A Calumet & Hecla Rosetta Stone: Reading a C&H Employment Card, Part 1

The following post is part one of a two-part series, which was researched and authored by Emily Riippa, Assistant Archivist. 

Fall semester is always busy for our department, but October was an especially busy month of outreach for the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections. Everyone on our staff had a part to play. It was my honor and privilege to speak at the monthly meeting of the Houghton-Keweenaw County Genealogical Society on some of our most popular documents: the employment records from the Calumet & Hecla Mining Companies Collection (MS-002).

The Michigan Tech Archives holds more than 54,000 of these records for workers–primarily male but, in some instances, female–hired by the company between 1865 and 1957. Astonishing though that number is, it still does not quite capture the vastness of the workforce under the Calumet & Hecla (C&H) umbrella. Records for an unknown number of employees who left the mines before the mid-1890s or stayed on with C&H until its bitter end in 1969 were lost or destroyed before the collection arrived at Michigan Tech. C&H’s habits when it acquired competitors also weighed negatively on documents from those companies: if a worker was employed by Tamarack Mining Company, for example, only before it ceased to be an independent organization in 1917, C&H apparently disposed of his employment information. If he stayed on when Tamarack officially came into the Calumet & Hecla family, the corporation’s clerks transferred his information to a new, C&H-specific document.

Sample Calumet & Hecla employment card.
Sample Calumet & Hecla employment card.


Rich with information about such topics as family backgrounds, occupations, rates of pay, and on-the-job injuries, the many cards that have survived are perennially in demand with genealogists, labor historians, and many other researchers. Yet the very wealth of information available often renders the cards challenging to read and decipher. Even more than its biggest competitors–Copper Range and Quincy–C&H created employment cards with a complex structure and devised a collection of information-storing abbreviations as expansive as the workforce it described. For researchers a hundred years later, understanding the C&H language and card structure can be a challenging proposition. In my presentation last October, I provided what I called a Cliffs Notes guide to what a person needs to know to read a C&H employment card, and I am pleased to be able to share a version of that with you. It would be a disservice to the records to abbreviate that discussion too dramatically, so this Cliffs Notes guide will be divided into two posts. The first entry will focus on the information that the cards provide on an employee’s background and personal traits.

When we speak of C&H employment cards at the Michigan Tech Archives, we are, in fact, referring to two distinct styles of record. A small, dense document that resembles a modern index card came into use for documenting C&H employees in the 1890s. A larger, yellow sheet with a more complex structure replaced it beginning in 1915. While the format might have changed, many of the company’s questions and abbreviations remained constant over the years. Understand the newer C&H employment record, and interpreting its predecessor will be simple. For that reason, both posts will examine the yellow document.

It’s easiest to understand yellow cards by looking at a sample record, so I selected the employment card for a relative of my own, Peter Gasperich. Peter was born in Slovenia and came to the United States in the late 1880s, settling near Calumet. He worked in the copper mines for more than thirty years and concluded his career at C&H, where he was employed at the time of his death.

On the front page of the yellow card, C&H employment clerks recorded the aforementioned information about Peter as an individual. The left side of the page began by asking for a substantial number of details of interest to genealogists; name, date and place of birth, current residence, and status with regard to marriage, citizenship, and parenthood lead the list. A genealogist may find that, if the individual’s name was unusual to American eyes or if the worker was an immigrant looking to blend in with his peers, the name given on the employment card varies from what is given elsewhere. Employees may also have misremembered or been motivated to obscure their years of birth, either to inflate or reduce their ages; this information is worth verifying with other sources whenever possible. It is worth noting, as well, that contemporary names were used for places of birth. Peter was born in Črnomelj, Slovenia, a town then part of the Austrian empire. He provided his hometown using its official German name (Tschernembl), which the C&H clerk attempted to transcribe phonetically–with little success. It took quite a bit of additional research to tie “Chernemble” back to Peter’s actual birthplace.

As they moved down the page, the clerks inquired about the name of Peter’s spouse and where she resided. Employees whose parents were still alive also provided information about them to C&H. Unfortunately, the company was not motivated to collect details about deceased relatives and simply recorded them as no longer living, rendering this section a–no pun intended–genealogical dead end. Names and dates of birth were noted for children, albeit with the same caveats as Peter’s name and age. The questions about Peter’s family also requested details about any relatives of his who were also working in Michigan’s copper mines. If the family member were employed at a different mine, both the person’s name and the name of their employer were listed, along with a succinct abbreviation of their relationship; if the person worked somewhere within the C&H empire, the employer’s name was replaced by the individual’s identification number. This portion of the front page concluded with information about Peter’s most recent employer prior to C&H and his reason for leaving that company.

The left side of the front page of Peter Gasperich’s C&H yellow employment card, which features a range of basic biographical data.
The left side of the front page of Peter Gasperich’s C&H yellow employment card, which features a range of basic biographical data.

Although the structure of the employment cards varied over the years, the right side of this front page here provided a space for C&H to expand on Peter’s work history. In this more detailed inquiry, the company asked about Peter’s employers in the twelve months prior to his hiring at C&H: the name and location of the firm, the dates that Peter worked there, and the position he held were all noted. At times, an employment card might show a smattering of jobs spread across multiple years: when workers returned to C&H after an absence, the company would simply update existing records rather than creating new ones. The genealogist who sees this apparent disarray on an employment card should see it as a clue that their ancestor moved from job to job with some frequency.

Perhaps more interesting to family history researchers, however, is the description of the employee’s appearance also provided. For genealogists who have only black-and-white photographs of their ancestors–or, in the case of Peter, no pictures at all–these details about hair and eye color, height, and weight are a particular treasure. Rest assured that C&H company physicians, who examined all prospective hires, spared no detail. I know more now about the scars and bodily oddities of long-dead family members than I ever desired to know. On the employment records produced in the years immediately following the 1913-1914 Western Federation of Miners copper strike, a paragraph authorizing a rudimentary background check and vowing no affiliation with the union was also included. By the time Peter’s card was created in 1921, this section had fallen by the wayside; its commitment was now implicit.

The new hire signed the card–or made his X mark–on this page, and a representative of the company added his own signature and the date. Updates here were made in much the same way as the employment history section. At the very bottom of the page, clerks wrote Peter’s name again and added one of the two numbers he was assigned within the C&H system.

The right side of the front page of Peter Gasperich’s C&H yellow employment card, which discusses his work history and physical appearance.
The right side of the front page of Peter Gasperich’s C&H yellow employment card, which discusses his work history and physical appearance.

The Calumet & Hecla employment cards offer extraordinary insight into the company’s workforce for a bevy of research interests. Hopefully, this primer will prove a useful orientation to the basic history and purpose of the cards, as well as the information available on their front side. A future blog post will turn to the back page, which shifts its attention away from personal details to focus more on a worker’s relationship to C&H. Watch this space for the second part of the guide. In the meantime, if your interest in learning more about your ancestors’ potential ties to C&H has been piqued, if you would like assistance in deciphering a record already located, or if you have any other research questions, please do not hesitate to contact the Michigan Tech Archives. We may be reached via e-mail at copper@mtu.edu or by telephone at (906) 487-2505, and we are always very happy to help.

Travel Grant Presentation – Documenting the Submerged: Digital Methods and Panoramic Imagery of Shipwrecks within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Phil Hartmeyer2
Underwater imaging at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Please join us for visiting scholar Philip Hartmeyer at 4:00 pm on Friday, December 1 in the East Reading Room of the Van Pelt and Opie Library on the Michigan Technological University campus. This event is free of charge and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

In this presentation, Hartmeyer will discuss the role, techniques, and applications of advanced digital documentation methods in surveying the shipwrecks within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Learn about photogrammetry and panoramic imagery and their applications for research, education, and outreach as well as the stories of the submerged cultural resources that line the shores of Thunder Bay on Lake Huron. Hartmeyer has made several trips to the Michigan Tech Archives in order to help document the history of some of the submerged ships in the Thunder Bay region.

Phil Hartmeyer3
Phil about to go to work.

Philip Hartmeyer is a maritime archaeologist currently working at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan. Originally from San Francisco, California, Hartmeyer’s passion for maritime heritage has taken him all over the world to conduct surveys and excavations of shipwrecks. He received his masters in maritime archaeology from East Carolina University, where he wrote his thesis on the passenger/package propeller Pewabic, a middle 19th-century vessel that was instrumental to the copper industry and the settlement of the Keweenaw Peninsula. He received his bachelors in archaeology from Saint Mary’s College of California, and is also a Registered Professional Archaeologist.

Hartmeyer’s research visit and presentation are supported by a travel grant from the Friends of the Michigan Tech Library. Since 1988, the Michigan Technological University Archives Travel Grant program has helped scholars advance their research by supporting travel to the manuscript collections at the Archives.

For more information, feel free to call the Michigan Tech Archives at (906) 487-2505, email copper@mtu.edu, or visit on the web at http://www.lib.mtu.edu/mtuarchives/. You can also find us on Facebook or @mtuarchives on Twitter.

Western Chapter of Michigan History Alliance to be Hosted by Michigan Tech Archives

MHAEach regional alliance meets at least twice a year to bring together representatives from HSM member historical organizations in several counties. The gatherings will feature a speaker to address a topic of interest and allow for conversations among each region’s historical organizations. Attendance at the Michigan History Alliance networking sessions is free of charge for current member organizations of HSM. Membership is required for participation.Michigan History Alliance Districts



Alliance meetings will also offer separate three-hour History Skills Workshops led by authorities in the field. Lindsay Hiltunen, University Archivist at Michigan Tech, will facilitate a workshop and brainstorming session on All-Ages Archives. The workshop will discuss collaboration with community partners in order to plan, develop, implement, and assess creative outreach and primary source research instruction to K-12 students and community groups. The session will utilize examples to show the power of teamwork and good planning and will showcase successes and address challenges that come up in the planning process. There is a fee to attend the History Skills Workshops.

For more information about the program, contact Assistant Director for Education Programs and Events Robert Myers at (517) 324-1828 or myers@hsmichigan.org.

Archives Month Staff Spotlight 2017 – Allison

Allison at the 41 North Film Festival, Houghton, November 2016.
Allison at the 41 North Film Festival, Houghton, November 2016.

First Name: Allison
Title: Archivist
Where are you from? Born and raised in the Twin Cities (Minnesota), but have spent the majority of my adult years in Madison, Wisconsin.

Where did you work before coming to Michigan Tech? I first cut my teeth in the archives field as an intern with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Prior to coming to the Michigan Tech Archives in July 2016, I worked as a cataloger at the Minnesota Historical Society, working primarily with audio-visual collections. I have to give credit to the Wisconsin Historical Society, University of Wisconsin-Madison Oral History Program and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum for my early career experience in archival work, providing me with the practical experience and knowledge that I’m excited to bring to Tech.

What is your favorite thing about working at the Michigan Tech Archives? My favorite thing about working at the Michigan Tech Archives is seeing our patrons leave the archive with a smile on their face. Whether it’s an academic researcher who found a crucial piece of information for their research or a genealogist who was able to find a tangible connection to their ancestors, the joy on our patron’s faces makes everything worthwhile.

At the Lakenenland Sculpture Park, Marquette, August 2017.
At the Lakenenland Sculpture Park, Marquette, August 2017.

What is the most interesting thing you learned while working here? I feel that I make a new discovery every week, which is why it is hard to narrow it down. I would have to say the most interesting thing I’ve recently learned is that the Atlas Powder Company powerhouse whistle resides on the top of the Central Heating Plant of the Michigan Tech campus. Not only that, but the whistle has been used to mark the beginning of K-Day (Keweenaw Day) on campus. The names of several employees that were working at Atlas when the plant closed in 1960s are engraved on the whistle. What an obscure, but fascinating story, full of local and campus history!

What is your favorite collection? Picking a favorite collection among so many great ones to choose from is hard, but I would have to say the John T. Reeder Photograph Collection (MS-042). It was the first collection at the Michigan Tech Archives that I became acquainted with even before I came to work here. I think I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the beautiful photographs Reeder took of the Copper Country and its people.


What is your favorite photograph in CCHI? So many to choose from! I’m partial to a lot of the animal photos in CCHI, particularly the 1957 photo from the Daily Mining Gazette (DMG) of “Paddy” the deer and “Pudgy” the cat nuzzling each other. Just such a sweet photo!

Allison after a Zumba class at the SDC, May 2017.
Allison after a Zumba class at the SDC, May 2017.

What is one interesting fact about you? One interesting fact about me is that while I’m an archivist by day, by night I’m a certified Zumba instructor for the HuskiesFit program. Come check out my class at the Student Development Complex!

Why are the Michigan Tech Archives important to you? For me, the archives represents a place where the past and present intersect. It’s a place where Copper Country residents can discover their personal family stories and learn how those stories have both been shaped by and have influenced the history of the region. While my story doesn’t have roots here, as a new community member it is an important place for me where I can learn about the history of the land and the community that I’m now a part of.

Archives Month Staff Spotlight 2017 – Georgeann

Georgeann snowshoeing at the shores of Lake Superior, McLain State Park.
Georgeann snowshoeing at the shores of Lake Superior, McLain State Park.

First Name: Georgeann
Title: Library Assistant (Resource Access and Discovery Services and Archives)
Where are you from? I grew up in Chassell, just down the road from Houghton, MI.

Where did you work before coming to Michigan Tech?
I worked for the Chassell Township School as the librarian.

What is your favorite thing about working at the Michigan Tech Archives?
I learn something new everyday. It has given me a greater appreciation for how special this area is and why it is so important to remember the things that have happened here.

What is the most interesting thing you learned while working here?
I’ve always been drawn to lighthouses, so it was great to learn about the Stannard Rock lighthouse. It’s a tiny lighthouse out in the middle of nowhere on Lake Superior. It was named for Captain Charles C. Stannard who was the first to discover the highly dangerous rock reef. Stannard Rock has been called “The Loneliest Place in the World” because all you can see is water for miles around.

What is your favorite collection?GeorgeannFavPhoto
The Postcard Collection. It’s very interesting to see the wide range of postcards that were produced. Some of them even have original written messages on the back and it’s fascinating to read what people were writing about the area.


A zentangle ornament that Georgeann made.
A zentangle ornament that Georgeann made.

What is your favorite photograph in CCHI?
This adorable baby beaver taken by John T. Reeder. 

What is one interesting fact about you?
I enjoy drawing Zentagle Inspired Art to relax and unwind.

Why are the Michigan Tech Archives important to you? There are records here relating to my family and the various businesses they have owned in the area and it’s great to know those histories will be preserved for the younger generations.

A Visit to the Copper Country Sanatorium: Images from the Brenda Papke Photograph Collection

Women residing at the Copper Country Sanatorium pose with the reminder that “You can beat TB!”
Women residing at the Copper Country Sanatorium pose with the reminder that “You can beat TB!”

The following post was researched and authored by Emily Riippa, Assistant Archivist.

For most Americans of today, the word “tuberculosis” carries little weight. It might mean a needle prick to the forearm before being approved for a hospital volunteer position or a warning offered to vacationers bound for China, Brazil, or Kenya, three of the countries where the disease maintains a foothold. Those living in the United States now might forget a time in this country when tuberculosis (TB) was a dreaded scourge called the “white death.”

In those days, the Copper Country was at the epicenter of Michigan’s tuberculosis problem. By 1930, the death rate among those suffering from the disease was higher in Houghton and Keweenaw counties than anywhere else in the state and nearly double the statewide average: 117 deaths per 100,000 people in these two counties, according to data collected by contemporary public health officials, compared to 60 deaths per 100,000 statewide. Dr. James Acocks, a physician who spent most of his career treating TB patients in the Upper Peninsula, recalled that public health officials advanced many potential explanations for the apparent epidemic in mining country but never definitively determined its cause.

Even if the origin of the plague remained a mystery, the need for tuberculosis care in the Keweenaw was plainly apparent. In 1910, Houghton County voters approved a bond measure to construct a sanatorium on a plot of civic land near Houghton Canal Road, not far from the county’s residential facility for the indigent. In keeping with the prevailing treatment philosophies of the time, which called for ample fresh air and natural light, the wood-frame building of the Houghton County Sanatorium featured a large screen porch to which patients were escorted on days when the weather was nice. The sanatorium was intended to house just twelve people at first, but the large local TB population quickly overwhelmed this small capacity, even with assistance from outpatient clinics. In 1915, the sanatorium was enlarged to house thirty-six patients; a second expansion two decades later added another twenty-nine beds–removing the much-heralded screen porch–and a 1940 WPA grant allowed for various other upgrades to the facility, now called the Copper Country Sanatorium. Just a few years after the WPA improvements, however, a state inspection found the tuberculosis hospital to be “an obvious fire trap” and unfit for continued use. Construction began soon after on a modern brick building in Hancock, not far from what was then St. Joseph’s Hospital; the new facility would open in 1950.

A view of the new Copper Country Sanatorium, built in 1950 and pictured here in 1955.
A view of the new Copper Country Sanatorium, built in 1950 and pictured here in 1955.

These twilight years of tuberculosis treatment at the Houghton Canal Road building, however, yielded a truly rare gem, one recently donated to the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections. In 1950–the last year the original sanatorium operated–a resident patient apparently smuggled a camera into the hospital and captured snapshots of experiences there. Thirty-three of those photographs are now part of MS-963: Brenda Papke Photograph Collection, a newly-processed collection just made available for research. The images are a look behind the scenes, so to speak: a unique and sometimes furtive glimpse into the lives of people whose fight against a devastating, deadly illness had taken them away from home and family.

Although no information about the individual who took the sanatorium pictures has come down to us, it seems likely that the photographer was a woman. Many of the images depict women lounging in what appears to be a female ward of the sanatorium. Seemingly relaxed and content, for one photograph the ladies propped their legs on the bedside tables, rolled up their pajamas or bathrobes, and flashed views of their ankles and thighs that vaguely remind the viewer of 1940s pinups. For another picture, two women hopped into bed beside an open window and threw their arms around each other, beaming out at the camera in a manner that seems almost carefree. One of the women had decorated the area above her bed with a calendar, an image of a puppy and a kitten, an advertisement with a child’s picture, and two wishbones–presumably for good luck in the face of tuberculosis. In several other images, a large contingent of female patients assembled for a group shot, all dressed in their best bathrobes or house dresses and with hair neatly curled. Tall women, short women, women whose wrinkled faces testified to many years already lived, women whose youthful appearance bespoke a hope that their whole lives still lay ahead of them–vastly different women all, part of a sisterhood forged by the scourge of tuberculosis.

A group of women being treated for tuberculosis at the Copper Country Sanatorium in 1950 pose for the camera in bathrobes and house dresses.
A group of women being treated for tuberculosis at the Copper Country Sanatorium in 1950 pose for the camera in bathrobes and house dresses.

While many of the pictures show female camaraderie in the sanatorium wards, other images show the mingling and mixing that took place across the hospital. The photographer captured two men hard at work at some sort of machine, perhaps a kitchen tool or a shop instrument. Another young man was apparently a favorite model, repeatedly striking dramatic poses inside and outside the building while wearing his monogrammed pajamas. The women who had been pictured relaxing in bed crowded onto a bench with their male counterparts, squinting against the light of the sun as the photographer captured a group shot. In other cases, sanatorium staff got in on the action: the collection includes two pictures of nurses, both candid and posed. Then there were moments of pure absurdity, with one individual donning an outrageous mask and pushing a bookshelf in a wheelchair through the hallway. Despite the serious threat of tuberculosis hanging over their heads, fellowship and fun obviously persisted among the sanatorium’s residents.

A masked person at the Copper Country Sanatorium takes the bookshelf for a spin.
A masked person at the Copper Country Sanatorium takes the bookshelf for a spin.

The Brenda Papke Photograph Collection is a trove of visual treasures, of which the photographs presented in this piece are only a part. The thirty-three sanatorium pictures truly take the researcher into the heart of the hospital, helping one to glimpse what life was like for those who found themselves on the front lines of the fight against tuberculosis. Interested in investigating the collection for yourself or finding out more about the treatment of TB in the Copper Country? Feel free to stop by the Michigan Tech Archives during our normal business hours, give us a call at (906) 487-2505, or e-mail us at copper@mtu.edu.