season of Giving

Our Flashback Friday photo this week takes us to Christmastime in Calumet in 1958. The Calumet Theater must have been quite the site on December 9, 1958  with the lobby overflowing with toys and roughly 600 children in attendance for a charitable celebration. Sponsored by the Merchants and Miners Bank, the U.P. Power Co., the Lion’s Club and the Calumet-Laurium Rotary Club, kiddos from the Good Will Farm enjoyed a comedy program and a cowboy moving picture show on the screen. New and used toys were donated by the public and given to the Good Will Farm children.

The Saturday before the event, the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion Ira Penberthy Post 61 in Calumet sponsored a Dolls Tea for the children of the Good Will Farm. Dolls were clothed in dresses hand-made by members of the auxiliary and a variety of other clothes and accessories were on hand for the dolls to wear throughout the day. Additional contributions from the fundraiser went towards the purchase of toys for the boys at the Good Will Farm. Food and refreshments were provided by the event committee and others while the tea was poured by past presidents.

 

Have you finished your holiday shopping yet?  Well if you haven’t, don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time and be sure to pick up a teddy bear to toss at tomorrow’s Michigan Tech Hockey game against Clarkson — they’ll be doing the teddy bear toss for Toys for Tots during the first intermission!

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Flashback Friday: Winona? Why Not?

View of houses and mine buildings
A panoramic view of Winona from the mill stack, circa 1910.

Some ghost towns refuse to give up the ghost. Central Mine is one of them. Winona is another. 

In September 1974, the Daily Mining Gazette wrote that “the motorist moving between Houghton and Ontonagon seldom turns to the right to see what is left of the community.” This has not changed in forty-five years: most passing down M-26 have appointments to keep or recreational plans that do not include visiting this modest hamlet, whose population, at the last semi-official update, was nineteen people. Yet Winona has received its share of attention in recent years, far more than most copper mining towns that have depopulated since the decline of copper mining. In December 2019, its tiny school landed in the pages of the Detroit Free Press as part of that publication’s Tales from the Rural North series. A few years earlier, Michigan filmmaker Michael Loukinen spotlighted Winona in one of his documentaries. The film even enjoyed a premiere at the Copper Country’s most elegant venue, the Calumet Theatre. 

What can be said about this place? 

Winona had its roots in the prehistoric copper mining of the local native peoples. Evidence of their pit workings attracted the attention of prospectors and investors as the Keweenaw Peninsula began to industrialize, and the Winona Mining Company was organized in April 1864. Later that year, proprietor Jay A. Hubbell wrote in a prospectus that they had already made significant strides toward making the new mine a going concern, including “the opening of promising cupriferous [copper-bearing] deposits, the erection of several dwellings and other buildings, and the acquisition of a further general knowledge of the value of the whole territory.” A vein of amygdaloid trap rock most captured their attention, and they noted the presence of ancient pits along the way. From that vein, the prospectus noted, workers had already detected ample copper and even some “fine specimens of native silver.” Hubbell argued that the Winona had already proven its worth: “of the value of these indications the most skeptical must be satisfied… the value of its mineral deposits having been fully and satisfactorily proven.” Those interested in purchasing stock were most welcome to do so, and they could have “a full confidence in its immediate and prospective value as an investment.” 

Jay Hubbell was an early proponent of the Winona Mine.

The mine went nowhere.

At least, it went nowhere at first. Those 1860s efforts petered out as rapidly as they had begun, being worked only sporadically over the following decades. Mining along the range south of Houghton, however, experienced something of a renaissance in the 1890s. Winona would share in this good fortune. In 1898, the mine reorganized under a new name, Winona Copper Company, and began diamond drilling explorations at the western end of the property. These investigations over the first few years provided reason for cautious optimism, and the company built a new store, meat market, and icehouse. By March 1902, although the directors thought it premature to construct a stamp mill at Winona, they discussed seriously the possibility of leasing unused stamps from the Atlantic mill and ultimately did so in December. Miners and other laborers began to descend on Winona to stope out various levels of the promising shafts, and the company authorized the construction of two duplexes for families in 1903. 

As the decade wore on, the management–connected as they were to the successful Copper Range Company–decided to step up their efforts at Winona and attempt regular production. In 1906, they constructed a track to link up with the Copper Range Railroad track a little to the east. “A new modern steel shaft and rock house” was built at the No. 3 shaft; the annual report described it glowingly as “at least equal to any in the Lake Superior region so far as convenience and economy of operation are concerned.” Most notably, the Winona Copper Company acquired land from its neighbor, the King Philip Copper Company, which had been formed around the same time as the first Winona; the new property arrangement allowed “each Company… [to] mine out more economically its ground” between the No. 1 at King Philip and the new No. 4 that Winona sank that year. 

Most importantly for the town that would become Winona, the company planned to build “twenty or thirty new dwelling houses for miners” in 1907. It did, describing the structures as “twenty six-room single houses, each 20 feet by 26 feet with… pantry and vestibule” and “two seven-room single houses, each 24 feet by 30 feet,” with similar pantry at the rear. It continued to construct these kinds of dwellings for its employees over the following years, as well as larger homes for the mine captain, physician, and stamp mill superintendent. Winona was finally building its own stamp mill. The town was growing, too, with a new large schoolhouse rising near the heart of the settlement. Unlike the old log building where children had received their education previously, the two-story school would house twelve grades. In the 1930s, a WPA project added an auxiliary building with a gym floor to accommodate the school’s successful basketball team. Winona residents were sportly folk and also enjoyed America’s pastime, fielding a summer baseball team. 

Image of three large houses before a clearing
Examples of company houses built in Winona, circa 1910.

As long as the company was expanding, it decided to go one step further and merge with the King Philip. In March 1911, the new stamp mill processed its first shipment of rock; later that year, the Winona Copper Company acquired all of the King Philip’s stock and began hiring new employees to increase their output. “Good men have been coming slowly,” the annual report for that year opined, and 1912 saw an almost critical shortage of trammers, but the future seemed bright. 

Unfortunately, predicting the days ahead for a copper mine is never an easy task. The following July, the Western Federation of Miners strike began. “From all information attainable,” wrote mine superintendent Rex R. Seeber, “it appears that very few of our men joined the federation until after the strike was called. Order was preserved on the location and no arrests were necessary on account of the strike.” Union fervor seems truly to have been less–or need for money–greater in Winona than in some other parts of the Copper Country: a full shift of men returned to work at the Winona Mine by October. The mine weathered the strike and hustled through the heightened demand for copper induced by World War I. When the market crashed after peace, however, Winona’s hope of profit went with it. Directors decided to suspend operations temporarily at the end of January 1919; the hiatus persisted until August, but the reopening brought little hope. The mine needed to be expanded, but “the working force is depleted,” and a few explorations around one of the closed King Philip shafts led to nothing. There was some possibility of the mill, judged to be one of the finest of its type in the region, continuing to operate, but this, too, proved fruitless.  The mine shut down for good in May 1920. 

Group of men standing in a timbered mine level
Underground, most likely at Winona or King Philip.

The 1916-1917 Polk Directory for Houghton County listed the population of Winona at 1,200. It had a Finnish temperance society–reflecting the background of many of its residents–a park association, and a social club. When the mine closed, the town began to disappear. Some turned to moonshining to stay afloat. The Pampa Company, a lumber business, tried to fill the place of copper mining by opening a mill in Winona in 1921. It burned the next year, was rebuilt, and closed when the Depression came on. Other sawmills and logging companies, including the Riippa Brothers from the 1940s on, later employed some of the people who remained in Winona. For the most part, however, the residents began to leave to seek work elsewhere. As the mine goes, so does the town. In the 1950s and 1960s, Winona consisted of a few dozen residents. High schoolers now had to ride the bus to Painesdale rather than walk up the gravel road for classes. But the elementary school stayed, even as Winona lost its barbershop, its post office, and now all but a handful of its people. Like the ruins of the stamp mill or the little Lutheran church on the highway, it testifies to a time and a place that have faded into memory. 

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Flashback Friday: Seasons of Change in the U.P.

“Scenic Views – Ripley,” Daily Mining Gazette, November 21, 1956. Image number: MS051-011-001-005.

Happy Flashback Friday, Copper Country! Can you believe we’re heading into the fall break and sliding into December? Okay, maybe “sliding” is a bad term after during this awkward transition from fall to true Yooper winter. There’s certainly been a lot of feelings shared around town about the rain, sleet, and snow; not to forget the slush and ice impacting our daily routines.

With that in mind we’re keeping things simple and optimistic this Flashback Friday with a lovely historic view of a freshly snow-covered Mont Ripley from 1956 and a wonderful little poem about winter and the promise of spring. Just remember, there’s always beauty, not just cold, to be found in those wintry months ahead.

Winter

Brusso, Clifton. Tales from the U.P.’s Copper Country. Laurium, MI: Iroquois Press, 1992.

We listen not to the quiet sound,

as crystal leaves drift slowly down,

and softly caress the cold, bright ground.

Life asleep in their far flung home,

others seeking as they roam,

for food and shelter, the woods they comb.

Carried aloft on air currents they fly,

spotting for prey they spy,

ever alert with a sharpened eye.

From the North comes a frigid blast,

freezing and biting are the winds that last,

caring not who…through this scheme they’ve past.

Rays of light seldom are seen,

shadowy trees interspaced with green,

silver creeks with their icy screen.

Months later, bright warmth melting the snow,

rains lashing out helping it go,

golden skies seen through a rainbow.

Children playing in muddy fields,

to Spring winds, Winter, grudgingly yields,

and new life upward slowly steals.

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Flashback Friday: The Church in the Wildwood

Image of church with cars parked out front
The Central Mine Methodist Church at the 1914 annual reunion.

“The lands of the Central Mining Company… are bounded on the north by the Copper Falls location, on the east and south by the North Western, and on the west by the Winthrop location, and are four and one half miles from Eagle Harbor… These lands are well timbered with pine and sugar-maple, and have a soil well suited to the wants of a mine, and mine force.”

Optimism overflowed in the opening words of the first annual report of the Central Mining Company, the corporate body responsible for the eponymous Central Mine. Such hope was well-founded. Initial explorations at the mine in 1853 had suggested that copper deposits on the property would be particularly rich, and, just one year after commencing operations, dreams turned to boasting. “The Directors will state that the Central is the first mine yet opened in the Lake Superior district, which produced and sold copper enough, during the first year of its operations, to more than pay all expenses of the Company; and further, no other one has produced so much copper the first year of working.” Central had done the virtually impossible: turned a profit right from the start. In an environment and at a time when the average copper mine would best be described as a failure, Central was remarkable. It always would be. The reasons simply changed.

Image of tall building with others in the background.
The Central #2 shafthouse after the mine ceased operations.

A mine needed workers. Men arriving on their own–either bachelors or those living apart from their families–constituted the bulk of initial employees. Since mining was marked by unpredictability, and it seemed unfair to drag a wife and children unnecessarily from pillar to post on a frontier, men drifted in, stayed for a while, and moved on to greener pastures when the exploration faltered. Accommodations for the workforce at most mines were sparse: some rough boarding houses or bunkhouses, which could be repurposed when operations wound down, typified an early mine location. At first, Central was no different. The annual report for 1855 described surface improvements as “light.” Along with shafthouses and horse whims, only three houses had been built, thanks, in part, to the struggles of the neighboring Winthrop and Northwestern operations. These rentals would “give accommodation to our force, and render the erection of houses for families… unnecessary” for the time being. 

It became apparent quite quickly, however, that Central was not bound to go the way of its neighbors. In 1855, owing to the success but yet the infancy of the mine, “twenty-six miners and twenty surface men” constituted the entirety of the workforce. By 1860, Central began to outgrow the stamping facilities it had rented, was starving for men to keep up with its production, and had to boost wages. Workers responded favorably, and, in the annual report for 1862, the board of directors described the construction of twenty houses “for the accommodation of our mining force,” with an imminent need for homes to be built for “three or four times the present laboring force.” At the end of 1868, an estimated 845 workers and families, largely Cornish, resided at Central; the following year, their number swelled to over 900. Central had become a real town. 

As Central transformed from frontier outpost to mining village, its people sought to bring the comforts and soul of nineteenth-century life to their new home. John Wesley’s Methodist teachings had spread like wildfire across Cornwall, wooing skilled miners and their families away from the Church of England through simple doctrine and revival preaching. The emigrants who crossed the ocean from Kernow to the Keweenaw brought with them a deep faith that wove through every aspect of their lives, and they devoted themselves to establishing a Methodist presence in Central. A small schoolhouse near the Central Mine-Northwestern Mine boundary held early services and Sunday Schools, but, as the mine and town flourished, the congregation’s attention turned to the construction of a proper church. The time came in 1868. “Divine services continue to be regularly held, and some progress has been made toward the erection of a church,” wrote the agent of the Central Mining Company that year. As he penned his report, a wood-frame chapel was rising near the heart of Central. Like most Methodist churches, especially in rural communities, its builders sought simplicity and durability in construction.

Image of church on a sunny day.
Central Mine Methodist Church, built 1868. Note the distinctive crenelation.

A poor-rock foundation was the logical choice. Long pieces of narrow wooden siding gave the outside an appearance of crisp uniformity. Six tall, plate-glass windows–three on the north side of the building and three on the south–cast patterns of sunlight across rows of pine pews. Their high, straight backs discouraged cat naps during Sunday sermons. Cleanly whitewashed walls provided cheer without adornment and a marked contrast to the preacher’s black suit as he stood before his parishioners to exhort them in virtue and faith. Alongside him on a platform spanning the width of the church sat the choir, a pride of Central Mine. These men and women, nestled in spindle-backed chairs, came from a proud Cornish tradition of singing; rich voices soared through the mines of Cornwall, carrying the melodies of beloved hymns, and now they did the same in the Copper Country. On Sundays, a bell in the church tower called the people of Central to worship. The crenelation topping the belfry was the congregation’s great concession to elegance: its sawtooth appearance hearkened back to English castles and made a wilderness more like home. 

“A church has been erected at the mine (with the aid of the company), in which services are regularly held,” read the 1869 annual report. It was true that the mining company played a role in constructing the Central Mine Methodist Episcopal Church, but credit for building its vibrant community and its life rested on the shoulders of the people. In the basement, they gathered for Sunday School classes or to peruse the circulating library that its people carefully compiled. Before the new Central school was built, scholars who had overflowed the old schoolhouse studied in the basement, as well. To celebrate Independence Day, the Sunday School–whose attendees regularly numbered over 200 in the 1880s–threw picnics with candy and the enthusiastic Central Cornet band as entertainment. The Saturday before Christmas, Santa Claus visited to distribute “mittens, suspenders, pocket knives, mouth organs, knitted hoods, scarfs [sic]… straight brass horns, circular brass horns, jumping-jacks, dolls, jack-in-the-box… china dolls, sailor dolls, rag-baby dolls… that squeaked, cried, and laughed,” as long-time Central resident Alfred Nicholls remembered. After Christmas carols from the choir, the children were let loose to enjoy their gifts. “From every quarter of the little church,” Nicholls said, one heard “the baa of the sheep, the squeak of the doll,” the “full and active operation” of slide trombones and “fluttering fingers on tin whistles.” The Central church was a place of joy, at Christmas and throughout the year. 

Many buildings spreading out on a hillside
Central Mine industrial and residential buildings near the peak of Central’s population.

Yet the heyday of Central Mine, brilliant as it was, faded too soon. The mine sat upon an uncommonly good deposit of copper, but practicality, accessibility, and profitability eventually dictated that the mine would have to close. After fits and starts, it did so for good in 1898, having produced almost 52 million pounds of copper. “In like fashion,” wrote Central historian Charles Stetter, “did the Central Mine Church close its doors, presumably for good.” But the sense of belonging to Central persisted in the hearts of its people, now scattered to Calumet, Hancock, or Painesdale; the memories of those Christmases, Sunday worship, or Fourth of July picnics did not fade. When, in 1907, the Keweenaw Central Railroad built track that ran as far north as Mandan, Alfred Nicholls saw an opportunity. Why not use the new ease of transport to bring people home to Central? They could gather in the old church for a “Sunday service… strictly religious in character” and conforming “as nearly as possible to the order of worship as was observed in former years,” in the words of Stetter. On July 21, 1907, the first Central Mine reunion was held at a church packed to bursting. Throughout the day, visitors sipped coffee and tea, chatted with friends, and walked down paths they had trod so often in Central’s earlier life.

Time passed. The old residents of Central passed, too, and the buildings at the old mine fell into increasing disrepair. Dozens of houses that had formed the neighborhoods of Central collapsed or were torn down. Heavy snows claimed the roofs of the powderhouse, the engine house. Trees crept back onto the deforested hillside. Yet the church remained, its bell tower still proudly proclaiming Central’s Cornish heritage, and the children and grandchildren returned on the last Sunday in July, year after year. Even as war raged in Europe–not once but twice–and as the country plunged into the throes of the Great Depression, even as the greatest mines of the Copper Country fell silent, for good, Central’s people came back. The records of the church note no interruptions from 1907 on.

Image of plain church interior with central aisle and pump organ.
Inside the Central church, undated. The appearance has not changed much since this photograph was taken.

The character of the service changed, growing more ecumenical, and responsibility for leading worship was laid in the hands of a series of ministers. One man, however, left his mark on the church in the wildwood more than any other preacher. In 1984, and then annually from 1990 to 2018, the Rev. Dr. Daniel “Dan” Rosemergy’s boisterous laughter and contagious enthusiasm flooded Central. Like the men who had played Santa Claus at Central Christmases, he distributed gifts to children in the form of Cornish flags and currant cookies; he sang in a quartet of Cornish voices in the midst of each service and beamed as the congregation burst into “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” the Diadem setting. His messages encouraged fellowship, compassion, kindness, and joy. Every attendee at the reunions left richer for having met him. And when Dan Rosemergy went to join his Central ancestors in 2019, he left behind a deep conviction in their hearts that the reunions would continue. July 26, 2020 will be the 114th year

What brings people back to Central? What makes them feel that they belong to this place, even if they have never lived there, and their last family member moved away a century or more ago? Is it the stillness that one feels on a winter afternoon, standing in the doorway of the powderhouse? Is it the view that spreads out from the front porch of an old red house? Is it the peace that settles on a person, looking north from the poor rock pile? Is it the rustle of leaves on a summer day, the wind whispering through them like it has a secret to tell? Is it the music of the old pump organ and the Cornish voices raised in song on those July mornings, the chime of the bell calling all into the church? Is it the sense that the gap between today and yesteryear is much narrower on the dusty streets of Central? Perhaps what defines Central cannot, itself, be defined. Perhaps it can simply be lived.

Come to the church in the wildwood,

oh, come to the church in the dale;

no spot is so dear to my childhood,

as the little brown church in the vale.

–William S. Pitts

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Michigan Oral History Association Conference 2020 – Call for Proposals

The Michigan Oral History Association is currently seeking proposals for the MOHA 2020 Conference. We welcome proposals for presentations, sessions and papers on oral history projects:

  • Focused on Michigan, and/or
  • Led by Michigan-based scholars
  • Research projects (issues analyzed with oral history methods and interviews)
  • Collections of oral histories focusing on a particular time period/community/group

The Program Committee seeks a diverse slate of presenters representing a variety of personal and institutional backgrounds, perspectives, and voices.  We encourage submission from anyone interested in presenting – including students, new and seasoned professionals, first-time presenters, and those from allied professions. See our brainstorming Google Sheet below to share ideas and start building possible panels.

Proposals may be one of the following:

  1. Presentation Panels with up to three powerpoint presentations (15 minutes per presentation), plus a chair and/or discussant.
  2. Non-Traditional Panels 5-8 contributors to a session formatted as a roundtable, lightening round or Pecha Kucha. In addition to contributors, non-traditional panels may also have one moderator.
  3. Individual Presentation or Partnered/Panel Presentation on a common theme. An example could be a longer presentation on a case-study of a successful oral history project, discussing challenges, successes, methods, and a Q & A.
  4. Paper Panel with up to three academic papers presented (15 minutes per presentation), plus a chair and/or discussant. Co-authored papers are welcome.  If you have a large group of colleagues who want to present papers, divide your group into two panels.

Proposals should include (see accompanying Submission Form):

  • “Participant List”
  • “Abstracts” (containing type of session format proposed and Session Title, accompanied by a 300-word abstract PLUS all individual paper/contribution titles, each accompanied with a 200-word abstract.

All participants who are accepted into the Conference program must become MOHA members by the time of the conference.

PROPOSAL DUE DATE:  December 16, 2019 

Send your proposal files as email attachments (.docx only please) to Lindsay Hiltunen at lehalkol@mtu.edu.  Questions may be directed to Ms. Hiltunen at her e-mail or (906) 487-3209.
Request e-copy of Submission Form to info@michiganoha.org.
Brainstorming:  No sign-on required link: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1tT8FsPzfSUQobrIDJSr_6c8FN5hvPae9SSGY_yv_yjU/edit?usp=sharing

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