Author: Emily Riippa

Flashback Friday: Roll Out the Krackerbarrels

The Krackerbarrel not long before its demolition.

Behind every family business are two tales: the story of the business and the story of the family. Thurner Bakery in Calumet offers one such example. This week’s Flashback Friday provides another intimate illustration by visiting the Krackerbarrel.

Students at Michigan Tech in the 1960s and 1970s would have known the little store as well as they knew their classrooms, dorms, or library. Its pointed roof and Tudor framing cheerfully greeted hungry students looking for sustenance. Positioned across from the university’s Memorial Union Building, at an intersection erased by the rerouting of roads and the construction of parking lots, it was perfectly primed to capture young people wandering back to their rental houses on January evenings or needing a slice of pizza between lengthy sessions in the lab.

From December 1959 until its closure on New Year’s Eve 1979, Edward Johnson and his wife, Ruth, operated the Krackerbarrel as their family business. The grocery (or “superette,” to use a popular term of the day) had its roots in a much earlier enterprise that also sought to capture students’ pocket change.

Krackerbarrel advertisement from the Michigan Tech Lode, 1960.

A February 9, 1980 Daily Mining Gazette article looking back on the recently-closed store recalled “the early Hixon firm,” a concern about which little information survives, managing its earliest incarnation in the 1920s. The store then “catered to those who desired more than the regular routine of groceries, meats and fresh fruits. As a consequence the firm had special shipments brought in via the rail lines of the time.” After the Hixon company surrendered its interest, English immigrant Charles Vivian took over the business. City directories in the 1930s listed Vivian’s grocery at 279 Florence Street, with the proprietor residing in the company of his wife and three sons a few blocks away. To maintain the quality of his produce, Vivian installed innovative watering devices that spritzed what his staff dubbed “garden fresh vegetables.” He held on to ownership through at least 1942, continuing “the sale of the more fancy goods which characterized the original caterance.” When, at last, the time came for Vivian to give up the business, he turned it over to a proprietor by the name of Babe Simmer, who dubbed it Babe’s Market. Lastly, at the very close of 1959, it became the Johnsons’ Krackerbarrel.

Ed Johnson with his mother and future coworker, Ethel, circa 1924. From the collection of the author.

In many ways, it would be fair to call Edward (“Ed”) Johnson a typical mid-20th century Copper Country man. He was born in Houghton on July 21, 1922, to parents who had celebrated their first wedding anniversary one month earlier. His father, another Edward, was twenty-eight at his son’s birth and an employee of Hancock’s Kerredge Theatre. The proud Johnson grandparents had come to the Keweenaw as teenagers in the mid-1870s, part of the first wave of Finns to arrive in the area. Ed’s mother, twenty-year-old Ethel Moyle, also had immigrant roots: her own mother, Emily, moved from her native Cornwall to Central Mine in 1887, and her father, Alfred, was the first-generation American son of English parents. The young Johnson family enjoyed close ties with both sides: Ed was probably born at the Moyle home on Baraga Street, where Edward and Ethel resided until at least 1930. Later, they moved into the house next door to Edward’s aging parents, Erick and Amanda, on Warren Street in Hancock. By this time, a daughter named Ramona Jane had been added to the family. Both Ed and his sister attended Hancock Central High School, a short walk from their home.

Ed turned eighteen in 1940, entering adulthood at the beginning of a nationally and personally tumultuous decade. His father died after prolonged poor health in August 1941, just months before the United States entered World War II. Ed worked for a time for the Fox Wisconsin Amusement Corps before joining the Army Air Corps; it appears that most of his service was stateside in Texas and Kansas. Within just three years, beginning in 1944, all four of the grandparents who had cherished him died: Amanda, Erick, Emily, Alfred. The upheaval must have seemed to come at breakneck pace. Yet the decade’s changes also included joy. On July 7, 1944, with his sister as a witness, Ed married Ruth Loretta Schuster in Houghton. They welcomed their first son the following year; a daughter, named after Ed’s sister, arrived in 1950 and a last son in 1953.

Ed and his sister, Ramona Jane, on the steps of their mother’s Hancock home, circa 1940. From the collection of the author.

After an additional year of active military service during the Korean War, Ed was a full-time civilian once again, and he needed a way to support his young family. The opportunity to acquire Babe’s Market and transform it into the Krackerbarrel seemed just the right one. When Ed and Ruth took over the business in December 1959, they maintained the spirit of Hixon’s and Vivian’s, placing alongside more traditional fare items that customers could not easily find elsewhere in town. For their predecessors, this had been exotic fruits and vegetables. The Johnsons chose more student-centric options: pizza and soft serve ice cream. Until her death in April 1963, Ethel Johnson joined her son and daughter-in-law in the kitchen of the Krackerbarrel, kneading pizza dough and prepping toppings in a true family operation. Hungry students carried the cheesy treat home to sustain them during another late night of studying. Asked for their memories of the building in 2008, several alumni named pizza as the Krackerbarrel’s most noteworthy item; in the early 1960s, even the venerable Ambassador Restaurant did not yet serve it. Others visited the little store for more exotic tastes, with one graduate of Michigan Tech recalling that he and his friends drank sauerkraut juice purchased from the Krackerbarrel on a dare.

The demolition of the Krackerbarrel underway in early 1980.

Whether it was the pizza, the sauerkraut juice, the snowfall totals posted on the windows each winter, or the big-city newspapers available inside, the Krackerbarrel’s convenient items and welcoming atmosphere brought students through the doors year after year. The Johnson family maintained its intimate ties with the business even as campus changed around it. The 1960s and 1970s saw many Michigan Tech buildings torn down and replaced with modern counterparts: Hubbell, Hotchkiss, and Koenig halls gave way to the MEEM, the EERC, and Chem Sci. The Krackerbarrel held on longer than most familiar structures serving Tech students, but it, too, eventually fell prey to time and modernization. In 1979, Ed and Ruth determined that it was finally time to retire, shuttering their business on December 31. Within weeks, the university had acquired the building and demolished it to put up a parking lot to alleviate a crunch on campus.

Ruth Johnson passed away unexpectedly less than a year after the Krackerbarrel’s closure. Ed lived another two decades before dying a few days before Christmas 2004. The couple, who worked so closely together in their business, are both buried a stone’s throw away in Houghton’s Forest Hill Cemetery. Ethel Johnson, assistant pizza chef, lies in an adjacent plot. The family rests together in death as they labored together in life.

The remnants of the Krackerbarrel after demolition, 1980.

Flashback Friday: Inimitable, an Original

Ruth Gibson Butler in her later years.

‘Ruth Gibson Butler knew her own mind and had no qualms in expressing it. As a woman in the political sphere and someone passionate about the preservation of local history, she fit right in.

Like many of the women profiled in prior blog posts–such as Lucena Brockway and her daughter Anna Brockway Gray–many of Ruth’s accomplishments can be described as groundbreaking: the first woman to be elected to the Houghton Village Council, a founder of the Houghton County Historical Society, a member of the Michigan Republic State Central Committee, a delegate to the 1962 Michigan Constitutional Convention, and a candidate for the state House of Representatives that same year. At the time, she was a youthful seventy years old.

A decade later, Butler expressed her thoughts about life in the mining communities she had long called home, her political activities, and challenges facing the Upper Peninsula in an interview with Paul Jalkanen through Suomi College. Her oral history reveals a woman of incredible insight, activity, and experience who was willing to call them as she saw them.

Ruth Irene Gibson came into the world on July 11, 1891 in Republic, a town in the iron mining district of Marquette County. Her father, Thomas, was a Canadian immigrant and one of 13 children. “My father was the oldest son and he had very little education,” Ruth said. “But boy, was he a great guy! He had a personality that was just tremendous.” Gregarious Thomas was drawn to politics and ran for a number of offices in her childhood. Her mother, Alice, was “a very talented woman,” especially musically. In her home, the door was always open and a perpetual dinner invitation extended to Ruth’s neighbors and friends. The Gibson parents, however, often found themselves at odds. Ruth described Thomas as “a great joker” and Alice as “almost humorless; she couldn’t take a joke and she never knew when the joke was on her and she was always mad.” More tragically, Thomas’s struggle with alcoholism, a lawsuit that took everything the family had, and an epidemic that killed the horses his business relied on challenged the Gibson family.

Mass City, where Ruth lived from 1898-1905.

In the wake of his financial difficulties, Thomas decided to leave the Republic area for the greener pastures of Ontonagon County, where he opened a livery stable. Ruth, her older siblings, and her mother joined him in Mass City in 1898. Although the business did fine, Thomas’s drinking escalated over the next several years, and money intended for the Gibson household often ended up on a saloonkeeper’s bar. When a mining company near Houghton offered her husband a position caring for their livestock, Alice encouraged him to take it–hoping, Ruth said, that moving away from their Mass City circumstances would help his alcoholism. Unfortunately, the job fell through, plunging the Gibsons into more trouble as Ruth began high school. “In those [times],” Ruth recalled, “Houghton was about as snobbish a town as you could ever find. Who’d have any idea [now]?” The Gibson family had limited resources at that time, and Ruth felt keenly that her classmates looked down on her for it. “These kids in school, if you weren’t ‘in’ with the top, you were down at the bottom… their people had made a little money and money was the god, you see.” Meanwhile, classmates who had immigrated “studied so hard that they were far ahead of us academically because they weren’t fooling around with other things.” In time, however, Ruth fit in at Houghton High School, getting involved in school plays and describing her years from 1905-1909 as “a very nice high school experience.”

After graduating in the spring of 1909, Ruth’s first act of independence was to go out with a Tech boy–a group that her parents had specifically forbidden her to date in high school. She described the college as “God’s gift to the Copper Country girls” in light of the sheer number of male students on its campus. For Ruth, this had a particularly personal dimension. Although, after a year of serving as a kindergarten assistant, she enrolled in the coeducational Ferris Institute in Big Rapids, none of her male classmates caught her eye. Back at home in Houghton, she met Jesse Butler, who was studying mining engineering at the Michigan College of Mines. The two became sweethearts, walking to dances and riding the streetcars; they wrote to each other regularly while Ruth was away at school. When she completed her teaching program at Ferris and returned to assume a teaching position in Houghton County, Jesse proposed.

Houghton High School as it looked when Ruth attended.

Ruth and Jesse married on April 15, 1914. Their wedding had had to wait until Jesse completed a period of military service in Mexico and secured a job at Calumet & Hecla. Fresh off the Western Federation of Miners strike, the copper district was reeling, and finding an engineering position was no small task. Jesse took a job as an ordinary miner to start. “We lived in Calumet the first year we were married,” Ruth said. “Things were tough.” The town had bitter feelings to spare, which the new Mrs. Butler completely understood. “The people that came in, like Mother Jones and Moyer, came in to rabble-rouse, but on the other hand the miners sure had a lot of things to gripe about.” The hours were long, the pay was low, and “[James] MacNaughton, who was the general manager, was the most arrogant person I’ve ever heard of… you just can’t conceive of such arrogance.” Jesse was fortunate: he made $40 per month as a miner after the strike–decent pay for the time–and soon secured an underground supervisor position at the Victoria Mine near Rockland.

Victoria was “quite a pleasant life in some ways,” Ruth said, “and some ways it was hard. One of the great tragedies of living in a mining community in the old days was the superintendent’s wife… they could either make a community [a] pleasant to live or they could make it so hard for you that you wish you’d never see them again.” Unfortunately, the superintendent’s wife at Victoria “was quite dictatorial and in some ways she was good but she would get these ideas, and you never knew just what was going to happen. You never knew whether the thing you did was right or wrong.” Community-minded Ruth looked around at her international neighbors in Victoria–immigrants from Italy, Slovenian, other parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Finland–and saw an opportunity to organize folk dances in town. People loved the events, finding in them a release from the daily tension of work. Sadly, they were not to last. “Our superintendent’s wife made us quit,” Ruth recalled with dismay. The other woman’s justification? “The people were getting too friendly. We were getting too friendly with them.”

Victoria Mine, where Ruth butted heads with the superintendent’s wife for being “too friendly” with her working-class neighbors.

Jesse worked at Victoria and at other mines around Rockland for only a few years before the mines closed down in the face of a copper surplus. His engineering skill found a new home at the state highway department in 1920, where he remained for the next seventeen years. Meanwhile, Ruth gave birth to their first two children, Frederick Gibson and Elizabeth, and began to take increasing interest in politics. Reflecting on the matter some decades later, Ruth credited her father’s political activities in her youth for sparking her fascination with government and civic engagement. As a high school student, she attended a caucus at Houghton’s Amphidrome and delighted in the verbal sparring she witnessed. She voted with great excitement in her first election in 1918 and analyzed the techniques that mining companies used to ensure sympathetic candidates were elected to local offices. Both Ruth and Jesse were lifelong Republicans, and Ruth served in that party’s county committee when they lived in Ontonagon County. When the Butlers moved to Baraga County for Jesse’s highway job, she threw herself into Republican activities there; likewise, after political machinations forced her husband out of the highway department and the family relocated to Houghton, she took up her work yet again. Ruth remained active in the local parties for the rest of her life, although Jesse’s five years of poor health before his 1950 death curtailed her involvement for a time.

In light of her extensive Republican interests, in the early 1960s one of Ruth’s grandchildren proposed that she run for a position as a Michigan Constitutional Convention delegate. This foray into an elected role, at the age of 70, was Ruth’s first. Competing against Democrat Carmen DelliQuadri, she won by a margin of 2 to 1, thanks in part to her own perspicacity about political issues and operations. Despite DelliQuadri’s staunchly different politics, however, Ruth spoke favorably of his style and character a decade after the hotly contested election. “The Constitutional Convention [1961-1962] was one of the great things in my life,” she said later. She befriended a number of prominent Michigan residents during the convention, including Congressman Alvin Bentley and Governor George Romney, whose campaign she later helped to lead as vice chairman. Although her 1962 candidacy for state representative was unsuccessful–a loss that she credited to her opponent’s incumbency and the fact that voters “were not ready for a woman”–she was elected as the first woman on the Houghton Village Council and began serving in 1966. Ruth also received appointments to the U.P. State Fair Board, the Commission for the Equality of Women, and the White House Conference on the Problems of Aging around this time.

What drove Ruth’s passion for local politics? It seems clear that her motivation was as much a love for the Copper Country as for politics themselves. “This is my hometown,” she said in her 1972 interview.

I don’t know just what’s going to happen to it. I regret not being able to be around for the next 40 years because it would be so interesting to know. But I believe firmly that there will be ways of bringing this back into a moving area because it has so many things for it. The location is beautiful: there’s no place that you can go that’s more beautiful than the Copper Country. Rain or shine, snow or winter sun, it is a beautiful section.

Ruth balanced a firm belief in the importance of cultivating the region’s future–creating an economic climate that would prevent the “export [of] our finest commodity, our young people”–with a conviction about the intrinsic value of the Copper Country’s history. “History, it’s been my great love,” she explained. She was a founding member of the Houghton County Historical Society’s museum in 1961: “Mrs. Butler begged, bullied, cajoled, flattered, and brought the idea of preserving the Copper Country’s heritage to the Copper Country itself to a successful beginning with the donation of the Calumet and Hecla ‘Old Infirmary’ building in Lake Linden,” a colleague explained later. Ruth said that her motivation was not economic or tourist in nature; rather, she wanted to preserve “the artifacts… for the people of this area.” The museum did exactly what she hoped it would. This year, as a Heritage Site in the Keweenaw National Historical Park network, the museum will celebrate its 60th anniversary.

The Houghton County Historical Society’s museum in Lake Linden, where it stands to this day.

After a long, varied, active life of service, Ruth Gibson Butler died at Marquette General Hospital North in March 1981. Her funeral plans bespoke the wide network of friends and allies she had cultivated, with pallbearers drawn from the political networks of the region and its historical boosters. As Betty M. Berry wrote two years later, describing the impact of Ruth’s life on the peninsula she loved, “She truly earned the nickname ‘Mrs. U.P.’”

Flashback Friday: Calumet Rises from the Ashes

Smoke wafting from a shafthouse
Smoke rises from Osceola No. 3 during the 1895 fire.

The history of Calumet is a history of fire.

Each blaze in the village and its surroundings has been a tragedy, changing lives and claiming homes, businesses, gathering places, and houses of worship. The latest fire, which displaced dozens when it destroyed three buildings constructed between 1880 and 1900, is another part of a long and sad litany of these events. It would be nearly impossible to name each inferno and describe all of the marks it left on the town; it would be unwise to try to grade fires on the basis of their impact on individuals. Nevertheless, several fire incidents of a century ago stand out for their scale and evidence of Calumet’s perennial resilience.

From the earliest days of Calumet, when men carried candles into the mines and wood-burning stoves fueled every home, structures fell prey to flame. An 1870 fire, said to have come “from the bushes” around Red Jacket–as the infant town was known then–destroyed some two-thirds of its buildings. The people rebuilt rapidly, encouraged by Calumet & Hecla’s potential. C&H itself, along with its competitors, faced the threat of inferno on a dismally regular basis. Timber placed underground to shore up mine workings burned easily unless kept damp, endangering employees and halting mining operations until firemen could wrestle the blaze under control. Oxygen providing fuel for the flames flowed extensively through a mine’s honeycomb of stopes, shafts, and levels, as well as the branches that connected it with other mines. Smoke also moved easily throughout these passages, preventing firemen from approaching the blaze in the days before breathing apparatuses. Companies like C&H resorted to closing fire doors, sealing off entrances, and pumping steam and carbonic acid gas to starve the blaze.

Smoke surrounding mine buildings
One of the 1880s fires at Calumet & Hecla.

Fighting the fire in this way took weeks, if not months, and the process was capricious. A fire that began in the Hecla No. 2 shaft in early August 1887 kept the entire main branch of C&H’s operations closed into the autumn, according to Larry Lankton’s Cradle to Grave. In November of that same year, another fire broke out, once again shutting down most C&H’s operations, outside those at South Hecla, for a solid six months. The following November, flames were spotted in the workings of Calumet No. 3. C&H employees quickly shut fire doors to limit its spread, but this effort trapped eight men underground. Each time the company tried to unseal the shafts, a fresh flow of air reignited the blaze. Only in the spring of 1889 did C&H get back to work. Sometime later, recovery efforts brought the eight deceased men’s bodies up to the surface. They had asphyxiated.

Smoke, more than the fire itself, was the biggest danger to Calumet’s underground workers. An 1895 fire in Osceola, outside the proper boundaries of Red Jacket, illustrated the risks only too painfully. Late in the morning of September 7, men on the 27th level of the Osceola No. 3 shaft discovered a small blaze that they tried to put out with nearby buckets of water. A mining captain rode up to the surface to fetch a hose that he would connect to a pump and fight the fire; when he attempted to return underground through the adjacent No. 4 shaft, he found it was already impassable due to smoke. Although No. 4 generally carried fresh air into the Osceola workings, the fire in No. 3 had gained ground so rapidly that the flow of air reversed. While men rode skips out of the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 5 shafts to safety, the headway the smoke had gained and a delay by some of the No. 4 men in evacuating proved deadly.

Group of people gathered around a wooden shafthouse
Relatives and friends of men at work in Osceola No. 4 gathered around the shafthouse during the fire, fearing the worst.

Family members and neighbors worried by the growing plume of smoke rising over Osceola gathered around the two shafts, praying that their worst fears wouldn’t be realized. When it seemed sadly evident that no more workers would ride rescue skips out of the mine, Osceola’s superintendent ordered first the No. 3 shaft sealed, then the remaining ones a day later, trying to snuff out the flames. When, at last, the fire was extinguished and recovery efforts began underground, they revealed the bodies of thirty men and boys. All died along levels of the No. 4 shaft from smoke inhalation, like their peers at C&H in 1888. The Osceola fire was the greatest mining tragedy to occur in the Copper Country and second only to the Italian Hall disaster in terms of local lives lost.

Even as the people of Calumet faced the threat of fire at work, they confronted it in their lives away from the mines. In 1902, the village’s growing Slovenian population lost its church to a late night blaze. All Catholics in Red Jacket and Laurium had once worshipped at the same parish, Sacred Heart (which would itself burn in 1983); as the community diversified and grew, however, ethnic parishes emerged, allowing parishioners to hear homilies in their native tongues and gather with those of shared background. Slovenians of the area constructed their church at Oak and Eighth, entrusting it to the patronage of St. Joseph, and it was dedicated by Bishop Vertin of Marquette in 1890. The congregation flourished, supporting a full schedule of Masses and a substantial population of fraternal and service organizations.

Wood-frame church surrounded by people on a dirt road
The old St. Joseph Catholic Church before the fire.

On December 8, 1902, the people of St. Joseph’s gathered for Mass in celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a high feast on the Catholic liturgical calendar. A short time after Mass had ended and the congregants had dispersed, someone looked up to see tendrils of smoke curling from the church’s belfry. Despite a prompt response by the fire department, within two hours the cross from the roof lay, undamaged, in a vacant lot where it had fallen, and the people of the congregation clustered sorrowfully around the remains of their church. “Sorrowfully the Slovenians viewed the ruins but they did not lose faith,” wrote a parishioner in a booklet celebrating the golden anniversary of St. Joseph’s. Permitted by St. Mary’s, the Italian church a few blocks away, to use their basement for Masses in the interim, the people quickly determined to rebuild their beautiful St. Joseph’s better than before. By the first months of 1903, a fundraising process had been organized and pledges collected. The parish laid its Jacobsville sandstone cornerstone in the summer and valiantly worked away for the next five years until a double-spired church proudly stood where fire once raged. St. Joseph’s, now known as St. Paul the Apostle, remains one of the largest, most beautiful, and most active structures in Calumet.

The rebuilt St. Joseph Catholic Church, a beautiful sandstone structure bespeaking Calumet’s determination to recover.

Despite loss of life, economic strain on families when mines closed for firefighting, and the ruin of places full of memories, Calumet endured. People looked out for the neighbors and gave generously to those in need. They banded together to rebuild, pledging money, time, and unending effort to rebuild the village in 1870, St. Joseph’s in the early 1900s. They walked down to Osceola No. 4 to support those whose loved ones were underground and comforted them when their desperate hope turned to mourning. 

For decades before anyone ever coined the term, our neighbors have been Copper Country strong. Calumet has always refused to be reduced by fire. We can be sure that this time is no different.

Many thanks to Madison Degnitz, a student assistant in the archives, for contributing research on the history of Calumet fires to this blog post.

Flashback Friday: All in the Family

Image of storefront with awning and signs
Thurner’s Bakery at its Calumet location, 1977.

Thurner Bakery was a family affair from the very beginning.

At the start of its life in 1920, family businesses were hardly curiosities. Small storefronts neighbored Thurner’s all along Fifth Street in Calumet, many of them run with the assistance of a proprietor’s spouse, siblings, children, or grandchildren. By the time the bakery shut its doors in 2003, however, its family operation and emphasis on handmade work set it apart and tilted the odds against its survival.

Twenty-six-year-old Joseph Thurner arrived at Ellis Island on March 14, 1913, as a third-class passenger aboard the S.S. Barbarossa. A native of Germany, he gave his occupation as baker, unsurprising in light of his subsequent business. Thurner did not originally plan to make his home in the Copper Country: he joined his uncle, Wenzel Thurner, at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Three months later, twenty-year-old cook Franciska Dümke stepped off the Kronprinz Wilhelm in New York City. She, too, was bound for Wenzel Thurner in Oshkosh–and for young Joseph Thurner, who the manifest indicated was her “int[ended] husband.” According to family lore, the two had met and fallen in love in Berlin before opportunity overseas beckoned Joseph away. They were married on July 5, 1913, the day after Franciska, soon to be known as Frances, arrived in Oshkosh.

The Thurners remained in Wisconsin for a few years and there welcomed three children: Helen, Frank (named after Joseph’s father), and Elizabeth. As World War I raged in their native Europe, the Thurners heard of the boom that war demand for copper had created in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Bakeries there needed workers, and Joseph decided to answer the call. He worked first at Hancock’s Star Bakery, then at Moffitt & Clark in Laurium, the town that the Thurners called home. Henry, their next son, was born there in December 1919. As Joseph continued to bounce from bakery to bakery in the months that followed, someone suggested that he might like to establish his own concern. He and Frances decided to give it a try, and Quality Bakery had its first day of business out of their home on August 1, 1920.

Snow-covered street in town with old car
Joseph Thurner regularly biked through the snow to make his deliveries. The bakery’s sign is visible in the distance on the left side of Fifth Street in this image.

Feeding the hungry people of Calumet and Laurium was no small task. Both Thurners put their blood, sweat, and tears into making a success of Quality Bakery. Joseph brought the best techniques he had cultivated in his European apprenticeships and his Midwestern adulthood to the business, baking in the small hours for maximum morning freshness. He introduced a new innovation, as well: a delivery bicycle. Local residents became accustomed to the sight of Joseph pedaling his bicycle, laden with loaves of bread and other bakery items, from customer to customer. In heavy snowfall, he biked along the streetcar tracks, knowing that snow would be blown clear from them. Frances’s assistance in the bakery and with general upkeep ensured that the business was true to its Quality name.

The bakery faced challenges in its first decade of operation that might have crushed a couple with less fortitude than Joseph and Frances Thurner. In 1927, their home and basis of operations burned to the ground. Quoted posthumously in a Peninsula News article about the bakery, Joseph described a total loss: “The lovely furniture we bought when we first came to Hancock was gone. All the dishes, bedroom furniture, dining room set: we lost it all in the fire in Laurium.” No one was injured, thankfully, and the Thurners were undaunted. With the help of an insurance policy and a generous landlady, the bakery reopened just a few months later at 319 Fifth Street in Calumet. It occupied that address for the rest of its life.

A 1928 Sanborn fire insurance map of Calumet showing the new Thurner Bakery location.

The arrival of the Great Depression two years later might have ended that life prematurely, but the Thurners pulled together. From those who could not pay cash for their bread, Joseph accepted trades of groceries and farm products, which made their way to the full apartment upstairs. Seven children had been born to the Thurner family by this point, and all who could chipped in to do their part in the business below. Frank, the oldest son, became his father’s most enthusiastic apprentice.

Quality Bakery survived and grew through the Depression and into World War II. The Thurners added one more child to their family, and people of Calumet spoke of Quality Bakery as Thurner’s Quality Bakery or Thurner Bakery. In the 1940s, Frank, joined by his wife Rhoda, assumed increasing responsibility for running the family business. Maintaining the standards of handiwork and quality product he had learned at his father’s side, Frank also harnessed the spirit of innovation that had led Joseph to deliver bread by bike. He bought new delivery trucks and improved the ovens, keeping up with the best of modern technology. Meanwhile, Rhoda frosted cakes, rolled out buns, and balanced books with zest. The bakery, its reputation, and its circulation of product grew.

Frank and Rhoda Thurner with their daughter, Nancy Thurner Pintar, and her husband, James (Jim), in a Daily Mining Gazette photograph.

The second generation officially handed Thurner Bakery over to the third in 1977, but Frank stuck around for six years out of love of the business. Nancy Thurner Pintar and her husband, Jim, were the new owners, and they expanded their sales throughout neighboring counties. The bakery retained a family feel, with employees remaining loyal for decades at a time. These years, however, presented difficulties tantamount to the Depression and the fire of 1927.

Ever since the 1950s, Thurner Bakery had resisted the national trend toward automation and changing recipes to include preservatives and create cheaper product. Although the company held out for decades by focusing on local sales and eventually opening a storefront that gathered regular customers for daily doughnuts, economic forces eventually overwhelmed it. Costs rose for everything–for fuel, for labor, for supplies–in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and profit margins grew slimmer than ever. Despite making deep investments from his own funds and valiantly fighting to keep the bakery open, Mike Pintar, the fourth-generation owner, finally conceded defeat in late 2003.

When the lights went off at Thurner’s on Fifth Street on the final day, however, they could not erase the eighty-year legacy of an immigrant couple making a better life for their descendants, one loaf of bread at a time.

Many articles from the Daily Mining Gazette, Copper Island Sentinel, and Peninsula News, especially Dennis Walikainen’s 1995 profile of the business, provided valuable information for this blog post.

Flashback Friday: Be True to Your School

A postcard view of Hancock Central High School.

Comfortably nestled in the shadow of the Quincy Mine–Old Reliable–Hancock became one of the Upper Peninsula’s preeminent towns and the Copper Country’s first city. Along its hillside and its two main thoroughfares, the commercial and artistic amenities of a large settlement sprang up: shops, taverns, performance halls. Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopal churches, as well as a synagogue, arrived in the decades that followed Hancock’s creation to tend to its residents’ souls. And, as children came to Hancock, schools emerged to nurture their minds.

Records of the earliest educational facilities in Hancock went up in smoke during the great fire of 1869. According to a history prepared by Hancock Public Schools a century later, “some kind of school must have existed similar to typical ones of the period–one room structure furnished with hard-wood benches and heated with the usual round shaped wood stove.” As the town expanded, it constructed a larger, two-story facility to house all its young pupils near the corner of today’s East Franklin and Tezcuco streets.

Wood-framed school building
The Franklin Street school after it ceased to serve students, undated. Image from John Haeussler’s “Hancock” in the “Images of America” series.

Only six years after the fire, which the school incredibly survived, the student body had outgrown the wooden structure, and a new brick building rose on Quincy Street to take its place. Quincy continued booming; Hancock continued expanding. By 1893, it was clear that even the larger structure could no longer provide enough space for all the city’s schoolchildren. A facility called the Central Primary, for the younger learners, was built adjacent to the Quincy Street school, which transitioned to serving high school and junior high students. It was expanded in 1900 to feature a handsome sandstone facade, popular among Copper Country architecture of the time. The elegant cupola that had crowned the building since its inception remained.

View of high school building in snow
The 1875 Quincy Street high school before its renovation.

Hancock Central High School thrived, and it attracted top teaching talent from around the Midwest. The 1912 Han-Cen-Hi, the school yearbook, enumerated graduates of the University of Michigan, Michigan State Normal, the University of Chicago, and Olivet College among the faculty. Together, they presented a curriculum designed to prepare students for office occupations, hands-on vocations, or post-secondary degrees. Beginning in the seventh grade, according to the 1928-1929 school handbook, pupils could select a literary or engineering course of study, both of which were designated as college prep; the commercial and English programs offered an education geared toward entering the workforce immediately. The course catalog was remarkably expansive. Students in all courses studied the “three Rs”–reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic–along with history, civics, domestic science or manual training, general science, chemistry, physical education, and geography during their years at the high school. Electives like botany, solid geometry, and physiology were open across the curricula. Other classes helped students to customize and specialize in their courses of study: bookkeeping, commercial law, typewriting, or stenography for vocationally-oriented students, Latin, French, trigonometry, and mechanical drawing for those seeking college.

In the 1920s, classes began at quarter to nine in the morning and continued until four in the afternoon, with a lunch break of a little over an hour. The handbook strictly charged students to “avoid unnecessary noise in the halls” and “never march more than two abreast” when moving between class periods. “There should be no running, shouting, snatching of things from others, or banging of lockers… boys, hats off on entering the building!” High school students have not changed much over a hundred years.

High school life then, as now, involved developing a strong sense of class community. Students elected officers for their peer group, selected class colors and a flower, and named a motto. “Out of School Life, into Life’s School” was the choice of 1946; the 1912 graduates favored, “He Who Conquers Endures.” They kept busy, as well, with an ample program of arts, sports, social groups, and other activities. In 1928, clubs included the Iagoo Literary Society, “a girls’ club formed for the purpose of promoting literary and social interest among the girls of the Hancock High School,” the Senatus Club (which had “as its purpose the promotion of an interest in ancient Mythology”), the Hi-Y Club emphasizing “the practice of… Clean Athletics, Clean Living, Clean Scholarship, and Clean Speech” for boys, a booster club, male and female glee clubs, and an orchestra. By 1912, the tradition of the senior class presenting a play had been established; the junior class had assumed the same responsibility by 1945. Girls in the ‘40s presented style shows for Mother’s Day, and a Christmas program featured the talents of Hancock’s public speakers. Track, basketball, football, hockey, tumbling, and baseball called to the athletes over the years. Naturally, Houghton’s high school became Hancock’s fiercest rival. The boosters wrote school yells and songs for eager fans, shamelessly borrowing the tunes used by Michigan and Wisconsin for their university athletics. Later, Hancock’s teams became known as the Bulldogs.

View of high school building with broad lawn
The replacement Hancock Central High School, circa 1923, with the Central Primary School at left.

Hancock Central High had its triumphs and its tragedies. On July 25, 1922, the remodeled sandstone school caught fire. So intense was the blaze that the Methodist church next door also suffered minor damage. The valiant efforts of three bystanders who rushed into the building preserved some of the school’s records, but the building itself was a total loss. For the next school year, students attended classes in a cramped space they dubbed “the tub-factory.” They had each other, however, and they determined to keep up with their vibrant school activities and social life; this more than made up for the inelegant surroundings. Their replacement high school, constructed at a cost of $375,000 in 1923, arose behind the ruins. Featuring “a large auditorium with a stage, a large gymnasium, offices, classrooms, and an excellent library,” the building served Hancock’s students faithfully for over seven decades. Students delighted in the high school’s broad front lawn as a place to relax or take in a beautiful view of Hancock and Houghton, especially after the Central Primary School was razed in the early 1960s.

In 1999, high school students moved out of downtown Hancock for the first time. A new building opened atop Quincy Hill, tucked back from the highway and the mine that gave the hill its name. The 1923 building housed students in grades 6-8 for another decade before a middle school wing adjoining the new high school was completed. Finlandia University subsequently acquired the Quincy Street property.

By 1968, Hancock Central High School had graduated almost 5,000 students, sending them out to enrich communities, homes, and workplaces; the ranks of Bulldogs have only grown since then. They worked for the mines, as physicians and nurses, in business and in keeping house, in engineering, in countless fields new and old. Their lives testified in part to the thoughtfulness and success of their alma mater in preparing its young people to be good citizens and faithful neighbors. They are indeed, as one school chant said, “the mighty, mighty Bulldogs.”

Flashback Friday: The End of the Line

Engine No. 29 leading the Keweenaw Central Railway sightseeing train, circa 1967.

A few weeks ago, Flashback Friday took a look at the first incarnation of the Keweenaw Central Railroad. This rail line filled the many needs of the Copper Country in its industrial heyday: it carried copper, albeit in smaller-than-anticipated volumes, and other local products south to be brought to market, and it ferried pleasure seekers and travelers north into beauty. 

The second Keweenaw Central shared the name of its predecessor but only part of its mission. By 1967, when the inaugural train rolled out, the commercial landscape of the Copper Country had changed dramatically. The mines that the original Keweenaw Central served had long since closed. The Quincy Mine, once admiringly hailed as “Old Reliable,” lay dormant. Even its peers, the mighty Copper Range and Calumet & Hecla, found themselves in the last minutes of a long twilight. Both would cease their native copper production within the year, with work continuing only at the more distant chalcocite deposit at White Pine. Mining no longer drove the Copper Country’s economy. 

Industrial buildings and smokestacks
White Pine, the last Michigan copper mine standing, circa 1955.

Although even early advertisements for the first Keweenaw Central attempted to entice residents of distant cities to visit the peninsula, the establishment of the second Keweenaw Central reflected the region’s efforts to reinvigorate itself. No commercial freight or commuters rode these rails. This line was intended for tourists and sightseers, with a location and equipment thoughtfully chosen to make their experience memorable. 

Four railroad enthusiasts with a creative eye for business were behind the new-old railway. Clint Jones, a native of Milwaukee and graduate of Michigan Tech, served as a president of the company and managed its daily operations. Fred Tonne, his vice president and right-hand man, actively promoted and advertised the vision he shared with Jones. The two were no desk jockeys. Both put in their fair share of time under the cars and engines, maintaining the equipment; Tonne strolled through the passenger cars, greeting guests and performing the duties of conductor, while Jones was known to settle in as engineer for excursions, including the very first one. Louis Keller and Frank Glaisner also contributed their “talents, equipment… and plenty of muscle, too,” in the words of one news piece profiling the railroad, to make the Keweenaw Central a reality. They “felt… the strong desire to preserve it for its historical interest and significance to the Copper Country where it served as a pioneer line.”

Jones, Tonne, Keller, and Glaisner chose to revive their line as a steam railroad, the only one of its kind in the Upper Peninsula. Out of storage came Copper Range Engine No. 29, a locomotive built in 1907. Copper Range had purchased No. 29 and seven engines like it to support its freight services, gradually transitioning it to passenger duty as industrial demand decreased. By 1953, No. 29 alone survived; all of its sisters had come to sad ends in the scrapyard. With its elegant, classic appearance and a fresh coat of paint, this engine was the perfect choice for Keweenaw Central’s purpose. From its smokestack rose a picturesque plume that seemed to belong to the trains of legend. A wooden passenger coach with open vestibules, Copper Range’s No. 60, completed the charming train. 

Train with locomotive, passenger car, and caboose passing over tall bridge
A Keweenaw Central Railway postcard showing Bridge No. 30, a signature element of the route.

The Keweenaw Central’s route complemented its scenic equipment. From its ticket office, a converted coach, and home base on Sixth Street north of M-203 in Calumet, No. 29 chugged through Hecla and Albion locations, passing industrial buildings and residences for the workers who had once staffed them. The train wound north to Centennial, then back through Calumet Junction and toward St. Louis, a mine with more hope than copper. It followed the eastern edge of Laurium, skirting the old airport, before entering the most breathtaking part of the journey. The Keweenaw Central line descended down the hill toward Lake Linden, Trap Rock Valley unfolding to the north, Lake Superior glittering where the land dropped away, the Huron Mountains rising on the distant horizon. Bridge No. 30, a wooden trestle situated 120 feet above Douglass Houghton Creek, provided just one memorable example of the dozens of Kodak opportunities along the 13-mile round trip.

Summer and fall emerged as the logical seasons to operate the Keweenaw Central Railway–summer with its verdant vibrancy, autumn with its varicolored splendor, and no need to plow snow from the rails at either time. In 1968, the first train of the year steamed out of Calumet on June 22. Daily runs continued through Labor Day, when more occasional excursions to view the fall colors took over. The various departures throughout the day bore creative names, which often switched when the train reversed directions in Lake Linden: Detroit Express, Northern Michigan Special, Copper Country Limited, North Country Mail. Jones and the other railway operators hoped to capture the feel of the region by reviving these route names, which had once been trains by which local residents could set their watches. Company advertisements emphasized the railway’s ability to capture the “fabulous–historic–mysterious Copper Country.” Aboard the train, passengers of all ages could “find new thrills” or “relive grand memories” unique to riding on a historic steam train, passing over familiar territory or discovering a newborn love. Prefiguring the network of Heritage Sites that would arise decades later with the creation of Keweenaw National Historical Park, Keweenaw Central promotional materials also positioned the railway as part of a larger effort to tell the Copper Country story. They turned a visitor’s attention to other local attractions that would shape his understanding of the region: Fort Wilkins, the Quincy Mine, and the profound beauty of Lake Superior chief among them. The effort hearkened back to the original Keweenaw Central, which had also promoted the organic allure of the peninsula alongside its industrial character.

Diesel locomotive on tracks with man looking underneath the hood
A diesel locomotive used by the Keweenaw Central Railway while No. 29 awaited repair.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Jones and company, the second life of the railroad was shorter than its first. As a sightseeing tour, the Keweenaw Central Railway enjoyed its share of popularity, and its fans came from throughout the Great Lakes region for the experience. By 1971, however, it faced pressing difficulties, most notably the imminent abandonment of the Copper Range line with which it connected. The directors made the painful decision to discontinue operations, announcing that the last train would run on Sunday, October 10. Engine No. 29 had been sidelined for boiler repairs a year earlier, so a diesel-electric locomotive claimed the honor of pulling the final consist. Riders descended from Madison, Duluth, Detroit, Minneapolis, and other Midwestern towns to be part of the terminal run, and Jones assumed the role of engineer once again. Charles Sincock, a former vice president of the Copper Range Railroad, also joined the riders. 

On October 10, the train slowed and halted in the woods. Passengers ranging from young children to retirees clambered down from the rail cars to pose for a commemorative photograph. “LAST RUN!” read the handwritten poster that Keweenaw Central Railway executives bore. “KEWEENAW CENTRAL RAILWAY, 1906-1918, 1967-1971. THE COPPER COUNTRY ROUTE. UPPER MICHIGAN’S ONLY PASSENGER TRAIN. GOODBYE FOREVER TO OUR FRIENDS. R.I.P. OCT. 10, 1971. FINIS.” 

The last run of the Keweenaw Central Railway, October 10. 1971.

Within two years, the tracks that the Keweenaw Central traveled would be torn up, leaving the line to return to nature. Engine No. 29 was parked at the Quincy smelter, awaiting the day when it could be brought to a museum. The days of rail in the Copper Country had come to a quiet end.

Flashback Friday: All Aboard

Green railroad map with red routes on it
Route map of the Keweenaw Central Railroad, 1911. The dotted lines were never built.

At the height of the Copper Country’s success, railroads were omnipresent. Children in Hancock crossed the tracks to get to classes in the morning, while their counterparts at Painesdale High had a school train rather than a bus. Locomotives chugged through downtown Houghton, passing houses, warehouses, and roundhouses. Trains collected industrial products to carry from mine to mill to smelter; they deposited passengers at depots built next to churches and breweries. They pulled through forests, along lakes, and over hills, whistles shrieking over the sounds of mines working at full power and steam rolling high over the branches of pine trees. Onlookers saw a variety of names as the cars and engines passed by: Copper Range Railroad, Mineral Range Railroad, Quincy and Torch Lake Railroad, and many others.

One of these rail lines enjoyed a fascinating two-part existence, if only in name. The Keweenaw Central in its first incarnation was both an industrial enterprise and a leisure line; the second railroad by that name, established half a century later and positioned further south, was intended purely for tourists and pleasure-seekers. Both desired to play up the scenic beauty of the Copper Country and contribute economically, and both experienced only momentary success before fading away.

The first Keweenaw Central began its life in 1906 under the guidance of the Keweenaw Copper Company. Leaders of the parent corporation sought to revitalize abandoned or flagging mines in the northernmost reaches of the peninsula, an area that had been overshadowed by the prosperity of Calumet & Hecla, Quincy, and Copper Range to the south. To that end, the company acquired a number of properties, among them Aetna, Mandan, Medora, Phoenix, and Washington. The Delaware Mine had constructed a stamp mill at Lac La Belle and, in the 1880s, built a narrow-gauge railroad to carry copper-bearing rock from the mines down to be milled. The Keweenaw Copper Company acquired the idled line and quickly worked to expand it to standard gauge. The width of the track was the most modest growth of the railroad, however.

People standing in front of wooden building
Passengers waiting at the Mandan depot, undated.

Naturally, the primary purpose of a mining company railway was to ferry products, and the Keweenaw Copper Company’s line would bring its copper to the mill and to the market. Like its neighbors elsewhere in the Copper Country, however, the executives of the corporation saw another opportunity. Keweenaw County had no passenger railroad, and overland travel for people in the county remained challenging. The industrial Copper Range Railroad in Houghton County, by offering passenger service to the range towns and outlying settlements, had infused life into many of them. Why could not the Keweenaw Copper Company do the same with its own line? The Keweenaw Central Railroad was born from that vision.

Employees of J.J. Byers, contractor, worked frenetically through the summer of 1906, first to complete the original track widening and then to prepare new railbeds. From Delaware, the laborers hewed north to Mandan and south toward Mohawk. They carved out a path on the outskirts of the once-vibrant Central Mine (making possible the town’s annual reunion), through Phoenix at the base of the spectacular cliffs, and past swamps and forests toward Mohawk. A subsequent elongation would carry the Keweenaw Central all the way to Calumet.

Strange train plowing through snow
The Copper Country’s unparalleled beauty also presented unique needs, like a locomotive specially designed to plow the snow.

The line enjoyed breathtaking scenery, a fact that advertisements used to the railroad’s full advantage, attempting to attract pleasure seekers and tourists. “Beautiful Keweenaw!” exclaimed an early brochure. “For many miles its unbroken forests with narrow trails, lakes and streams mark this spot as one of the ideal places where old dame Nature has been allowed to revel in all her primeval glories… the cool and exhilarating climate, and its remoteness from the cares and distractions of the busy and bustling outside world, [make] it a paradise for the weary and the lover of out of door life.” From the hamlet of Ojibway to Phoenix, having left the noise and success of Calumet behind, “the track is bordered on one side by the ‘Cliffs,’ one of the greatest natural wonders of the Northwest. Towering almost beyond the line of vision, the vari-colored rock peers forth here and there from its covering of verdant green… the scenery along the Keweenaw Central Railroad, unlike the usual rail trips, continually changes, and has a most pleasing effect upon the eye.”

Like the Houghton County Traction Company and its Electric Park, the Keweenaw Central capitalized on these scenic surroundings and built a recreation resort. Crestview, situated along a branch from the main line, was “provided with the necessary attractions for an ideal outing. The casino is the handsomest, the most complete and convenient structure of its kind in the copper country.” A dance hall, complete with all the modern conveniences, a magnificent view of Lake Superior, extensive walking paths, swings, a bathing beach, and a house orchestra “to assist the worshipers at the shrine of Terpsichore” called to prospective Crestview guests from its opening in 1909.

People disembarking from train
Crestview guests disembarking from a Keweenaw Central train, undated.

Forces greater than the appeal of Crestview, however, and the allure of nature prevailed in the story of the Keweenaw Central. Despite all the optimism invested in its purchases, the Keweenaw Copper Company’s mines underwhelmed again; production was lackluster. There would be no lasting revitalization of the abandoned properties. By 1919, with copper prices plummeting from heights they had attained during World War I, company officials realized the hopelessness of their situation. Consistent service from Calumet up to Crestview, north to Mandan, and downhill toward Lac La Belle ceased soon after. Although the company held tenaciously on to some of its equipment for another decade, the Keweenaw Central’s life was over.

Its first life was over, that is. The Keweenaw Central name made a reappearance in the Copper Country in a different place and time, providing a scenic thrill and a brush with history. This second incarnation will be covered in a future Flashback Friday, bringing the story of the Keweenaw Central full circle.

Flashback Friday: Bright Lights and Big Names

We’ve all needed a little fun lately, and several prior blog posts have discussed what people of the Copper Country did to entertain themselves back in the mining days. We’ve struck up the company band for a relaxing Sunday afternoon concert, and we’ve headed out on the streetcar for picnics at Electric Park. Now let’s all head to the lobby and venture into Hancock’s venerable Kerredge Theatre, a longstanding home for movies, music, and dramatic performances.

When workers began construction of the Kerredge in 1902, it dominated its block of East Quincy Street. Small houses dotted the hillside behind it, and an abandoned tramway path for the Quincy Mining Company separated it from a modest Finnish Lutheran church. A little closer to Ripley, the first luxe mansions had begun to rise in the affluent East Hancock neighborhood. But the Kerredge–three stories tall at its streetfront, five at the back of the lot–rose above all of them. With its heavily-ornamented facade and expansive brick walls, it radiated prosperity and spoke to a Copper Country with grand ambitions.

The men behind the theatre had aspirations to match. Echoes of the great American success story resonated in William Kerredge’s life. His father Joseph, a gamekeeper turned general laborer, and mother Phoebe brought young William over to southern Ontario when he was no more than three years old. From there, evidently concluding that the infant Copper Country held greater promise than Canada, the Kerredges moved to Michigan. By 1870, teenage William resided in Hancock with his parents and two younger sisters. Like his father, who found a post in a local sawmill, William worked as a laborer. By the time he married eighteen-year-old Mary O’Neill in 1879, however, he reported his occupation as merchant. Young William was moving up in the world: he had trained as a tinsmith and embarked in the hardware business. His trade prospered in a growing copper town, one that needed the construction supplies and tradesmen’s tools that Kerredge provided. By the mid-1890s, William and Mary Kerredge had moved into a comfortable, newly-built home in West Hancock; the new residence provided ample space for their son, Ray, daughters Phoebe, Pearl, and Emma, and Joseph Kerredge in his last years.

The 1894 Independence Day parade in Hancock. William Kerredge’s hardware store is seen at center.

It isn’t clear what drew Kerredge to the performing arts or when his interest began. As his hardware business took off, however, he began to look beyond the world of saws and nails to curtains and footlights. In 1901, the Polk city directory for Hancock listed him not only as proprietor of the hardware but also of St. Patrick’s Hall, a gathering place for various social groups in town and, in the words of Hancock historian John Haeussler, “arguably Hancock’s premier playhouse” at the century mark. Despite St. Patrick’s success in the arts world, its operator had bigger dreams. He envisioned something grander, something that would attract top-tier acts to the top of the state and provide a beautiful home for community productions. Perhaps the Calumet Theatre, which opened its doors in March 1900, inspired him. At any rate, the Kerredge Theatre progressed quickly from idea to reality. The brick playhouse began hosting productions in 1902 and established itself as a fixture in the community soon thereafter.

In its heyday, the Kerredge could host up to 1,500 theatregoers for a performance, about one-third of Hancock’s population in 1900, and William Kerredge did his best to fill each seat. An article in the Daily Mining Gazette recounted his particular skill in scoring desirable bookings, describing them as “of sterling order,” the type that “put the theater in the field of the most important playhouses in the Midwest.” Variety also characterized the typical Kerredge season, which opened in the last days of summer. Shakespearean dramas arrived in Hancock, as did French operas and stories inspired by the life of Alexander the Great. Comedies, especially musical comedies, proved particularly popular, although most of their titles–”Peggy from Paris,” “Southern Skies,” “David Harum”–are unknown to connoisseurs today. Other oeuvres, like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” resonate through the decades.

The Kerredge in its early days, 1904.

These productions, both the ephemeral and the enduring, brought with them actors and musicians from around the globe. Like the economic opportunities of the Copper Country, the allure of the Kerredge was international. Chauncey Olcott, known for making the rounds of Midwestern theatres, performed in Hancock, as well. Enrico Caruso, the celebrated Italian tenor, appeared bathed in the footlights on one occasion. John Philip Sousa brought his ensemble to play his compositions in Hancock. Sarah Bernhardt trod the boards of the Kerredge, and, according to one rumor, even toured the Quincy Mine to experience life underground. Lillian Russell, whose style was as extravagant as her talent, apparently earned twelve overtures in a single performance at the Kerredge. Capitalizing on the quality of entertainers that the Kerredge was attracting, an enterprising mayor of Hancock, A.J. Scott, built the massive Scott Hotel next door, at the corner of Quincy and Reservation in 1906. The luminaries appearing at the Kerredge did not have far to go when they were ready to turn in for the night, and one wonders how many unsuspecting hotel guests ran into a Bernhardt or a Caruso on the way down the stairs in the morning.

Yet the Kerredge was not merely for big names and bright lights; it remained a community theatre in spite of its glamor. Students from Painesdale High School presented “The Dawn of a New Era,” an educational play with themes centered on international peace and women’s suffrage written by local educator Flora Jeffers, at the Kerredge in 1912. The production was just one of many amateur and school presentations to debut in Hancock. Long before the Rozsa opened on the Michigan Tech campus, its students found a welcome home for their dramatic expressions. By the 1920s, college productions of shows like “A Lucky Break” and “The Poor Nut,” described as “a comedy of modern youth,” became springtime staples at the Kerredge. The theatre adapted, as well, to the advent of moving pictures, both for entertainment and education. Fielding Yost, a renowned athletics director at the University of Michigan, projected films of the Wolverines’ football triumphs on the Kerredge movie scrim in 1923 as part of a lecture to Yooper high schoolers. As enticing top acts to the Copper Country became more difficult, the famous faces of America increasingly appeared on screen in Hancock rather than in flesh and blood; live productions at the Kerredge took on an increasingly local character alongside a growing slate of films.

The Michigan Tech band on stage at the Kerredge, 1940.

William Kerredge, who had guided his namesake theatre to realization and whose skill had helped it become a dominant force in upper Michigan’s entertainment, served as proprietor for some decades after its creation. He entrusted daily management tasks to his son, Ray, whose responsibility increased after William’s death from a stroke in 1927. Sadly, Ray’s own poor health forced him into retirement in middle age, and he died from heart troubles in 1938. The Kerredge outlived both men. Rallies, movies, and concerts attracted the people of the Copper Country down to their theatre for decades to come, creating memories that senior residents of Hancock cherish to this day.

The Kerredge Theatre after its final drama, 1959.

But all good things come to an end, even those we most enjoy. In the small hours of May 29, 1959, a fire of unknown origin sparked at the Kerredge Theatre. Rapidly, the flames gained speed, consuming everything in their path. Heartbroken former patrons of the Kerredge gathered on the sidewalk by the hundreds, watching the theatre’s walls and roof collapse into a smoldering ruin.

It was the last and most tragic show the Kerredge ever offered.

Michigan Tech Archives Reopening for Reference Appointments

Three men riding horses on a city street
We’re back in the saddle!

Following Michigan Tech’s resumption of on-site classes, the Michigan Tech Archives will be reopening for in-person research on a modified appointment-only basis. Appointments may be scheduled from 1pm to 5pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, subject to availability. As in the fall semester, appointment requests must be confirmed by an archives staff member a minimum of 24 hours in advance. Per university policy, patrons must wear a face covering for the entire duration of their appointments and complete a symptom tracking form (available at the Michigan Tech Flex Portal) before arriving on campus.

Appointments may be requested via email at, by phone at (906) 487-2505, or through our appointment form.

We look forward to assisting you!

Flashback Friday: It’s Electric

Image of large wooden pavilion with sign reading "Electric Park"
The hub of entertainment at Electric Park.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Much about life–the way Americans dress, the types of jobs available to them, their methods of travel, the ways they communicate–has changed since 1900, and yet so much remains the same. People have a fundamental desire to visit with old friends, meet new ones, let down their hair, and enjoy themselves. The Copper Country is no different, and, in its heyday, the opportunities for entertainment grew as numerous as the mines. In a prior Flashback Friday, this blog profiled the bands formed by mining companies and communities. Now the focus turns to a venue where these bands often played for eager listeners and excited dancers at the turn of the last century.

Nestled in the woods between the bustling copper metropolises of Hancock and Calumet sat Electric Park, a project of the Houghton County Street Railway Company (later the Houghton County Traction Company). In the early 20th century, rail lines crisscrossed the western Upper Peninsula, carrying new arrivals into the region and bearing products like copper ingots and timber to points beyond. The street railway’s electric cars filled a niche for local passenger traffic and established what railroad historians Wally Weart and Kevin Musser characterized as “the only true interurban line in the Upper Peninsula.” When the streetcar line opened in 1900, travelers could go only between Houghton and Boston Location; within a year, the route expanded to Calumet and subsequently added a branch line to Hubbell. A final expansion, completed in 1908, carried riders as far north as Mohawk, with stops all along the way.

Passengers normally rode interurban lines to journey from community to community, but businesses like the streetcar company saw a profitable opportunity in creating another reason to ride their trains. What if they could be the exclusive transportation to an attractive leisure destination, the sort of place where friends wanted to gather and have fun? As spring arrived in 1902, the company moved quickly to capitalize. It obtained access to a patch of land, a little north of Boston Location, dubbed “the Highlands” and hired a contractor to begin clearing brush from the property. The Copper Country Evening News described the plans for the park:

“The pavilion will be a structure of 100 feet by 50 feet and will seat in the neighborhood of 300. When the floor is cleared dancing will be indulged in by several hundred couple [sic]. Amusement each evening and on Sundays will be furnished and refreshments being served on the grounds, people will be able to stay and enjoy themselves several hours at a time.

The entertainments given will be of the best and will be free of charge, all that the railway company will make off the investment will be the revenue derived from the fares to and from the Highlands. The fares promise to be quite an item and the resort or park will prove to be a very popular place for certain classes in this section.”

Streetcar and people next to wooden station
A Houghton County Traction Company streetcar at Albion Station, one of its regularly-scheduled stops. A sign propped against the building advertises a band concert at Electric Park.

This strategy worked. Enjoying high-quality entertainment with friends and basking in the delight of a Copper Country summer for no more than the cost of a streetcar fare drew scores of residents to the park. In 1910, the Houghton County Traction Company recorded some 50,000 visits to the little grove during the warm weather season. By this time, the park had long since shed the Highlands moniker. After a few years of being called Anwebida–a name purported to mean “here may we rest” in Ojibwe–it became Electric Park, a title that required no explanation to those who didn’t speak the language. And the atmosphere there was as electric as the name.

Electric Park kept bustling throughout the summer seasons. The 50,000 visits in 1910, as in most years, covered a whole host of events, gatherings, and activities. Bands descended on the park from the start, with both the Calumet & Hecla and Quincy corporate ensembles playing afternoon concerts. A typical C&H program covered a vast artistic field, incorporating Verdi, patriotic marches, ragtime, and other genres so as to appeal to all tastes; if hired for a dance, the musicians served up an evening of waltzes and two-steps, the toe-tapping favorites of the time. Dances proved particularly popular at Electric Park and in some years were held three times a week. The original dance pavilion burned to the ground in 1906, but its popularity prompted an almost immediate reconstruction and an expansion by nearly 25 percent.

An advertisement for band concerts and free dancing at Electric Park
Ad for Electric Park that ran in the Calumet & Hecla semi-centennial edition of “The Keweenaw Miner.” The streetcar company’s wholesome entertainment–the kind that didn’t lead to hungover or drunk men skipping work–was appealing to efficiency-driven C&H, too.

This new pavilion was well-suited not only to the fashionable dances held at Electric Park but also to the other entertainments and groups that descended on the grove. A stage and dressing rooms, balconies framing the dance floor, large open-air porches, and game tables provided crowd-pleasing, well-equipped spaces. Fraternal organizations rented the Electric Park pavilion to host their own festivities. The UP Federated Italian Societies, for example, hosted a reunion and picnic there with a “program of speeches and sports,” a band concert, and a boccia ball tournament, promising “a day of fun and entertainment for everybody.” The Laurium chapter of the Knights of Pythias held dances at Electric Park; the Hancock and Calumet councils of the Knights of Columbus did the same. Elementary students celebrated the end of the year with a big to-do at the park. Nearby Lutheran and Methodist Sunday Schools took their students out to the grove for picnics and showcases of what they had learned. The Methodists in particular made a habit of bringing large events out to Electric Park, hosting an annual “chautauqua” (convention) of presentations, missionary visits, and music for members of the denomination there throughout the 1910s.

Whether they came to attend a Sunday School picnic, a company band concert, or a fraternal organization party, Electric Park kept its visitors happy. Children zipped down wooden slides and played merrily on unique “boat swings” that sometimes attracted adults, too; management had to post a sign on each reminding older visitors that “this swing is for children only.” Men and kids alike played baseball on a diamond surrounded by a thick stand of trees. As the sun faded, a massive “ELECTRIC PARK” sign, said to be the largest electric sign in the region, blinked on and cast a romantic aura on the grove. When guests of the park needed something to eat or drink, they could purchase snacks like popcorn and sarsaparilla–or visit the outdoor water pump for free refreshment. In the earliest days of the park, supposedly, those looking for adult beverages could find their poison also close at hand. Quickly, however, Electric Park abandoned any liquor sales and forbade patrons from bringing their own, hoping to preserve a true family atmosphere not available at most Copper Country entertainment venues.

Three children on a rocking wooden swing
Three children enjoying the popular boat swings at Electric Park.

Although Electric Park tallied tens of thousands of annual visits for many years after its inception, as first the Copper Country entered an economic decline and then the Great Depression arrived, its days were numbered. As a cascade of mines entered hibernation and people moved away to seek jobs in Detroit, Milwaukee, or Chicago, fewer and fewer passengers rode the Houghton County Traction Company’s streetcars. The company folded. All operations ceased on May 21, 1932. Orphaned by the collapse of its parent organization, Electric Park struggled on for a time. Concerts and dances became much more sporadic, although organizations still put on the occasional picnic, but the summers when the park dominated local entertainment became mere memories. World War II and the cost of maintenance proved the last straws. Electric Park’s pavilion was soon scrapped, sold, and reassembled as a potato barn. Only traces remain of its once-bustling streetcar station, picnic grounds, and dance hall, buried in the underbrush like so much Copper Country history.